Highest- and lowest-graded players of the 2023 NFL preseason: QB Kenny Pickett and RB Jaylen Warren shine bright

2RHYH1W Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) throws a pass against the Buffalo Bills during an NFL football game, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Durisko)

• Steelers offense looking sharp: Not only did Kenny Pickett‘s 94.7 PFF grade lead all quarterbacks this preseason, but the Steelers scored a TD in all five drives he led from under center.

• Another step forward for Larry Borom? A former fifth-rounder out of Missouri, Borom absolutely dominated opposing defensive linemen this preseason. While his pass-blocking grade of 80.8 was very solid, his 96.2 run-blocking grade was nothing short of spectacular.

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Estimated reading time: 15 minutes


With the preseason over, we can finally look ahead to the 2023 regular season, which kicks off Thursday, Sept. 7, with a clash between the Detroit Lions and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The football-less summer is long for any fan of the game. But somehow, the three-day wait from Monday to the season opener on Thursday always seems longer. To help you pass the time, here is a look back at the best and worst performers at every position this preseason, along with a surprise performer at each.

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QUARTERBACK

Highest-graded player: Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers (94.7)

It’s hard to have a better preseason than Pickett did to begin his first full season as the Steelers' starting quarterback. Not only did his 94.7 PFF grade lead all quarterbacks, but the Steelers scored a TD in all five drives he led from under center. The team couldn't have asked for more than that.

Lowest-graded player: Stetson Bennett, Los Angeles Rams (29.5)

The back-to-back national championship-winning quarterback got off to a very rocky start to his professional career. Bennett tied with fellow rookie Jake Haener for most turnover-worthy plays of the preseason (6), which included three potential pick-sixes that were all somehow dropped.

Chris Streveler did earn a lower PFF grade than Bennett at 28.3, but he was cut by the Jets after the Hall of Fame game and dropped back only eight times compared to Bennett’s 67.

Surprise: Tyson Bagent, Chicago Bears (83.6)

The undrafted free agent out of Division-II Shepherd University not only got an opportunity to participate in Bears training camp, but he also won the backup quarterback job over P.J. Walker, a quarterback who started five games for the Panthers last year and earned a PFF passing grade just a couple ticks below the likes of Russell Wilson‘s and Derek Carr‘s.

Bagent’s 83.6 PFF grade ranked 12th among the 103 quarterbacks who took a snap this season, and he recorded two big-time throws to zero turnover-worthy plays.


RUNNING BACK

Highest-graded player: Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers (91.0)

Warren is projected to back up Najee Harris in Pittsburgh this season, but the Steelers may have a two-headed monster in the backfield if Warren’s preseason performance carries over to the regular season.

The 2022 undrafted free agent carried the ball only six times, but he accumulated 89 rushing yards and two scores. He also averaged 6.00 yards after contact per carry, the third-highest mark of the preseason.

Lowest-graded player: CAMERUN PEOPLES, Carolina Panthers (27.9)

Peoples didn’t get many opportunities in Carolina’s backfield, but he struggled mightily when he did. He carried the ball just four times for only 4 yards and fumbled on two of those carries. He didn't show any better in the passing game either, as his 28.1 receiving grade and 32.5 pass-blocking grade were among the lowest at the position.

Surprise: Emanuel Wilson, Green Bay Packers (77.4)

As a bubble player, Wilson put up very respectable grades this preseason, as his 77.8 rushing grade and 78.9 pass-blocking grade are both very strong numbers. But what really set Wilson apart was how hard he was to bring down.

Wilson forced 11 missed tackles this preseason, six coming against New England alone. No other running back forced more than eight. Wilson’s performance didn’t go unnoticed by the Packers, as he won a roster spot behind Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon.


WIDE RECEIVER

Highest-graded player: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Kansas City Chiefs (91.1)

While Smith-Marsette’s 91.1 PFF grade was actually the fourth-highest among all receivers in the preseason, his 91.1 receiving grade was first. His 195 receiving yards this preseason ranked second only to Austin Watkins’ 257, and Watkins played four games instead of three, thanks to the Hall of Fame game.

Kansas City’s receiving room was very crowded this preseason, and Smith-Marsette was always a longshot to make the team. However, his performance caught the eye of the Carolina Panthers, who agreed to a pick swap with the Chiefs to acquire the former Iowa product.

Lowest-graded player: Kendall Hinton, Denver Broncos (37.1)

You may remember Hinton from the 2020 season when COVID-19 hit the Broncos’ quarterback room hard and he was quickly thrown into the starting quarterback job for a game despite being a practice squad wide receiver. Hinton struggled this preseason, however, as he caught none of his four targets, dropping two passes.

Surprise: Jalen Tolbert, Dallas Cowboys (83.8)

A third-round pick of the Cowboys in 2022, Tolbert didn’t see the field much as a rookie, catching just two passes for 12 yards while playing only 89 snaps all season.

This preseason, the former South Alabama product showed that he’s ready for a heavier workload, catching six passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. With Noah Brown now in Houston, look for Tolbert to fill the void.

TIGHT END

Highest-graded player: Connor Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers (91.8)

The second-year tight end caught six passes for 73 yards and a touchdown this preseason, finishing second at the position in yards per route run. He showed that he's more than a feel-good story in Pittsburgh, as he figures to make a bigger impact in 2023.

Lowest-graded player: Daniel Helm, Detroit Lions (33.0)

Helm caught neither of the two passes thrown his way, dropping one of them. He was better as a blocker, though, as he posted a run-blocking grade of 54.5 and a pass-blocking grade of 60.8.

Surprise: Albert Okwuegbunam, Denver Broncos (84.3)

Greg Dulcich is projected to start at TE for the Broncos in 2023, but Okwuegbunam gave him a run for his money before being traded to Philadelphia. The 2020 fourth-rounder caught seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown on 51 receiving snaps to go along with an ADoT of 11.0 that ranked fifth among tight ends with at least five targets.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

Highest-graded player: Larry Borom, Chicago Bears (94.5)

A former fifth-rounder out of Missouri, Borom absolutely dominated opposing defensive linemen this preseason. While his pass-blocking grade of 80.8 was very solid, his 96.2 run-blocking grade was nothing short of spectacular. Borom was a people-mover this preseason and will look to take another step forward as an established presence in 2023.

Lowest-graded player: Julie’n Davenport, New York Giants (24.0)

Davenport played only two preseason games and struggled mightily, particularly against the Jets. While his 32.3 run-blocking grade left a lot to be desired, he struggled most as a pass-blocker, putting up a grade of just 7.1 while allowing five pressures on 26 pass-blocking snaps.

Surprise: Tyrone Wheatley Jr., Cleveland Browns (86.1)

Wheatley’s 68.1 pass-blocking grade isn’t going to blow anyone away, but he was an absolute road grader in the running game, earning a 95.6 grade in that regard. While Wheatley was a longshot to make the Browns’ crowded tackle room, the team was able to trade him to the New England Patriots, where he’ll have a lot more opportunity to get playing time.

OFFENSIVE GUARD

Highest-graded player: Will Hernandez, Arizona Cardinals (93.2)

While the Cardinals are expected to struggle in 2023, their offensive line is an area of strength, and nowhere was that more apparent than in Will Hernandez’s performance this preseason. On top of an elite 92.2 run-blocking grade, Hernandez didn’t allow a single pressure on 18 pass-blocking snaps.

Lowest-graded player: Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, Baltimore Ravens (27.9)

While Washington's Mason Brooks actually had a lower grade (26.8), he played only 31 snaps as opposed to Aumavae-Laulu’s 112. The rookie sixth-rounder out of Oregon had a rough first NFL preseason, allowing nine total pressures, including two sacks, both of which came in the preseason finale against the Buccaneers.

Surprise: Riley Reiff, New England Patriots (75.7)

Riley Reiff turns 35 in December. He has been in the league since 2012, and if he plays even just half the season, he should reach 10,000 career snaps. In all that time, he has never once played a regular-season snap as a guard, which appears to be a change for this upcoming NFL season. All 46 of Reiff's preseason snaps came at right guard instead of the injured Michael Onwenu, who also offers positional flexibility.

The veteran put up an 87.4 pass-blocking on 31 such snaps while surrendering zero pressures.

CENTER

Highest-graded player: Hjalte Froholdt, Arizona Cardinals (87.4)

Froholdt is on his fourth team in five NFL seasons, but his showing for Arizona —  which featured an 89.6 run-blocking grade — looks to have him firmly entrenched as their center for the foreseeable future.

Lowest-graded player: Nick Gates, Washington Commanders (39.4)

Gates earned the lowest overall grade among centers this preseason, but his pass blocking was excellent, as his 82.3 grade in that department ranked eighth at the position. However, his 40.4 run-blocking grade left a lot to be desired.

Surprise: Luke Wypler, Cleveland Browns (76.4)

Wypler looks like a steal after four preseason games with the Browns, as he put up a very strong 81.4 run-blocking grade. His debut performance in the Hall of Fame Game against the Jets was particularly impressive, as he earned run- and pass-blocking grades above 80.0 while not allowing a single pressure.

EDGE DEFENDER

Highest-graded player: Denico Autry, Tennessee Titans (97.8)

Autry played only 10 snaps all preseason, but he was an absolute menace on those snaps. He recorded a sack across five pass-rush snaps. He tallied three stops on five snaps against the run and forced a fumble. Autry didn’t play much, but he made every snap count.

Lowest-graded player: Breeland Speaks, San Francisco 49ers (32.2)

Mario Edwards Jr. and BJ Ojulari earned lower grades than Speaks, but they played a combined 18 snaps as opposed to Speaks’ 47.

The 49ers edge defender spent the spring playing for the Michigan Panthers of the USFL, and he played exceptionally well there, leading the league in sacks with nine in just 10 games. However, he struggled to make an impact in San Francisco, recording just one pressure on 21 pass-rushing snaps.

Surprise: Nick Herbig, Pittsburgh Steelers (92.5)

The Steelers’ fourth-round rookie put on a show out this preseason, finishing third among all edge defenders in PFF grade while also putting up an elite 90.8 pass-rush grade.

INTERIOR DEFENDER

Highest-graded player: Jeremiah Ledbetter, Jacksonville Jaguars (91.6)

DaVon Hamilton actually earned a slightly higher grade (91.8), but Hamilton played just four snaps (two pressures on just three pass-rushing snaps, including a sack) as opposed to Ledbetter’s 68.

Ledbetter performed very well both as a run defender and as a pass-rusher, as he put up a league-best 92.1 run-defense grade — the next-closest player was Solomon Thomas at 81.7 — with eight stops and a forced fumble while also recording seven pressures as a pass-rusher.

Lowest-graded player: Isaac Alarcon, Dallas Cowboys (25.5)

Alarcon is a former Hard Knocks standout who had a tough time this preseason. He didn’t record a single pressure as a pass-rusher and also struggled against the run, putting up a 24.1 grade in that regard, the third-lowest in the NFL.

Surprise: Desjuan Johnson, Los Angeles Rams (78.6)

Johnson is the 2023 NFL Draft’s Mr. Irrelevant, something that made 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy a sort of folk hero last season. Johnson may make it back-to-back years of the last pick in the draft having an impact, as he recorded five pressures as a pass rusher and four stops against the run this preseason for a Rams defensive line that looks pretty thin outside of Aaron Donald.

LINEBACKER

Highest-graded player: J.J. Russell, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (90.5)

Russell saw a ton of action this preseason, as he was one of just 22 linebackers who played more than 100 snaps this preseason. He was all over the field, as he notched four pressures as a pass-rusher and eight stops against the run while forcing a fumble and recording an interception. His 88.4 coverage grade was third-best at the position this August.

Lowest-graded player: Cody Barton, Washington Commanders (25.2)

Pittsburgh's Forrest Rhyne actually had the lowest grade (24.7), but that came on just nine snaps, so Barton gets the nod here. Barton struggled heavily both in coverage and as a run defender, putting up grades below 40.0 in both categories. He did tackle well, though, as his 79.3 grade in that department is impressive.

Surprise: Devin Bush, Seattle Seahawks (86.9)

The Steelers traded into the top 10 of the 2019 draft to select Bush out of Michigan, and things didn’t pan out in that relationship. He is now in his first year in Seattle, and if his preseason performance is any indication, this may be the change of scenery he needed. Bush’s 86.9 grade was 10th among all linebackers; he posted grades over 80.0 in run defense and as a tackler while also producing a strong 75.4 grade in coverage, where he allowed just one catch all preseason.

CORNERBACK

Highest-graded player: Brandin Echols, New York Jets (91.9)

As if the Jets needed another good corner with Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed already in tow. Echols had the biggest highlight play in their win over the Giants in their preseason finale, making a diving interception that he was able to take to the house for a touchdown. He appeared in all four games and allowed just two catches on six targets for only 16 yards while making four stops against the run.

Lowest-graded player: Don Gardner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (25.2)

Gardner played sparingly for the Buccaneers, as he got only 13 snaps in the preseason. He allowed one catch, but it went for a 67-yard touchdown against Calvin Austin III. The other targeted throw into his coverage would have gone for a first down had the receiver not dropped it.

Surprise: Eli Ricks, Philadelphia Eagles (89.8)

Ricks’ college career got off to a very promising start as a freshman at LSU before transferring to Alabama. He couldn’t match his freshman success while in Tuscaloosa, leading to him going undrafted. The Eagles may have another gem, though, as Ricks was one of the most impressive defenders at any position this preseason, recording an elite 90.2 coverage grade that included a pick-six and three pass breakups.

SAFETY

Highest-graded player: Bubba Bolden, Cleveland Browns (92.4)

Bolden was excellent in coverage for the Browns this preseason, as his 91.7 coverage grade was tied for first among all safeties. He also had more interceptions (1) than catches allowed (0).

Lowest-graded player: Nick Scott, Cincinnati Bengals (29.1)

Scott had an opportunity to win a starting safety job for a Cincinnati unit currently in flux. Unfortunately for him, he struggled mightily across his 17 snaps, as he missed one of his two tackle attempts while allowing a reception on all three of his targets, leading to a 27.9 tackling grade and 31.7 coverage grade.

Surprise: DeMarcco Hellams, Atlanta Falcons (84.1)

The former Alabama safety has made a name for himself as a rookie seventh-rounder this preseason. His 84.1 PFF grade finished 10th at the position this preseason, and his 81.7 coverage grade ranked sixth. Hellams also intercepted two passes and broke up another in coverage.

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