When evaluating rookies, especially quarterbacks, it's important not to jump to any long-term conclusions. It's key to focus on the positives and try to build on them. Look at Ryan Leaf and Donovan McNabb -- back-to-back No. 2 overall draft picks in 1998 and '99. Leaf looked very promising after his first two preseason games, while McNabb, who was booed on draft day in Philly, was average in the preseason as a rookie. We know howthese stories ended.
Over the weekend, I spent some time evaluating the preseason performances of seven rookie quarterbacks -- and ultimately provided each player a grade, with supporting analysis. Plus, I added two bonus non-rookies everyone has been talking about this offseason. (You're welcome!)
Ryan Finley, Cincinnati Bengals
Strengths: Finley's good command of the Bengals' offense resulted in a consistent preseason performance. The fourth-round pick displayed above average accuracy (73.4 percent completion rate), good touch on the ball and pocket poise, and he read defenses well -- often finding the second receiver.
Weaknesses: Although his completion rate was high, his throws averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt. He didn't take many shots downfield, so his arm strength is still in question.
GRADE: A. I was very impressed with Finley's three preseason outings. He knows his strengths and works well around his weaknesses. Coming out of college, the biggest questions about Finley were related to his arm strength (as I mentioned above) and leadership abilities, and the jury is still out on both. Nonetheless, the Bengals QB2 played better than any other rookie signal-caller this preseason.
Daniel Jones, New York Giants
Strengths: Jones had a great preseason and proved a lot of naysayers wrong. The sixth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft was routinely in command of the offense, relying on excellent vision, anticipation and decisiveness. His on-field production has a lot to do with his football IQ and ability to read defenses well. This preseason, we saw Jones show off his great footwork, quick release and accurate deep passes. Jones takes all aspects of his career seriously, including his work ethic -- he was the last player off the field the day I visited the Giants last month.
Weaknesses: The obvious is the pair of fumbles in the second preseason game (a stripped ball and a fumbled snap), but those are correctable. Other than the turnovers, I didn't see a glaring weakness in Jones' game.
GRADE: A. Jones looks comfortable in the Giants' offensive system. Through the preseason, he had the best vision and anticipation of any quarterback in this draft. The Duke product has made all the necessary throws to make it in the NFL. If I'm the Giants, I feel extremely good about the down-to-earth quarterback.
Dwayne Haskins, Washington Redskins
Strengths: We've seen a lot of positives from Haskins early on. Not only does the No. 15 overall pick have a big-time arm, but the rookie has shown he can execute big-time deep throws. He showed he is good at evading pressure and has the ability to throw on the run. Haskins has done a good job, at times, of going through his reads by finding the second receiver; he's also displayed a quick release on occasion.
Weaknesses: Haskins' decision-making was inconsistent, but he did improve as the preseason progressed. He has a tendency to hold the ball too long. He also will tuck the ball and run too quickly, often when receivers are getting open. Haskins must continue to improve his footwork; he doesn't always have his feet pointed in the direction in which he is throwing, causing inaccuracy.
GRADE: B+. The Redskins gave Haskins the entire playbook to see what he could do, so when he potentially plays later in the year, Jay Gruden and Co. will know what to implement in the game plan. We didn't see a ton of run-pass option plays or passes inside the hash marks, something Haskins did a lot of at Ohio State, this preseason. Expect to see more RPOs and throws inside the hashes in the regular season. The most impressive thing I saw from Haskins this preseason was his steady overall improvement, which makes me excited and optimistic about his future.
Jarrett Stidham, New England Patriots
Strengths: Stidham showed promise as a pocket passer, displaying above average accuracy (67.8 percent completion rate through the preseason), good overall decision-making and Tom Brady-like feet in the pocket. The rookie showed his arm talent often with strong throws and a quick release.
Weaknesses: Although Stidham looks more poised under pressure than he did in college at Auburn, there were still some plays on which he seemed affected by the rush. The fourth-round pick showed a tendency to tuck the ball and run more than I'd like him to, but I'll take a positive play any day over a poor decision or forcing the ball into coverage.
GRADE: B.Brian Hoyer's release tells me the Patriots have found Brady's heir -- or so it seems. Stidham enters the season as New England's QB2 after a promising preseason, completing 61 of 90 pass attempts for 731 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception in four exhibition games. The reason his grade isn't higher is because Stidham didn't show as much improvement from game to game as other quarterbacks, but his improved play from his college days makes me hopeful about his future.
Will Grier, Carolina Panthers
Strengths: The Panthers' third-round selection got better each time out, with his best effort coming in the final preseason game -- that's what you want to see out of rookie QBs. Against the Steelers, Grier completed 11 of 18 pass attempts for 189 yards, one TD, one INT and a 92.1 passer rating. He is accurate on short passes and also has the arm strength to heave it downfield, plus he has the option to escape the pass rush with his legs.
Weaknesses: He may have the arm strength, but his accuracy on intermediate and deep throws wasn't there. Grier also struggled to show poise or awareness versus pressure on a consistent basis, which makes me question his vision in the pocket.
GRADE: B-. Grier is not ready to be an NFL starter. His fourth preseason game (again, his best outing) raised his grade from a "C." The raw skills are there -- arm strength, quick release and athletic ability -- but there are a lot of areas that need improvement. At West Virginia, Grier was comfortable and efficient operating in a spread offense but struggled badly when defenses changed it up on him. He faces a steep learning curve with the Panthers.
Drew Lock, Denver Broncos
Strengths: The second-round draft pick showed some positives before suffering a thumb injury in the third preseason game -- which ultimately sent him to IR. After a shaky debut, Lock made several big-time throws, including a fade against pressure, in his second game. It's obvious that the kid has a strong arm, escape ability and a quick release.
Weaknesses: Lock's pocket poise can be inconsistent, and with that comes a lack of consistency in throwing accuracy and decision-making. In three preseason appearances, Lock completed 60.8 percent of his pass attempts for 254 yards, one TD, one INT and a 71.9 passer rating. He was also sacked six times.
GRADE: B-. Lock has the physical skills to be an NFL quarterback, and his inconsistency in several areas will hopefully improve with reps. He's not ready to start now -- even if he wasn't on IR -- but that was never Denver's intention.
Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Strengths: There are plenty of reasons Murray was taken No. 1 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Arizona's QB1 can make all the throws -- including deep and touch passes -- and has shown an encouraging level of decisiveness. But his exceptional running ability is what sets him apart.
Weaknesses: Murray really struggled against the blitz in the preseason, as reflected in the question he posed to Oakland receiver Antonio Brown on "Hard Knocks" after completing three of eight pass attempts and taking a safety on his final drive against the Raiders: "Why they gotta bring the house on me, bro?" Murray handled the blitz better against the Vikings, but he missed some passes in each of those contests that he should have completed.
GRADE: Incomplete. The rookie's grade is incomplete because Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid offense was nowhere to be seen in the preseason. In Murray's preseason debut, we saw a very simple game plan, followed by the aforementioned struggles against the blitz in Week 2. Then, in Week 3 against Minnesota, Murray showed deep passing ability and accuracy on short throws but missed some throws he should have made when the defense brought pressure. Based on a small sample size, Murray displayed enough splash plays in the air and on the ground to make me believe he'll have a successful NFL career. We'll learn more about him Sunday when he faces the Lions in the Cardinals' season opener.
BONUS: TWO SECOND-YEAR QBS
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Strengths: Jackson played very sparingly this preseason but showed definite progress from his rookie season, especially in his footwork. He is more balanced, keeps his feet on the ground and consistently steps into his passes. His improved footwork will lead to more accurate passes, which is what I saw in his minimal play. Jackson showed good vision by reading blitzes well and finding the second receiver.
Weaknesses: Yes, his footwork improved his accuracy some, but the young QB still has some ball-placement issues. This will be a constant area of improvement for Jackson, who is already a tremendous threat as a runner.
GRADE: A. Jackson looked more natural and relaxed as a passer than he did as a rookie, when he was somewhat robotic in his throwing motion. The improved pocket presence he demonstrated is what I wanted to see this preseason. Expect Jackson and the Ravens' revolutionized offense to catch defenses by surprise early.
Josh Rosen, Miami Dolphins
Strengths: Rosen's throwing talent and his ability to make big-time throws (tight window, down the seam, back shoulder, throws on the run) illustrated why he was a first-round draft pick in 2018. He can and does make every throw with a strong arm that threatens defenses deep, and he has the ability to extend plays and throw off schedule.
Weaknesses: There is room for improvement in the accuracy department, and, like we saw in his rookie season (19 turnovers), his poor decision-making was still evident at times during the preseason.
GRADE: B+. Rosen improved throughout the preseason and outplayed starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Rosen earned the right to start in the season opener, but I understand why Miami is rolling with the veteran Fitzpatrick, whose experience will be an asset early in the season against two top-five defenses from 2018 (Baltimore and New England). Questions about Rosen's leadership qualities and ability to stay disciplined with the game plan are still unanswered at this point.