NFL Rookies Who Have Hit the Ground Running in 2021 PreseasonAugust 20, 2021
NFL Rookies Who Have Hit the Ground Running in 2021 Preseason
In the first full week of NFL preseason games, several rookies made strong impressions.
Last offseason, first-year players didn't have a chance to showcase themselves in exhibition games because of COVID-19 restrictions. This summer, rookies took advantage of an early taste of in-game action.
After a look at the film, coaches may have to rethink their depth charts. Of course, teams will take all three preseason contests into account, but some players have already made their case for bigger roles going forward.
We'll highlight eight rookies who stood out most in the preseason with not just good, but eye-opening performances.
QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
Justin Fields had one of the most anticipated preseason debuts in the league, and he didn't disappoint the people in attendance at Soldier Field.
Initially, the Chicago Bears offense stalled with Fields under center, going three-and-out in each of his first three series. The rookie quarterback crawled toward a loose ball to cover up his own fumble on the team's fifth drive.
Before halftime, the Bears' short passing attack started to click, and Fields led his squad into Miami Dolphins' territory for a field goal.
In the second half, he became a showtime performer, engineering two scoring drives that concluded with an eight-yard run and a wide-open 30-yard pass to tight end Jesse James.
Chicago won the game 20-13, and Bears fans saw exactly what they needed to feel confident about the long-term outlook of their quarterback situation. Despite his slow start, Fields didn't seem rattled at any point. In fact, he said the pace of the game "was actually kind of slow" and credited his defense for keeping him up to speed at practices.
After the game, head coach Matt Nagy held firm on his quarterback plan and continued to call Andy Dalton the starter. With that said, Fields turned up the heat on his veteran counterpart.
OT Dan Moore Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers
Typically, we don't hear a lot about offensive linemen during the preseason, and that's a good sign because it means they haven't committed unnecessary penalties or allowed bone-crushing sacks.
Nevertheless, Dan Moore Jr. deserves praise for his play at left tackle. Head coach Mike Tomlin spoke highly of the rookie fourth-rounder and wants to put a little more on his plate.
"He doesn't perform like a young guy," Tomlin said. "He's in that SEC West, played left tackle and logged a bunch of starts. That experience is showing. We are going to challenge him this week and let him play on the right side some."
According to Pro Football Focus, Moore is one of three rookie offensive tackles who played at least 10 pass-blocking snaps with zero pressures allowed so far this preseason. He's suited up for two games, which makes his start most impressive among the trio.
On their unofficial depth chart, the Pittsburgh Steelers listed Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner as the starting left and right tackles, respectively. If Moore handles his assignments on the right side, he could move into a starting role for the regular season.
Remember, Okorafor started 15 games on the right side last year. He'll attempt to make a transition because of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva's departure to the Baltimore Ravens. In four years, Banner has only started in two contests.
Pittsburgh should keep an open mind about its first-string tackles with Okorafor and Banner unproven in their current spots on the offensive line.
Edge Joseph Ossai, Cincinnati Bengals
How many rookies can say they sacked seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady in their preseason debut? Joseph Ossai can raise his hand confidently after his standout performance last week.
Coming off the edge, Ossai crashed inside, beat 2020 first-rounder Tristan Wirfs and took down Brady for an eight-yard loss to force a punt.
Ossai continued to wreak havoc throughout the game. According to Pro Football Focus, he led all rookies with seven pressures last week, though his night ended on a bit of a sour note with a wrist injury.
On the bright side, the Bengals expect Ossai to suit up for Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, per Geoff Hobson of the team's official website.
"Ossai was immense on the edge before he hurt this wrist colliding with fellow rusher [Darius] Hodge at the quarterback on his 22nd and last play," Hobson wrote. "No bones shattered and the initial sense is he's going to be OK and he'll be back in time for the opener, given the condensed preseason."
This offseason, the Bengals signed defensive end Trey Hendrickson to pair with Sam Hubbard on the edge. Despite his injury, Ossai showed enough in one matchup to play significant snaps as the third pass-rusher for a defense that recorded the fewest sacks (17) in 2020.
LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland Browns
Spectators who tuned into the Cleveland Browns' matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars probably saw Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah all over the field.
Owusu-Koramoah led the Browns in tackles with eight (seven solo), and three resulted in a loss of yardage. He also tacked on a sack.
Skeptics wondered how Owusu-Koramoah would translate at linebacker with a 6'1", 221-pound frame. Well, he answered some concerns in his debut. The Notre Dame product shed blocks, slipped through the cracks in the Jaguars' offensive line for stops behind the line of scrimmage and made open-field tackles.
Owusu-Koramoah missed several practices while on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but he looked prepared for the opportunity to play behind linebacker Malcolm Smith, who came in after Mack Wilson went down with a shoulder injury.
As a backup on the depth chart, a rookie must make the most of his time on the field. Owusu-Koramoah may have played his way into more snaps as he competes with Wilson and Smith for playing time at the weak-side linebacker position.
RB Trey Ragas, Las Vegas Raiders
While we place high expectations on early-round draft picks, undrafted players just want a fair shot at a roster spot. Following Trey Ragas' first exhibition outing, he has a legitimate chance to beat Jalen Richard, who's out because of a foot injury, for the third-string running back position.
Ragas recorded 82 yards and a touchdown from scrimmage against the Seattle Seahawks. He gained tough yardage between the tackles and showcased his pass-catching skills with three receptions. On top of that, head coach Jon Gruden made note of the Louisiana product's blocking in the backfield.
"If you watch Ragas, he's three-for-three in [blitz] pickups," Gruden said.
Gruden's praise for Ragas' pass-blocking is a major plus for the rookie in his competition with Richard. The latter has been the Raiders' most reliable pass protector among the tailbacks in recent years. If the coaching staff can find that skill set in a cheaper and healthier player, the sixth-year veteran may be expendable at the end of this month.
Last week, Ragas averaged 4.8 yards per carry, with his longest run going nine yards, so his production isn't skewed because of one big play. He showed vision, ran with urgency and did the little things in pass protection to earn some recognition as a potential undrafted keeper.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots
While quarterback Mac Jones has generated some buzz in two preseason games, Rhamondre Stevenson has been the New England Patriots' standout rookie performer with 193 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
In the fourth quarter of the first exhibition contest, Stevenson pounded a one-yarder past the goal line and broke free for a 91-yard touchdown run to cap his outstanding debut. According to Pro Football Focus, he accumulated 92 yards after contact, which led all running backs in Week 1 of the preseason.
Stevenson followed up with 66 yards and a pair of rushing scores against the Philadelphia Eagles Thursday. He only has one blemish, a fumble late in the previous outing.
Earlier in the offseason, New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears compared Stevenson to one of his former players.
"[You] know who he reminds me of is LeGarrette Blount," Fears said to reporters. "That kind of body. That kind of athletic ability. He's probably a better pass receiver than even LeGarrette was. This kid has got pretty good hands. There are a lot of doors open here. We'll see what sticks to him."
At 6'0", 231 pounds, Stevenson turned on his second gear in the open field against Washington, which gives the Patriots' coaching staff something else to think about going forward.
New England has a deep running back stable that also includes Damien Harris, Sony Michel and J.J. Taylor, who all logged a carry in the first exhibition game. Stevenson projects as a short-yardage back, so if he continues to show some agility and catch a few passes, the Patriots may insert him into their backfield rotation for the regular season.
CB Pat Surtain II, Denver Broncos
We could see a newer version of the No Fly Zone in Denver.
In addition to Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons, versatile defensive back Kareem Jackson and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, the Broncos signed All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby this offseason. Pat Surtain II could be the final piece to an elite secondary.
Surtain put together a lockdown performance against the Minnesota Vikings. While on the field for 11 coverage snaps, he didn't allow a single catch and returned an interception for a touchdown, per Pro Football Focus. The Alabama product also broke up two passes.
Vikings quarterback Jake Browning didn't throw a pinpoint pass, but he thought Surtain would've made a play on a well-placed ball anyway.
"We'll see the film, but I think even if I threw a perfect ball, I think he still makes the play on it just because he was squatting so hard," Browning said to reporters.
As one of the most technically sound cornerbacks in the 2021 draft class in terms of field awareness and positioning, Surtain has the natural instincts to excel whether he plays on the perimeter or in the slot. Head coach Vic Fangio can experiment with the rookie cover man in base, nickel and dime coverages.
Edge Rashad Weaver, Tennessee Titans
This offseason, the Tennessee Titans made a concerted effort to address the pass rush, and rightfully so. Their defense recorded the third-fewest sacks (19) last season.
The Titans signed outside linebacker Bud Dupree and defensive lineman Denico Autry this offseason, but Rashad Weaver made waves in the team's first exhibition matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
Weaver logged three tackles, two for loss and 1.5 sacks. Going beyond the stat sheet, you'll notice, he made a bigger impact. Per Pro Football Focus, the Pitt product leads all rookies in pass-rush win rate at 26 percent for the preseason.
With a constant presence around the pocket, Weaver has generated some buzz among his teammates.
"Those guys are always messing with me, so they're hyping me up and stuff," Weaver said. "And I am just like, 'Chill, I've got to stay level-headed."
Clearly, Weaver made his presence felt last week. The Titans invested big money (five years, $82.5 million) in Dupree, though they could see their rookie fourth-rounder make notable contributions off the edge as well.
Preseason statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.