As I did last week, I've graded the performance of one rookie from each contest played in Week 2 of the 2021 NFL preseason. Again, these evaluations are not predictions of how players will fare this upcoming season, nor are they long-term career projections. Each mark simply takes stock of how the rookie played in Week 2.
Cam Newton is still in line to be the QB1 -- for now -- but Jones looked capable while operating the offense against the Eagles' second- and third-string defenders. Given the ball inside his own 10-yard line, Jones was nearly picked off on his first throw before converting a third-and-long on the next play. His early throws sent his receivers to the ground, but he stepped up to make a strong dig throw and an out to the opposite sideline in the second half. He overextended his plant leg in his drops at times, but eventually found a good rhythm. Jones also threw a nice deep ball late in the first half that former first-round pick N'Keal Harry couldn't convert. In the pocket, Jones held onto the ball when a defender swiped at it and also found room to throw around pressure, though there was one play where a lineman held to prevent a sack. On that play, the former Alabama passer made an underneath throw moving to his left; he clearly wouldn't have gained more than a couple of yards if he'd taken off to run. Nothing surprising in Jones' play so far.
Patterson's performance against Cincinnati on Friday night proved teams made a major mistake by passing him over during the 2021 NFL Draft. Patterson served as a strong safety valve out of the backfield, winning on an arrow route, becoming a checkdown over the middle and lining up wide. He got a first down on his second carry, as well, pressing the hole and refusing to go down after contact. Patterson pitter-pattered to find space throughout the game, running or spinning through contact between the tackles to get the extra yard. He set up the WFT near the 40-yard-line on a kickoff return, as well, following his blockers and then looking for daylight on the sideline. Coaches kept him in the game, and he found creases and moved the chains before (understandably) getting a bit gassed. He returned after the defense forced a turnover and aggressively attacked the line again, earning his first NFL touchdown by churning his legs in traffic near the goal line. In his only real pass-protection rep, Patterson made solid contact but failed to sustain; still, he gave his quarterback just enough time to throw a completion.
The Chiefs found a great value in Humphrey late in the second round (63rd overall pick) of the 2021 NFL Draft. Against the Cardinals, his pass-protection anchor belonged on Popeye's forearm, even when a defender knocked off his helmet -- he picked up twisting defensive linemen with ease. Humphrey's mobility was on display, as he blocked linebackers and defensive backs in the box and 10 yards downfield when needed. I also noticed little things, like going downfield to help his quarterback or running back stand up after a strong carry. The fact he snaps with his left hand didn't seem to be an issue; his shotgun snaps were strong and on point, and snaps under center went off just fine. The one time a defender disengaged because of superior length, Humphrey worked hard to get the correct angle on the block. Patrick Mahomes had to remind his rookie center to make a quick and strong protection call at one point in the second quarter, but consistency there will come with age and experience.
The Bills appear to have found a replacement for swing offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe -- and a future starter -- in Brown, a third-round pick. He started at right tackle against the Bears on Saturday afternoon, facing stud defenders Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks. Mack and others ran into a brick wall when trying to get around or through Brown's huge frame; the Pro Bowler ate dirt on one attempt to dip under Brown's shoulder. The former Northern Iowa Panther was beaten once off the edge but redirected the rusher's hip adeptly to keep Buffalo QB Mitch Trubisky on a hot streak. Brown's mobility helped him effectively block in front of a screen in the mid-first quarter, as well as hit Mack in the open field on a throw to Devin Singletary out of the backfield, preventing a loss. Brown moved to left tackle to spell Dion Dawkins the second quarter, protecting strongly and overpowering reserve defenders in the run game. It was quite a performance.
It's not Wilson's fault the Packers rested most of their top defenders Saturday afternoon -- a reasonable move, given that the Jets lost Carl Lawson during joint practices with Green Bay and linebacker Jarrad Davis in the game. Even taking that advantage into account, the No. 2 overall pick still looked poised and showed the overall skill set scouts loved when he was at BYU. Wilson double-clutched his initial dump-off to the flat, but his only other poor pass was on a bootleg, throwing to the feet of an open receiver. The rookie exploited Green Bay's reserves throughout the rest of the first half with strong, tight throws to all parts of the field. At the end of the first quarter, Wilson moved within the pocket to find his third option, unleashing a rope nearly 30 yards downfield to his favorite target, Corey Davis. Wilson was patient in the pocket, as well, waiting for routes to open and giving his receiver a chance to make a play. Wilson's play-action fakes were very good, which adds to the effectiveness of misdirection.
The loss of Mike Davis via free agency means the Panthers need Hubbard to follow the lead of receivers Terrace Marshall Jr. and Shi Smith (who both played well on Saturday against the Ravens) and step up as a rookie. Hubbard started off strong, attacking the line of scrimmage and lowering his pads on contact to break off 9 yards on this first carry. Hubbard cut back to nearly plow into the end zone on second-and-goal, but was unable to power his way to paydirt on fourth down. Later, he took advantage of great downfield blocking on a pass to the flat, gaining 29 yards using his speed. On his next reception, however, Hubbard couldn't avoid an open-field tackle. In between those plays, he fumbled after taking a hit between the tackles. (Ball security was an issue for Hubbard at times while at Oklahoma State.) Hubbard whiffed on a chip block on the first series, but redeemed himself by chopping down an edge rusher and standing firm against a blitzer midway through the second quarter.
The loss of AJ McCarron to a season-ending ACL injury gave Franks his shot to show the Falcons they don't need to sign another veteran to back up Matt Ryan. The rookie's athleticism allowed him to avoid a couple of sacks in his first series, as well as pick up first downs with his feet and make nice throws moving to his left. Franks had a solid red-zone drive later in the first half, which included a would-be touchdown on a perfect slant pass that Tajae Sharpe flat-out dropped. Franks struggled to get rid of the ball later in the first half and early in the second, however, as Miami burst through Atlanta's second- and third-string offensive lines (once for a safety). Midway through the fourth quarter, Franks was intercepted by a linebacker undercutting a double-clutched, telegraphed throw over the middle. Coaches took the ball out of Franks' hands for the Falcons' final drive. Overall, the undrafted free agent's performance wasn't great -- but his teammates didn't exactly give him the best chance of success.
To the surprise of nobody who watched Molden at the University of Washington, the third-round pick made an impact for the Titans while getting a rare full-game preseason appearance in the drubbing of the Buccaneers. Often lined up in the slot, Molden covered receivers and attacked as a blitzer. He prevented a fourth-and-1 conversion by wrapping up the legs of the back, sacked Kyle Trask in the fourth quarter by sliding under a lineman's block and, on the next play, blew up a quick screen. Molden was in tight coverage throughout the night, deflecting one pass off his helmet that was intercepted by a teammate. The son of former NFL defensive back Alex Molden was giving directions on defense, even as a rookie. He also contributed on special teams. Though he looked undersized going up against receiver Tyler Johnson and tight end O.J. Howard, his tackling showed it's not the size of the dog in the fight ...
Freiermuth scored a touchdown on the Steelers' second possession against the Lions, leaping in front of the end-zone camera like Dwight Clark to grab a high Ben Roethlisberger fastball. The veteran quarterback had to pull back his initial offering, though, as maybe he and the rookie tight end weren't on the same page. There were no communication problems on the next trip to the red zone, however, as Roethlisberger again threw a laser, with the former Penn State star contorting his body and using all of his 6-foot-5 frame to grab the ball for another TD. Freiermuth nearly had a third score at the end of the first half, but Mason Rudolph's throw was low and behind his target. On his first wham-block attempt, he dove at the feet of a linebacker, who just stepped over him. Freiermuth lowered his shoulder the next couple of tries from an H-back position (one was effective, one was not) instead of sustaining the block as he did adeptly while in-line blocking.
Paye took on Vikings veteran left tackle Rashod Hill in the first half of the Colts' win in Minnesota, typically watching the play from within Hill's grasp while maintaining outside leverage. When in pure pass-rush mode, however, his explosiveness off the snap was on display. Paye got a sack early in the second quarter after beating Hill to the corner and swiping away the lineman's hands to bury Kirk Cousins from the blind side. The Vikings doubled Paye on a third-and-long that followed, but the rookie tossed aside the smaller blocker and might have grabbed Cousins scrambling if Hill didn't have a hold of his front numbers. Paye didn't see jet-sweep action coming his direction in the first quarter, allowing Ameer Abdullah to run right by him. Being aware of those plays and getting rid of blockers on a regular basis will make Paye a playmaker sooner than later.
Deshaun Watson's situation is unlikely to be resolved for some time, so Mills has a shot to play for the Texans in his rookie campaign. He followed Tyrod Taylor in their matchup in Dallas, looking effective from the pocket -- especially when the Cowboys left the middle of the field open for his accurate intermediate throws. Mills led his receivers on short passes, as well, looking like a quarterback who could matriculate the ball down the field. Two third-down throws sailed on him, however; it looked like he felt too rushed to transfer his weight forward. Mills failed to see two third-down blitzes, one leading to an intentional grounding penalty and another to a sack. He showed just enough mobility to escape the pocket and pick up a few yards with his feet. The third-round pick didn't make a ton of plays, but looked like a solid pro able to operate an offense and take advantage of play-action opportunities.
Throughout the Raiders' win over the Rams, the fifth-round pick looked like a natural to make the roster as a slot defender and special teamer. Early in the contest, he attacked a third-and-long quick screen when his man failed to get a hand on him. Hobbs stuck his nose in on the run game regularly when lined up inside. He created a turnover in the second half, picking off a deep pass because of his route awareness and willingness to fight for the pigskin in traffic. Hobbs made a couple of big hits in the fourth quarter, one of which forced an incompletion. He beat single blocks as a gunner on punt coverage and negated the opponent's gunners on punt returns (by himself or with a partner). Hobbs' night wasn't perfect, though; he missed quarterback Bryce Perkins on a second-quarter blitz and slipped on one of his snaps outside late in the game, which allowed for a first-down completion.
Meinerz was a great story at the 2021 Reese's Senior Bowl, showing off his belly and NFL-caliber game at guard and center against top competition despite coming from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater. The third-round selection started out at right guard against the Seahawks, standing up to veteran Rasheem Green in pass protection during the second quarter (pancaking him once). This was impressive given that Green had a sack rushing on the other side of the line. Meinerz got off the ball well in the run game, though he was on the ground a couple of times when defenders took advantage of his aggressive nature. He gets his huge frame moving downfield when needed and was also willing to clean up a pile. Coaches moved him to center late in the third quarter, where he was a rock in pass pro (by himself or on a double team) throughout the rest of the contest. The ability to stay upright while maintaining his power and nasty streak should allow Meinerz's feel-good story to continue for some time.
Felton was still available in the middle of the sixth round of this year's draft because teams considered him a running back/receiver tweener. This preseason, the versatile weapon is trying to prove they undervalued him. Felton started off the Browns' win over the Giants with a strong punt return, eluding two defenders in his area and heading upfield. He broke away from another tackler on his next return but was corralled quickly. His quickness showed on his first few carries, when he pressed the line and made jump-cuts to take advantage of creases for solid gains. Felton motioned out of the backfield in the second quarter, bringing a linebacker with him, then took the quick pass and stiff-armed his man to get a nice gain down the sideline. That said, he doesn't have the strength to run through better tackle attempts or stand up to powerful blitzers. Felton's second-half carries showed that he will sometimes stutter-step instead of using his speed to make yardage, but the Browns should be looking to make good use of his talent each week.
Hilliard was one of the league's best undrafted free agent signings this year. He has proven his athleticism, versatility and toughness during his preseason work, including in the Niners' win over the Chargers on Sunday night. Hilliard has plus movement in coverage, easily staying with tight ends and receivers out of the slot. He covers a lot of ground with quick drops and open-field agility, as he showed by attacking one open receiver, then changing directions quickly to stop a checkdown to a running back for a 1-yard gain. On another play, though not credited with a break-up, Hilliard created a fourth-quarter incompletion by harassing his receiver downfield. He played on all special teams units, as well; that's a crucial ability for a rookie backup linebacker to stick on the roster. Hilliard did fail to see one misdirection play, following the faux action to the right until the whistle, while the quarterback bootlegged the opposite way. But San Francisco can't ask much more of a post-draft pick-up at a position group in need of depth.
With starter Cam Robinson (sprained ankle) out of the Jaguars' Monday night matchup in New Orleans, Little got his chance to start at left tackle. He did his job on most plays against former first-rounder Marcus Davenport, but could not hold his ground when the veteran really brought the bull rush, like when he affected Trevor Lawrence on a third-down throw late in the first quarter. After a poor cut-block attempt in the second quarter, Little did a nice job using one arm to take Davenport around the pocket and then redirecting the rusher when he tried to spin inside to grab Lawrence (who helped his tackle by escaping the initial rush). The Stanford alum started the second half, as well, but was easily shed by Carl Granderson on the opening run play. Little displayed good mobility in the open field, but was ineffective hitting or sustaining against his target. The second-round selection made a heads-up play in the second quarter, getting downfield to jump on a potential fumble, but the runner was ruled down before the ball came loose. This film will provide several valuable teaching moments for Little.