The final slate of exhibition games isn’t for everyone. Starters don’t play. Many of the guys who do play won’t even make the final roster of their respective teams. Oftentimes, these games are just plain ugly.
We did see plenty of ugly play during Thursday’s preseason action. Yet there was also plenty of good stuff as players who needed to step up did, potentially securing a roster spot in the process.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the standouts from Thursday’s 16-game slate of preseason action.
Nate Orchard, defensive end, Cleveland Browns
If you’ve watched HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this summer, then you know who Orchard is. He’s been one of the featured players and is working hard to stay on the roster, despite a lot of depth on the defensive line. On Thursday night, he helped himself to be sure. Orchard only logged one tackle, but he made it behind the line of scrimmage. He also added a quarterback hit, and then capped off his night with a brilliant 64-yard pick-six against Matt Cassel.
EJ Manuel, quarterback, Oakland Raiders
To say that the preseason has been rough for Manuel would be quite the understatement. He’s been a veritable turnover machine, earning the ire of head coach Jon Gruden in the process. But during the first half of Oakland’s final preseason game against Seattle, Manuel was almost flawless. He completed 13-of-15 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, and the best part is he didn’t turn the ball over once. That’s got to feel good.
Kalen Ballage, running back, Miami Dolphins
With Frank Gore and Kenyan Drake both sitting the final preseason game out, the rookie out of Arizona State got the start. And Ballage made the most of it, breaking off multiple big plays. He finished with 62 yards and a touchdown on just seven touches, making his presence known in both the run game and through the air. It was a very strong showing, and a welcome sight, as Ballage had missed the past two games with a concussion.
Chris Landrum, defensive end, Los Angeles Chargers
As a former undrafted rookie in 2016 who spent some of that season on the practice squad before missing all of last year on injured reserve, Landrum has an uphill climb to make Los Angeles’ roster this year. He had already posted one sack this preseason before busting out with two more in the first half Thursday against the San Francisco 49ers. Landrum couldn’t be blocked by San Francisco’s reserves, showing a tremendous motor and strength getting to the quarterback.
Phillip Walker, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
After a standout career at Temple, Walker entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2017. He spent all of last year on Indianapolis’ practice squad, and he’s once again making a case that he belongs in the NFL this preseason. Playing most of Thursday’s game for the Colts against Cincinnati, he completed 19-of-31 passes for 263 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, adding another 20 yards on four carries. He’s been a strong player all preseason, and this was just the cherry on top for the young quarterback.
J.C. Jackson, cornerback, New England Patriots
The game between the Patriots and New York Giants Thursday night was ugly. But there were some bright moments, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Jackson was one of the players who provided those moments, as he came up with both of the interceptions thrown by rookie quarterback Kyle Lauletta. Jackson finished with two tackles and four pass defenses as he was just a ball magnet in this game. This undrafted rookie out of Maryland has been turning heads all throughout camp. Thursday night’s big showing will certainly make it tough for the Patriots to cut this young man.
Josh Dobbs, quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers
With the arrival of Mason Rudolph in Pittsburgh, there’s a good chance that Dobbs will soon be a former Steelers quarterback. Yet that hasn’t stopped last year’s fourth-round pick out of Tennessee from making his presence felt all summer long. Already he had been solid in two preseason games, and Dobbs was stellar on Thursday starting for Pittsburgh showing up well both on the ground (like this) and through the air. He finished the game against Carolina with 151 yards and a touchdown on 8-of-12 passing and added another 18 yards and a score on the ground.
Donte Deayon, cornerback, New York Giants
As we mentioned discussing J.C. Jackson, there wasn’t much to get excited about at MetLife Stadium Thursday night. However, just like Jackson did, Deayon provided some entertainment to those watching, as he picked off Danny Etling twice in this game. An undrafted rookie out of Boise State back in 2016, Deayon spent the 2016 season on New York’s practice squad. Last year he appeared in four games. He’s a player they obviously like, but he needed to continue showing up well to remain on the roster this fall. Mission accomplished.
Brandon Wilds and Tim Cooks, running backs, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville delivered a serious dose of thunder and lightning against Tampa Bay, as Cooks provided the thunder and Wilds dished some sizzling lightning. The two running backs dominated the game, combining to rush for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries. It’s possible that both players will find themselves on the outside looking in come cut day. But they certainly did everything they could to give their coaches pause about this decision.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Baltimore Ravens
The past couple of weeks have illustrated how far Jackson has come since the start of Baltimore’s preseason schedule. Following up a breakout game in Week 3, he was once again on point Thursday night against Washington. Jackson completed 9-of-15 passes for 109 yards, adding another 25 yards and a way-too-easy touchdown on the ground. This rookie quarterback is just electric. And now that he’s settling into the speed of the NFL game he’s handing the Ravens a tough decision when it comes to fellow quarterback, Robert Griffin III.
Armani Watts, safety, Kansas City Chiefs
Coming into Thursday’s game against the Green Bay Packers, Watts had already shown a bit of playmaking ability with a forced fumble in the team’s second preseason game. Then he showed up big time in the passing game, picking off Tim Boyle twice in the final exhibition game to cap off a solid first summer as a pro. A fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M, Watts will likely make Kansas City’s roster and be tasked with contributing mostly on special teams in 2018. But if he’s needed in the secondary, Watts has some skill there, too.
Matthew Dayes, running back, Cleveland Browns
One of the last players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, this former NC State star earned a roster spot as a rookie by showing he could excel in special teams. Until Thursday, he’d barely had a chance to show what he can do as a running back this preseason. Then he got his chance and didn’t waste it. Dayes rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against the Detroit Lions Thursday, adding another 34 yards on two receptions. This kind of production, along with his added special teams experience, makes him a player the Browns will be hard pressed to cut.
Taysom Hill, quarterback, New Orleans Saints
It’s been a strange NFL trip so far for this former BYU quarterback, who was actually making tackles for the Saints last year on special teams. He’s been a strong performer this preseason and had an outstanding showing Thursday as the starter for the final exhibition game. Hill finished the game with 159 yards and a touchdown on 10-of-15 passes and rushed for 31 yards on three carries. The Saints already have their backup quarterback now that Teddy Bridgewater is on board. But Hill is such an athletic player that we wouldn’t be surprised to see Hill once again active on game days as a special teams contributor for the Saints this year.
Byron Pringle, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs
Pringle entered the NFL this year as an undrafted rookie out of Kansas State. And up until Thursday’s game against the Green Bay Packers, he had a pretty quiet summer. The 24-year-old was far from quiet in his final preseason game, however, hauling in four catches for 122 yards, including a gorgeous 62-yard reception from quarterback Matt McGloin. Pringle might have done more damage if not for a tweaked hamstring. At this point, it seems he’s destined to make the Chiefs’ practice squad, if another team doesn’t scoop him up first.