NFL News & Analysis

2021 NFL preseason: Highest- and lowest-graded rookies for every NFL team

Detroit Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell (58) walks off the field after warm-ups Friday, Aug, 13, 2021 before the preseason game against Buffalo Bills at Ford Field in Detroit.

While boiling down a player’s entire performance to a single number between 1 and 100 glosses over some of football's finer nuances, the PFF grades still function as a very useful barometer for performance, describing how each NFL player fared on every play of the game. 

I’m here to go a step further on the best and worst rookie performers from each franchise and give context on what they mean going forward. We’ll mostly focus on the good unless the lowest-graded player is a high pick or slated for early playing time.

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ARZ | ATL | BLT | BUF | CAR | CIN | CHI | CLE | DEN | DAL | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAX | KC | LVR | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF | SEA | TB | TEN | WFT

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Highest: CB Marco Wilson, 85.9
Lowest: IOL Michael Menet 23.9

The Cardinals desperately need any sign of life at cornerback now that Malcolm Butler has officially landed on the reserve/retired list. Wilson gave his team just that this preseason, allowing three catches from six targets for 30 yards — with three pass-breakups — on 31 coverage snaps. Talent was never the issue for Wilson at Florida; the issue was the consistency. He may be thrust onto the field sooner rather than later.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Highest: CB Avery Williams, 80.2
Lowest: OT Kion Smith, 25.3

Kyle Pitts was technically the highest-graded Falcons rookie, but we instituted a snap threshold for these, and he was on the field for only two plays this preseason. Williams was a special teams demon at Boise State but looked like more than that for the Falcons. He could very well be Atlanta's slot cornerback after he broke up two passes and collected two stops this preseason.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Highest: OT Adrian Ealy, 90.0
Lowest: Edge Odafe Oweh, 34.9

Ealy was always fighting an uphill climb to make the roster as a UDFA, and I’m unsure if there's anything more he could have done. His 90.0 overall grade led all rookie offensive linemen this preseason, although it came on only 38 snaps. The problem was that only seven of those snaps came in pass protection, making that a big “incomplete” grade on his resume.

Oweh was always going to be a project — if you watched his tape at Penn State, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Unfortunately, the confidence simply isn’t there, and he’s not playing up to his tested athleticism. You can tell he is thinking more than he is playing football so far.

BUFFALO BILLS

Highest: G Jack Anderson, 75.7
Lowest: T Tommy Doyle, 40.3

Anderson looks like much welcomed interior depth at this point. He wasn't asked to do much in the run game at Texas Tech, but Anderson has looked excellent in that regard so far. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to crack the active roster, but he’s back in Buffalo on the practice squad.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Highest: WR Terrace Marshall, 81.4
Lowest: Darius Clark, 28.4

Marshall looks firmly entrenched as the slot receiver in Joe Brady’s offense. That’s where he lined up on 17 of his 23 snaps when running with the first-team offense last week. He saw multiple targets from Sam Darnold in the first half alone, catching three passes for 43 yards.

CHICAGO BEARS

Highest: DI Khyiris Tonga, 69.6
Lowest: LB Charles Snowden, 43.0

Seventh-rounders are never guaranteed to make the active roster, but Tonga did enough in two preseason games to do just that. He put on a show against Buffalo a couple of weeks ago, recording three pressures and two run stops on 30 snaps. Tonga will have a tough road to playing time because the Bears are loaded on the interior, but those are still encouraging early returns.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Highest: Edge Joseph Ossai, 89.6
Lowest: WR Ja’Marr Chase, 29.5

This is a bit of a knife twist for Bengals fans. Not only did the team's top-five pick end the preseason as their lowest-graded rookie — largely because he dropped four of his five catchable passes — but the most impressive preseason performer is already out for the season.

We aren’t hitting the panic button, but this preseason could have gone better for Cincinnati.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Highest: S Richard LeCounte, 75.7
Lowest: DI Marvin Wilson, 29.9

Wilson was once the most sought-after UDFA in the class, but he looked out of place on an NFL field. LeCounte, on the other hand, made multiple plays on the football in three preseason games, finishing with two picks and two pass-breakups on 81 coverage snaps. While he’s still a tad undersized and in a crowded safety room, he secured a roster spot with his play.

DALLAS COWBOYS

Highest: LB Micah Parsons, 91.0
Lowest: C Braylon Jones, 42.1

For my money, no rookie looked more ready to join the elite at their respective position than Parsons — he just has “it.” The way he glides past blocks and closes to ball carriers at nearly 250 pounds is special. He recorded a stop in each game and allowed only 10 yards on three targets in coverage.

DENVER BRONCOS

Highest: CB Patrick Surtain II, 90.5
Lowest: CB Mac McCain III, 48.9

Surtain was as advertised throughout the preseason. He was one of the most NFL-ready corners you’ll see at the college level and ended up allowing one catch from four targets for 12 yards with a pick and a pass breakup.

DETROIT LIONS

Highest: DI Levi Onwuzurike, 84.5
Lowest: OT Penei Sewell, 38.6

A tale of two opt-outs.

Onwuzurike came out this preseason with a power element we didn’t quite see on tape back in 2019. He looks ready to contribute immediately on a line that needs his help.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about Sewell, who looks woefully uncomfortable at right tackle. He was riding defenders into his quarterback’s lap without even realizing it. His set depth and hand placement were disastrous. It’s unlikely to be an overnight fix, either.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Highest: G Royce Newman, 91.8
Lowest: Damon Hazelton, 54.2

Newman has been a revelation for the Packers' interior. If he doesn’t win the starting right guard job, he never really had a chance (at least as far as the games are concerned). He didn’t allow a single pressure and played with consistently excellent leverage. While the Packers suffered losses along their line from a year ago, Newman’s emergence may not cause them to miss a beat.

HOUSTON TEXANS

Highest: LB Garret Wallow, 71.4
Lowest: QB Davis Mills, 45.5

There's not too much to write home about for the Texans' minuscule draft class. Wallow racked up three stops on 58 snaps but didn’t play a single snap in the first half of any preseason game. Mills was in quicksand against Tampa Bay and didn’t look close to ready to start, finishing the preseason with five turnover-worthy plays and no big-time throws.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Highest: Edge Kwity Paye, 94.2
Lowest: TE Kylen Granson, 53.4

Paye looked nothing short of freaky in his limited playing time. With the obvious caveat of “he faced backups,” Paye also clowned those backups. His ability to win with quicks as well as pure power is special — he looks like your every-down starter.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Highest: S Andre Cisco, 81.1
Lowest: Kenny Randall 29.5

Cisco had one of the most encouraging preseasons of any rookie, given his college evaluation and recent ACL injury. A lot of his negatives from Syracuse — freelancing, run support, playing physically — were not nearly as present this preseason, as he was playing a physical brand of football around the line of scrimmage. Nearly half of his snaps came inside the box.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Highest: G Trey Smith, 74.4
Lowest: LB Riley Cole, 29.2

While Smith was the highest-graded Chiefs rookie, center Creed Humphrey wasn’t far behind at 73.7 overall. General manager Brett Veach deserves all the credit in the world for taking their Achilles' heel from the Super Bowl and turning it into a strength. The thing about Smith and Humphrey was that they earned their grades running with the first team — this wasn’t them beating up on guys who won’t make rosters. 

LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

Highest: CB Nate Hobbs, 90.7
Lowest: LB Divine Deablo, 25.9

Hobbs tested out like an elite athlete at his pro day, with a 40.5-inch vertical and 11-foot-3 broad jump. You saw that explosiveness on display with the way he closed on the football this preseason. He allowed only three catches from six targets for 12 yards, with a pick and a pass breakup mixed in. He split his snaps evenly between the slot and out wide. He looked more than impressive enough to earn regular-season snaps. 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Highest: RB Larry Rountree III, 77.6
Lowest: TE Trey’ McKitty, 44.9

While he has a massive log jam to playing time, Rountree was impressive enough on his 22 carries this preseason to make the Chargers' final 53. He broke six tackles on those carries and averaged 3.6 yards after contact per attempt. 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Highest: Edge Chris Garrett, 75.8
Lowest: S Paris Ford, 29.2

Garrett is still very much a project coming out of Division III Concordia, but even looking like he belongs against backups is still a massive win for the Rams' scouting staff at this point. He put up seven pressures on 42 pass-rushing snaps this preseason for an 80.1 pass-rushing grade.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Highest: OL Liam Eichenberg, 78.3
Lowest: FB Carl Tucker, 45.2

With many of the Dolphins' young offensive linemen struggling, Eichenberg looked decidedly different. Despite playing right tackle after starting on the left side for Notre Dame last year, Eichenberg earned a 76.5 run-blocking grade and 78.0 pass-blocking grade in his lone game against the Falcons. While he was held out of the final preseason game with a minor injury, Eichenberg looks ready to start Week 1.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Highest: RB A.J. Rose, 75.9
Lowest: TE Zach Davidson, 40.5

Rose went into camp knowing there likely wasn’t going to be a roster spot for him, but that didn’t stop him from balling out anyway. He rushed for 151 yards on 37 carries for two scores with seven broken tackles. It was enough to land him a practice-squad position for the Vikings.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Highest: QB Mac Jones, 92.2
Lowest: G William Sherman, 46.8

Everyone and their mother has been raving about Mac Jones’ preseason. We can gush a little more, though. He was the highest-graded passer this preseason and looked completely in control of the Patriots' offense. He finished with four big-time throws and no turnover-worthy plays.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Highest: OT Landon Young 82.5
Lowest: CB Bryan Mills, 45.6

The Saints have developed offensive linemen at a higher clip than just about anyone else in the NFL over the past decade. With Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk manning the starting tackle spots, Young quite obviously won’t start anytime soon, but he played well enough to secure a roster spot. He allowed only one pressure on 26 pass-blocking snaps in two games.

NEW YORK GIANTS

Highest: TE Jake Hausmann, 70.0
Lowest: RB Gary Brightwell, 51.1

There's not much to write home about here. First-rounder Kadarius Toney didn’t play a down, and second-rounder Azeez Ojulari played a non-descript 35 snaps. Hausmann earned the highest grade on the back of his run-blocking and ended up on the practice squad.

NEW YORK JETS

Highest: QB Zach Wilson, 85.7
Lowest: DI Jonathan Marshall, 29.0

This is precisely the man Jets fans want to see at the top spot. It may have only been 20 dropbacks, but it’s difficult to look more impressive than Wilson did. The creativity and confidence we saw at BYU were still there this preseason. He finished 15-of-20 for 191 yards with two scores, two big-time throws and no turnover-worthy plays.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Highest: RB Kenneth Gainwell, 78.7
Lowest: DI Marlon Tuipulotu, 30.5

The fifth-round running back did more than enough this preseason to make veterans like Jordan Howard expendable. Gainwell impressed through the air, just as he did at Memphis, with nine catches for 66 yards on only 33 routes. He’s firmly a change-of-pace back from Miles Sanders.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Highest: WR Rico Bussey Jr., 73.3
Lowest: CB Shakur Brown, 43.4

Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth weren’t too far behind, but Bussey’s five catches for 49 yards on 26 routes earned the highest grade among Steelers rookies. He was never going to have a realistic shot at making the roster but did end up on the practice squad.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Highest: LB Elijah Sullivan, 89.9
Lowest: G Aaron Banks, 29.8

Banks' first preseason outing couldn’t have gone much worse. He allowed four pressures on 18 pass-blocking snaps before leaving with the shoulder injury he’s still nursing. Even though he was a second-rounder, Banks doesn’t look like he’ll be starting anytime soon.

While Sullivan won’t be starting anytime soon either, he could be key depth down the line. He ended up on the practice squad with a loaded 49ers linebacking corps but looked like he fit the mold for the undersized athletes San Francisco covets. He didn’t allow a single first down on 10 targets this preseason. While he may have issues in the run game at 6-foot and 215 pounds, that’s not what the 49ers prioritize.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Highest: T Stone Forsythe, 75.3
Lowest: Aaron Donker, 30.6

Finally, some good news for Russel Wilson. We called Forsythe one of the steals of the draft, and he hasn’t disappointed so far. He fared equally well in the run game and pass protection on 104 snaps this preseason. Forsythe looks like a competent swing tackle who could be a starter down the line.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Highest: Edge Elijah Ponder, 76.2
Lowest: C Robert Hainsey, 25.0

Joe Tryon-Shoyinka wasn’t too far off after earning a 75.6 overall grade this preseason, but Ponder got far more of a run — albeit against backups — and finished with a slightly higher grade.

Hainsey’s grade is a bit of a concern, as he got exposed in his first-ever game at center. He was drafted for his versatility as a former tackle at Notre Dame but may take some more seasoning to be game-ready should someone go down.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Highest: CB Elijah Molden, 85.7
Lowest: CB Caleb Farley, 51.9

Farley’s grade came on such a limited sample size — 27 coverage snaps — that I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

Molden’s 68 total snaps of quality play in run defense, coverage and as a blitzer are far more indicative, in my opinion. He showed his playmaking ability regardless of assignment and put a handful of wildly impressive reps on tape. This is your starting slot corner.

WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

Highest: T Samuel Cosmi, 81.8
Lowest: LB Jamin Davis, 43.6

With only one year as a starter in a limited role at Kentucky, Davis was not the type of player you’d expect to make an immediate impact. The speed of the game in a new system may just take some catching up.

Cosmi doesn’t have the luxury of elite players around him to mask some deficiencies. They need him to be ready ASAP, and he looked as much in the run game where he earned a 92.5 grade.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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