Disappointing rookie performances from Week 1 of the 2021 NFL preseason

Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne (1) participates in training camp at Dream Finders Homes practice field Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The single most exciting thing about NFL preseason football is the chance to see rookies in action for the first time against real opposition. And in Week 1, some of those rookies gave a glimpse of the impact they can bring to their new teams, putting together excellent debuts full of high-quality play. For others, the first taste of action was a little more disappointing.

Here are some players who failed to shine on their first NFL snaps.

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RB Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars (53.0)

The most disappointing thing about Etienne's debut was the lack of any evidence of this dynamic, hybrid playmaker that had been notably hyped up in OTAs. His role was being described in the same vein as the way Urban Meyer deployed Curtis Samuel at Ohio State or Percy Harvin at Florida.

But we essentially saw a third-down back on Etienne's 13 snaps of action. Twelve of his 13 snaps were passing plays, with all but two being obvious passing situations. He was split out wide three times, but they were all empty sets where the Jaguars had five receivers and the quarterback alone in the backfield.

There was no evidence that this work at receiver has resulted in any serious playing time in that role to create matchup problems for the opposing defense. It was just preseason, and it’s possible that the Jaguars do plan on that and just didn’t want to put it on tape this early for opposition scouting, but it’s also possible that all the talk was just that. Etienne could just end up being a change-of-pace option to James Robinson in the backfield as well as an upgrade in obvious passing situations. That would be a shame.

T Alex Leatherwood, Las Vegas Raiders (51.9)

The Raiders have been drafting with no regard for the consensus opinion for a number of years now, and they don't have a good track record with first-round selections.

With an offensive line in the midst of an overhaul, Las Vegas really needs Leatherwood to pan out and hit the ground running. He may yet, but his debut showed there was still some work to do. He was fine against the Seahawks when actually blocking the right guy, but he gave up a pair of pressures on plays where he failed to read the correct rusher and allowed them a path to the quarterback.

Leatherwood was stood up a couple of times in the run game, but those are mistakes you can live with. Not being on the same page as the rest of the line and letting free defenders get at the quarterback is something you can’t. It’s only his first game action, but Leatherwood needs to clean that up before the regular season.

WR Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins (51.6)

It’s not that Jaylen Waddle did anything wrong in his debut against the Chicago Bears, but he just wasn’t a factor at all in the offense, even as a designated decoy. Waddle played 19 total snaps, with 12 of them being pass patterns, and he wasn’t targeted once. Most of the time, Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t even reading his side of the field, and it’s not like there was never an advantageous pre-snap look. At one stage, Waddle was lined up in the slot against Khalil Mack in coverage.

Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) makes a catch during minicamp at Baptist Health Training Facility. Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Waddle was drafted to bring a level of speed and dynamism to the offense that wasn’t there last season, and it was disappointing to see Miami ignore it for 19 snaps in his debut. Hopefully we see him quickly integrated into the passing attack going forward.

G Jackson Carman, Cincinnati Bengals (48.3)

The Bengals were faced with one of the most interesting either/or decisions in the 2021 NFL Draft. Do they best serve franchise quarterback Joe Burrow by reestablishing one of the most potent passing connections in college football and select Ja’Marr Chase? Or do they improve his protection with Penei Sewell?

Cincinnati elected to go the former route, but that means the eventual offensive lineman selected was going to come under increased scrutiny. Carman was drafted in the second round to be the team’s answer to improving the offensive line, but he is currently not running with the first team. And his debut performance did little to suggest that’s a mistake.

He played 40 total snaps, recording a mere 48.3 overall PFF grade. He repeatedly struggled to get into position to execute his block on outside zone runs, often letting his man get inside his block and squeeze the back further than he wanted to go. Carman also allowed a bad pressure to the inside as a pass blocker. The Bengals may have made the right decision to go with Chase at the top of the draft, but the decision would be a lot easier to sell if they also hit on Carman.

QB Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers (48.8)

Trey Lance’s debut performance brought far more hype than negativity, but he got worse as the game went on, and a couple of late mistakes may have been concerning to Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers brass. The performance likely took a sledgehammer to any prospect he has of starting Week 1.

Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) throws a pass during the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Levi's Stadium. Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Lance undoubtedly has supreme talent, and his deep touchdown to Trent Sherfield in the game showed that, as did some of his other impressive throws. He comes into the NFL very short on experience, and while that didn’t manifest itself in college in many critical mental errors (his 2019 season featured a turnover-worthy play rate of just 1.7%, lower than Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence that year), he has fewer than 400 career dropbacks to his name.

While he didn't throw any interceptions against Kansas City, two passes should have been picked off, and those are plays that negate a lot of positives in the regular season. Lance will be starting soon for the 49ers, but the timetable certainly wasn’t shortened by those plays.

CB Greg Newsome II, Cleveland Browns (44.2)

Cleveland overhauled its secondary in the offseason, and a big part of that was the selection of Newsome from Northwestern in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Given the sheer volume of new faces, it’s likely that the fix won’t be immediate, but the Browns would dearly love to see Newsome hit the ground running the way few rookie cornerbacks did a season ago.

The first glimpse of him won’t have done anything to make them more confident in that, though. He was shaken loose by Marvin Jones Jr. for a big pass play courtesy of Trevor Lawrence, though he did well to get back and at least contest at the catch point, forcing Jones to be strong. Newsome was also beaten later on a curl by Jones for a near-first down.

Newsome saw only 18 snaps, so those two plays had a disproportionate effect on his grade, but he was also blocked off the field trying to set the edge on a receiver screen. The Browns will hope these were just teething problems.

TE Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers (43.3)

When Freiermuth was making a succession of impressive catches during Steelers training camp, head coach Mike Tomlin was heard repeating, “That’s nice, but can you block?” over and over. The evidence of Freiermuth's debut against the Philadelphia Eagles says, “Not as well as you’d like.”

He didn’t surrender any pressure on the two occasions he was tasked with pass blocking, but he came out of the game with a 46.3 PFF run-blocking grade and was flagged for holding. He was targeted just once in the game, catching a six-yard pass, but as his head coach made painfully clear during practices, his blocking is going to be important at this level and in this offense.

Maybe that was just a bad day at the office, but this is the area that Freiermuth needs to hone before the regular season begins or before he gets significant opportunities within this passing attack.

LB Jamin Davis, Washington Football Team (31.5)

The linebacker position has become arguably the toughest to transition into at the NFL level in recent years. Nearly every development in modern offenses has made life more difficult for the position, stretching players horizontally and vertically and forcing them to try and account for different things on any given play.

We have seen elite prospects struggle badly as rookies in recent seasons, and Davis looked passive and off the pace during his first snaps at this level. He didn’t seem to trust his reads against the run, often bouncing on the spot and waiting for the back to come to him rather than attacking the space and closing him down closer to the line of scrimmage.

He also struggled to play around the blocks of offensive linemen and had little interest in playing through them. He did look more assured in coverage but was beaten in behind his zone for an 11-yard gain on one occasion and narrowly missed a pileup in the middle of the Washington defense on another. Linebacker is an extremely tough transition in 2021, and we may see Davis take some time to get up to speed.


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