NFL Preseason 2014: Report Card Grades for All 1st-Round Rookies After Week 1
After months of hype, the rookies of the 2014 NFL draft class took the field for their first game action last week as the preseason got underway. The preseason is a time for all rookies to make first impressions, but the first-round picks—from No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to No. 32 selection Teddy Bridgewater—were especially in focus.
It’s far too early to jump to conclusions on which rookies will emerge as stars and who will turn out to be busts. Still, the first week of the preseason did give us a better idea of how each team plans to utilize its rookies and which players appear to be in position for significant playing time in year one.
That remains to be seen for some rookies, such as Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert (groin) and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (hamstring), who missed their teams’ preseason openers while nursing injuries.
The rest are being evaluated on their first tests, which provided a glimpse into where players are ready to excel and where their games remain works in progress.
There's no perfect method for comparatively grading players across a multitude of different positions with different responsibilities, but the following grades take into account not only the statistics each rookie posted but also what skills each put on display, the competition each went up against and the mistakes that hurt each performance.
Players are listed in order of draft selection. Snap counts and quarterback-pressure totals are courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required for premium statistics). All other statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
A 32-0 beatdown at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night showed that the Houston Texans might not be ready to turn the corner after winning just two games in 2013.
But while Ryan Fitzpatrick’s two-interception first half leaves some second-guessing the Texans’ decision to pass up the draft’s top quarterbacks with the No. 1 overall pick, Clowney showed his potential to be special in his preseason debut.
Clowney is an absurdly explosive edge defender, even by NFL standards, and he showed that on a number of plays Saturday night. Most notably was a play where he timed his jump off the snap perfectly, immediately bulldozed Cardinals tight end Darren Fells into the backfield then blew up running back Stepfan Taylor for a five-yard loss before Taylor could get his legs running.
That was Clowney’s only credited tackle of the contest, but he only played two series (20 total snaps). He had another tackle on a short pass in front of him wiped out by a defensive penalty against Texans cornerback Brandon Harris, and he helped supply pressure off the edge on a number of passing plays.
One area in which Clowney must improve is in dropping back to cover passes. On one passing play where he had to pick up Cardinals tight end John Carlson, he was unable to run out to the sideline with the pass-catcher and got burned for what would have been a 13-yard touchdown if not for an offensive penalty.
Clowney’s game remains a work in progress, but that’s to be expected as he transitions to 3-4 outside linebacker after playing his entire South Carolina career on the defensive line. Overall, Clowney is off to a promising start that shows how he could be a game-changer for the Texans defense.
2. Greg Robinson, LG, St. Louis Rams
Tasked with playing two different positions in his preseason debut, No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson put together a solid outing for the St. Louis Rams in their preseason opener Friday vs. the New Orleans Saints.
Robinson started the game at left guard, where he is expected to play in 2014, and looked to have made a smooth transition to playing inside. He showed that he could utilize his athleticism to attack the second level and pick up defenders as a run-blocker, while he gave up no significant push every time he engaged a defender in pass protection.
He returned to the position he played at Auburn, left tackle, for the final two series of the first half. Pass protecting against outside pass-rushers is a different animal, but Robinson handled it well in this game. He allowed heavy pressure around the edge to Saints outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson on one play, but otherwise he did a great job drop-stepping into position and getting his hands on opponents.
It seemed on a number of occasions as though Robinson was confused with his assignment, and missed blocks and/or allowed defenders by him as a result. He also didn’t generate as much drive off the line of scrimmage as would have been expected from the 6’5”, 322-pound behemoth.
Nonetheless it was impressive how smoothly, for the most part, Robinson handled playing two different offensive line positions in this contest. Moments of confusion will decrease as he gains experience, and he already appears as though he will be ready to solidify the Rams’ left guard spot by Week 1.
3. Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars are purposely taking a patient approach with Blake Bortles, but the rookie quarterback proved in his preseason debut that his progress this summer has been rapid nonetheless.
Working with the second-team offense on Friday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bortles looked like a seasoned veteran.
In completing seven of 11 passing attempts for 117 yards, he looked confident as he threw downfield and fit passes between tight coverage windows with velocity. He showed that he trusted his receivers to make plays on the ball, and connected on a number of passes that required precise ball placement and timing.
Despite being the No. 3 overall pick and needing an exceptional August to unseat incumbent veteran Chad Henne for the Jaguars’ starting job, Bortles seemed unfazed by the pressure of the spotlight Friday.
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley has been insistent that the team expects Henne to be its starter. On Saturday, Bradley said Bortles will eventually get some work with the first-team offense, but that he “wouldn’t count on it this week,” according to Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union.
One would think, nonetheless, that the Jaguars would at least open their minds to the idea of Bortles being their regular-season starter if he continues to perform as well as he did on Friday.
4. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
Finishing the preseason-opening Pro Football Hall of Fame Game with zero catches was enough for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins to land a premature “bust” label on “Overreaction Monday” on ESPN’s NFL Live (h/t Matt Yoder of AwfulAnnouncing.com).
That graphic was made in jest, but even so, it’s good for Watkins and the Bills that he had something to show for his second preseason game Friday against the Carolina Panthers.
It’s important for the Bills to see chemistry on the field between Watkins, whom they traded up for in this year’s draft, and quarterback EJ Manuel, whom they selected in the first round last year. That chemistry started to come together Friday, when the pair connected three times for 21 yards.
Watkins’ first catch was his most aesthetic. He ran a crisp post route from the right side of the field and made a secure-hands grab through a low tackle.
The Clemson product hasn’t had an opportunity to make any big plays yet this preseason, but his training camp practices have reportedly been full of impressive moments, including a spectacular one-handed pluck Vined by WGRZ’s Jonah Javad on Sunday.
Watkins’ statistics thus far this preseason don’t move the needle, but most importantly, he is already establishing himself as a go-to target for Manuel in the first-team offense. So long as he continues to show reliable hands and emerge as a downfield receiver, he should be in line for a productive rookie year.
5. Khalil Mack, SLB, Oakland Raiders
Khalil Mack has the tools to emerge as a star of the Oakland Raiders defense, but his preseason debut against the Minnesota Vikings showed that the rookie defender from Buffalo still has a long way to go in his development.
Mack failed to make any impact plays over the course of 18 total snaps. He was credited with two tackles, but one of them came at the sideline on the end of a 13-yard catch-and-run by Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, while the other was on a fumble recovery in the backfield by Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil.
Expected to play a similar role in Oakland to how Von Miller is used by the Denver Broncos, Mack saw time as both an edge defender on the line of scrimmage and as a linebacker in space on Friday.
He had some issues in both capacities. He had trouble getting off of blocks at the line, while he was at times, as Raiders coach Dennis Allen said Sunday, per Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com, “just a little bit late in reacting to his responsibility.”
As Mack gains experience, his technique and timing should improve, which will enable him to take full advantage of his physical gifts and be a regular playmaker like he was in college. His preseason opener, however, was underwhelming for a No. 5 overall pick.
6. Jake Matthews, RT, Atlanta Falcons
Jake Matthews is one of the last rookies anyone would have expected to struggle in his preseason debut, but the No. 6 overall pick ended up having one of the worst performances of the first-round crop in Week 1.
The Atlanta Falcons right tackle had as many holding penalties against him—two—as the number of series he played. One of those penalties wiped out what otherwise would have been a 76-yard touchdown run by Antone Smith.
Matthews was thrown right into the fire with a very tough matchup, as his first series consisted of playing against Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake, one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers. Wake gave Matthews a battle, but the rookie held his own—with the exception of the aforementioned hold.
He permitted one hit on quarterback Matt Ryan on a play where he allowed a defender inside him and failed to block anyone. His worst struggles, however, came in run defense. He failed to generate any significant pushes and was knocked to the ground on a number of plays.
Matthews, a four-year starter at Texas A&M and the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, should be able to shake off his rough outing and soon establish himself as a very solid right tackle in Atlanta, but he needs to be much better than he was in his debut Friday.
7. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mike Evans’ preseason debut came and went very quietly. The No. 7 overall pick did not record a catch in his first exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Evans was targeted twice, but neither pass was catchable. A big receiver who uses his size more than his speed, Evans had some issues separating from coverage but did not have any realistic opportunities to put his skills on display.
The 6’5”, 231-pound wideout showed on a couple of occasions that he can push defensive backs downfield as a perimeter run-blocker. Among his 18 snaps, he lined up both outside and inside at times, showing that Tampa Bay is likely to use him in different spots all over the field.
What Evans was able to show in Friday’s contest was not enough to make a blip on the national radar. He’ll need some better throws to come his way to make a greater mark the rest of the preseason.
8. Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns
Justin Gilbert is expected to overtake Buster Skrine for the Cleveland Browns’ starting right cornerback job at some point this preseason, but he hasn’t had the chance to state his case in game action yet. The No. 8 overall pick from Oklahoma State, recovering from a groin injury, sat out Cleveland’s preseason opener against the Detroit Lions on Saturday.
Browns coach Mike Pettine said that Gilbert’s injury is not serious and that he likely would have been able to play if Saturday’s game were a regular-season contest, according to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. He still has nearly a full week to recover as the Browns’ Week 2 preseason contest will be on Monday Night Football against the Washington Redskins.
9. Anthony Barr, SLB, Minnesota Vikings
Despite being the No. 9 overall pick, Anthony Barr was overshadowed in his preseason debut against the Oakland Raiders. This was in part due to the Minnesota Vikings’ other first-round rookie—more to come in the final slide—but also because the strong-side linebacker didn’t make many plays in his time on the field.
At the end of the first quarter, Barr beat Raiders fullback Jamize Olawale around the edge to close on Raiders quarterback Matt Schaub in the pocket and combine with teammate Tom Johnson for a sack. This play showed his burst off the edge and ability to work through a blocker, but as it came against a fullback, it was a blocker he was supposed to be able to beat.
Barr showed good speed and bend when coming off the edge, but the UCLA product struggled as a downhill run defender between the tackles. There were numerous occasions in which Barr was occupied by blockers and driven back away from the directions on runs.
Dropping back into coverage remains an area of progress for Barr, but he only made one significant mistake in 12 coverage snaps. On a play where he should have split outside to pick up Olawale, he instead stayed on a tight end inside, which left Olawale open to catch a swing pass and take it for an 11-yard gain.
In total, Barr played 25 snaps in Friday’s game and was not a serious liability in any capacity. As expected when he was drafted, his technical skill set must continue to develop for him to take full advantage of his athletic potential.
10. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions
Eric Ebron was drafted with the No. 10 overall pick to add another dimension to the Detroit Lions offense as a dynamic weapon, but you wouldn’t have known that from watching his preseason debut Saturday against the Cleveland Browns.
The Lions tight end was unable to display the field-stretching athleticism that made him a special playmaker at North Carolina. Perhaps it was due to the “undisclosed injury” that kept him out of practice earlier in the week, but Ebron was unable to gain separation from defenders throughout Saturday’s contest.
Ebron made a nice hands catch away from his body for his lone reception of the evening, but he only gained two yards. He was targeted four times.
It was clear Saturday that the Lions plan to take advantage of his versatility this season. As Josh Liskiewitz of GM Jr. Scouting noted, he lined up all over the field Saturday, sometimes in the backfield as a fullback or H-back, other times on the line of scrimmage as an in-line tight end or flexed out as a wide receiver.
Now it’s up to Ebron to prove that he can take advantage of the physical tools and diverse skills that allow him to line up in so many different spots. He made a solid effort blocking against the Browns, but it’s his ability to make plays on the ball that Detroit is counting on.
11. Taylor Lewan, OT, Tennessee Titans
Taylor Lewan is not expected to start for the Tennessee Titans as a rookie, but his performance Saturday against the Green Bay Packers should give them confidence in his ability to step in and play if needed.
Lewan took over at left tackle at the start of the second quarter and stayed in for the rest of the game. He played 48 total snaps and dominated his opponents, especially in pass protection; he did not allow any quarterback pressures in 29 passing snaps.
Since he didn’t play with the starters, he didn’t have to go up against Green Bay’s top pass-rushers, but he displayed skills that should translate to all competition. The Michigan product put his quick feet on display and consistently kept his hands and feet in sync to mirror edge defenders.
The No. 11 overall pick wasn’t as effective as a run-blocker, as he didn’t show much ability to drive Packers defenders away from the line of scrimmage. On a couple of instances, he used his foot skills to his advantage to move across the formation or attack the second level to pick up a run block.
Altogether, Lewan put the skills on display that made him worth a high draft selection and could make him a franchise left tackle. Those skills are unlikely to make him a rookie starter unless Michael Roos or Michael Oher gets injured, but they can give the Titans confidence that they have one of the best swing backup tackles in the NFL.
12. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
The New York Giants have already had two preseason games, but Odell Beckham Jr. hasn’t been able to play in either of them, as the No. 12 overall pick has been battling a hamstring injury since the opening day of training camp.
The wide receiver from LSU is expected to be an explosive playmaker and within the Giants’ top trio of pass-catchers, but he needs to be getting work on the field. New York still has three preseason games in which he could do so, but although he is returning to practice this week, Beckham is unlikely to play against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, according to Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News.
13. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
In recording 28.5 tackles for loss in his senior season at the University of Pittsburgh, defensive tackle Aaron Donald proved his ability to explode into the backfield and disrupt plays. He corroborated that in his preseason debut for the St. Louis Rams on Friday.
Donald poked holes in the New Orleans Saints offensive line throughout his time in the game, regularly anticipating the snap and shooting between blockers in a flash. Though he did not record any tackles, he had multiple quarterback pressures and redirected a number of runs.
The No. 13 overall pick has rare burst for a defensive tackle, and he combines that with explosive hand moves. Just as impressive is his ability to cover ground and stay with a play, and he even showed on one play in this game that he could drop back off the line of scrimmage to cover a tight end in the red zone.
It wasn’t all good for Donald on Friday. For as outstanding as he can be as a penetrator, he tends to struggle when plays are being run at him. He was driven back or turned away from a number of between-the-tackles runs by Saints offensive linemen.
Nonetheless, Donald’s performance in his first preseason game should not be measured by his lack of presence in the box score. If he continues to hound the backfield to the extent he did against the Saints, he is going to give opposing offenses nightmares.
14. Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago Bears
Starting at left cornerback in place of Tim Jennings, Kyle Fuller had a solid first outing with the Chicago Bears against the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday.
The Virginia Tech product gave up no plays of significance in coverage. He was beaten deep by Jordan Matthews on what would have been a big-play reception, but Fuller was able to get his arm on the ball to break up the possession as Matthews went down to the ground.
Fuller performed very well in run support on Friday. Credited with three tackles, he showed that he could diagnose plays going downhill and make solid contact with runners to bring them down.
Cornerback is one of the toughest positions on the field to step in at as a rookie, but Fuller looked ready when thrown into the fire in his preseason debut. He didn’t make any big plays but didn’t give up any big plays either.
15. Ryan Shazier, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Ryan Shazier’s knee injury was dismissed as a “boo boo” by Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, according to ESPN.com’s Scott Brown, but it was significant enough to keep him off the field for Pittsburgh’s preseason opener Saturday versus the New York Giants.
Shazier, selected No. 15 overall from Ohio State, is listed as a starter at inside linebacker on Pittsburgh’s depth chart. He told reporters Monday that he expects to play Saturday against the Bills, according to Brown.
16. Zack Martin, RG, Dallas Cowboys
Like the other three established starters on the Dallas Cowboys offensive line, rookie right guard Zack Martin played only one series in the team’s preseason opener Thursday against the San Diego Chargers.
If the Cowboys had any doubt about Martin’s readiness to be their starting right guard, they likely would have played him longer.
For the 14 plays Martin was on the field, he performed well.
He gave up no pressures in pass protection as he consistently locked his hands on his opponents and held his ground. He didn’t have much luck driving defenders off the line as a run-blocker, but he showed on a few occasions that he could turn defenders away from running lanes.
The No. 16 overall pick played left tackle at Notre Dame, but he seems to be adjusting very well to his position on the inside.
17. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore Ravens
Despite having a talented second-year linebacker in Arthur Brown with the skill set to take over the starting spot next to Daryl Smith on the inside of their 3-4 defense, the Baltimore Ravens wasted no time making No. 17 overall pick C.J. Mosley a starter. It was easy to see why in their preseason opener Thursday against the San Francisco 49ers.
Mosley played every defensive snap of the game’s first half and made plays all over the field. He led the Ravens with five total tackles.
An excellent blitzer at Alabama, Mosley showed that same skill Thursday. He had multiple pressures on 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert, including a half-ending sack, while he exploded through a gap at the line of scrimmage to make a run stop on Carlos Hyde.
Another skill Mosley displayed Thursday was his ability to quickly read plays with his eyes. He then used his speed to chase plays down. He successfully pursued a number of running plays to the sideline, including one lunging tackle on Hyde eight yards downfield.
The one area where Mosley was unspectacular in his debut was in coverage. He stumbled on a break by 49ers tight end Vance McDonald that allowed McDonald to get open on a short out route and gain 17 yards.
Overall, the Ravens should feel very good about having Mosley in their defensive lineup. Viewed as a well-rounded, plug-and-play-type player out of college, that’s exactly what he looked to be in his first NFL game.
18. Calvin Pryor, S, New York Jets
The New York Jets held Calvin Pryor, who suffered a concussion early in training camp, out of their preseason opener Thursday against the Indianapolis Colts.
Pryor had already returned to practice before last week’s game, but one can’t blame the Jets for playing it safe. The No. 18 overall pick, who became known for his hard-hitting style of play during his collegiate career at Louisville, is expected to play against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, according to Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger.
Currently listed as a second-team safety on the Jets depth chart, his play in the next three preseason games could determine whether he replaces Dawan Landry or Antonio Allen in the starting lineup.
19. Ja’Wuan James, RT, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins desperately need more stability on their offensive line, especially in pass protection, after giving up a league-high 58 sacks last season. In his preseason debut versus the Atlanta Falcons on Friday, James appeared capable of providing that stability at right tackle.
As a pass-blocker, James demonstrates great hand placement and the ability to shield his opponent away from the quarterback once he engages him. He will have to face tougher pass-rushers than Kroy Biermann and the other Falcons edge-defenders he went up against Friday, but he was consistently dominant in his first test in pass protection.
The rookie from Tennessee is not nearly as effective as a run-blocker. For as effective as the big right tackle can be at staving off pushes from opposing pass-rushers, he doesn’t show much ability to return the favor and drive defenders off the line of scrimmage.
Unless he develops a degree of explosion and power that was not present Friday or in his collegiate career, James isn’t likely to bulldoze many opponents out of running lanes. But as long as the No. 19 overall pick can continue to control edge-rushers and keep the right side of the pocket clean, the Dolphins offensive line will be better for it.
20. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
No. 20 overall pick Brandin Cooks has been one of the most hyped members of the NFL rookie class all offseason, and the expectations for him are going to only increase after his five-catch, 55-yard performance for the New Orleans Saints on Friday.
The skills that led Cooks to a 128-catch, 1,730-yard senior season as a receiver at Oregon State, and the speed that enabled him to run a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, both showed up on the field as Cooks played 38 snaps against the St. Louis Rams.
The 5’10”, 189-pound receiver lined up both outside and in the slot, and he made plays from both spots. He ran crisp routes, caught the ball cleanly in his hands and, as expected, put his speed and agility on display.
The final play of Cooks’ debut was his highlight. He caught a pass on a smooth seven-yard curl route, made an outstanding turn that caused the cornerback defending to lose his balance, then ran away from multiple defenders using his acceleration and subtle breaks to score a 25-yard touchdown.
It’s already clear that Cooks, who also had two punt returns for five yards, is a player the Saints can line up all over the field and establish as a big-play threat. The bar is being set high for him—some, such as Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post, expect him to be Offensive Rookie of the Year—but he looks capable of making good on the buildup.
21. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Green Bay Packers
Against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday, No. 21 overall pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix displayed some of the playmaking ability he can bring to the Green Bay Packers—playmaking ability that the Packers lacked from that position last season.
Clinton-Dix played the entire first half alongside Micah Hyde, with whom he is competing for a starting job alongside regular starting strong safety Morgan Burnett. Overall, he had an up-and-down performance.
The Alabama product showcased his ability as a downhill run defender. He trucked through a tight end on a corner blitz to bury Titans running back Bishop Sankey for a run stop at the line of scrimmage, and also made two strong cleanup tackles from the back end. He had one missed tackle on a play where he failed to wrap up Dexter McCluster low and allowed the diminutive running back to power through him.
Clinton-Dix didn’t have any passes completed against him in his first contest, but there were a couple close calls. A stumble on a break left Titans tight end Taylor Thompson open on an out toward the sideline, but he was bailed out by an inaccurate throw.
Thompson beat Clinton-Dix deep later in the half, but the safety made a great recovery from behind as he swatted the ball out of the grasp of the leaping Thompson.
Used more as an in-the-box strong safety than as a center fielder in his debut, it remains unclear how exactly Clinton-Dix will be used as a rookie. Nonetheless, his first showing was solid enough for him to win the starting job if his play is more consistent the rest of the preseason.
22. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
Johnny Manziel didn’t wow in his preseason debut, but his performance was still seemingly enough for him to close the gap on veteran Brian Hoyer in the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback competition.
There were no spectacular highlights in Manziel’s first NFL game action against the Detroit Lions. More importantly, Manziel had an accurate night passing the football. He completed seven of 11 passing attempts for 63 yards, and two of his four incompletions were throws that should have been caught by his receivers.
He only completed one pass that entered his receiver’s hands more than 10 yards down the field, but as he gained rhythm over the course of his time in the contest, he started to put his fast delivery and throw velocity on display.
The biggest knock on Manziel’s game Saturday was that he still seemed too reliant on running the ball himself. He made some exciting plays with his feet, including a 16-yard tuck-and-run up the middle that converted a 3rd-and-8, and finished with 27 yards on six rushing attempts.
However, as defenses will increasingly game-plan against his ability to run, he needs to become more patient in the pocket and look for passing plays to develop.
Manziel’s first play in a Browns uniform might not have lived up to the lofty hype that surrounds him, but it was altogether a solid performance for a rookie quarterback taking his first live snaps.
Was it enough to put the No. 22 overall pick from Texas A&M in position to start in Week 1?
ESPN’s Bob Holtzman reported Sunday that a “team source says Manziel [is] now ahead” in Cleveland’s quarterback competition. Browns coach Mike Pettine denied that report Monday, according to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, but Manziel could certainly end up seizing the job from Hoyer if he builds off his solid start.
23. Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford, the No. 23 overall pick in this year’s draft, spent most of the second half of his first preseason game matched up against Chandler Burden, a right tackle who went undrafted in 2012 and has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game. Predictably, that matchup proved to be lopsided well in Ford’s favor.
Ford, who checked into the game late in the first quarter and played every snap the rest of the way, struggled on his first few series. After the Auburn product's first-half performance, it was clear that he must still improve upon his technique to have significant pass-rushing success in the NFL.
In the second half, Ford’s pure physical tools started to take over against inferior competition. Possessing a great burst off the snap and terrific speed for an edge defender, Ford can bring pressure in a hurry and close quickly in pursuit when he is free from blockers.
Ford did not record any sacks in Thursday’s game, but he had five total quarterback pressures. He was also twice able to use his explosion around the corner to crash into the middle and make run stops around the line of scrimmage.
The Chiefs will ask Ford to rush the passer far more than they’ll expect him to drop into coverage, but he was solid in the latter capacity when asked to do it Thursday. Specifically, he did a good job covering running back out routes to the sideline, a play he had to take on a few times in this contest.
Terrorizing backup offensive linemen won’t necessarily translate to success in the regular season unless Ford continues to work on his hand skills to disengage from blocks. Nonetheless, he already has some aesthetic clips for his highlight reel.
24. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
On one of his first plays in Thursday’s game for the Cincinnati Bengals, Darqueze Dennard made his first NFL highlight when he came unblocked through a wide gap in the offensive line and sacked Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Chase Daniel.
That well-timed play was a solid start for the No. 24 overall pick, but in the capacities the Bengals will expect him to excel—coverage and run support—his debut was unspectacular.
Dennard finished the game with four tackles (three on defense, one on special teams), but all of them other than the sack came well down the field. He whiffed on two tackles closer to the line of scrimmage, one of which allowed Chiefs running back Cyrus Gray to run for a 25-yard gain.
The Michigan State product didn’t have many tough matchups in coverage, but to his credit, he didn’t suffer any bad beats as a pass defender. He saw time playing as an outside cornerback and also inside in the slot.
Dennard drew praise before Thursday’s game, as Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told team radio broadcaster Dan Hoard that Dennard is “the best rookie corner” he has seen. His play against the Chiefs, however, didn’t show much.
25. Jason Verrett, CB, San Diego Chargers
Jason Verrett underwent surgery in March to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder and has been working his way gradually back to action this summer. Although he has been practicing in training camp, he is still wearing a red noncontact jersey, according to Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com, and did not play in the San Diego Chargers’ preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
Verrett is listed as a backup cornerback on San Diego’s depth chart, but he has worked with the Chargers’ first-team defense in training camp, according to Tom Krasovic of UTSanDiego.com. Once he is fully healthy, the fast No. 25 overall pick from TCU should contend for a starting job and at the very least be the team’s No. 3 cornerback in nickel packages.
26. Marcus Smith, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles
Outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are typically expected to rush the passer far more than they are asked to drop back into coverage, but the “Jack” linebacker position in the Philadelphia Eagles defense is an exception. Playing that position allowed Marcus Smith to be impactful in his first preseason game.
Working in the role that Connor Barwin plays with Philadelphia’s first-team defense, Smith showed his versatility and ability to make plays in space over the course of 47 snaps in Philadelphia’s preseason opener versus the Chicago Bears.
When asked to pick up running backs and tight ends in coverage, Smith looked comfortable. He made a great play when he matched up with Bears wide receiver Josh Morgan on a crossing route and tackled him immediately after a catch for a one-yard loss—though there ended up being a defensive penalty away from the ball that nullified that play.
As a pass-rusher, Smith didn’t show much. He’s a good athlete, but he's not good enough to get by on his athleticism in the NFL, and Friday’s game showed that his pass-rushing technique must continue to develop. He was able to record a hurry on one speed rush around the edge, and he also did a great job leaping up to bat down a pass on another repetition.
Smith also had a solid game setting the edge as a run defender, and he recorded two tackles. He’s unlikely to push for a starting job this season, but he displays the skill set to be the jack-of-all-trades defender the Eagles could eventually expect him to be.
27. Deone Bucannon, SS, Arizona Cardinals
Deone Bucannon isn’t the type of safety who quietly goes about his business in the back end of the secondary. The Arizona Cardinals first-round pick’s preseason debut against the Houston Texans showed that he is an aggressive, high-effort player who flies around the field and makes his way into the television frame more often than many other defensive backs.
The No. 27 overall selection from Washington State, who saw his first action as a situational linebacker on a nickel defensive package but then took over at strong safety on Arizona’s third defensive series, is a fast player who can cover ground quickly and has a nose for the ball.
Despite how much he seemingly was around the end of plays Saturday, he didn’t make many plays of his own. He recorded three total tackles, but all of them were at least five yards downfield. He didn’t take on many deep-coverage responsibilities, so he went virtually untested in that capacity.
Bucannon’s best chance at an impact play came when he sprinted through a blitzing lane and had a free shot at a Texans running back in the backfield, but he squandered that opportunity by whiffing the tackle.
He frequently lined up in the box and around the line of scrimmage in Saturday’s contest, but that often made him a nonfactor in passing plays while he was driven away from a number of running plays by Texans tight ends.
It’s great to see the level of effort Bucannon plays with, but he needs to make more of his playing time in order to steal the starting strong safety job away from Tony Jefferson. Additionally, he needs to show more of what he is capable of in coverage.
28. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
Kelvin Benjamin only made one catch in his first preseason game, but that was all it took for the Carolina Panthers wide receiver to make his mark against the Buffalo Bills on Friday.
On the first play of the second quarter, the 6’5”, 240-pound wideout beat Stephon Gilmore, the Bills’ No. 1 cornerback, deep up the left sideline. He stumbled as he reached the goal line, but that didn’t stop him from making a diving catch in the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown.
Plays like that are exactly what the Panthers must have been expecting to get from Benjamin when they selected him with the No. 28 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Best known for catching the game-winning touchdown pass in Florida State’s BCS National Championship Game victory at the end of last college football season, Benjamin still has to prove that he can be a consistent route-runner and more than just a big-play mismatch. Still, his first catch was laudable all on its own.
29. Dominique Easley, DT, New England Patriots
Working his way back from a torn ACL he suffered at Florida last September, No. 29 overall pick Dominique Easley did not suit up for the New England Patriots in their preseason opener against the Washington Redskins on Thursday.
Easley is an explosive interior penetrator who could be a big difference-maker on the Patriots' defensive front once healthy, but it’s unlikely he’ll see much significant playing time before the regular season begins. He just participated in his first practice of training camp on Monday, according to NESN’s Doug Kyed.
30. Jimmie Ward, CB/S, San Francisco 49ers
Jimmie Ward saw time at both slot cornerback and safety, and made a couple of plays for his highlight reel in the San Francisco 49ers’ preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday.
Ward’s most significant moments in coverage in this game both came against veteran Ravens wideout Jacoby Jones while Ward was working in the slot.
Early in the game, Ward got beaten by Jones for a 12-yard catch on a slant over the middle. The No. 30 overall pick from Northern Illinois bounced back in the second quarter, when he went up against Jones on a go route, established tight coverage and broke up a Tyrod Taylor pass intended for Jones.
Ward also made a big play against the run. When he went unblocked on a corner blitz off the edge, he showed his impressive acceleration as he closed quickly on Ravens running back Bernard Pierce and buried him in the backfield for a four-yard loss.
The rookie defensive back will have to further prove his mettle in coverage over the course of the preseason, but he got off to a solid start against Baltimore.
31. Bradley Roby, CB, Denver Broncos
A 41-snap night against the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday was enough to both highlight the strengths and expose the weaknesses of Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby in his preseason debut.
First, the good: He was active in run support as he led the Broncos with four tackles. When he lined up in press coverage against opposing receivers, he was effective. And the rookie showed his ability to make big hits, including one perfect hit where he put his helmet right on the ball to force a fumble from Seahawks running back Christine Michael.
But while Roby looked good playing press, he struggled mightily in off-man coverage. Lined up against fellow rookie Paul Richardson for part of his time in the game, he consistently gave the Seahawks wide receiver too much cushion and allowed the second-round pick to make four receptions for 37 yards.
Also, while Roby can certainly lay the wood as a hitter, he is an inconsistent tackler who too often employs shoddy technique. That led to a missed tackle on the first of Richardson’s catches in this game.
As was the case throughout his career at Ohio State, especially in 2013, Roby put his playmaking ability on display but also gave up too many plays. The No. 31 overall pick is going to have to improve in off coverage and become a more sure tackler before the Broncos can fully trust him to take a place in their lineup.
32. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Bridgewater was viewed throughout the summer as the most likely Week 1 starter in this year’s rookie quarterback class, but that might no longer be the case after the Minnesota Vikings’ first preseason game.
Bridgewater wasn’t very sharp against the Oakland Raiders on Friday, especially when he was under pressure. He held onto the ball too long on a number of occasions, leading to two plays that were ruled as sacks, one of which was a strip sack. When he made throws against the rush, his accuracy suffered.
The No. 32 overall pick from Louisville showed his athleticism when evading the rush on a number of occasions, but even that hurt him on the other play ruled as a sack, when he got forced out of bounds four yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Bridgewater forced a number of throws and completed just six of his 13 passing attempts Friday. None of those completions were caught more than nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and he finished with just 49 passing yards total. (He completed an impressive 21-yard pass on the run to Greg Jennings, but that play was nullified by an illegal-formation penalty.)
The signal-caller’s debut certainly could have been worse—he didn’t have any particularly terrible throws or decisions—but he needs to be making quicker reads and better downfield tosses than he did Friday. In order to beat out Matt Cassel, who went 5-of-6 for 62 yards against the Raiders, Bridgewater must raise his game significantly the rest of the preseason.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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