The NFL preseason debuts for the 2022 quarterback class went about as expected. In a quarterback class hailed for its lack of NFL-readiness, many of the top-six drafted signal-callers took their lumps early on. That being said, there were reasons to be encouraged from most, as well. Let’s stack up the debuts from each:
6. Matt Corral, Carolina Panthers (RD 3, Pick 94)
Corral’s debut is what it looks like when a rookie simply isn’t up to speed yet in an NFL offense. He was missing layup throws that he wouldn’t have thought twice about at Ole Miss.
Safe to say things can only get better for Matt Corral pic.twitter.com/sYlLCnBghs
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) August 15, 2022
You could see the wheels turning a thousand times a second in his brain as he was dropping back. It didn’t help that there were numerous free rushers due to protection errors, but even that doesn’t come close to explaining away his performance. Corral finished 1-of-9 for 11 yards on 13 dropbacks with three sacks and a 35.8 passing grade. Burn the tape.
5. Sam Howell, Washington Commanders (RD 5, Pick 144)
Howell came out guns blazing in his preseason debut. His first few passes had some serious mustard on them. After getting a little greedy on a far-hash out that was nearly picked off, Howell settled in and looked like the downfield passer we saw at North Carolina. He had both a perfectly placed go-ball and an on-time backside dig under pressure on the same drive early in the fourth quarter.
This is the Sam Howell you want to see. Looks coverage off to the right, and calmly takes his eyes to the middle of the field. Nice. pic.twitter.com/6WfKdPo6H9
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) August 14, 2022
Howell capped off that drive with a 17-yard scamper for a score in what was the most impressive drive from a rookie I saw over the weekend.
Sam Howell has master the art of the downfield pumpfake. Fitzgerald-esque pic.twitter.com/FAcftl3xIO
— PFT Commander (@PFTCommenter) August 13, 2022
Why he falls at No. 5 on this list, though, is because he still turfed a few throws that should have been hit and displayed shaky pocket presence. He probably played better than his 39.0 passing grade indicates, but we’d definitely look at his stat line differently if his two turnover-worthy plays were caught instead of dropped by defenders.
4. Malik Willis, Tennessee Titans (RD 3, Pick 86)
Willis once again showed off the traits that made him QB1 on the final PFF draft board. There’s no question that the athlete and the arm are high-end-caliber for the position in the NFL.
— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) August 12, 2022
As far as playing the quarterback position, however, Willis has a ways to go. The school-yard football that Willis was prone to at Liberty showed up once again for the Titans. Of his 18 dropbacks, seven resulted in either a sack or a scramble (38.9%) That is a drastically unsustainable rate in the NFL. In fact, head coach Mike Vrabel stated after the game that he was so perturbed by Willis’ unwillingness to let it rip that he pulled his rookie quarterback in the second half for that reason.
With Willis, it’s going to be about balance. Yes, he needs to operate from the pocket more in the NFL game. But at the same time, you won’t get electric plays like the one below if you reel him in too much.
Malik Willis is must-see TV ????
— PFF (@PFF) August 12, 2022
3. Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons (RD 3, Pick 74)
Ridder’s performance wasn’t nearly as ugly as his 10-of-22 for 103 yards stat line may suggest. One reason is that those numbers don’t include the 54 yards he picked up on the ground.
Desmond Ridder in his first half of NFL action:
6/12, 63 yds, 1 TD, 39 rushing yards.
Lots to be happy about if you’re Arthur Smith. pic.twitter.com/hnpKgvXjTN
— Ryan Fowler (@_RyanFowler_) August 12, 2022
The other is that he was barely off on a number of big-play opportunities. While ball placement was one of Ridder's biggest knocks coming out of Cincinnati, his misses weren’t egregious and he erred on the safe side for the most part. Ridder led all rookies with three drops from his receivers, resulting in 32 air yards lost. With starting receivers, his stat line would have looked considerably better.
The biggest takeaway from Ridder’s debut was simply how comfortable he looked. The panic you often see from rookies when they facing free rushers or collapsing pockets wasn’t present with Ridder. He was the only rookie this past week not to take a sack and he did so on nine pressured dropbacks. The crispness of his fakes and footwork does not look like that of a rookie.
He showed a high-level understanding for the position at the end of both halves. In the first half, he threw it away when nothing was there to stop the clock for a field goal. And at the end of the game, he gave his guy a chance when it was fourth down. Those are all very good signs if you’re a Falcons fan.
Desmond Ridder's game winning throw.
Good decision-making and high IQ football play.
Great finish.#TheQBSchool Patreon Community full game analysis.
Join: https://t.co/l0CJd0icXb pic.twitter.com/6FpOenQbkP
— The QB School (@theqbschool) August 13, 2022
2. Bailey Zappe, New England Patriots (RD 4, Pick 137)
It took Zappe a while to settle in, but once he did, he looked much the same decisive pocket passer we saw last season at Western Kentucky. The ball was routinely coming out once he hit his back foot, which is not something you see every day from a rookie in their debut. His 2.27-second average time to throw was not only the quickest of any rookie, but also the second-fastest of any quarterback in the first week of the preseason.
Bailey Zappe ➡️ Kristian Wilkerson! pic.twitter.com/MXNqzyIufD
— Follow @FTBeard7 (@FTBeard7) August 12, 2022
Of his 33 dropbacks, only one utilized a play-action fake. That was in response to Wink Martindale blitzing on over 50% of Zappe’s dropbacks — something that Bill Belichick didn’t take kindly to.
Got the sense Belichick wasn't all that pleased with how blitz-happy the Giants were.
On the Pats' lack of play-action: "Well, with what the Giants were doing, there's a lot of reasons for some of the things that we did just to try to manage the game. So, just leave it at that." https://t.co/TFnogLMpau
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) August 12, 2022
And the thing is, Zappe handled the blitz very well. On those 17 dropbacks, he went 12-of-16 for 135 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Handling that kind of heat and not flinching too badly is certainly the mark of an encouraging debut for the rookie.
1. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers (RD 1, Pick 20)
The stat line tells you all you need to know about the difficulty of the throws Pickett was making. He went 13-of-15 for 95 yards (6.3 YPA) with a 5.5-yard average depth of target and a 3.3-yard average depth of completion.
That being said, Pickett’s command of the offense stood out immediately. He was quick and efficient with the football, averaging a solid 2.75-second time to throw. Pickett also flashed his mobility with three scrambles for 16 yards.
The level of difficulty simply wasn’t there, though, to make too many sweeping judgments. If you watch the highlights below, you’ll see that it was pretty much all underneath stuff until the game-winning score (3:16 into the clip)
What a debut for Kenny Pickett.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 14, 2022
There’s obviously no shame in taking what the defense gives you, but there’s a big difference between what third-string defenses will give you in preseason versus what NFL starters will give you in the regular season. That's why Pickett's passing grade still finished at a middling 63.9 for the day.