Every team wants its top rookie to ace the early tests it gives him.
For the most part, teams will convince themselves and try to convince the fans that each rookie is a proverbial straight-A student. Yet most teams will grade those picks on a curve as they roll out different expectations for their draft picks.
Consider Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin. A first-round pick in 2012, Irvin was a surprise pick panned by many. When the season rolled around, it was clear that he wasn't ready to play the run. In fact, he might never be a consistent run defender at the professional level, but man oh man can he rush the passer!
How do you grade Irvin, then? Seahawks fans wouldn't give him a failing grade for all the world. Some rookies like Cleveland Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo and Miami Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan are in that exact same boat.
Then there's Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. As the top passer in the draft, much will be expected. After a 2012 in which Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson all paid immediate dividends, the pressure will be on Manuel to produce right away.
Find out how these players as well as the rest of the first round have graded out so far in camp.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
The Skinny: Chiefs need banged-up Fisher to get right, permanently, by Week 1.
Kansas City Chiefs right tackle Eric Fisher is dealing with a couple of minor injuries at the moment, but those should just be minor speed bumps on the way to an impressive young career. Head coach Andy Reid says that he was "impressed" with Fisher's performance in the first preseason game, in which the Chiefs continually ran behind the first overall pick.
Pro Football Focus wasn't quite as complimentary (paid link), ranking Fisher as the 102nd-best tackle of the preseason so far out of 166 graded candidates.
The Skinny: Joeckel and Monroe seem to be tackle tandem Jaguars were looking for.
By now, lots of football fans—especially those in Northern Florida—have heard that the Jacksonville Jaguars used some analysis from Pro Football Focus to justify the selection of right tackle Luke Joeckel. Basically, they believe that the right tackle position is more important than conventional wisdom allows, and they're hoping that a fantastic tackle tandem will bring their offense back up to the next level.
Early returns seem pretty good, as Joeckel stood out in the first game across from left tackle Eugene Monroe. The two are both aces in pass protection and can maul in the run game as well. According to Pro Football Focus' tracking (paid link), both Monroe and Joeckel were in the top 32 tackles in the first week of action.
The Skinny: Out-of-position Jordan has a long way to go before he's a full-time player.
As mentioned briefly in the intro, Miami Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan likely isn't going to be a full-time player in his first season. All in all, that's OK as long as he's able to make an impact as a pass-rusher. However, he's really got to make that impact, or he'll be seen as a waste after commanding such a high pick.
The Dolphins drafted Jordan as a pass-rusher, even though he spent a ton of time at Oregon doing things like chasing-and-tackling as well as playing in coverage. He's a multidimensional player who's being shoehorned into a role that may not fit him.
It's just not good when the rookie kicker is outshining a team's first-rounder.
The Skinny: Johnson may be a needed piece of stability on Eagles offense.
As pointed out in the intro, coaches tend to publicly praise their first-rounders, so it should come as no surprise that Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was a big fan of tackle Lane Johnson's first preseason action. That's not even the best thing Johnson has experienced this past week, as he got to fly home for the birth of his first child.
With left tackle Jason Peters' questionable health, the Eagles may need Johnson to wear a number of hats early on in his career. So far, with his athleticism and quick learning curve, he's exceeding expectations.
The Skinny: Big plays? Check. Now Ansah needs to prove he's consistent.
Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah turned in one of the biggest defensive plays of the preseason with an interception touchdown against quarterback Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets. He also played the run better than expected, as that was a concern coming into his first season.
That being said, Ansah has a ways to go. As B/R's own Ryan Riddle called him out for standing around in his first game. Ansah will need to keep that motor running high if the Lions are going to have any success starting him on the line.
The Skinny: Mingo looks ready to shine in limited role.
So far this preseason, Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo has the second-best grade at his position in Pro Football Focus' grading (paid link). According to the site's stats, he's accumulated three QB hits and a QB hurry in only 32 snaps.
He's not a perfect player yet, though, as he's still clearly too small for a more complete role and may find himself struggling against the bigger pass protectors in the league when they get their hands on him. B/R's own Matt Miller pointed out that speed is one thing, but Mingo has to continue to get bigger as well.
The Skinny: Cooper quietly a bright spot on Cardinals' improving offensive line.
Bleacher Report's resident research guru Russell Baxter named the Cardinals offensive line as having one of the most impressive performances of the first week of the preseason. Offensive guard Jonathan Cooper was a big part of that. He played only 18 snaps but still contributed to shutting out the Green Bay Packers' pass rush—if only in a preseason game.
Cooper has also drawn compliments from teammate Lyle Sendlein, per Jeffrey Sanders of ArizonaSports.com: "He deserved to be picked that high. He has the work ethic to be a great player in this league."
The Skinny: Austin on the fast track to making a huge impact for the Rams.
If St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin can translate his practice performances to game day, he'll be the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Austin was only targeted once in the preseason opener and didn't catch the pass. It was a quiet and inauspicious debut for a young man who has lit up the Rams practice field. The local papers, including the St. Louis Post Dispatch, have raved over his practice performances, and it's clear that he'll bring both speed and explosion to an offense that's been lacking in the past.
Still, it's time to see some of that in a game. Come Week 2 or Week 3, it's almost certain to happen.
The Skinny: Milliner ready to hold his own across from Cromartie.
While he may not need to functionally replace former New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, Dee Milliner is already replacing him in the starting lineup, having moved past Kyle Wilson on the depth chart. He's had to deal with some offseason injuries, but he played in the preseason opener and performed reasonably well against the Detroit Lions' first-string offense.
Cornerback is a notoriously difficult position in terms of making an immediate transition to the NFL—even without the shadows of a Hall of Fame-caliber player like Revis. Yet Milliner seems to be on the right track and just needs time, reps and a little patience.
The Skinny: Improved interior blocking could redefine the Titans offense.
One of the big reasons the Arizona Cardinals selected Jonathan Cooper over Chance Warmack was because Cooper was the more athletic of the two guards and more polished in pass protection. That showed in early returns, as Warmack gave up a sack in limited time in the first preseason game and was badly beaten a few other times.
Yet Warmack is prized for his run-blocking, and that's what the Tennessee Titans are most interested in. CBS' Rob Rang broke down a little of that:
Warmack provided the critical block to pave the way for Greene's 19-yard jaunt by pulling out to destroy Washington rookie cornerback David Amerson. The former New York Jet runner coasted untouched to the end zone.
The Skinny: Chargers need Fluker to be at his best, right away.
If you want to get to know D.J. Fluker—I mean, really get to know the young man—make sure you read this fantastic story by Michael Gehlken of the U-T San Diego. Or, heck, read this one about Fluker overcoming his fear of swimming thanks to fellow rookie, linebacker Manti Te'o. If you can't root for a guy like this, I don't know what to tell you.
On the field, Fluker has been up-and-down. He's clearly a starter, but on that San Diego Chargers offensive line, it's not really saying much. In the first preseason action, he had some hiccups in pass protection that will need to be ironed out sooner rather than later.
The Skinny: Injured Hayden hoping to hit the ground running when he returns.
It's hard to give Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden anything more than a poor grade because he hasn't been on the field much to earn more. When he has been on the field, it's been in a red no-contact jersey. In addition to his original injury, Hayden also tweaked a hamstring that kept him out for about a week.
The Raiders are looking to have Hayden back for the third preseason game, per Scott Blair of CSN Bay Area, but are already impressed with some of the work he's been able to do in practice. With so much turnover on the defense this offseason, the Raiders will likely need Hayden to hit the ground running.
The Skinny: Jets need steady Richardson to create plenty of havoc.
The New York Jets drafted defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson to be a movable chess piece and create havoc for opposing offensive lines. Against the Detroit Lions, Richardson collected three tackles but was largely stymied by an offensive line that should have seemed porous for the talented rookie. Yet his presence also allowed teammate Muhammad Wilkerson to create some pressure, so it's not all bad.
The Skinny: Lotulelei answering age-old question: "Where's the beef?"
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was pleased with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei's debut, but Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo called it "uneventful," adding: "13 snaps, no pressures on 11 rushes. Only two snaps vs run, moved easily by Eben Britton one-on-one."
The Panthers desperately need more pressure from the inside of the defensive line this season. The defense lacked bulk in 2012, which allowed offenses to handle the Panthers' pass-rushers and easily move to the second level. With improved play from Lotulelei and rookie teammate Kawann Short, those days should be long over.
The Skinny: Vaccaro playing on edge (and off the bench) early on with the Saints.
As of right now (and probably throughout his rookie year), New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro will not be a starter in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's new defense. It is a difficult scheme to learn the intricacies of, and it's notable that Vaccaro will play essentially the same role—nickelback—that he often played in college.
The Skinny: Manuel may be on his way to proving he was worth that first-round pick.
When checking out Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel's first preseason stat line, it's easy to get caught up one way or the other. He played the entire first half against the Indianapolis Colts and didn't throw an interception. Going 16-of-21 for over 100 yards extrapolates to a pretty decent game had Manuel continued to play, right?
CBS' Rob Rang took a closer look at Manuel's first game, saying: "Other than a dazzling 24-yard scramble, Manuel was generally less effective the longer he held the ball over his first five series."
It's also important to note that Manuel did much of his work without the full complement of starters and without wide receiver Stevie Johnson. So, with fellow quarterback Kevin Kolb sidelined, it's possible that Manuel did enough to win the job and set himself up for rookie-year success.
The Skinny: Jones hopes to gain rare trust from Steelers brass as a rookie.
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has an uphill battle that may have little to do with his play. The Steelers—especially defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau—just don't like throwing rookies into the proverbial fire. For Jones, that may mean coming off the bench in pass-rushing situations in his rookie season. Even the media is clamoring for him to ascend the depth chart.
His first game, however, was a bit of a mixed bag. The highlight was a recovered fumble that speaks to Jones' experience and comfort on the field. However, he also gave up a catch in coverage, missed a tackle and was swallowed up on a number of run plays.
The Steelers defense wasn't part of their problems last season, so it wouldn't be crazy to see Jones used as a situational weapon. Yet, this team needs a young bright spot, and if Jones continues to make big plays, it will be hard to keep him down.
The Skinny: Niners need Reid to make a big splash (and big hits) as a rookie.
Safety Eric Reid is running with the San Francisco 49ers' starters and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has plenty of great things to say about him:
Eric's a smart player. He's diligent. The game's not too big for him. He's just going through the normal growing pains of a rookie, learning the system, learning the NFL style of play, the tempo picks up, etc. But he's doing fine.
Overall, in his first game against the Denver Broncos, Reid had five tackles and a missed tackle. However, it was the big hits on Broncos receivers that had 49ers fans salivating for more.
The Skinny: Pugh needs to be well to make an impact.
It's impossible to do "well" in training camp sitting along the sidelines, and New York Giants rookie tackle Justin Pugh has been sidelined with a concussion. Once he's better, though, the Giants expect Pugh to push David Diehl at right tackle, and he could easily end up at right guard if they decide to give him reps there as well.
The Giants need Pugh to succeed, and early. He's an impact run-blocker with ability to get to the next level of the defense. The Giants' offensive line struggled with that last season and didn't protect quarterback Eli Manning well enough, either. With a healthy Pugh making an impact, it's not absurd to think the Giants could be back in the playoffs in 2013.
The Skinny: Long trying to prove Bears right for "reaching" for him in April.
Albeit after a slow start, ESPN Chicago had nothing but good things to say about Chicago Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long once the pads were put on in Bears practices. Long's athleticism alongside his aggressiveness will be a nasty combination for a Bears offense that hasn't had a promising lineman in some time.
In his first action, Long rated out tied as the first week's second-best offensive guard, according to Pro Football Focus (paid link)—playing 53 snaps and only allowing one hurry. B/R's Matt Miller called his performance "quick, powerful, smart."
The Skinny: Bengals offense needs Eifert to be a weapon.
When asked about his rookie tight end's first performance, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had this to say about Tyler Eifert (via Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer):"Great in the running game and awful in the passing game. Finally I get something to yell at him about."
The Bengals need Eifert's explosiveness in the passing attack, and they need his sure hands in the end zone. He's flashed that ability in practices, but it needs to translate to the game field if the Bengals want to do more than exit the playoffs early this season.
The Skinny: Falcons may need patience with their rookie defensive backs.
Atlanta Falcons rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant was welcomed to the NFL when Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham ran him over in the first preseason game. It honestly didn't get much better from there, as Pro Football Focus ranked Trufant as the 228th-best cornerback of the weekend (paid link). Maybe better just to say fourth-worst?
He was thrown at twice, allowing one catch. He made one tackle, got trucked and missed another. Overall, it was certainly mixed reviews at best. It's important to remember that rookie cornerbacks go through this all the time, and no one should doubt Trufant's long-term viability. He just needs more reps.
The Skinny: Not a starter, but Floyd is a major part of the Vikings' plans in 2013.
Rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd played limited snaps for the Minnesota Vikings in the first preseason game and was forced to leave with a minor injury. It was disconcerting for fans who feared something major, but the Minnesota Vikings Twitter account was sure to showcase him back in action this week.
In the time he did play, Floyd was great, picking up two tackles at the line of scrimmage, a batted pass and a quarterback hurry. He won't start for the Vikings, as he'll back Kevin Williams up at the 3-technique position. However, the Vikings will use a heavy rotation and will feature his athleticism plenty.
The Skinny: Werner faces an uphill battle for rookie-year prominence.
The Indianapolis Colts sat linebacker Bjoern Werner out of his first potential preseason game after he didn't feel right during warmups. They expect to "sit" him out of the starting lineup this season as well, as he sits behind Colts star linebacker Robert Mathis on the depth chart. Yet, if all goes as planned, Werner will get healthy and play a big role in the Colts' subpackages.
The Skinny: Vikings need Rhodes in the starting lineup to keep their defense firing on all cylinders.
When the Minnesota Vikings gave up star cornerback Antoine Winfield (now with the Seattle Seahawks), it was clear they needed a playmaker for the secondary. Xavier Rhodes, whom I graded very highly pre-draft, could be just the cure for their woes.
He's missed some practice time and the first game with a hamstring injury, but when he's been active, he's been impressive. Sports Illustrated's Peter King believes he'll start at left cornerback this year, while the Mike Wobschall of the team's official website called him "the defensive standout."
The Skinny: Jones gives Packers a scare, now needs to do same for opponents.
The Green Bay Packers certainly had cause to be concerned when defensive lineman Datone Jones went down after only one play in the preseason opener. Yet they received good news when it was learned his ankle injury was only minor.
Before the injury, Jones had stood out in camp and has put on weight from his college days to fit better in the Packers' scheme. The Packers need him to create havoc as the best athlete on their front as their defense continues to improve.
The Skinny: The search for the Texans' No. 2 WR appears to be over.
Pictured above (and seen here on video) is a tremendous 34-yard touchdown catch by Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the first preseason game. Overall, he was targeted five times and had four catches for 52 yards and a touchdown.
The Texans have been looking for a complement for wide receiver Andre Johnson for a long time. With Hopkins' big-play ability, strong hands, good body control and outstanding explosiveness, the wait appears to be over.
The Skinny: Williams will be an integral part of Broncos defense if he can stay healthy.
Denver Broncos defensive tackle Sylvester Williams comes from humble beginnings and says his family cried when he signed his rookie deal. He'll need to be at his best in 2013, as the Broncos defense is missing pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil (now with the Baltimore Ravens) and possibly Von Miller, whose four-game suspension appeal will be heard on Aug. 15.
Williams spent some time out of practice with a minor knee injury—always a concern for bigger rookies—and had a mixed bag in his first game as he struggled to fire off low, but overall Williams should be a bright spot for the Broncos defense as he continues to improve.
The Skinny: Patterson fighting for top rookie receiver honors.
As impressive as Houston Texans rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins was in Week 1 of the preseason, and as explosive as St. Louis Rams rookie receiver Tavon Austin should be, the Minnesota Vikings have high hopes that their rookie receiver, Cordarrelle Patterson, will shine as the top pass-catcher of the class and help fans forget about receiver Percy Harvin (now with the Seattle Seahawks).
In his first game, Patterson caught four of his seven targets (dropping one) for 54 yards. However, it was his shiftiness in the open field, slipping and avoiding tackles, that made fans wish for more. He only had six cumulative yards after the catch, but he looked close to breaking one long.
The Skinny: Rams doing everything they can to help Ogletree succeed.
The St. Louis Rams knew what they were getting when they drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree. He's a talented athlete but needs polish as a defender and has some off-the-field issues as well. So, to that end, the Rams brought in former linebacker Keith Bulluck to mentor Ogletree during camp. The latter drew comparisons to the former in pre-draft reviews, so the potential for Bulluck to help Ogletree in his development is great.
His first game was not great, as Rams general manager Les Snead pointed out: "They're not scared of you. You're not in Georgia anymore. They're going to throw it at you." Bleacher Report's Cian Fahey took a screenshot of one of Ogletree's missed tackles (Note: it didn't go well for Ogletree).
The Skinny: Maligned pick might be lone bright spot on Cowboys' interior.
Through two games (the Dallas Cowboys participated in the Hall of Fame game before the rest of the teams saw action), Cowboys center Travis Frederick has participated in 93 snaps and allowed only one quarterback hurry. This is pretty fantastic news for quarterback Tony Romo, who is dealing with a lot of subpar play along his line—especially in the interior—and has for some time.
That said, Frederick needs to showcase more drive in the run game and be more consistent before critics will finally get off his back. He's already got a big fan in Romo, though.
The Skinny: Elam doesn't need to be Ed Reed, but he does need to step up in a big way.
Rookie safety Matt Elam had three tackles for the Baltimore Ravens and showcased great ability near the line of scrimmage in his debut. He was not thrown at in 40 snaps, so all in all it was a pretty great debut even if he didn't start.
About his debut, Elam said, per The Baltimore Sun:
I'm just improving every day, continuing to learn. With the way I improve and the way I learn, it's giving me a lot more confidence.
The Ravens don't need Elam to be Ed Reed (now with the Houston Texans.) They need him to be Matt Elam. Moreover, he doesn't need to replace Ed Reed the Hall of Fame-caliber safety. Elam just needs to be better than Reed was last year—not nearly as difficult a proposition.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.