Notable NFL Rookie Grades After Week 1 Debuts

Brent SobleskiSeptember 12, 2022

Notable NFL Rookie Grades After Week 1 Debuts

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    AP Photo/Alex Brandon

    Welcome to the NFL, rookie. This is your moment.

    "I was saying that pretty much every play. Like wow, I'm in the NFL," Houston Texans cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. told reporters Sunday.

    The leap from the collegiate to professional levels can be an eye-opening experience.

    Certain high-profile draft picks contributed little to nothing in their first game. A few provided a major impact. Most fell somewhere in between, and we'll provide grades for some notable ones.

Edge Travon Walker, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

    Grade: A

    This year's No. 1 overall pick looked the part.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars raised eyebrows when they selected defensive lineman Travon Walker. Why? The Georgia defender never had an opportunity to play in a scheme that highlighted his elite physical traits as a pure edge-rusher. Instead, he mainly lined up at 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle) and relied heavily on a power game.

    His first taste of NFL action showed exactly why the Jaguars bet on his athletic profile. His predraft workout made the 6'5", 272-pound defender the third-most athletic defensive end prospect of the last 35 years, according to Pro Football Network's Kent Lee Platte.

    His power, athleticism, explosivity and flexibility all translated.

    Walker registered his first sack against a pretty good right tackle in the Washington Commanders' Samuel Cosmi. The 21-year-old fired off the ball, dipped his shoulder, turned the edge and closed on quarterback Carson Wentz. The more impressive play came later when the defensive lineman intercepted a pass.

    The rookie rushed the passer, identified an oncoming screen, redirected and plucked the ball out of the air with ease. He even gained 10 yards on his return.

    Walker needs to be a difference-maker to validate his status. So far, so good, even in a 28-22 loss.

    "It definitely had to be more than one sack and one pick. Obviously, we didn't win the game," Walker told reporters. "Therefore, a player like me that they drafted No. 1 is supposed to make plays like that. So, I need to continue making plays like that."

LT Ikem Ekwonu, Carolina Panthers

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    AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman

    Grade: D

    To be fair, Carolina Panthers rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu faced an impossible task the first time he officially took an NFL field.

    When this year's sixth overall pick strode to the line of scrimmage, he looked across to the other side of the ball and saw arguably the best defensive player in football aligned over him.

    Unsurprisingly, Myles Garrett beat Ekwonu clean a few times, including on back-to-back sacks.

    The thing about being an offensive lineman is those two sacks will define how Ekwonu performed overall. Obviously, they're not good plays and led to his quarterback getting hit. But there were stalemates and good reps along the way, too.

    What Ekwonu must take away from his effort is an improvement in the depth of his initial kick step and aiming points in his pass set. Even at North Carolina State, he had some technique concerns with his pass blocking. The unanimous All-American built his reputation as an imposing physical blocker who could uproot and demolish defenders in the run game.

    The rookie's overall movement skills are excellent. Consistent repeatable technique is the key to going from a raw first-round talent to a dominant left tackle. Obviously, Ekwonu isn't there yet, and the Browns exploited the game's biggest mismatch during the team's 26-24 victory.

    For the first-year blocker, this Week 1 contest serves as a learning experience. Ekwonu now knows what it's like to face an elite professional pass-rusher. Not everyone is Myles Garrett, though.

    The next three games against the New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals should provide Ekwonu somewhat of a letup, and Carolina's left tackle could show significant growth after a sluggish start.

WR Drake London, Atlanta Falcons

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Grade: B

    Certain narratives follow prospects, even if they're not entirely true.

    For Drake London, he fell victim to the dreaded "he can't separate," because he's a bigger wide receiver with a basketball background and couldn't run the 40-yard dash prior to April's NFL draft because of a fractured right ankle he suffered during his final season on campus.

    This year's eighth overall pick suffered a leg injury in the Atlanta Falcons' first preseason game, and his status for meeting with the rival New Orleans Saints remained up in the air until Sunday morning. The 6'4", 213-pound target was active and led the Falcons with five receptions for 74 yards.

    Clearly, London didn't have too much trouble getting open, even against a talented Saints secondary.

    "I thought he had a great game," quarterback Marcus Mariota told reporters after the 27-26 loss. "For us, it's no surprise. We've seen that throughout camp, we've seen that in OTAs, so I think it's a great stepping stone, but that's expectation. That's the standard we're going to hold him to."

    It's a lofty standard. Mariota is saying that London is the Falcons' WR1, and he should be after hearing his name called among this year's top 10 selections.

    London looked good in his debut, but tight end Kyle Pitts must catch more than two balls in Atlanta's next game. The rookie also knows he can be better after the loss.

    "A lot of things to learn from," London said. "For me personally, us as a unit, us as a team. So just going back and watching film, trying to perfect my craft and perfect our craft as well so that doesn't happen again."

WR Jahan Dotson, Washington Commanders

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    AP Photo/Nick Wass

    Grade: A+

    Jahan Dotson's first game went about as perfectly as any rookie could hope.

    Most importantly, the Washington Commanders left Week 1 with a 28-22 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the game, Dotson's first career catch resulted in a touchdown. His second scoring snag turned into the game-winning score. Ultimately, Dotson finished the contest with three receptions for 40 yards.

    "I can make plays for this team, and that's what I was able to do," he told reporters after the game.

    On Dotson's first touchdown reception, he showed a nice stutter-step release to beat the jam and get a clean inside release for an open look in the end zone. Two quarters later, he sold the outside route well before turning it upfield and getting behind defensive back Tyson Campbell.

    In both instances, the 5'11", 184-pound target displayed soft hands, tracked the ball well and used his body to shield defenders.

    "That's what we saw (during the draft process)," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That's why we did what we did."

    Washington chose Dotson with the 16th overall pick. Four receivers heard their names called before the Commanders' new target. None of those four grabbed two touchdowns during Week 1 action.

OT Tyler Smith, Dallas Cowboys

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    AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth

    Grade: B

    The Dallas Cowboys drafted Tulsa offensive lineman Tyler Smith with this year's 24th overall pick knowing full well that the 6'6", 332-pound blocker was a work in progress.

    Smith had all of the requisite physical tools to excel at the professional level. However, he really struggled with his technique and often found himself on the wrong end of an official's flag. With Tyron Smith already on the roster, the Cowboys chose Tyler Smith with the intention of moving him to left guard as Connor Williams' replacement.

    The Cowboys didn't expect Tyron Smith to suffer an avulsion fracture of his knee during a preseason practice, thus requiring another trip to injured reserve. He won't be back until December at the earliest, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    Without the elder Smith in the lineup, the 21-year-old moved back to left tackle and became the first rookie in Cowboys history to open the season as a starter at the position, according to Clarence Hill Jr.

    The first-rounder fared well against a talented and aggressive Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. For the most part, Tyler Smith more than held his own. He played with an expected level of aggressiveness and physicality in the run game. His pass sets held up relatively well, too. Shaquil Barrett managed a couple of hurries, and Smith made a couple of mental mistakes regarding which direction he slid in protection.

    Otherwise, Dallas couldn't ask for much more considering the circumstances, especially since Connor McGovern departed with injury and the Cowboys had very little experience on the left side.

    "He played his ass off," quarterback Dak Prescott said of his new blindside protector, per Patrik Walker of the team's official site.

    Shortly, Smith will move back to left guard once Jason Peters is in shape to play again. The 40-year-old should be an excellent mentor to the rookie as Smith continues to learn and grow. Eventually, a move back to left tackle may be in the cards after seeing what he could do when handling a tumultuous situation.

WR Christian Watson, Green Bay Packers

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    David Berding/Getty Images

    Grade: D

    The start of Christian Watson's career will forever be remembered for the one pass he dropped, not the two catches he made.

    The Green Bay Packers decided to let it rip on their very first offensive play of the season. Watson dusted veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson with nothing but green grass (or turf) in front of him. Aaron Rodgers dropped the pass into the bucket, of course. Instead of a surefire 75-yard touchdown, the ball caromed off the second-round receiver's hands and fell harmlessly to the ground.

    "I just wanted to showcase his speed, and he certainly ran pretty fast on that play," head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters when asked why they went to the rookie on the team's first snap. "We've just got to finish the play."

    Rodgers added: "We talked about it during the week, 'Do you really want to start off with a bomb shot?' I said, 'What the hell. Yeah, why not. This kid can really fly.'"

    Watson is a 6'5" target with blazing 4.31-second 40-yard-dash speed. He can be a weapon if utilized properly. In this particular case, the Packers made the right call. The rookie must deliver.

    "I just know it's a play I'm going to make 99 times out of 100," he said. "I would have said 100 out of 100 if it wasn't for today. It's a play I know I can make. Going forward, I'm going to make that play every single time."

    While the mistake cost the Packers their best first-half scoring opportunity, Watson can't fall out of the game plan. His size and speed are assets. LaFleur and Rodgers might be disappointed with the result of one play yet still realize what this year's 34th overall pick brings to the offense.

    The development of Watson and Romeo Doubs will be the only way Green Bay's offense gets and stays on track. Running back AJ Dillon can't lead the team in receptions every week.

S Jaquan Brisker, Chicago Bears

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    AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski

    Grade: B+

    For one week, the Chicago Bears' approach to the offseason has been validated.

    The Bears took advantage of a wet and wild contest against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field. While quarterback Justin Fields and the rest of the offense did just enough to win, the Bears defense came to play in the 19-10 victory.

    Three rookies in particular showed out.

    Jaquan Brisker is the headliner because the safety flies all over the field and looks to be the perfect complement to Eddie Jackson. The safety duo created two turnovers with Brisker recovering a fumble and Jackson snagging an interception.

    After questions had been raised all offseason about not doing more with the offense, the new defensive pieces made impact plays. Brisker is a capable defender who can line up in the box or play single-high safety. He sets the tone with his physicality and presence, though he must cut down on missed tackles.

    "I felt like I was getting stronger," Brisker told reporters of his first professional performance. "But I could have been way more cleaner, especially on my tackles. I could have been way more cleaner. I read the plays, I just have to make sure I wrap up and pull them down. I can get that cleaned up."

    Cornerback Kyler Gordon gave up a deep pass to Jauan Jennings, but this year's 39th overall draft pick made multiple plays along the way. Dominique Robinson, who the Bears chose in the fifth round, finished second on the team with seven total tackles and registered 1.5 sacks.

    Clearly, the Bears didn't place enough talent around Justin Fields. But what happened in the offseason doesn't matter at the moment. The Bears won their season opener and have three exciting defensive rookies, with Brisker leading the way.

WR Kyle Philips, Tennessee Titans

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    AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

    Grade: C+

    A rookie led the Tennessee Titans in receptions and receiving yards during the team's season-opening loss to the New York Giants. The franchise's first-round pick didn't do so, though.

    Treylon Burks did just fine in his first action. The 18th overall pick caught three passes for 55 yards.

    But this year's 163rd overall pick, Kyle Philips, produced key grabs and made a few mistakes during one of the league's most surprising debuts. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill targeted Philips a team-high nine times, and the rookie tallied six receptions for 66 yards.

    "He's shown that he can win consistently in practice. That translates over to the game," Tannehill told reporters.

    Three of those catches came during the Titans' last offensive series. The rookie's 21-yard catch with 23 seconds remaining placed Tennessee in a position to win the contest. Unfortunately, kicker Randy Bullock missed the field-goal attempt.

    Philips came into this year's draft class as arguably the best pure slot receiver among the group. His short-area quickness to create separation and create a reliable underneath target made him a valuable option. The Titans quickly recognized these traits, though the fifth-round draft pick wasn't thrilled with his performance.

    "I got a good amount of targets. I still didn't feel I was as reliable as I could have been today," Philips said. "I definitely felt I let [Tannehill] and the team down in a couple of areas."

    The biggest mistake came on a muffed punt.

    "The fumble was 100 percent my fault," he stated. "I got under it, had poor technique and wasn't able to come down with the ball."

    A mistake or two seems excusable for a fifth-rounder who led his team in receiving during his very first game. Philips' rapport with Tannehill should only grow as the season progresses.

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