September 26, 2022

NFL rookie grades heading into final preseason games: Zach Wilson head of class, Trevor Lawrence gets ‘C+’

It could just be me — the 2021 NFL preseason feels more captivating than any…

It could just be me — the 2021 NFL preseason feels more captivating than any I can remember. Maybe we were taking exhibition games for granted and miss them after we went without the preseason last year? This August, we’ve gotten five first-round rookie quarterbacks on display, a trio of top 10 receivers splitting out wide, and a loads of anticipation for a plethora of other marquee draft choices. As a draft analyst, it’s been glorious. 

Clearly, I’m grateful to watch preseason football, but player evaluations must continue, of course. Which first-round rookies have impressed? How about the disappointing players selected within the initial 32 picks in April? I’ve pinpointed them below. 

Impressed

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Grade: A-

He looks like he’s got hair gel in for his high school’s homecoming dance, and he’s not exactly broad-shouldered. But Wilson has reminded the football-watching world why he ascended from obscurity to the No. 2 overall selection in the draft during his first two preseason games. The ball erupts from his quick release, and he’s been precise, going 15 of 20 for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Packers, he showcased the play-making skills born from his natural arm talent on a 27-yard strike, outside of the play structure, to Corey Davis. The kid’s been damn good. 

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Grade: A-

No one is more shocked at Rousseau’s productivity through two preseason games than me. The No. 30 overall pick has six pressures on 19 pass-rush snaps to date. His first pressure came on a nasty one-arm straight-arm against Penei Sewell of all rookies, and he again utilized his length to his advantage to generate disruption against the Bears on Saturday. 

I truly did not see that type of power on Rousseau’s film from 2019, and at nearly 6-foot-7, the leverage he’s demonstrated in a pair of exhibition games with the Bills was simply not there at the University of Miami during his breakout redshirt freshman season. He’s gotten moved in the run game a bit, but let’s be real — Buffalo selected him for his pass-rush upside, and he looks much more ready to contribute than I expected. Rousseau’s preseason has likely earned him a spot on the second wave of edge rushers for the Bills in the regular season. 

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Grade: A-

Jones’ stats don’t jump off the page like some do during the preseason, and he hasn’t routinely stretched the field, yet he’s looked as comfortable as any rookie operating the Patriots offense.

And that’s the idea with Jones, right? Efficiently run the offense. He’s been well protected and gotten it out in a hurry in rhythm with his targets. The few downfield throws have been precise too. In fact, the entire Patriots offense has clicked through two preseason games — who would’ve thought? — and despite the strong demonstrations, Jones hasn’t yet locked up the starting gig. 

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Grade: B

Has Fields lit the NFL world on fire in his two preseason appearances? No. But like a few mobile, highly talented passers before him — most namely Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson — Fields has relied on his legs to move the chains during his first taste of NFL action while sprinkling in a small collection of impressive downfield strikes. 

His completion percentage (59%) nor his yards-per-attempt average (5.7) are jaw-dropping, but when he’s stepped onto the field, the No. 11 overall selection has provided the Bears with the jolt of energy it has needed…for like the last three decades.

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Grade: B

Lance has taken six sacks in two games. I honestly don’t care. Why? This is a 21-year-old quarterback with one of year of starting experience at the FCS level we’re talking about here. And his lone game in 2020 came against Central Arkansas — no disrespect meant to the Sugar Bears, by the way. 

Beyond the sacks, there’ve been some clear-cut misses. Lance has also demonstrated the game-changing, big-time throw capabilities that made him such a high pick. And when the vast majority of rookie quarterbacks check it down in the preseason, I respect Lance’s willingness to let it rip deep. 

Disappointed

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Grade: D

Every former NFL offensive lineman turned analyst will tell you — flipping from left tackle to right tackle (or vice versa) is a challenge. Like being right-handed and trying to write with your left. And Sewell has looked uncomfortable at right tackle. There’s no way around it. The depth in his kick slide has been almost non-existent. He hasn’t controlled blockers with power and longer rushers have gotten into his frame and put him on roller skates. The “wins” for Sewell have been few and far between. Not playing football in a year then joining the NFL to play a new position has made for a doubly difficult transition for the large, inherently gifted blocker. 

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Grade: D+

Three drops on three targets against the Washington Football team. That’s the headline with Chase. And it’s an ugly one. I’m, of course, not ready to bury him yet. Not even remotely close. Chase’s hands were not a problem at LSU. In fact, he dominated in traffic in that epic 2019 of his. Chase has gotten open on a handful of the 10 routes he’s run. His lone catch game on a play I hope the Bengals use with Chase frequently — a quick screen. He’s A.J. Brown-esque after the catch. 

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Grade: C-

Oweh has two pressures on 24 pass-rush snaps (8.3%). One was on a play in which he wasn’t blocked. The other came when Jameis Winston held the ball for almost five seconds. 

And his 22 other reps have showcased issues that were apparent on film in college. Despite the freaky explosive pro day figures, Oweh has looked stiff around the corner, and outside of maybe one or two swipes, the pass-rush move arsenal is bare. As the No. 31 overall pick, expectations aren’t necessarily sky high for Oweh, but after losing Matthew Judon in free agency, the Ravens need their first-round selection to produce as a rookie to maintain their elite-level of disruptive ways. Oweh has underwhelmed based on what Baltimore must get from him this season.

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Grade: C+

Lawrence lands in this category not because he’s been awful. He’s here based on how he’s played compared to the Hall of Fame expectations. The Jaguars were thoroughly outclassed as a team in the first quarter against the Saints. I actually thought Lawrence held his own amidst the chaos. 

However his pocket presence has been more reminiscent of a classic, overwhelmed rookie quarterback than an anointed first-year quarterback with nuanced skills well beyond his years. And most of Lawrence’s work has been underneath — we were all expecting more “wow” throws early. 

I’ll finish with this — Lawrence’s inclusion here is more about the environment around him on the Jaguars than his individual play itself. 

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