The first week of the 2021 NFL preseason is in the books. As always, the rookie debuts captivated onlookers, and PFF is here to break them down. Below is a list of some of the big takeaways from the most notable performances, followed by snap counts and PFF grades from those who played a minimum of 15 snaps.
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THE BIG STORYLINES
Cool start, hot finish from Justin Fields — It took Fields a few series before he performed like the special quarterback Soldier Field was expecting to see. The 11th overall pick underwhelmed on his first three series. He led an offense that generated -0.57 expected points added (EPA) per pass play, and he fumbled the ball on a scramble.
But his playmaking ability soon arrived.
He was poised, made accurate throws on the run outside of structure and recorded his first touchdown as a Bear on a scramble, albeit in the preseason. From the fourth drive forward, Fields went 12-of-14 for 132 yards and a touchdown while generating 0.31 EPA per pass play and earning a 74.9 passing grade. He also took three scrambles for 31 yards and a score.
Fields did hold onto the ball longer than he should have (3.76-second average time to throw), but with how dangerous he is on the move, it didn’t matter. It was a promising debut that should get Chicago Bears fans excited for what’s to come.
Sam Cosmi nasty in the run game, still needs polish in pass protection — The highest-graded rookie tackle of the week was none other than Cosmi (81.8). That overall mark, however, came in a lopsided fashion. The 51st overall pick was a mauler in the run game. He put defenders on the ground multiple times and ended up with a 92.4 grade in that facet.
Yet, Cosmi wasn’t much different from the player we saw at Texas in pass protection. His technique was still an issue, and that’ll get exposed more in the NFL than at the college level. He ended up losing four reps while blocking for the quarterback, paving the way to a 55.8 pass-block grade. The upside is there, but he’s got some work to do.
Mac Jones executed a vanilla offense, as New England wanted — The New England Patriots tasked Jones with operating a painless offense, and the first-round quarterback executed it as planned. Just like he did for Alabama on a weekly basis in 2020, Jones avoided negatives in his debut. He made the right decisions and was accurate.
The 15th overall pick delivered only one uncatchable pass on 20 attempts while also tossing a big-time go ball in the end zone that ultimately fell incomplete. That led Jones to an 82.0 passing grade against the Football Team, the highest mark among rookies for the week. The next step is taking the training wheels off.
Trey Lance’s chances of starting slide — One of the best highlights from the first week of preseason action came courtesy of the 2021 No. 3 overall pick. To open up his second series at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Lance showed off his big arm and connected on a throw downfield for an 80-yard touchdown.
TREY LANCE 80 YARD ???? pic.twitter.com/BDmoxo0Bzt
— PFF (@PFF) August 15, 2021
Though from there on out, Lance didn’t help his chances of taking over the starting job from Jimmy Garoppolo. He was late on some passes and showed poor awareness. Lance threw two passes that were interceptable and nearly lost the ball on a strip-sack. None ended up going into the hands of the defense, but those mistakes still show up in the PFF grading system — hence why his grade ended up at 48.8 for the night.
Lance's debut shows the kind of player he is right now. His ceiling is through the roof, but he’s still raw.
Two of the best pass-rushers of the week were rookie Bengals — Six edge defenders finished preseason Week 1 with five or more pressures. And two of them were non-blue-chip pickups for the Cincinnati Bengals: 69th overall pick Joseph Ossai and undrafted free agent Darius Hodge. They were wreaking havoc against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and ended up finishing fourth and third, respectively, at the position in single-game PFF grade. Be sure to keep an eye on this edge tandem over the next couple of weeks of exhibition games.
Rashad Weaver’s high floor was on display — Weaver came out of Pittsburgh with one of the highest floors of anyone in the draft class. His ceiling may be a bit lower than some, but that floor is an impactful edge defender at the NFL level, and he showed as much in his first taste of preseason action.
Weaver used his length and power to his advantage both against the run and as a pass-rusher (earned a 79.0-plus grade in each facet). He finished his outing in Atlanta with five total pressures, a batted ball and three defensive stops. This was really encouraging to see for the Tennessee Titans, a team that was weak at the edge spot entering the offseason.
Penei Sewell looked rusty, but don't panic — Very few were expecting Sewell — a “generational” talent — to give up a sack on the opening drive of his preseason debut, but that's exactly what happened. And that wasn't all, either, as he made another couple of uncharacteristic mistakes, such as a complete whiff in the run game and a delayed takeoff that led to a lost rep in pass protection.
There was some positive mixed in there to help his PFF grade settle at 66.5 for the game, but it wasn’t pretty from Sewell overall. Let’s not overreact to this, though. Don’t forget that this was Sewell’s first football game since the 2019 season and his first game at right tackle.
Patrick Surtain II looked like a savvy vet — The former Alabama cornerback helped Denver Broncos fans forget about the team's decision to pass on a franchise quarterback in the NFL draft with a jaw-dropping debut Saturday. The ninth overall pick played 13 coverage snaps and saw two targets against Minnesota — one ended in a pass breakup while the other resulted in six points for the Broncos when the cornerback jumped an out route and took it to the house.
The first-year corner ultimately earned the highest PFF grade of the week (94.8) and is already showing how special he can be in the Broncos secondary.
Marco Wilson returning to old form? — The former Florida Gator looked like a future star at the position to begin his college career, but he tore his ACL early in 2018 and never regained the kind of form we saw in that true freshman season. Needless to say, he was a risky pick for Arizona in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
With how dire their need at cornerback is, the Cardinals need someone like Wilson to emerge this season. And while it’s too early to declare Wilson the savior, his first outing was nothing short of exceptional. He saw six targets against the Dallas Cowboys and broke up three while allowing the other three to be caught for a total of 30 yards. His three PBUs led all corners for the week.
JOK is a Problem For Offenses — PFF pegged Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as one of the steals of the draft, and he verified that on Saturday night. He constantly put his short-area explosiveness on display, leading to seven total defensive stops on the night, one of which was a third-down sack on a blitz.
He did make a couple of mistakes in coverage — one resulting in a touchdown — and got stuck on a couple of blocks, but the second-rounder proved he could be a big-time playmaker for the Browns.
Bruce Arians Wasn’t Kidding About Joe Tryon — The Buccaneers were in the position to take a swing at a high-upside player with their first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft — that’s what they did by taking edge defender Joe Tryon.
Head Coach Bruce Arians has been speaking as though they hit a home run with that pick, saying the former Washington Husky was “kicking asses” in camp. And Arians might be telling the truth after all, given what the rookie did against Cincinnati. Tryon showed off his explosiveness and violent playstyle with three wins on 10 pass-rush snaps and a 77.8 pass-rush grade. If anyone is looking for a darkhorse Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, Tryon fits the bill.
Trevor Lawrence was a Mixed Bag — Lawrence was all over the place on his 11 dropbacks. He showed off his arm strength and connected on a big-time throw reminiscent of his days at Clemson but also let slip of a few poor throws and fumbled the ball once. There’s not much to take away from his performance other than to be patient.
No Struggle from Zach Wilson — Entering the preseason, Wilson was the one quarterback who had reportedly been struggling in training camp. He took even fewer dropbacks than Lawrence, with nine, but there were zero signs of those camp struggles. The release, accuracy, velocity and timing were all up to the same standard he set at BYU. Every single one of his throws was deemed accurate, according to PFF’s ball-location data. Just like Lawrence, don’t go all-in based on such a small sample, but it was a solid start for Wilson.
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