Report Card Grades for NFL's Most Notable Rookie Debuts

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2018

Report Card Grades for NFL's Most Notable Rookie Debuts

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Several rookies started Sunday what they hope to become successful NFL careers. Sometimes, such journeys start with a shining performance. For others, there are rough first days filled with mistakes and hard lessons.

    Front offices spend countless hours vetting Day 1 draft picks, players expected to make immediate impacts. After watching these high-profile rookies during the preseason against backups with basic game plans, we itch to see them perform when the games count.

    Without overreacting to Week 1, let's take a look at the notable debuts by first-rounders. For cases such as that of Baker Mayfield, who didn't see action, there's a separate category for omissions.

    Three of the five quarterbacks picked within the top 32 played during the opening week. Aside from the signal-callers, let's check out grades for the top 10 draft picks and notable performances from the biggest names among the first-rounders.


Notable Omissions

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

    Mayfield experienced a tie in his first regular-season game on the sideline. Nonetheless, his club showed heart in erasing a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Browns remain competitive and start winning, the No. 1 overall pick will continue to serve as a backup to Tyrod Taylor. 


    QB Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals

    Rosen didn't see action as the backup to Sam Bradford in a 24-6 loss to the Washington Redskins. The veteran signal-caller didn't look sharp, completing 20 of 34 passes for 153 yards and an interception. Nonetheless, the coaching staff kept its rookie signal-caller sidelined.


    RB Sony Michel, New England Patriots 

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Michel was listed as questionable because of a knee injury for Sunday's matchup against the Houston Texans. He underwent a knee procedure during the offseason. The coaching staff kept him inactive against Houston. He'll join Rex Burkhead and James White in a backfield committee when healthy.

QB Sam Darnold, New York Jets

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    Al Pereira/Getty Images

    As the youngest quarterback to start in the NFL, many expected quarterback Sam Darnold to struggle in his first start on the road against the Detroit Lions. When safety Quandre Diggs picked off his first pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown—the play sequence almost confirmed the 21-year-old would experience a rough start.

    However, the USC product bounced back and completed 16-of-21 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns after the interception in a 48-17 blowout victory.

    Darnold picked his spots, delivered accurate throws and used his mobility to escape pressure when necessary. As the case in the preseason, he didn't look flustered or overwhelmed in the pocket. A dominant team effort allowed him to play loose as opposed to tightening up with the game still on the line early in the third quarter. 

    The Jets scored on a 78-yard punt return and forced five turnovers, which likely eased the pressure on Darnold midway through the third quarter. Nonetheless, the errant pass to open the game goes down as his only significant miscue in a strong debut.

    Grade: A-

QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills benched quarterback Nathan Peterman in favor of Josh Allen while trailing the Baltimore Ravens 40-0 early in the third quarter. It was a tough spot for Allen, who played behind a makeshift offensive line and with limited playmakers on the perimeter.

    He completed six of his 15 passes with the defense sitting back and took three sacks. The Wyoming product had to resort to scrambling on multiple occasions.

    Nonetheless, Allen looked better than Peterman. He completed 14-yard passes to Andre Holmes and Zay Jones. And defenses will have to account for Allen's rushing ability if he's the starter going forward.

    Allen may have done enough to unseat Peterman. He showed the ability to escape pressure, which gives wide receivers time to get open.

    Grade: D

QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    The two-quarterback offensive package became an early storyline at Ravens practices, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg didn't hesitate to use Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson on the field at the same time Sunday.

    On the game's first drive, Bills defensive end Trent Murphy jumped offside. On the following play, Jackson stood behind center in shotgun formation, and Flacco lined up at wide receiver. The rookie attempted to squeeze through the middle on a quarterback keeper but didn't gain a yard. Later in the quarter, Jackson tossed an incomplete pass to wideout Willie Snead.

    The Ravens demolished the Bills 47-3, and Jackson took over for Flacco in the third quarter. He completed one of four passes and gained 39 yards on seven carries.

    Jackson flashed his ability as a ball-carrier, but it's clear he still has a long way to go as a passer.

    Grade: D-

RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

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    Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars stifled Saquon Barkley through three quarters. The running back ran for no gain or lost yardage on five of his 18 rushing attempts.

    In the fourth quarter, linebacker Myles Jack intercepted a pass intended for Barkley and returned it for a touchdown. Two plays later, the Penn State product answered with a 68-yard run for a score but failed to convert on the two-point conversion.

    The Jaguars defense deserves credit for keeping Barkley's early gains to a minimum, but his ability to break loose on any given play allowed him to make up for a sluggish start. He finished with 128 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.

    The Giants offensive line still needs time to jell, but Barkley's elusiveness and quickness can cover up some mistakes.

    Grade: B

WR Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Calvin Ridley played 64.3 percent of the Atlanta Falcons' offensive snaps, per Pro Football Reference, but didn't see much action. Quarterback Matt Ryan targeted the wideout twice in the first half of their Thursday Night Football matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles; both passes were incomplete.

    On the Falcons' opening drive, Ryan attempted a short pass to Ridley, but cornerback Jalen Mills and linebacker Jordan Hicks closed the window quickly, knocking the ball away. On the second attempt, safety Rodney McLeod nearly intercepted the pass.

    Ryan didn't have a good start to the season, completing 21 of his 43 passes for 251 yards with an interception. As a result, Ridley's performance took a hit despite his involvement in the game plan. Nonetheless, it's encouraging he took the field for two-thirds of the team's offensive plays. The Alabama product ran precise routes, but his quarterback failed to deliver.

    Ridley should have opportunities to bounce back against the visiting Carolina Panthers in Week 2.

    Grade: D-

OG Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    The Indianapolis Colts selected the first offensive lineman in April's draft. With quarterback Andrew Luck returning from a shoulder injury, the front office made an effort to further strengthen pass protection on the interior.

    The Cincinnati Bengals sacked Luck twice in Week 1. Early in the third quarter, Nelson helped on a double-team against Geno Atkins but let up to reach for Carl Lawson, who ran free toward the quarterback, and the two-time All-Pro defensive tackle recorded the sack.

    On that particular play, Nelson found himself in a tough spot with two viable pass-rushers both bearing down on Luck, which isn't completely on the rookie's shoulders.

    Despite allowing a bit of pressure and drawing an early flag for holding, he avoided a nightmarish debut with Atkins and Andrew Billings attacking the interior gaps. The Colts still need to find a way to jump-start their ground attack, which averaged 3.4 yards per carry, behind the 6'5", 330-pounder. 

    Grade: B-

OT Mike McGlinchey, San Francisco 49ers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey dealt with a curveball in his first game against the Minnesota Vikings. Right guards Mike Person and Joshua Garnett suffered foot injuries, which prompted the rookie's shift inside.

    McGlinchey never lined up at right guard, but he didn't hesitate to fill a void for his team when head coach Kyle Shanahan approached him, per San Francisco Chronicle reporter Eric Branch. "He [Shanahan] said ‘McGlinch, you want to play right guard?’” “And I said ‘Uh, sure.’ And I did it. ... It was a little shock to hear that news, but that’s what our team needed today."

    The Notre Dame product deserves credit for taking on a new position, but he struggled a bit with the Vikings attacking an injury-riddled interior. As a result, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took some hits. McGlinchey also said he could've done a little better. "I think I should have done it a little bit better than I did it, but that’s how it shakes out sometimes." 

    The 49ers need a guy like McGlinchey who's flexible when necessary. He also played well at his natural position, right tackle, albeit for a short period.

    Grade: C+

EDGE Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    On the Denver Broncos' first defensive drive against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, edge-rusher Bradley Chubb split a sack with safety Darian Stewart. He finished with a solo tackle and three total tackles. Von Miller stole the spotlight with three sacks, and the North Carolina State product acknowledged the day belonged to the three-time All-Pro, per Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic:

    "When he got the first one, I was like, 'OK, he's something special,'" Chubb said. "When he got the second one, I was like, 'OK, he needs to slow down. I need to get one.' And when he got the third one, I was like, 'This is his game, and nobody can take that from him.'"

    With Miller off to a quick start, Chubb could benefit if he's able to win more one-on-one matchups. It's a good sign he found a way to reach the quarterback on his first snap. After the first quarter, the rookie didn't make a lot of noise near the pocket or against the run, but the early half-sack showed he could live up to his status as a top-five pick.

    If the coaching staff helps Chubb hone his pass-rushing skills, the Broncos could have one of the best edge-rushing duos in the league.

    Grade: C

ILB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Chicago Bears coaching staff put a snap count on inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who joined the team the team midway through August because of a lengthy contract holdout and suffered a hamstring injury during practices. He didn't suit up for the preseason.

    Fellow inside linebacker Danny Trevathan went down with a back injury late in the second quarter. On the following play, Smith sacked Green Bay Packers quarterback DeShone Kizer, who was temporarily filling in for Aaron Rodgers. The Georgia product logged three tackles on just eight snaps, per Pro Football Reference.

    That was a small sample size for Smith in the Bears' 24-23 loss, but he flashed even in limited duty. Chicago will have a strong linebacker corps once the rookie plays a full game alongside Trevathan, Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd.

    Grade: B+

MLB Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    If you look past the 47-3 score between the Ravens and Bills, you'll notice Tremaine Edmunds put together an all-around outing. He recorded seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two pass breakups.

    He's a linebacker with run-stopping abilities and awareness who put forth an encouraging individual performance within a defense that must play well to give the club a shot at winning games.

    The Bills will need Edmunds' pass-rushing ability to supplement their pocket pressure from up front. He seemed to mesh with Matt Milano, who recovered the forced fumble, which is a positive for the run defense.

    If Buffalo can find a way to generate points, the defense could hold steady as a strong unit. Of course, it didn't work out that way against Baltimore, but Edmunds certainly stood out as a three-down playmaker.

    Grade: A

CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns

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    CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 09:  Denzel Ward #21 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates with Kevin Zeitler #70 after intercepting a pass during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (P
    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Based on their first game, the Cleveland Browns made the right choice with their No. 4 overall selection in April. Cornerback Denzel Ward intercepted two passes in the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers—one in the red zone. He added three pass breakups for a strong debut in front of the home crowd at FirstEnergy Stadium.

    Ward suffered a minor hip injury during the offseason and experienced back spasms after a play Sunday, which drew harsh criticism from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, per Mary Kay Cabot of

    "I was glad to hear [it wasn't serious]," Williams said, "and maybe he'll finally listen to me and stop doing those stupid things the way he's trying to tackle and tackle the way I tell him to tackle and he won't get hurt."

    Ward's tackling looked solid Sunday, as he racked up two solo tackles and six total. In the early going, the Browns seem to have a playmaker on the boundary.

    Grade: A

CB Mike Hughes, Minnesota Vikings

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings selected cornerback Mike Hughes with the 30th pick in April's draft. It didn't seem like a good idea for a team set to field a secondary already stacked with talent and that had needs across the offensive line. After cornerback Trae Waynes exited Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers with a knee injury, however, the Central Florida product made an impact in a 24-16 victory.

    Hughes intercepted a pass intended for Kendrick Bourne and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown. He also broke up three passes while playing 78.8 percent of the team's defensive snaps, per PFR.

    Hughes picked off four passes as a junior at UCF. Minnesota could capitalize on his ability to force turnovers, especially if Waynes misses significant time. Hughes' performance against San Francisco certainly lessened the blow of potentially losing a starter.

    Grade: A

S Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes carved up the Los Angeles Chargers secondary, throwing four touchdown passes against last year's third-ranked unit in yards and touchdowns allowed. Safety Derwin James, however, corralled the second-year signal-caller for a sack and broke up two passes in the 38-28 loss.

    Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley could utilize James' abilities to cover and play downhill to harden soft spots in the front seven. In Week 1, the Florida State product impacted multiple levels of the Chargers defense.

    Los Angeles can't expect to win when it surrenders chunk plays through the air and 38 points. James' coverage ability can address those issues. He put enough on film against Kansas City to suggest he can be deployed like a chess piece at Buffalo in Week 2.

    Grade: B