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The best NFL preseason performances that never really mattered

Breakout running backs, deep threats, and those quarterbacks the Jaguars keep drafting.

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NFL: Preseason-San Francisco 49ers at San Diego Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

One year before Tom Brady would awkwardly run his way into the league, the New England Patriots drafted their quarterback of the future. Michael Bishop had led Kansas State to levels the program had never before reached before falling into the franchise’s lap in the seventh round of the 1999 NFL Draft.

The Bishop hype started at a low buzz, but grew into a rumble as the versatile quarterback wowed onlookers with his cannon arm and ability to avoid pressure in the pocket — the latter a category where incumbent starter Drew Bledsoe struggled. He launched deep balls into the stratosphere and into the waiting arms of fourth-string receivers in the end zone. His ability to slice up the 49ers in the Hall of Fame Game had ABC announcers calling for Bill Belichick to implement the read option.

Michael Bishop was excitement incarnate. He was the reason to watch New England’s meaningless exhibition games. He was the player who would supplant Bledsoe and lead the franchise to glory.

He’d throw nine career passes in the NFL.

The NFL preseason is an opportunity for undervalued prospects to earn their spots on regular season rosters, but even the biggest August performances can mean absolutely nothing. Practice squads across the league are filled with players who stood out against third- and fourth-team lineups but struggled against starters. Sometimes a breakout performance in August is the catalyst for a stellar pro career. Other times it’s just an errant bit of grease escaping a hot frying pan — attention grabbing, but ultimately harmless.

This weekend may have set the stage for another flame that burns hot and fast. Bruce Ellington, a diminutive wide receiver who had been cut by the 49ers and Jets this month, burst back into the league with a four-catch, 93-yard explosion against Malcolm Butler and the Patriots. He’ll have a few weeks to prove he can be more than just a footnote in the Texans’ 2017 almanac.

Here are some of the most notable preseason heroes to capture the hearts and minds of fans before ultimately falling short of those lofty expectations.

Special consideration: Jaguars first-round quarterbacks

Blaine Gabbert, 2012

Gabbert kicked off his second season as a pro against the defending champion New York Giants. Despite an oft-collapsing pocket, he led the Jaguars on a 90-yard touchdown drive that showcased the talent that made him a first-round pick. It turns out that was a fleeting moment of competence; he’d go 1-9 as a starter that season while averaging fewer than six yards per pass attempt.

Blake Bortles, 2014

Bortles had several question marks on his NFL scouting report when the Jaguars drafted him in 2014 in hopes of erasing the Gabbert era from their books. The Central Florida product seemed to validate the team’s trust with his first game as a pro. He completed seven of his 11 passes — including a pair of drops — for 117 yards and looked every bit a player ready for a starting role.

Instead, he’s 11-34 as Jacksonville’s quarterback. His receivers are starting to take notice.

Henry Josey, Philadelphia Eagles, 2014

Josey, an undrafted free agent out of Missouri, made the most of his opportunities with the Eagles, running for more than 6.6 yards per carry and finishing second in the league in preseason rushing yards as a rookie. Unfortunately, that hasn’t led to an stable roster time in the NFL — he’s never found his way to an active roster and spent two mostly anonymous seasons in the CFL leading up to 2017.

Stephen Williams, Seattle Seahawks, 2013

For four glorious weeks in 2013, the world’s most explosive wide receiver was Williams. The former undrafted free agent had spent three seasons getting limited reps with the Cardinals before earning an opportunity with Seattle, and he used that chance to light up the preseason. Despite making just seven catches, he led the league with 236 receiving yards and three touchdowns — an eye-popping 33.7 yard per reception average. Unfortunately, those unsustainable numbers wouldn’t last; the Seahawks cut him after four games and just two targets (zero catches).

Marcus Rush, San Francisco 49ers, 2016

Rush spent his first season in the league on the Niners’ practice squad before morphing into a destructive force to begin his second year as a pro. His 2016 preseason is one of the finest on record; in four games, he tallied six sacks, a fumble recovery, and an interception as a pass-rushing linebacker. Despite his monster performance, the 49ers failed to find room for him on their depleted defense. He’s currently working to make the Chiefs’ active roster.

Raheem Mostert, Philadelphia Eagles, 2015

In 2015, no one gained more yards from scrimmage during the preseason than Mostert, a Purdue running back trying to make the team as an undrafted free agent. He capped off the exhibition season as the preferred target for Tim Tebow and Matt Barkley, stating his case for a roster spot with a 162-yard performance that accounted for nearly half his team’s total offense in the game. Despite that showing, he failed to make the team’s final roster and is now with the seventh club of his brief career.

Bishop, by the way, had a pretty successful football career when all is said and done — just not in the NFL. He spent 10 seasons in the Canadian Football League, earning a Grey Cup in 2004. So if your favorite preseason standout gets his walking papers this September, don’t be too sad. There’s still plenty of football to go around.