Every NFL preseason there is a few rookie players who blow their fans out of the water and exceed all expectations. This usually comes from players who were drafted later on, or were signed as UDFAs and had low expectations from the fanbase. This season will likely be no exception, as there was an extremely talented UDFA group and day 3 of the draft.
As fans, we always like having an underdog to root for, and this is the time of year when you can see some of them break out and get a job in the NFL long-term. In this article, I will cover five rookies who I believe could be breakout candidates and outperform their draft value by a longshot. So, without further ado, let’s begin with the first rookie:
Sam Howell – Washington Commanders – QB
First up on the list we have Sam Howell, a 5th-round pick for the Washington Commanders. While most of the good QBs in this class went in round 3 or above, Sam Howell fell to the 5th round at pick 144 for Washington. Prior to the 2021 season, Howell was widely regarded as one of, if not the best QB in the class, or at a bare minimum the most pro-ready considering how high everyone was on Spencer Rattler.
Then Howell had a “down” year in 2021, and his draft stock fell off the map. The main reason he struggled was due to a lack of weapons, as the large majority of them left in the 2021 NFL draft prior to the season. Howell still put up the following statline:
- 217 completions on 347 attempts (62.5% completion rate)
- 3,056 passing yards, 24 passing touchdowns, 9 interceptions
- 154.2 passer efficiency rating
- 183 rushing attempts for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns
For his standards, this was a relatively tame season for sure, as prior to this he had better completion percentages, more yards, and more touchdowns. But realistically, with the weapons he got left with in the 2021 season, he did exceptionally well to still have a good season by QB standards.
The beauty of this in my eyes is that even if Washington struggles with talent, Howell has experience working with that type of roster. Even now, he will have Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, Antonio Gibson, and others to work with at the professional level if he eventually starts.
In terms of the preseason, I would expect a good showing from Howell, as starter Carson Wentz likely will not get a ton of playing time outside a few drives. Sam should split snaps in the preseason with last year’s starter Taylor Heinecke as the only other QB on the depth chart for now. Considering Howell is the younger of the two, he should get more chances in the preseason, and he could very well surprise the NFL with his talent.
Tariq Castro-Fields – San Francisco 49ers – CB
Next up we stay in the NFC, moving to the next round of the draft though with the last pick in the 6th round, Tariq Castro-Fields. Fields simply put should have been drafted higher than he was, but fell to the later rounds of the draft regardless of what I believe.
The first thing of note as to why Tariq could get playing time early on is the 49ers’ injuries at the CB position, as well as a general lack of depth there. Emmanuel Moseley is currently out with a hamstring issue, Charvarius Ward is also out with an undisclosed muscle strain, and finally, Jason Verrett is on the mend from a torn ACL last season.
This gives Castro-Fields a path to get playing time in the first few preseason games. He is also the only rookie CB on the depth chart currently, so the odds of him getting playing time due to his age and the coaching staff wanting to see him play are pretty high.
Tariq was a 5-year college player, having an extra senior season due to the Covid year in 2020. He is exceptional in man-to-man coverage, and has 25 pass breakups across his 5 seasons, including a whopping 8 in 2019.
The main reason he is known is how he handled the Ohio State University receivers in 2021, as he played extremely well against them. With Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba all on that roster, being able to hold any of them to mediocre games is a feat in itself. Expect Tariq to get some playing time throughout the preseason, and potentially make a run at a roster spot.
Dawson Deaton – Cleveland Browns – OL
I know the offensive line is not necessarily the most interesting of positions to watch on the field for fans, but it is worth mentioning 7th round center, Dawson Deaton. Deaton right now likely will not get snaps in the regular season, with Nick Harris and Ethan Pocic on the roster. However, the upside of Deaton is immense, and he could impress in preseason given the chance.
Deaton was an absolute force throughout his collegiate career, especially in 2019 where he would take 612 pass block snaps and not give up a single sack throughout the season. He is also very strong, very rarely ever hitting the ground or being beaten due to a lack of strength.
His mobility is also a plus, as he is able to move into the second level when necessary, and has good flexibility in his lower body to prevent against speed rushes. He was also a captain twice with Texas Tech, and made 35 career starts for them in his 3 seasons there, with 2 all-big 12 appearances as well.
While he may go overlooked, as a 7th-round offensive lineman with a team already strong at OL, he has the potential to turn some heads in the preseason this year. At 6’6” and 310 pounds, he has great size to boot at the professional level as well.
Jojo Domann – Indianapolis Colts – LB
Now we come upon our first undrafted free agent of the list, that being Jojo Domannm linebacker out of Nebraska. Domann is another 5-year college player, however, he became a high-level producer in his last year of eligibility in 2021.
Jojo was able to fill up the stat sheets this past season, as he was getting better in coverage on top of his good tackling ability. In 2021 he had the following stats:
- 71 total tackles (44 solo & 27 assisted)
- 2 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, and 2 forced fumbles
- 2 interceptions & 3 passes defended
The main reason he ended up going undrafted was his size at the position, at 6’1” and 230 pounds. But when it comes down to it, if a player is talented enough, they will find their way onto an NFL roster. Players like Drew Brees were told they would not make it at the next level due to their height, and yet here we are.
Domann also tested at a very high level at the combine, running a 4.62 40-yard dash and a 6.88 3 cone. He also has a ton of versatility as a player, he has been utilized in blitz packages, against the slot occasionally, and even in run defense. This type of versatility is why he was signed without a doubt and is why he should be extremely fun to watch in preseason games.
Abram Smith – New Orleans Saints – RB
Considering I mentioned Drew Brees for the last prospect, let’s go to a New Orleans Saints prospect to wrap this up. The New Orleans Saints are in a weird position at RB, with lead back Alvin Kamara currently in a legal situation that keeps getting pushed back. Whether or not he plays the whole season is yet to be seen, which is where we see Abram Smith come into play.
As of right now, the depth chart has Mark Ingram, Dwayne Washington, and Tony Jones Jr above Smith, however, Washington is a special teams ace and Tony Jones is a 50/50 to make the roster. Ingram will definitely remain above Abram for now, and Kamara while he plays.
Regardless of this, Abram Smith should be extremely fun to watch in the preseason. Smith switched to running back from linebacker for 2021, and absolutely exploded onto the scene with 1.601 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, and a whopping 6.2 yards per carry. He is easily one of the most productive players to go undrafted this year, primarily just due to how new he is to the position.
With Kamara likely not playing many preseason snaps to prevent injury, and the same with Mark Ingram, there is likely a heavy dose of Abram Smith incoming for New Orleans. His mix of power and slight elusiveness makes him intriguing to watch, and we will now get a chance to see how well he takes against NFL-level competition.
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