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Ten players set to become stars during NFL preseason

Dante Fowler

With the NFL preseason slated to kick off later this week, there’s a ton of anticipation around the league.

What teams are going to make their mark early? While that won’t be known until the start of the regular season, certain players are more than prepared to become stars during the summer slate.

From a rookie receiver in New York to a running back that saw his career put on life support last year, here are 10 unheralded players set to become stars during the NFL’s exhibition schedule.

1. Sterling Shepard, wide receiver, New York Giants

With Victor Cruz slow to regain his explosiveness, this rookie second-round pick has an opportunity.

Shepard, a former standout at Oklahoma, has reportedly been dominating at Giants’ camp all summer.

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“The second-round pick keeps making play after play — and with the first team,” ESPN’s Jordan Raanan reported earlier in August. “It’s clear he’s going to be a big part of this offense with his ability to make tough, contested catches.”

It’s going to be interesting to see how well Shepard performs in what should be extended action during the preseason. He has an opportunity to start the regular year as New York’s top slot receiver, a position that would enable the former Sooner star to make an immediate impact as a rookie.

2. Dante Fowler Jr., EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars

A lot is going to be asked of this former top-five pick after he missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL. Jacksonville racked up a total of 36 sacks a season ago and didn’t see a single player put up as much as six.

With the additions Jacksonville made during the spring, the expectation here is that its defense will improve from last year’s No. 24 ranking. If so, it’s going to need a big season from Fowler Jr.

The good news here is that he’s been tremendous during camp thus far.

While the Jaguars are expected to have Fowler Jr. on a snap count this season, he will be able to make a huge impact from a pass-rush standpoint. The potential here is real, and it’s something he should be able to display during the preseason.

3. Terrance West, running back, Baltimore Ravens

It was just two years ago that West put up 737 total yards and five scores as a rookie for the Cleveland Browns. This performance was somewhat of a surprise after West flew under the radar coming from a small school (Towson) in the lead up to that year’s draft.

Though, West quickly fell out of favor in Cleveland. He was waived during the preseason, only to catch on with the Tennessee Titans for a two-game test run. After being out of the NFL for a large portion of the season, West then caught on with the Ravens.

Needless to say, his career seemed to be on life support. That no longer seems to be the case, as West has been the most-impressive running back in Ravens’ camp.

“I don’t think Terrance is looking around, evaluating the situation,” Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman last week, via The Baltimore Sun. “He’s just out there working hard, trying to get better. He’s running aggressively. He’s much improved in terms of his understanding of pass protection, which is critical to getting on the field. He’s got a tremendous attitude, in the classroom, on the field.”

While Justin Forsett is etched in stone as Baltimore’s starting running back, he’s going to have to produce in order to see ample playing time.

After all, here’s an eight-year vet that’s put up as much as 650 rushing yards just once in his career.

Considering Joe Flacco needs a consistent running game to have success, the Ravens will be quick to move on from Forsett should he not produce. In fact, that’s something we could see happen early in the season should West perform at a high level during the exhibition slate.

4. Malcolm Mitchell, wide receiver, New England Patriots

It goes without saying that New England needs a receiver to step up on the outside. The likes of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan all perform better in the slot.

Back in 2014, the Patriots saw Brandon LaFell step into that role perfectly fine. However, after an injury-plagued and less-than-stellar 2015 campaign, the Patriots have moved on from him.

Getting production on the outside is going to be huge here, especially with Jimmy Garoppolo slated to start the first four games of the year. It’s in this that Mitchell has apparently stood out the most during the summer.

“The fourth-round draft choice from Georgia had four of Tom Brady’s 25 completions during Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage and looks like the ‘X’ receiver with the highest upside traits-wise — he’s fast, runs good routes and has made an early impression in terms of grasping some of the complex concepts in the team’s scheme,” ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported over the weekend.

Mitchell caught 58 receptions for 865 yards and five scores for Georgia last season. Though, injuries were a major part of his college career. Mitchell tore his ACL back in 2013 while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown run in the season opener.

Despite this and other injury concerns, the Patriots have not necessarily held Mitchell back during summer practices — practices that he seems to be dominating of late.

We know very well that Bill Belichick has absolutely no problem sitting veterans in favor of high-upside youngsters. It’s this mentality that has helped the Patriots see sustained success for nearly the past two decades. Should Mitchell stand out in the preseason, he’ll surely get a ton of reps when the regular year gets going.

5. Josh Ferguson, running back, Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis is not only searching for a backup to Frank Gore, it’s attempting to find that running back of the future.

At 33 years old and with over 3,000 touches on his tires, Gore will assuredly slow down at some point soon. Heck, the future Hall of Fame running back put up a career low 3.7 yards per attempt last season.

Unfortunately for the Colts, they didn’t have a single player behind Gore that they could rely on a season ago. The likes of Ahmad Bradshaw, Josh Robinson and Dan Herron combined to rush for just 166 yards on 62 attempts. That won’t get it done.

Enter into the equation a running back in Josh Ferguson who signed with Indy shortly after not hearing his name called during the 2016 NFL Draft. Ferguson immediately caught the attention of owner Jim Irsay during rookie camp and has not slowed down since.

Despite averaging well over 1,000 total yards in each of his final three seasons with Illinois, Ferguson was not the team’s top featured back during that span. In fact, he never carried the ball more than 146 times in any single season with the Illini.

This doesn’t mean that the 5-foot-10, 200-pound back can’t work his way into a featured role with the Colts. He has the speed and size to make an early impact. And by virtue of the 137 receptions Ferguson put up in his final three seasons in Champagne, he can be a receiving threat as well.

Considering Gore is unlikely to see much action during the preseason, Ferguson will have a prime opportunity to prove his worth. Don’t be surprised if that’s exactly what happens.

6. P.J. Williams, cornerback, New Orleans Saints

P.J. Williams

It goes without saying that New Orleans needs to improve defending the pass. Here’s a defense that ranked 31st in that category last season and yielded an absurd 116.2 opposing quarterback rating.

The good news here is that New Orleans is going to see what this 2015 third-round pick can offer. Williams, who missed his entire rookie season with a torn hamstring, has stood out big time during the summer.

“Williams definitely appears to have come back strong this training camp,” Amos Morale III of The Times-Picayune reported last week. “He has not only looked healthy but has also been a standout among one of the most talented secondaries the Saints have had in camp the last few years.”

The expectation here has to be that Williams will find himself on the field a whole heck of a lot during his sophomore campaign. At 6-foot, that could very well come as one of the team’s starting outside corners.

Though, his on-ball skills suggest that he can play anywhere on the field, including the slot.

“He’s getting a ton of reps,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said. “I think he’s got pretty good football awareness. He’s played not only outside, he’s playing in some nickel situations over the slot, and I think he’s improving.”

It will definitely be interesting to see how Williams’ abilities translates to the NFL stage. Our first chance to see this will be during the preseason.

7. DeAndre Smelter, wide receiver, San Francisco 49ers

Yet another young player that was forced into a red-shirt season, Smelter has the ability to make a huge impact on a San Francisco team that is lacking proven talent at receiver.

This is only magnified with recent news that Eric Rogers tore his knee up in camp last week — giving Smelter an opportunity to get first-team reps.

And based off what we’re hearing out of camp in Santa Clara, Smelter has taken this opportunity seriously.

“(Smelter) Played split end and made three catches during team drills. First, he beat Jimmie Ward with a quick slant,” Grant Cohn of The Press Democrat reported last week. “Then, he beat Kenneth Acker with a quick slant. And then he caught a tunnel screen pass thrown by Colin Kaepernick. By the end of practice, Smelter was playing with the starters.”

At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Smelter boasts the frame to succeed as a boundary receiver in Chip Kelly’s system — potentially replacing Anquan Boldin as the team’s primary possession guy.

Though, he’s not simply limited to that. Remember, Smelter averaged over 20 yards per reception during his final season at Georgia Tech.

Without a ton of options behind him on the depth chart, Smelter promises to see a ton of playing time during the preseason. And in reality, that could lead to a huge performance from the young receiver.

8. Darian Thompson, safety, New York Giants

Thompson will struggle with on-field speed. He was burnt for a few too many touchdowns at Boise State. He isn’t your traditional free safety in the truest sense of the word. These are the issues that saw this dynamic player fall to the third round of this year’s draft.

What we do know is that Thompson enters the preseason slate as the Giants’ “clear cut starting free safety.” Maybe it’s a lack of competition. It could also be the team attempting to instill some new blood along what has been a disappointing secondary in recent seasons.

Either way, Thompson will now have an opportunity to prove that he can cut it with the big boys. He, along with fellow youngster Landon Collins, might very well be able to prop up this unit in 2016.

9. Alex Collins, running back, Seattle Seahawks

The measurables aren’t great here. Standing at 5-foot-10 and weighing 217 pounds, Collins’ durable frame wont stand out on tape. His lack of a breakaway game also became apparent at Arkansas.

And once Collins ran a 4.60 40-yard at the NFL Scouting Combine, it became apparent that he wouldn’t be drafted in the first two days.

This is good news for a Seahawks team that’s going to need production from a plethora of running backs with Marshawn Lynch now in retirement.

Some willconclude that second-year back Thomas Rawls will be the featured guy here. Though, he’s coming off a serious ankle injury and won’t see the field during the preseason. Meanwhile, rookie third-round pick C.J. Prosise has also been banged up during the summer.

Enter into the equation a running back in Collins, who was nothing short of awesome during his Arkansas career. We’re talking about a guy that dominated good SEC defenses to the tune of over 3,700 rushing yards with a 5.6 per carry average during his three years with the Razorbacks.

Since joining Seattle, Collins has done nothing but impress. In fact, he continues to see a ton of first-team action during camp (via ESPN).

Collins’ style translates extremely well behind Tom Cable’s offensive line. He’s quick through the initial hole, doesn’t hesitate in the backfield and is a true downhill runner. It will definitely be interesting to see how he performs during the exhibition slate.

10. Sean Davis, defensive back, Pittsburgh Steelers

A cornerback/safety hybrid, Davis was one of the most underrated players heading into the 2016 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound defensive back recorded 88 tackles, three interceptions and a whopping five forced fumbles for Maryland last season.

Even when you take away basic stats — an aspect of scouting that’s overrated — it’s hard not to fall in love with what this guy can do. He’s a true ball-hawk in every sense of the word. Someone that can fly around the field with the best of them and has a true knack for the ball.

Pittsburgh had originally indicated that Davis would start his career as a strong safety. Though, training camp injuries have forced him to play the slot corner position. This just goes to show us how valuable Davis can be in the secondary.

As you already know strong safeties are asked to play the run in the box. Meanwhile, slot corners are tasked with covering speedy receivers down the field. If Davis is able to acclimate to the slot during the preseason, it will go a long way in determining his early-career success.