AFC preseason grades: Jabrill Peppers stars, young QBs fizzle

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Final scores might not matter in the preseason, but individual performances sure do. Careers can be made, opportunities can be seized and depth charts can be decided in the exhibition contests leading up to the first kickoff that counts. To help put these moments into context, Bucky Brooks will provide a grade for one player of interest from every NFL team after each of the first three full weeks of preseason action.

Below, see the AFC player grades for Week 3:

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Taquan Mizzell, RB: The undrafted running back continues to turn heads with his strong performance as a multi-purpose weapon out of the backfield. Against the Bills, Mizzell totaled 68 scrimmage yards on 12 touches (six rushes, six catches) and added a score. He is such an effective receiver out of the backfield on screens and option routes that it could be hard for John Harbaugh to keep him on the sidelines when the regular season kicks off in a few weeks. Grade: A-

BUFFALO BILLS

Nathan Peterman, QB: The fifth-rounder has quietly worked his way up to the QB2 spot with consistent play throughout the preseason. Peterman likely clinched the backup job with a decent showing against the Ravens that saw him complete 11 of 23 passes for 93 yards. Although he misfired on a handful of throws and is still working through some growing pains as a young passer, Peterman has outperformed the Bills' other quarterbacks to this point and shown promise as a field general. Grade: B-

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Carl Lawson, OLB: The rookie pass rusher has been a pleasant surprise for the Bengals as a hybrid OLB after spending his collegiate career starring as a DE at Auburn. Lawson showcased explosive rush skills off the edge with an impressive sack against perennial Pro Bowl LT Trent Williams. The rookie outworked the veteran on an outside move while displaying a non-stop motor and relentless spirit. Although Lawson finished the game with only one stop, the flashes of disruptive potential as an edge player should encourage the Bengals to throw him into the rotation as a situational rusher. Grade: B

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Jabrill Peppers, S: The rookie safety is settling in nicely as the Browns' designated playmaker in the back end. Peppers showed outstanding anticipation, awareness and ball skills snagging a red-zone interception on an overthrown ball from Jameis Winston. He also flashed a high-revving motor and natural diagnostic skills roaming from numbers to numbers as an alley player against the run. With Peppers beginning to deliver impact plays as a deep-middle defender and return specialist (see previous games), the Browns are poised to unleash a two-phase star on the rest of the league. Grade: A-

DENVER BRONCOS

De'Angelo Henderson, RB: The rookie runner was well positioned to carve out a role as an RB2 until a pair of fumbles against the Packers raised concerns about his reliability. In a league where turnovers are such an enormous deciding factor in games, Henderson's ball-security woes could prevent Denver from putting him on the field in a major role despite his impressive efforts as a runner. Grade: D

HOUSTON TEXANS

Deshaun Watson, QB: The rookie quarterback's struggles against the Saints showed the football world why Bill O'Brien is more comfortable with Tom Savage as the Texans' QB1 at this point. Watson struggled with his patience and precision from the pocket, as evidenced by his interception and a couple of would-be picks that were dropped by defenders. Although his numbers were respectable on the night (11 of 21 for 116 yards), the first-year QB clearly needs a little more time to develop before he can assume the top job. Grade: C

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Scott Tolzien, QB: The Colts can't feel good about their QB situation based on the play of this veteran backup throughout the preseason. Although Tolzien posted better numbers against the Steelers (7 of 10 for 123 yards and an INT), he is a limited playmaker prone to making mistakes against good defense. If he is unable to string together completions on a host of lay-ups from the pocket, Tolzien simply lacks the arm strength and natural ability to carve up an NFL defense. Grade: C+

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Cam Robinson, LT: The rookie's shaky performance at left tackle might've influenced the team's decision to name Blake Bortles as the QB1, based primarily on his athleticism and mobility. Robinson's struggles against speed and quickness off the edge were evident vs. the Panthers, as he surrendered a sack and couldn't stay in front of his assigned defender on a handful of passing plays. Although he is at his best plowing defenders off the ball in the run game, Robinson's woes in protection could force Doug Marrone to decrease the number of passes on the call sheet. Grade: C

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Patrick Mahomes, QB: The rookie gunslinger endured his roughest outing of the preseason against a Seattle defense employing sticky coverage all over the field. Mahomes struggled delivering pinpoint passes into tight windows partially due to his sloppy footwork and mechanics under duress. Although he made a few "wow" throws on the move, the rookie's flaws (accuracy, pocket discipline) were exposed in his first game against an elite defense. Grade: C+

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Cardale Jones, QB: The second-year pro finally looked like a credible threat as a possible QB2. Jones was more decisive and accurate from the pocket against the Rams. While some of that was likely due to a better supporting cast (Jones played with the first team at the end of the first half), the big-bodied gunslinger also showed a better command of the offense, as evidenced by his ability to find his second option or check-down in his progressions. With Jones' knowledge beginning to catch up to his raw talent, the Chargers might consider him a solid option to back up Rivers this season. Grade: B+

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Davon Godchaux, DT: The fifth-round pick has surged to the top of the depth chart at defensive tackle due to a series of strong performances throughout the preseason. Godchaux continued to build upon that momentum with a rock-solid outing against the Eagles that saw him register a pair of tackles and control the line of scrimmage from the inside. Grade: B

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Mike Gillislee, RB: The Patriots finally let the football world get a glimpse at how they will use their designated power back during the regular season. Gillislee rumbled for 38 yards and a touchdown on eight carries at Detroit, with a 27-yard scamper on a downhill running play that showcased his strength, power and quickness. With the fourth-year pro looking increasingly comfortable as the dot back in the Patriots' run-heavy sets, Gillislee appears ready to step into LeGarrette Blount's old role when the games count. Grade: B+

NEW YORK JETS

Christian Hackenberg, QB: It is painfully obvious that the second-year pro is not ready to start in the NFL. Hackenberg currently lacks the timing, anticipation, accuracy and awareness to thrive in this league. Against the Giants, he connected on 12 of 21 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown -- but also threw a pair of pick-sixes. Despite showing some occasional flashes of big-time arm talent, Hackenberg's overall performance confirms his need to stay on the sideline as a QB2/QB3 until he's better prepared to play in a regular-season game. Grade: D

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Obi Melifonwu, S: The ultra-athletic safety had a solid performance in his preseason debut. Melifonwu finished with three tackles and consistently showed up around the ball during his extended action. Although he needs some more reps to be ready for regular-season action, the Raiders' coaching staff should be encouraged by his steady play during his run with the 1s. Grade: B

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

James Conner, RB: The rookie isn't on Le'Veon Bell's level, but he certainly has the potential to be a stud in the Steelers' scheme. Against the Colts, Conner continued to impress as a power runner with just enough speed and quickness to turn the corner on outside runs. With the bruising running back also displaying the strength, balance and body control to run through contact in the hole during a four-carry, 26-yard effort, the Steelers have a nice option available at the RB2 spot behind Bell. Grade: B+

TENNESSEE TITANS

Adoree' Jackson, CB: The rookie playmaker struggled in his first official start on the island. Jackson was worked over by Bears receivers on a variety of short and intermediate routes that had the rookie guessing from the opening whistle. In addition, he received a pass interference penalty due to his sloppy footwork and fundamentals. With Jackson also making a poor decision to field a punt inside the 5-yard line, this game tape will give the rookie plenty of things to correct before the season starts. Grade: C-

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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