The NFL draft is the best off-the-field event in American sports because it gives fans hope that their teams' newest players can help maintain or achieve success in the short- and long-term.
But as the preseason begins, it's now time for the rubber to hit the road. Are the newbies ready for the challenge of playing against tested veterans under the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night lights?
I've graded the performance of one rookie from each of the past weekend's 16 preseason contests to get a flavor of how members of the 2022 draft class are stacking up early in their careers. 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 1 of the preseason.
The projected starter at right tackle, Neal showed off his outstanding athleticism at 6-foot-7, 350 pounds in the first quarter against New England, both on zone runs when he pushed around defensive linemen and when attacking a target downfield on a screen. Neal was solid in pass protection when he was able to maintain balance, often using his good length to keep rushers at bay or escort them outside the pocket. New England veterans Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche gave the rookie a master class on hand usage in close quarters, however, pulling down the leaning tackle to explode into the backfield. Neal played tall on a couple of snaps, as well, losing his balance to allow pressures. He also failed to pick up a delayed blitz. Neal did fine for his first NFL action on the edge, though, and the technique issues are not surprising based on his Alabama film. I expect him to improve as the season goes on.
The third-round pick started the Titans' road loss to the Ravens, playing the entire first half as well as a couple of plays coming out of halftime. The tough, elusive running Willis displayed at Liberty was evident in this contest, especially on his second-quarter touchdown run, when he made a man miss and powered his way into the end zone. He made a couple of nice plays with his arm, throwing a well-timed deep corner and delivering strong short and intermediate throws. Willis moved well in the pocket, looking comfortable dropping back, utilizing play-action and misdirection and working around rushers. While the former Auburn signee avoided pass rushers with strength and quick feet on multiple occasions, he was sacked twice. His biggest area of needed improvement is third-down efficiency. Willis missed a couple receivers on the run and made an ill-advised throw to a covered receiver on the sideline. If that part of his game improves, watch out.
The second overall pick of this year’s draft only played 11 snaps in his pro debut, but Lions fans should be excited about what they saw from their newest star defender. Hutchinson displayed his quickness early on, using his hands to swim past an outside zone block, sending the left tackle sprawling before tackling the running back for a 2-yard loss. Two plays later, he ran into a double-team but drew a holding call against veteran Chris Lindstrom when trying to get to scrambling quarterback Marcus Mariota. Hutchinson brought physicality whether lined up at the left or right end spots or when he kicked inside. He lined up over the left guard on one third down, worked past the blocker’s inside shoulder to get into the backfield but the ball had already been released. Hutchinson couldn't quite get to Mariota on a couple other occasions, and Mariota made him pay for crashing down the line instead of keeping outside containment. The rookie's hustle and movement skills were quite evident, though.
The team's fifth-round pick made his case for playing time in his preseason debut. Ford had a fullback leading the way on his 41-yard second-quarter scamper but cut inside to an open lane, slalomed through traffic in the box and turned on the jets in the open field. Later during that possession, the former Alabama and Cincinnati back correctly bounced a red-zone play outside and nearly laid out for a touchdown. He eventually finished off the drive by scoring on a third-down draw play, swiftly sliding from an A-gap to his left to find a huge hole. He showed good hands and quickness as a receiver throughout the game, following his blocking on a screen and jumping up for two high passes, with one resulting in a touchdown. However, Ford fumbled while trying to fight for a first down in the fourth quarter, was unable to avoid tacklers in the backfield a couple of times and was decisively defeated on one snap in pass protection. Overall, though, it was a nice start to what I expect to be a productive NFL career.
Carter played nearly the entire game for the Bengals. Early on, he flashed the ability to get upfield against single blocks at the three-technique spot, moving his feet and using his long limbs for leverage. The third-round pick sniffed out a couple of screens in the first half, hustling from his DT spot to chase down the ball-carrier on one play. Right now, Carter lacks the bulk to hold up inside and plays too high off the snap. As the game wore on, I noticed he was getting pushed off the line of scrimmage and made tackles three to five yards downfield. I would give Carter a lower grade if he was a second-year player trying to stick on the roster, but playing 61 snaps inside is a tough ask for any rookie. He'll likely be at his best playing limited snaps this year to take advantage of his athleticism.
Dean lined up outside for most of his first NFL game, slipping inside on some snaps to get reps as T.J. Edwards' backup. His experience between the tackles showed when he found gaps in the run game, as he did late in the first quarter before bringing down fellow rookie Breece Hall for no gain. Dean played with physicality, exploding through an H-back to limit a run to short yardage in the second quarter. He showed good movement skills in coverage between the hashes, taking away potential targets. The young linebacker took the bait on a crossing route early on, allowing a completion behind him. His lack of size made it difficult for him to get off blocks, whether blitzing or trying to get to ball-carriers outside. Dean is clearly a future starter, though, showing the Eagles got a bargain in the third round.
Doubs has been the darling of Packers camp this summer. He showed why early in the team's loss to San Francisco, winning off the line and striding downfield, including on a 33-yard touchdown grab. He had some rookie moments, dropping an open crosser and failing to fight through contact for an underthrown ball. Doubs did not get separation on some routes, which resulted in a corner wresting the ball from his hands for an interception in the second quarter and then an incompletion on the next drive. Fans expecting Doubs to be a force like former Packers star Davante Adams are asking for a lot; his ability to win downfield, however, could make him a nice replacement for Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Robinson took over late in the first quarter as presumed starter Antonio Gibson fumbled on the previous possession, setting up the Panthers for a touchdown. Robinson hit the hole hard on his first carry, taking a quick step at the line to find a crease. He caught a screen pass on his second touch, keeping his eyes downfield to find space as he followed his blockers. Robinson stepped through tackles on both plays, keeping his momentum going through contact. The third-round pick kept the chains moving when he was on the field, churning through traffic and sidestepping an O-lineman pushed back by a penetrating defender on an outside zone run. Robinson scored his first NFL touchdown in the second quarter, sliding into a big hole to the left side and walking into the end zone.
The second of the Chiefs' two first-round picks this spring did not disappoint in his initial action with the team. Karlaftis locked out his arms to get leverage, punched with heavy hands and shed blockers when playing the run. He pushed the left tackle into the backfield on one snap and was using arm-over and push-pull moves with strong hands to win as a pass rusher. The former Purdue star chased Bears quarterback Justin Fields to the sideline on a scramble and later sacked backup Trevor Siemian. Karlaftis is not going to win with elite speed and bend off the edge, though he was able to get the corner at times by powering through the outside shoulder of a blocker. Fields scrambled in the rookie's direction for a 10-yard gain when he was unable to get off a block, and he was stuffed off the snap at times by second-year tackle Teven Jenkins. Regardless, Karlaftis' strength, relentless motor and hand usage outside will make him an excellent three-down end not only as a rookie, but for years to come.
I was a big fan of the Bills’ draft class from April, and I’m not regretting that evaluation after the team's first preseason game. Sixth-round punter Matt Araiza boomed an 82-yard kick in his only attempt, sixth-round corner Christian Benford showed he won't back down in coverage, seventh-round linebacker Baylon Spector led the team with nine tackles and fifth-round receiver Khalil Shakir had five receptions for a team-high 92 yards. But many eyes were on Elam, the team's first-round investment. His athleticism and competitive fire are his best attributes, and both were evident during his first NFL pass breakup. On a third-down play, Colts rookie Alec Pierce used his large frame to separate on a slant but Elam closed quickly and prevented a catch. Elam could be quicker to diagnose running plays and screens, as well as be more physical with blockers. He drew a pass interference call while in slot coverage, grabbing his man to prevent separation. Teams will throw his way with the hope that his physical play will result in a flag being thrown, but he possesses the ability to make offenses pay for testing him.
Cross did not face Pittsburgh's star edge rusher, T.J. Watt, but the Seahawks have to be encouraged by what they saw Saturday night from their rookie left tackle. He was a wall in pass protection with active feet, athletic posture, strong hands and nice balance throughout each play. Cross pushed the defender he was blocking to the ground on one late second-quarter play, flashing the finishing ability he showed at Mississippi State. In the run game, he crashed the edge effectively and showed athleticism to find targets away from the line. Cross got some movement against Derrek Tuszka in the run game as the game went on, though the veteran got upfield on his pass rush a couple of times. The young lineman used his quick feet and length to stay with the block, however, preventing Tuszka from reaching the ball. Overall, it was a very nice performance.
The second-round pick ran with the second unit against the Dolphins. His natural athleticism was obvious when moving defenders on zone runs, blocking at the second level and shadowing defensive tackles. He kept his head on a swivel in pass pro when uncovered, helping the center and/or tackle. When a defender came into his area off the snap, Goedeke stood his ground and reset his hands to maintain the anchor, when necessary. He showed some nastiness, pancaking a linebacker trying to fill a gap, finishing his blocks and pushing piles downfield. Goedeke did lose a couple of hand battles, couldn't complete one reach block in the fourth quarter and wound up on the ground a couple of times, losing his balance when blocking on the move. Still, he is taking positive steps in his transition from college right tackle to NFL left guard, which could prove crucial if he's needed to block for Tom Brady this fall.
The recognition skills and attacking style Pitre showed at Baylor appeared multiple times on Saturday night, including on a tackle for loss in the first quarter. Pitre nearly had a diving interception on the next play, but teammate Tremon Smith grabbed it first. Pitre’s wiry frame was an issue at times. He failed to get through a block to stop a touchdown on the opening series and lacked the strength to prevent veteran running back Dwayne Washington from getting a first down. Pitre certainly plays bigger than his size, though, so I think he'll be dishing out plenty of punishment as a rookie.
Ferguson is trying to win the backup job behind the franchise-tagged Dalton Schultz. The fourth-round pick was used throughout the first half as an in-line blocker, keeping linebackers at bay in pass pro by dropping his hips, moving his feet and extending his arms. Ferguson also attacked defenders in the run game, typically from the line but also as a move blocker from the H-back position. Ferguson is smooth out of his three-point stance, whether moving up the seam or cutting outside. His first NFL catch came on a bootleg where he bounced out and beat a linebacker to the sideline. Cowboys fans will often see Ferguson as a safety valve, sitting down over the middle, presenting a nice target and quickly turning to get extra yards. He was used on a screen pass but tried to cut instead of getting upfield; elusiveness and speed aren't his calling card. Ferguson is athletic enough, however, to do more than just move the chains on short gains. Add in his blocking acumen, and I suspect he'll get plenty of snaps as a rookie.
The Chargers had one of the worst run defenses in the league last season. They brought in veterans this offseason to help plug the middle, but they need Ogbonnia, a fifth-round pick, to be a factor in the rotation. The former UCLA Bruin showed his power off the snap in one-on-one situations against the Rams, getting push with leverage and shedding to get involved in plays. Ogbonnia can move upfield quickly for his size, working through the blocker’s shoulder to get into the backfield, though he was unable to get home in this contest. He must stay low off the ball on short-yardage plays, as he was stood up on the goal line on a second-quarter drive. Ogbonnia was inconsistent against double-teams, as well, maintaining the line of scrimmage at times but getting washed out of other plays. While he wasn’t able to make the big play in this matchup, he showed enough to suggest he can make an impact this season.
The LSU product did some good things coming off the bench at right guard against the Raiders on Sunday afternoon. He's a powerful drive blocker, working well with the center on double-teams, and does not get moved by defenders on bull rushes. Ingram packs a strong punch when helping the tackle on the outside, as well, yet he displays quick feet for his size when moving to linebackers at the second level. He was inconsistent hitting and sustaining his blocks against those linebackers once arriving, however, and has issues mirroring lateral movement in pass protection. Ingram must improve his ability to stop secondary rushes if he is to give quarterback Kirk Cousins enough time to work through his progressions in the pocket.
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