NFL News & Analysis

Biggest winners of the 2021 NFL preseason: New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and more

Jan 9, 2021; Landover, Maryland, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) leads his teammates onto the field prior to their game against the Washington Football Team at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL preseason isn't just an opportunity for all 32 NFL teams to iron out the kinks and identify the rising stars looking to make a name for themselves. It's a key deciding factor in who makes the 53-man roster and where each player fits into the depth chart, a chance to look at what players and position units provide reasons for hope and, on the contrary, concern.

Today, we will focus on the positive and dive into the biggest winners of the 2021 NFL preseason, from Mac Jones and the New England Patriots to Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.


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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Why: Mac Jones shredded every defense he faced

It is official. Mac Jones is QB1, and deservedly so.

The rookie quarterback was the same player in the 2021 NFL preseason as he was at Alabama. His timing, sharp accuracy and ability to throw his receivers open led to a 92.2 passing grade across his three preseason outings. Not only did that lead all rookie quarterbacks in the preseason, but it also beat out Patrick Mahomes in 2017 for the highest mark ever earned by a first-year passer in the preseason.

Highest PFF passing grades by rookie quarterbacks in the preseason (since 2015, min. 60 dropbacks)
Name Team Season PFF passing grade
Mac Jones Patriots 2021 92.2
Patrick Mahomes Chiefs 2017 91.8
Alex McGough Seahawks 2018 87.8
Baker Mayfield Browns 2018 83.4
Dak Prescott Cowboys 2016 83.1

Jones didn’t record a single turnover-worthy play and posted the lowest negatively graded throw rate of the preseason overall.

The 2021 national champion still needs to play in several regular-season contests before the Patriots can comfortably project how he'll fare at the NFL level long-term. Still, the early returns could not have been better from the No. 15 pick of the 2021 NFL Draft.


GREEN BAY PACKERS 

Why: Fourth-round guard Royce Newman looks ready to start

Star left tackle David Bakhtiari will be out for the first six weeks of the 2021 season, as he was recently placed on the PUP list after tearing his ACL at the end of last season. It's a crack Green Bay will attempt to fill by sliding Elgton Jenkins over to left tackle, leaving the two spots at guard down to Lucas Patrick, Jon Runyan or Royce Newman.

The guard position looked frail with Jenkins moving over, but the rookie might be able to stabilize one of the spots after surprising in the preseason and leading all offensive linemen in PFF grade at 91.8.

The Ole Miss product earned an elite run-blocking grade and gave up zero pressures in pass protection. He went up against mostly depth pieces and rarely saw a full-time starter in front of him, but ending his first preseason as the top-graded offensive lineman is no small feat.

DENVER BRONCOS 

Why: A strong defense just got stronger

Denver's defense was loaded before the 2021 NFL Draft, but then they came away from the seven-round event looking even better — and deeper — on that side of the ball.

It didn’t take long for top-10 selection Patrick Surtain II to make waves. He returned a pick for a score and broke up a pass in his debut, and he went on to allow only one catch for 12 yards across his 34 coverage snaps this preseason. Surtain now looks ready to make an immediate impact in a loaded corner room that features Bryce Callahan, Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby.

Jamar Johnson also stood out this preseason, earning a 78.8 PFF grade across 99 preseason snaps and coming away with a couple of pass breakups. Johnson is a smooth mover, and Vic Fangio’s system fits him like a glove.

Former Ohio State edge defender Jonathon Cooper was also productive in his three games, recording nine pressures on 53 rushes and earning an 86.7 pass-rush grade. Cooper won with his hands and flashed an arsenal of moves, just as he did as a Buckeye. There are some limitations to his game, but that didn’t get in the way in the preseason — he’s going to be a key rotational player for Denver in 2021.

PFF's 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit includes links to every article, tool and chart to best prepare you for your fantasy football draft. This will be updated regularly between now and Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Why: Byron Murphy Jr. and Marco Wilson improve the secondary's outlook

With Malcolm Butler reportedly mulling retirement and Darqueze Dennard placed on IR, the Cardinals enter the season with Murphy, Robert Alford, Daryl Worley and Wilson as their top four cornerbacks.

Murphy enters the 2021 season with a 54.4 PFF grade across two seasons. Alford hasn’t played a down since 2018. Worley is on his fifth team in five years. Wilson is a Day 3 rookie.

The alarm bells have been ringing for the Cards since May, but while the preseason hasn't quite silenced them, it has offered a reason from cautious optimism — Murphy earned a 92.8 PFF grade on 36 snaps, and Wilson earned an 85.9 mark across 45 snaps.

Murphy, the 33rd overall pick of the draft, doesn’t have elite size, length and long speed, but he has the feet and hips to hold up on the outside. Wilson, on the other hand, has top-tier physical tools for a Day 3 selection. 

It’s going to be far more difficult for these two to replicate their preseason success in meaningful football games, but at least they performed at a high level on the reps they played.


DALLAS COWBOYS 

Why: The linebacker unit looks improved

Dallas' linebacking corps was one of the biggest disappointments of the 2020 NFL season — as a group, the unit ranked 25th league-wide in combined PFF grade.

To steady the ship for 2021, Jerry Jones & Co. made numerous moves to bolster the group, including signing Keanu Neal — a former safety — and drafting off-ball linebackers Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox.

All three performed well in the Cowboys’ preseason matchups. Neal (95.1) and Parsons (91.0) were among the three highest-graded linebackers of the entire preseason, while Cox held up in every facet to finish with a respectable 73.0 PFF grade.

As a whole, Dallas fielded the second-highest-graded linebacker room of the preseason. Improvement seems inevitable from this group because of the additions they’ve made.


TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Why: The return on the Joe Tryon-Shoyinka investment could be huge

The Buccaneers were in a position to take a swing at a high-upside player with their first-round selection, and Tryon-Shoyinka certainly fit the bill.

The big concern with the Washington product entering the pre-draft process was the recklessness within his rushes, but that has been nowhere near the case through camp and preseason. The 6-foot-5 edge rusher earned a 79.4 pass-rush grade and won 18.4% of his 38 rushes across three games — he looks far more refined at the NFL level.

The fans, head coach Bruce Arians and the players on his own team are all head over heels for the first-round rookie. Veteran Jason Pierre-Paul went as far as calling him a “difference-maker.” Of course, only time will tell if Tryon-Shoyinka lives up to the hype, but it’s been all positive since his arrival.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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