Hidden rookie gems (cont.)
Victor Cruz, WR (undrafted), Giants
Can a player go from the next great sensation to yesterday's news in the span of a week? Welcome to New York, Victor.
Cruz was the back-page feel good story of the Big Apple in the preseason opener, shredding Rex Ryan's defense for six catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. A week later against the Steelers, he played only with the second-teamers, caught two balls and muffed a punt.
Still, Cruz will be a contributor on a contender, having showed smarts, elusiveness and playmaking ability. He could be the perfect complementary change-of-pace player for the Giants.
Anthony Dixon, RB (6th round), 49ers
Once mentioned in the same breath as power backs Toby Gerhart, Ben Tate and Jonathan Dwyer, Dixon's draft stock plummeted because of subpar measurables. The 49ers scooped him up on the hopes he could develop down the road. But Glen Coffee surprisingly retired and Dixon has played better than expected.
Niners coach Mike Singletary demands power running and has been hard on Dixon, who's slated to back up Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook. He might do more than that, however. After rushing for 100 yards against the Colts, Dixon showed good downhill instincts and power in another solid effort against the Vikings.
Greg Hardy, DE (6th round), Panthers
When a draftable player earns a reputation -- good or bad -- it can be almost impossible to keep the story from spreading out of control. You have to wonder if that's what happened in the case of Hardy, an immensely talented end considered a top-10 pick before his senior season.
Somehow, a couple of injuries and reports of a bad attitude turned the entire league on Hardy, whose physical skills (6-4, 280) could not be more impressive. His stock dropped like a rock. Ever since, he's been dropping quarterbacks much the same way, and behavior or effort have not been a problem.
Hardy had two sacks, two tackles for loss and tied for the team lead in tackles with five in his preseason debut. Of late, he's been working with the first team at defensive end. It could be a big, big year for the former Ole Miss Rebel.
Barry Church, S (undrafted), Cowboys
Even before a shoulder injury sidelined Gerald Sensabaugh for three to four weeks, Church, an undrafted free agent out of Toledo, was making a name for himself in camp. His knack for being around the ball and making plays has been evident from the start of camp.
He also has great size (6-1, 220) and decent speed, although being tackled shy of a touchdown by Philip Rivers after picking up a fumble in a preseason game against the Chargers was a bit embarrassing. The Cowboys like Church. And they need him. He definitely will get snaps and play in special teams. He appears to always be in the thick of big plays.
Zoltan Mesko, P (5th round), Patriots
There's no one more unheralded than a punter, is there? But often times, there's no one more important. At the University of Michigan, Mesko was called, in beautiful redundant fashion, the "Space Emperor Of Space." Of Romanian descent, the Space Emperor speaks five languages, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and was dubbed the most interesting man in the NFL by the Wall Street Journal. When asked what he took from the NFL combine, Mesko responded, "an M.R.I. machine."
Still, it comes down to talent and Mesko has it. With a huge leg and accuracy, Mesko is the only punter in Patriots camp and could prove to be huge in the ever-important field-position battles of blustery fall afternoons.
Austin Howard, OT, (undrafted), Eagles
It's amazing that in a league that values tackles more than just about any other position on the field, the mammoth and quick Howard (6-7, 335 pounds) went undrafted. The Eagles have found a gem, all right, in this first season with Kevin Kolb as the full-time starter.
Howard, who played tight end his first two seasons at Division I-AA Northern Iowa, won't be in the starting lineup to open the season, but rest assured he'll get there. He's stepped in and been physical, quick and shown good hands in every practice and preseason game.
Perrish Cox, DB/KR, (5th round), Broncos
Cox was something of a problem child at Oklahoma State, so much so that when the Broncos took a chance on him, coach Josh McDaniels said, "He's got to live up to his end of the bargain."
He has. He was the other big star at OSU next to Dez Bryant. At Denver, there's another rookie -- Tim Somebody -- making most of the headlines. But Cox has earned reps with the first-team defense at cornerback as Champ Bailey battles injuries and has proved to be a terrific cover corner. He also broke a 65-yard punt return in the second preseason game. He'll make plays all year long for the Broncos, presuming he continues to live up to his end of the bargain.
Darryl Sharpton, LB (4th round), Texans
Can Al Sharpton's nephew keep playoff hope alive for the Texans. Yes, we're mixing Reverend references, but even Jesse Jackson would agree that there's a gaping hole in the Texans' defense left by 2009 Defensive Rookie Of The Year Brian Cushing's four-game suspension to start the year.
No one's crazy about starting a pair of rookies defensively for a team that fancies itself a playoff contender (first-round CB Kareem Jackson is the other), but the former Miami Hurricane has stepped in and impressed, making the most of an unlikely opportunity. Also, presumed backups Xavier Adibi and Danny Clark have been fighting injuries through camp.
Sharpton has responded by impressing during the offseason and making big plays in the Texans' first preseason game, before an uneven effort in the second. He's got the eye of coaches, though, no doubt.