|Rick Bowmer/Associated Press|
|Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has dazzled despite questions about his small stature.|
The top two picks in April's draft, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III, started their pro careers off with a bang. Luck threw for 188 yards and two scores -- one, with the help of running back Donald Brown, came on his first NFL pass -- in the Colts' 38-3 thrashing of the St. Louis Rams. RG3 did not stay on the field as long as Luck in the Redskins' 7-6 win over the Buffalo Bills, but he looked poised in the pocket while directing the team's only touchdown drive of the day.
But that was only the first preseason test for the young talents. Luck will next have to deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers' always-hungry blitzers, while Griffin faces a sturdy Chicago Bears defense licking its wounds after a rough opener. The following week, the two rising stars meet in Washington for one of the most highly-anticipated matchups between rookie quarterbacks in recent memory.
They won't be the only first-year players trying to maintain early momentum. The following rookies have also met or exceeded expectations thus far. They all must keep their heads on straight, though, or future preseason opponents will knock them down to size in abrupt fashion.
Melvin Ingram, OLB, San Diego Chargers: Though he had just two tackles against the Green Bay Packers in the Chargers' preseason opener, Ingram was constantly around the ball, whether attacking the pocket or chasing plays to the sideline -- just like he did when he was at South Carolina.
Next up: Ingram gets another chance to prove himself in a nationally televised game; the Chargers host the Dallas Cowboys Saturday night on NFL Network. Ingram will then face off against successive former first-round draft picks, taking on Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil and San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley. A solid finish to his preseason could be the springboard to a Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks: Like fellow rookie Mychal Kendricks, the 5-foot-11 Wilson fought a "too short" label heading into the 2012 NFL Draft. His performance against the Tennessee Titans last weekend (12-for-16, 124 yards, one touchdown, one interception, 59 yards rushing) came against lower-tier players, but it's impossible not to be impressed with how his mobility and passing ability translate to the NFL game.
Next up: If Wilson gets reps against the first-team defenses of the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders over the next three weeks, he might win a backup job -- and possibly earn consideration as the starter over free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn and incumbent Tarvaris Jackson.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers: It's not clear whether Kuechly will begin the season with the first-string unit because of the veterans in front of him on the Panthers' depth chart. However, based on Kuechly's play against the Houston Texans, it's obvious that Thomas Davis had better get healthy if he wants to keep his job on the weak side. In his NFL debut, Kuechly made a goal-line stuff and forced a fumble by star running back Arian Foster, drawing praise from people all over the league.
Next up: Look for Kuechly to bring down the Miami Dolphins' speedy backs, then step up his game against the playoff-contending New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers to secure a spot on the field with an up-and-coming Panthers squad. Kuechly might even challenge Ingram as the league's top defensive rookie.
Mychal Kendricks, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles: It didn't take long for the short (5-11), speedy (4.47 40-yard dash) and tough Kendricks to break into the Eagles' starting lineup on the strong side. The second-round draft pick, who tied for the team lead with five tackles against Pittsburgh, will be an upgrade at a position of need for Philadelphia.
Next up: Kendricks' coverage skills will be severely tested next Monday night by the gaggle of tight ends, running backs and slot receivers that the New England Patriots throw at opposing linebackers and defensive backs.
Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans: Relying on foot quickness and pure attitude, Wright had one of the most productive nights of all rookie receivers, catching three passes for 47 yards (all first downs) in the Titans' 27-17 loss to the Seahawks. He couldn't stop the Seahawks from scoring on a tip-drill interception, but soon he'll be the one parking himself in the end zone.
Next up: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' aggressive corners will come after Wright on Friday night, so he'd better be ready. It's especially tough for rookie receivers to make an impact, but if he can make hay against the Bucs, Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints this preseason, look for Wright to have a solid first season anyway.
Derek Wolfe, DT/DE, Denver Broncos: Wolfe's two sacks occurred in the first half of the Broncos' 31-3 win over Chicago, when the game was still in doubt. Whether he's playing outside or inside for coach John Fox's defense, Wolfe brings immediate hustle and strength to the line.
Next up: I expect Wolfe to continue making an impact against the average offensive lines of Seattle and Arizona. If he can also play well against the Niners' stout front five, that's a sign he'll be a consistent force as a rookie.
Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter