As I did the last two weeks, I've graded the performance of one rookie from each contest played in Week 3 of the 2022 NFL preseason. Again, these evaluations are not predictions of how players will fare this upcoming season, nor are they long-term career projections. Each mark simply takes stock of how the rookie played in Week 3.
The second of the Packers' two first-round picks this year (the first was linebacker Quay Walker, who showed off his athleticism during preseason action) was not credited with a tackle on Thursday night, but he flashed the ability that made him a top prospect this spring. Wyatt played the one-, three- and five-technique spots against the Chiefs. There were multiple plays where he showed a nice upfield push and won the outside shoulder of the right guard to pressure the quarterback. He freed himself enough to nearly grab a running back before he could head off-tackle on one play. One reason the rookie did not have any tackles, however, was that he struggled to shed blocks at the point of attack. For example, he had a chance to stop a run at the line of scrimmage but had to settle for joining the fracas downfield. Wyatt did not have a plus performance, but the tools are there for him to make an impact during his rookie year.
Back in May, I wrote that Pierce had a strong chance to be Houston's starting back as a rookie. He's proven deserving of that role with his play this summer, including a strong effort in one series of action Thursday night against the 49ers. He had an impressive run on his third carry, stepping inside a nice block by left guard Justin McCray. Pierce hit traffic inside on the play but bounced away, accelerating into an open area for a nice gain. On multiple occasions, he not only showed how hard he can hit the hole but also the vision and quick-cut ability to slip inside an oncoming defender before grabbing additional yards. Pierce closed out the drive with a one-yard touchdown run, seeing a hole to his left and getting low to find paydirt. The Texans wisely had Pierce take the rest of the night off.
Bernard, a third-round pick, played inside and outside during the first half of the team's loss to Carolina on Friday night, fighting through linemen and tight ends in the run game despite giving up weight to those blockers. Bernard's splash play was an A-gap run blitz where he shot into the backfield quickly and wrapped up Panthers RB Chuba Hubbard for a loss. Hustle has never been an issue with Bernard. He moves well in coverage to handle running backs out of the backfield and follows the quarterback's eyes in zone. He lost Hubbard in the flat on the first play of the game (luckily for Bernard, the back couldn't bring in the pass) but brought down tight end Tommy Tremble on the next play to prevent a first down. The former Baylor Bear showed physicality throughout the night but his attempt to stop Tremble by popping him with a shoulder in the red zone was to no avail. Also, Bernard left his gap on a second quarter run that allowed Hubbard to gain seven yards. Still, it was a solid performance overall that showed he can line up at multiple spots if the team needs him to play a substantial role as a rookie.
Blount was an All-ACC safety at Virginia but went undrafted in April. Against Dallas on Friday night, he showed the football IQ and physicality needed to stick on the Seahawks' roster. He started and played into the third quarter, lining up mostly in a two-deep look but also aligning over the slot. Blount came downhill regularly, whether jumping a screen pass that fell incomplete, securing a tackle on the sideline, or hitting receiver Simi Fehoko on a fourth-down slant route. He lost his footing on a couple of occasions, however, allowing ball-carriers to rack up yards after the catch. Blount worked hard against the Cowboys' gunner on punt returns, though he was beaten once inside. Cleaning up his balance when attacking plays will make him a strong backup, at minimum, at the next level.
Unfortunately, Penning suffered a torn ligament in his foot during Friday’s game against the Chargers and will need surgery. This grade is based entirely on how he performed prior to the injury.
Penning started the game at left tackle, where the first-round pick is the heir apparent to Terron Armstead, who departed in free agency. The rookie stirred the pot from the first snap by finishing blocks, just as he did while at successful FCS program Northern Iowa. Penning stayed with his man downfield on run plays and made sure to remain engaged until the whistle blew on pass plays, as well. He's a solid pass protector because of his size, length and tenacity, but Penning did get crossed up on outside-in moves, once allowing pressure on Jameis Winston as the QB stepped up into the pocket.
Strange started at left guard in the Patriots' loss to the Raiders, playing well against their backup defensive linemen. Strong lived up to his name as a run blocker, coming off the ball, getting his hands onto his man, and staying engaged. He has the quick feet to reach second-level targets, though he whiffed on one such block attempt in the second quarter. The first-round pick always looked to help the center and left tackle in pass protection if uncovered, and he stood up to quickness when one-on-one, handling a spin move and taking a stunting tackle upfield to give quarterback Mac Jones space to run for a first down. Strange was inconsistent against larger tackles, including fellow rookie Neil Farrell, failing to move his man out of the hole and being shed at times. He got pushed backward toward Jones in the second quarter, unable to plant his feet and bend his back to anchor. New England will never have to worry about Strange’s effort, though, as he showed when finishing blocks and hustling to make a tackle after an interception.
Saturday marked the preseason debut for Lloyd, who has missed time due to a hamstring injury. His versatile skill set was on display in the first half of the team's loss to the Falcons. He lined up in the middle and outside, flashing the quickness to shoot gaps inside versus the run, as well as the speed to get outside on off-tackle plays. Lloyd was tested in coverage early, with tight end Anthony Firkser running a jerk route on a third-down pass; the rookie linebacker stuck with the play and dragged down the veteran, who just barely was able to pick up the first down. Lloyd's a physical player who usually fought through lineman blocks to get to the ball and make ball-carriers feel his impact. In zone coverage, he found targets while keeping one eye on the quarterback. At times his inexperience showed, looking a bit hesitant and late finding the ball. Lloyd also allowed big back Caleb Huntley to step through a tackle attempt in the red zone. He rebounded to grab Huntley on the next play, though, showing he'll be a strong player between the tackles for the Jaguars.
An undrafted rookie from Montana State, McCutcheon led the league in receiving yards this preseason. He posted five catches for 76 yards in the Rams' loss to the Bengals on Saturday night. McCutcheon lined up outside and in the slot, showing that he can shake-and-stride down the sideline and separate at the top of inside routes with violent hands. He won inside against a nickel defender in the second half, grabbing a dig route over the middle. He won the sideline later in the series, patiently tracking the ball over his shoulder for a big gain. On both those plays, however, McCutcheon failed to display the body control needed to continue running after the catch. McCutcheon presents a big target and was able to extend his hands away from his frame to grab wide throws, though a fastball went through his hands late in the game. He took a slant too vertical early in the game, allowing the corner a chance to break up the pass. McCutcheon has the size to block and looked willing at times, but his effort was uneven. He could become a valuable reserve receiver if he improves in the little things that separate practice-squad players from those dressing on Sundays.
The Ravens received a first-round pick in the trade of receiver Marquise Brown to Arizona on draft night, then traded down a couple of spots with that pick in the hopes of picking Linderbaum. He has not been a disappointment so far. Linderbaum showed his savviness inside on the team's second play from scrimmage by getting into his man after the snap, moving his feet into the correct blocking position while engaged and doing his best to push the big man to the ground. Linderbaum plays with an athletic stance in pass protection, keeping leverage against defensive tackles and resetting his hands when needed to hold his ground. He handled stunts and combo blocks adeptly and negated those second-level targets once off the line. Linderbaum lucked out by having a holding call declined (another lineman's holding call was accepted by Washington), as he controlled a linebacker downfield after grabbing the back of his shoulder pads.
The Eagles traded up for Davis in April's first round because of his rare combination of size and agility. The team knows what it's got in Davis coming off a great season with the national champion Georgia Bulldogs, but in terms of this grade, I am limiting my assessment to his limited work in two series against the Dolphins on Saturday. His first series was uneventful, but Miami washed Davis (and the rest of the front seven) out of the first play of the second series, allowing Raheem Mostert a big cutback lane for a 26-yard gain. The big man bounced back on the next play, however, shoving aside left guard Liam Eichenberg and wrapping up Myles Gaskin on a 3-yard run. On the play after that, Davis pushed Eichenberg into the backfield, helping the Eagles smother Tua Tagovailoa for a sack. Davis occupied three blockers on his final play from scrimmage, and that will be his role as a rookie: taking up space and blockers to free other members of the front seven to attack the ball-carrier. The power Davis showed pushing back field-goal blocking units makes me think the 6-6 defender will get his hand on a field-goal attempt at some point this season.
The former Washington Huskies player began the Bears' win over the Browns playing in the slot, looking strong against the run. He took on a tight end in the slot on a screen and then attacked a tackle's block on an outside run, still grabbing the back to hold him to a short gain. Gordon's best coverage play came in the second quarter, when he leaped in front of a third-down pass to knock it away, forcing a punt. The second-round pick has always had quick feet and very good change-of-direction ability, and though he was on his heels at times, Gordon is savvy using his hands to limit separation at the top of the route. He played quite a bit outside, as well, bringing physicality to smother receivers. In the Bears' two-minute soft-zone defense, the slot receiver caught passes in Gordon's area multiple times. He's a strong, willing tackler, though, so he'll excel in that role -- as well as in many others -- as a rookie.
Thomas, fellow third-round pick Myjai Sanders and undrafted rookie free agent Manny Jones logged a lot of time on the defensive line in the Cardinals' preseason matchup with the Titans. Thomas had two sacks of another first-year player, Malik Willis: the first hustling to the ball after beating a poor wham block by tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, and the second storming upfield and turning the corner from the five-technique spot. Most of the night, Thomas played from a stand-up position. He lacks pure bend and explosiveness as a rusher but has a nose for the ball when able to win the hands battle. After failing to seal the edge on a third-and-1 run on the game's first series, Thomas handled that duty the rest of the game. He was planted on a second-quarter run by the right tackle after whiffing on the stop but came back strong on the next play, getting leverage and freeing himself from his man to make the tackle. Thomas' versatility as a hand-down and stand-up defender will earn him reps this season, but he'll have to get off blocks more consistently to become a playmaker.
I projected the Colts to select Raimann in the second round last April, so I thought he was good value when picked in the third. He lined up at left tackle in the second quarter of the Colts' win over the Buccaneers, holding down the blindside for the rest of the contest. He was generally solid in pass protection, using his light feet and upper-body strength to stone edge rushers and prevent twisting tackles from making progress outside. Raimann was effective on zone runs, using his athleticism and size to wash his man down the line of scrimmage; he also got the job done on short-yardage runs, churning his legs and extending his arms upward to maintain leverage. The former Central Michigan star hit linebackers in the run game and finished to the ground on two occasions, but he whiffed on one third-quarter run block where his man made the tackle. He fell short in pass pro on a couple of plays, losing some ground on one bull rush, missing his punch on one play and giving up a third-down sack in the fourth quarter when failing to land his hands and cut off the corner. But overall, the rookie looked ready to step in during the year if needed.
Denver selected Bonitto in the second round out of Oklahoma to provide depth behind Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory. He played in a two-point stance early but typically stood up on the edge against the Vikings on Saturday night. While expected to provide pass-rush help, Bonitto made tackles against the run early on, hustling all the way across the field to bring down running back Ty Chandler in the open field and on the next play, shifting between the tackles to prevent a long Chandler run. He made two short-yardage stops later by winning the leverage game against tackles. Bonitto was ineffective as a pass rusher on most plays during the first three quarters but finally broke through late in the Vikings' final full series. He moved upfield quickly on second down, dipping under the shoulder of the left tackle and knocking the ball out of Kellen Mond's hand (though the quarterback fell on it). Bonitto made his way into the backfield again on third down, squeezing between two blockers inside and landing on Mond for a sack. Those flashes of quickness and strength when able to pin his ears back and get after the passer are exactly what the Broncos envisioned when selecting him.
The Jets have high hopes for their second-round pick, the first Iowa State player selected in the top 40 since 1990. Hall only had 13 yards on five carries, but he showed more potential than those numbers indicate, as he lost 4 yards from his total on two runs where he received no blocking. His line did a great job, though, on Hall's best run, an 11-yard effort where he waited for the right side to collapse before heading upfield, selling would-be tackler Cordale Flott on an outside move before cutting in to maximize his north-south yardage. On Hall's next carry, he only picked up 2 yards, but it was impressive, because a defender pushed a Jets lineman into the play, and Hall hit the traffic, then bounced outside for a gain that didn't look to be there initially. Hall also displayed short-yardage acumen by pushing a pile for a first down. The rookie did his job in pass protection, first by slowing up an edge rusher without holding, then cutting down an on-coming defender the next time around. A good all-around effort in limited snaps for Hall.
Pickens, a second-round pick in April, has looked like a draft bargain throughout the preseason, including during his three-catch, 35-yard effort in the first half against the Lions on Sunday. He lined up inside and outside, going in motion multiple times. Pickens matched up against 2020 first-round corner Jeff Okudah, battling with the physical defender down the sideline and winning with an inside release on a couple of occasions, though Okudah broke up one of those plays near the goal line as the pass was thrown a bit behind the receiver. Pickens made a catch on a slant route in the second quarter, ducking under a tackle attempt and going straight upfield to pick up a first down. Mitchell Trubisky later threw to Pickens twice down the left sideline, with the first pass going too far out of bounds for the young receiver to make the grab and the second a nice back-shoulder throw that was nabbed by Pickens, who used his excellent body control to keep his feet inbounds for a 22-yard gain. The rookie looked like a willing blocker when lowering his shoulder into a linebacker to free up fellow receiver Gunner Olszewski on a quick throw late in the first quarter.
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