Before even beginning to discuss NFL preseason performance, the obligatory caveat deserves mentioning. Many will evaluate performances through a statistical lens, and while you'll see stats below, those results must be taken with heaping grains of salt.
In preseason's game plan-less vacuum, those stats and a few isolated highlights are not particularly helpful. Moreover, since we are solely evaluating rookies here, it's hard to derive meaningful long-term value from a single showing, likely against backups.
However, preseason does allow us to evaluate individual skills, as those traits are recognizable through any form of football. When coupling those traits with a player's form throughout training camp, we can piece together a more complete picture of where that player currently stands.
Of course, there is a long ways to go before any of these rookies turn into foundational players, and with three more preseason games, the narrative surrounding each may change. But after seeing them in game action for the first time, a few rookies have seen their stock move noticeably, for better or worse.
Unlike Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles does not have the burden of immediate expectations in 2014. Since drafting the Central Florida product in May's draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars have sent implicit yet clear signals that Bortles will not play extensively this year.
Nevertheless, after a highly efficient 7-for-11 passing performance against Tampa Bay, the inevitable buzz for an accelerated timetable has increased. In relaying comments from head coach Gus Bradley, The Florida Times-Union's Ryan O'Halloran suggested that Bortles' first-team reps could increase in subsequent practices. Observations from plugged-in NFL observers only fueled that sentiment throughout Bortles' debut:
The Buccaneers' lack of significant pressure made it difficult to fully evaluate Bortles' pocket presence and mechanics under pressure, the biggest knocks on his game during the draft process. Still, there were a pair of plays in which Bortles demonstrated poise in stepping up after the edges collapsed, delivering accurate throws into tiny windows:
Those throws embody the superior arm strength and intelligence that hint at Bortles' Pro Bowl-level ceiling. The Jags also showcased his mobility on play-action bootleg and option-read plays, illustrating the creativity his versatile skill set infuses into the offense.
But Jacksonville assembled their roster with 2015 in mind, as Bradley is still imposing his vision and personnel onto a roster that was dilapidated upon his arrival. Therefore, even if Bortles is ready sooner than expected, the Jags' long-term priorities override the present-day hoopla:
Though facing second- and third-team competition, Bortles outshone the rest of the rookie quarterback class. Even with Bradley's comments, it might be helpful to give Bortles first-team reps in order to face first-team defenses. Incumbent starter Chad Henne was victimized by pressure; it would behoove the Jags to see if Bortles could survive under similar conditions.
One play does not ensure any meaningful regular-season role, but Thomas' 80-yard punt-return touchdown portends undeniably promising signs for the Kansas City Chiefs offense. On a unit that lacks playmakers, Thomas' explosive first step and vision should translate over from special teams:
Jamaal Charles will always shoulder the offensive load for the Chiefs, while Dwayne Bowe remains the de facto No. 1 receiving target. And yet, after losing Dexter McCluster and failing to add to an offensive corps headlined by options like Donnie Avery and raw tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs have verged on placing an unpalatable amount of pressure on Charles and (to a lesser extent) Bowe.
Thomas will not emerge as a cornerstone player right away, but he could turn into a valuable change-up for Andy Reid. Though officially listed as a running back, his actual utilization has been up for debate, as his skill set suggests a multifaceted weapon. Indeed, Chiefs reporters have noted his ability as a receiver in camp:
Some might skeptically view such a usage as turning Thomas into a jack of all trades, but master of none, a la Brad Smith and McCluster. Still, even if only for 10 to 15 snaps per game on passing downs, Thomas' mere presence offers an enticing mismatch against a linebacker in the curl-flat zones.
At the very least, his special-teams presence preserve Kansas City's excellence in that department. According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs received the most value of any team in the league from punt returns last season. Regardless of the impact Thomas has on offense, his ability to minimize that drop-off holds plenty of hidden value.
The Miami Dolphins took an unorthodox route in the later rounds of the draft, selecting an abundance of small-school prospects with raw but undeniable upside. Based on the first preseason contest, the Dolphins' swing-for-the-fences mentality may have yielded a reward in the form of the seventh-round defensive end Fede.
Fede starred at FCS program Marist in upstate New York, where he holds the school record for career sacks with 30.5, including an FCS-leading 13 in his senior season. Though he failed to record a sack against Atlanta, his four hurries over 26 pass-rushing snaps made him the seventh-most productive pass-rusher last week among 4-3 defensive ends, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
His impressive under-the-radar showing did not go unnoticed by Fins observers. ESPN's James Walker opined that Dion Jordan's four-game suspension to start the year could carve out a roster spot for Fede:
Dolphins rookie seventh-round pick Terrence Fede continues to make a push for the 53-man roster. The defensive end was active in the second half, recording two tackles (one for a loss) and a batted pass. Fede moves well for a lineman his size but needs to continue working on his technique. With Dion Jordan facing a four-game suspension, Fede has a chance to fill that roster spot as a backup defensive lineman.
As with most small-school prospects, Fede's raw tools need development if he is to survive the massive leap in quality of competition. But he is not a total unknown quantity, as ESPN's New York Jets reporter Rich Cimini highlighted Fede as a late-round sleeper in the pre-draft process.
Among all the names on this list, Fede is the least likely to make meaningful contributions this season. But as his debut indicated, that does not preclude him from developing into a quality pass-rusher down the line.
Though his draft stock plummeted from its top-10 peak, Marqise Lee still came into the league as a fairly polished product. The Jaguars' first official depth chart penciled Lee in as one of the starting receivers, as his polished route-running and after-the-catch ability seemingly made him a prime candidate to develop into one of the league's top possession receivers.
However, following an anonymous debut in which Lee was not even targeted, Bradley had harsh words for the USC product. Per ESPN's Michael DiRocco, the Jags head coach expressed disappointment in the rookie's route-running efforts:
One of the things we’re looking at is the consistency. Run your routes like every time it’s coming to you. You can’t change speeds. You can’t decide when and when not to, but I’ve told you before that I’ve seen him switch a switch where he’s more focused. I’d like to visit with him about what happened yesterday. He did play good, but I just think that he could have done some things even more precise. It wasn’t exactly where we need it to be.
Inconsistencies are unavoidable when relying heavily on rookies and inexperienced players in general, and we should not go overboard in criticizing Lee for failing to flash in his debut. His inconsistency hasn't been an isolated incident based on the testimony of another Jaguars reporter, and while that's not an excuse, it may indicate an impending roller-coaster rookie campaign:
At the moment, it's not as if the Jaguars can simply turn to better depth options. Injuries have ravaged Jacksonville's receiving corps, with Cecil Shorts, Allen Robinson, Mike Brown and Tandon Doss currently out. In addition, substance-abuse issues have sidelined both Justin Blackmon and Ace Sanders, robbing the Jags of two promising young targets.
Bradley's Jaguars exhibited patience last year through erratic rookie campaigns from Sanders, Jonathan Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz. It appears a similar ordeal is in order for Lee.
Handed the Atlanta Falcons' right tackle job upon arrival, first-rounder Jake Matthews came advertised as one of the safest picks of the draft. While that sentiment likely remains true, his surprisingly poor debut dims his star a bit.
Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson pinpointed Matthews as one of the worst performers of the game, noting his two penalties and one conceded pressure over 13 pass-blocking snaps. One of those flags nullified Antone Smith's long touchdown run, as Matthews was beaten inside and forced to hook the defensive lineman:
High first-round offensive linemen are generally seen as safe investments, and a study from PFF's Nathan Jahnke suggested that such players generally deliver high-volume snaps. Jahkne also noted that top-10 picks, like Matthews, averaged an overall cumulative grade of plus-2.4 for their seasons, indicating slightly above-average performance.
A few outliers like Joe Thomas or Jake Long have accrued elite numbers immediately, and despite the poor start, there is ample reason to believe that Matthews could follow in those rare footsteps. Up until the preseason contest, the training-camp reviews had been glowing by both Falcons reporters and national analysts:
Given the atrocities Atlanta suffered from last year's bookend tandem of Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes, Matthews has more margin for error than most rookies. His struggles illustrate how far he is from reaching his Pro Bowl ceiling, but Matthews' long-term promise remains intact.
Will Sutton/Ego Ferguson
The two Chicago Bears defensive tackles had rocky debuts against Philadelphia on Friday, with just a single tackle and two quarterback hurries between them over 47 combined snaps, per PFF. In fact, the site's grading service had Sutton and Ferguson as two of the most glaring negatives on Chicago's defense:
In both cases, the negative grades stemmed from poor performances against the run. Eagles running back Matthew Tucker scored a pair of touchdowns from the goal line, and in each instance, the rookies failed to generate the necessary interior pressure.
On the first touchdown, Sutton (No. 93) was easily neutralized, while Ferguson (No. 95) maneuvered nicely to get an arm around Tucker. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish the tackle, allowing the running back to tumble forward into the end zone:
The second score, which came from the one-yard line, saw both Ferguson and Sutton driven easily backwards into the end zone before Tucker even received the handoff:
These isolated plays aren't necessarily discouraging for either player, who are raw 3-techniques with physical tools that hint at pass-rushing upside. With veteran Jay Ratliff in the fold, the Bears do not necessarily need their mid-round investments to pay immediate dividends.
But a reasonably well-rounded game is a prerequisite for increased playing time. Sutton and Ferguson could turn into stars in a zone-based scheme that requires pressure from four-man rushes. Still, their debuts illustrated how far away that promising reality lies.