I love draft preparation and the work that comes along with it. However, it always felt weird to do all that studying on players ... and then just kind of let them go after draft weekend. So this year I'm going to try something different. I'll do my best to monitor this rookie class throughout the season and provide quarterly updates to my list of the top 20 newcomers.
This initial list is a tough one. It's based solely on what I've seen during the preseason. (I watched as much as I could, but it was impossible to study each and every rookie.) Some of these players will end up having substantial roles this fall, while others will be stuck behind proven veterans. As the year progresses, I'll move players up and down -- as well as on and off the list -- based on personal performance and impact on the team.
Here's my initial ranking, based on what I saw over the last six weeks:
1) Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys: Prescott was phenomenal in the preseason. He displayed poise, playmaking ability and outstanding accuracy. The 6-foot-2, 238-pounder showed the ability to make every throw and he really has cleaned up some mechanical flaws he displayed at Mississippi State.
2) Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Hargreaves can play inside and outside, and he showed off his ball skills with two picks in the preseason. He is very instinctive and also aggressive in run support. His lack of ideal size -- the rookie checks in at 5-10, 204 pounds -- hasn't been issue.
3) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys: Elliott didn't play much in the preseason, but he put on a show against the Seahawks. He is a decisive runner and looks to finish every time he touches the ball. The Ohio State product is also way ahead of the curve in the passing game, especially in protection.
4) Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Ramsey has settled in nicely at cornerback. He uses his size and length to match up successfully with the bigger wideouts on the outside and he's a great fit in the slot, as well. When he's playing the nickel spot, Ramsey is a very physical run defender. His versatility is a huge asset for the Jaguars' defense.
5) Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans: Henry was ultra-productive in the preseason. He has rare size for the position at 6-3, 247 pounds, and his lateral agility is very underrated. He has excellent vision, balance and burst. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has also proven to be a capable pass catcher out of the backfield.
6) Ronnie Stanley, OT, Baltimore Ravens: Stanley has been very dependable in pass protection. He has very quick feet and uses his long levers to keep defenders away from his chest. He doesn't provide much physicality in the run game, but does a nice job of walling off defenders. Stanley represents a major upgrade at left tackle for the Ravens.
7) Will Fuller, WR, Houston Texans: Fuller's elite speed has been on full display in the preseason. He eats up a cornerback's cushion in a hurry and has another gear when the ball goes up in the air. He still struggles with consistency when it comes to catching the ball, preferring to cradle the ball with his body instead of attacking the ball with his hands. However, he more than made up for his one drop by producing a handful of big plays last month.
8) Tajae Sharpe, WR, Tennessee Titans: Sharpe quickly has established himself as Marcus Mariota's favorite target. The fifth-round pick out of UMass doesn't have upper-echelon speed, but he is big, physical and a pure route runner. He understands how to settle in zone coverages and he's not afraid to attack the ball in high-traffic areas of the field. I expect him to put up really strong numbers this fall.
9) Noah Spence, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Spence has been impressive against both the run and the pass. He has very strong hands to set the edge against the run and he's shown a keen awareness as a pass rusher. His combination of power, effort and quickness has been very effective against NFL offensive tackles.
10) Matt Judon, OLB, Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens always have excelled at finding talented players in the middle rounds. Judon was ultra-productive at Grand Valley State and the huge jump in competition hasn't been a problem. As a pass rusher, the fifth-round pick has very violent hands and easily bends around the edge. He also has the strength to hold his ground at the point of attack in the run game. He should see a lot of action on passing downs this fall.
11) Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: The biggest knock on Alexander in college was his lack of ball production. That hasn't been an issue in the preseason. He's made several plays on the football, including two interceptions. What the former Clemson Tiger lacks in top speed, he makes up for in quickness and instincts. The Vikings have a very gifted secondary, but Alexander will force his way onto the field this season.
12) Su'a Cravens, LB, Washington Redskins: Cravens moved all over the field in at USC, but he's settled in nicely at linebacker for the Redskins. He oozes with instincts and attacks ball carriers in a hurry. He has the athleticism to match up with tight ends and running backs in coverage and also has established himself as an asset on special teams. His versatility will prove to be a very valuable asset to the Redskins' defense this fall.
13) Joe Thuney, OG, New England Patriots: Thuney was one of my favorite mid-round picks in the 2016 draft. He played both guard and tackle at N.C. State and he's settled in nicely at left guard for the Patriots. He plays with great balance and awareness in pass protection and he's almost always in correct position in the run game. He should be a very reliable starter as a rookie and represents a big O-line upgrade for New England.
14) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints: Thomas created a lot of buzz with his practice performance during camp and he was very solid in preseason action. He doesn't wow you with pure speed, but he understands how to set up defenders and catches the ball effortlessly. His size (6-3, 212 pounds) is a big factor on underneath routes as well as over the top on the deep ball. He is a perfect match for Drew Brees and the Saints' offensive system.
16) Laremy Tunsil, OG, Miami Dolphins: Tunsil eventually will take over the left tackle position, but he's going to play left guard in his rookie campaign. In the passing game, he has outstanding quickness and can anchor versus power rushers. He has been a little late to pass off his man and pick up the looper on twists -- something that should improve with more experience at the position. Tunsil isn't knocking people off the ball in the run game, but he does a nice job of fitting up and walling off defenders.
17) Ryan Kelly, C, Indianapolis Colts: Kelly had a rough game against the Eagles, but he played very well the rest of the preseason. He plays with a very strong base and showcases the ability to torque and turn defenders in the run game. He's very football smart and should be the focal point of an improved offensive line in Indianapolis.
18) Paxton Lynch, QB, Denver Broncos: Lynch was a little inconsistent in the preseason, but he flashed some big-time potential at the position. He has rare size and arm talent. He can drive the ball outside with ease and he also flashed the ability to extend plays. He needs to improve the pace of his progressions, but he'll have some time to make those adjustments while Trevor Siemian keeps the starter seat warm. I do anticipate seeing Lynch take over the position at some point this fall.
19) Jack Conklin, OT, Tennessee Titans: Conklin has gotten better each and every week. He is still a work in progress as a pass protector, but he can generate some movement in the running game. He fits in perfectly with the new identity of the Titans. Mike Mularkey wants to be a physical, run-oriented team and Conklin should help him achieve that goal.
20) Robby Anderson, WR, New York Jets: This is a reward for an outstanding preseason. I didn't know much about Anderson two weeks ago, but I came away extremely impressed after studying his work this preseason. The undrafted free agent from Temple dominated opponents. He showed suddenness off the line, exploded out of the break point and caught the ball flawlessly. He wasn't playing against top-level competition, but Anderson jumped off the tape with his performance. I think he could have a role for the Jets this fall. I'm a fan.