Analysis

2021 NFL preseason Week 1 rookie grades: Justin Fields outshines Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance

The NFL draft is the best off-the-field event in American sports because it gives fans hope that their teams' newest players can help maintain or achieve success in the short- and long-term.

But as the preseason begins, it's now time for the rubber to hit the road. Are the newbies ready for the challenge of playing against tested veterans under the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night lights?

I've graded the performance of one rookie from each of this week's 16 preseason contests. 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 1 of the preseason.

Grade
A
Rhamondre Stevenson
Oklahoma · RB
New England Patriots
New England Patriots
1-0

Though he did not get into the game until the fourth quarter of the Patriots' victory over the Football Team, Stevenson quickly showed why he was a good value in the fourth round. The 227-pounder displayed nice footwork behind the line of scrimmage, avoiding penetrating defenders with quick and decisive movements. He drove through traffic for his first touchdown, keeping his legs churning after getting turned sideways near the goal line. Stevenson aided his left tackle with a couple of fair chip blocks on his way into arrow routes, though he wasn't thrown the ball. The cherry on top of his performance was his explosion to the sideline on a toss play to the right in the contest's last 90 seconds, salting away the win with a 91-yard score. He may not have taken the ball to the house against Washington's starters, but that run displayed his potential as much more than a strong between-the-tackles runner.

Grade
B
Kendrick Green
Illinois · C
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
2-0

Green started for the Steelers against the Eagles on Thursday night, as he did the team's Hall of Fame Game victory over the Cowboys. The athleticism that made Green a third-round pick out of Illinois was clear, as he was quick off the snap and stayed on his blocks to the whistle (though he smartly let go once instead of getting a holding call). He is very mobile, pulling in front of plays or combo-blocking to second-level targets after solid double-teams. He had no snap issues, something Steelers fans no longer take for granted after last year's brief playoff stint. One issue becoming evident, though: a lack of anchor versus bull rushes. Eagles defensive tackle T.Y. McGill got under Green's pads a couple of times, once sending him into quarterback Mason Rudolph to get a third-down sack in the first unit's final play.

Grade
B
Rashad Weaver
Pittsburgh · Edge
Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
1-0

Weaver came into the Titans' win over the Falcons in the second quarter and played aggressively from Snap 1. Known as a pass rusher at Pitt, he played the run well from his stand-up linebacker spot. He created a negative play for his teammates by holding up two blockers behind the line and then later recorded a tackle for loss himself by pushing his man backward and grabbing the approaching back. Weaver scored a sack using strong hands and determination in the second quarter, which led to a third-and-long interception on the next play. He later worked around the outside shoulder of the right tackle on another play to affect a throw. Weaver had troubles in the second half, getting called for illegal hands to the face and then failing to hold the edge to stop a run by fellow rookie Feleipe Franks. But Weaver redeemed himself by knocking down a Franks bootleg throw, wrapping up a solid first outing.

Grade
B
Penei Sewell
Oregon · OT
Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions
0-1

Sewell got off to a rough start in his first action for the Lions on Friday night against the Bills, whiffing on a second-level run block and then allowing another talented rookie, Gregory Rousseau, to use his length to work his way to sack quarterback Jared Goff. Sewell settled down after that, though, proving himself a wall in pass protection as the game went on by stopping rushers in their tracks and adeptly picking up twists. Sewell's power in the run game was evident, as well, as he moved Earth (and any defenders in his way) to help his team convert two third-and-short plays. Patience is key for Sewell's development, as he did not play in 2020 (COVID-19 opt-out) and he's moving from left to right tackle. It's not an easy relocation -- attempting to create new muscle memory within the span of a few weeks -- especially when also transitioning from the college game.

Grade
A
Zaven Collins
Tulsa · LB
Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals
1-0

The announcers called out Collins' name early in the Cardinals' win over the Cowboys. He attacked a gap on a run blitz, avoiding a lineman's reach block and wrapping up Tony Pollard for a loss. The No. 16 overall pick also attacked blockers when required. Collins flashed his athleticism in coverage, too, dropping into the middle of the field to take away a third-and-long target and also smothering backs in the flat and tight ends over the middle. The rookie will need to get off more blocks inside as the season progresses, though, as NFL offensive linemen will be searching for him on every play. But overall, it was an excellent start to Collins' pro career.

Grade
B
Justin Fields
Ohio State · QB
Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears
1-0

Most Bears fans were thrilled when their team moved up to select Fields with the 11th overall pick in April. He stepped into Chicago's win over Miami at the start of the second quarter, making accurate throws across his body when flushed out of the pocket. One such throw converted a third down that led to a much-needed field goal at the end of the first half. His running ability resulted in an 8-yard touchdown at the end of the team's first drive of the second half, then a big gain on the following drive. Chicago coaches took advantage of the defense spying Fields on a bootleg to the right, allowing for what may be the easiest touchdown pass of his career to tight end Jesse James. On the negative side, Fields stared down his primary receiver a couple of times, allowing a pass break-up at the line and another downfield. He floated a couple of throws, one which should have been intercepted. Fields also fumbled when trying to spin out of an open-field tackle. So the debut featured typical rookie errors, but also play-making abilities that the Bears haven't seen in their quarterback for some time.

Grade
A-
Javonte Williams
North Carolina · RB
Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos
1-0

The Broncos passed on Justin Fields in the draft, leaving themselves with Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater to battle for the starting QB job. Williams' first NFL efforts showed he will help either quarterback succeed. The second-round pick effectively cut off the back side of a zone play for a big gain, then bounced outside for more yards on the next, stiff-arming a defensive back to get to the sideline. He paid off a drive by bouncing to his left, maintaining his balance through contact and spinning into the end zone ... though a holding call erased the score. On his second drive, Williams failed to follow a lead blocker to the outside for a big gain, but on another carry, kept his shoulders square and legs churning to squeeze out every possible yard. Williams searched out a block in pass protection even though there wasn't anyone near him -- a good sign for a rookie back. He also threw a downfield block for Lock when the quarterback scrambled for a few yards. So far, so good for Denver's top-35 overall selection.

Grade
C-
Paulson Adebo
Stanford · CB
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
0-1-0

During the Saints' loss to the Ravens, Adebo showed why rookie cornerbacks have big targets on their backs in the NFL. He was beaten in the second quarter, failing to get a hand on Jaylon Moore off the line and then slowing down to look back for the ball as it sailed just past the receivers' hands. Rookie wideout Tylan Wallace got behind Adebo in the end zone a few plays later, and the corner was lucky to not to be called for pass interference after taking Wallace to the ground. The former Stanford Cardinal (though he opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic) did some good things, as well, wrapping up receivers from off coverage to prevent yards after the catch and splitting a double-team as a punt gunner to make a tackle. But he also missed a couple of open-field tackles and showed a lack of awareness by not falling on a ball that could have either been a fumble or incomplete pass. (Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle yelled at Adebo during the play.)

Grade
C
Trevor Lawrence
Clemson · QB
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
0-1

The top pick of the 2021 draft found out on his first play from scrimmage that his internal clock must have Swiss-like precision in the NFL. His line crumbled against a five-man rush, resulting in a sack. Lawrence struggled to step up into the pocket when feeling pressure on other snaps, as well, giving him a poor throwing platform on one play and an additional sack. When in rhythm, though, Lawrence threw a perfect 12-yard pattern to Marvin Jones Jr. before the veteran came out of his break. He found Jones later down the seam for another big play when the line gave him loads of time to find his target. Lawrence was a bit tall on some throws, which matched his misses at Clemson when he failed to transfer his weight properly. The rookie must speed up his processing and get outside the pocket (either on called plays or keeping his feet moving after his drop) to help him think less and create more.

Grade
C
Hamilcar Rashed Jr.
Oregon State · Edge
New York Jets
New York Jets
1-0

We'll have plenty of chances to talk about Jets rookie passer Zach Wilson, but these preseason games are critically important for undrafted rookie free agents like Rashed. He received a lot of snaps in the team's win over the Giants, playing with his hand in the dirt (or, more accurately, on the turf) on both sides of the line. Rashed isn't going to overpower NFL tackles with his relative lack of bulk, and he was dominated at times. He showed himself willing to push his man into the pocket, however, using leverage. Rashed took on a wham block on one run play, creating a pile and a tackle for loss. He got fooled on a bootleg, giving up a big back-side gain, but came back to get a tackle for loss and sack on the following two plays. Rashed put some good plays on tape, but he will need to get to the quarterback more regularly to beat out veterans for a spot on the 53-man roster.

Grade
B+
Joe Tryon
Washington · Edge
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
0-1

Even though the Bengals got the win over the Buccaneers, and Tryon was not credited with any tackles during the contests, the Super Bowl champs saw what they needed to see out of their first-round pick. He was powerful whether standing up or playing in a three-point stance. Early on, the Washington product got stuck on some blocks, but he began using his hands effectively after the first series to make his presence felt. Tryon got off the snap quickly and smacked away the right tackle's hands as he lurched, exploding into quarterback Brandon Allen. He received a highly questionable unnecessary roughness call on the play, however, for bringing his full load to bear. A few plays later, Tryon nearly stole a handoff with his quickness from a 9-technique position. This rookie will make an impact when veterans Jason Pierre-Paul and/or Shaquil Barrett are getting breathers during the season.

Grade
A
Josh Myers
Ohio State · C
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
0-1

Few rookie offensive linemen have as tough a job in 2021 as Myers. The Ohio State product is taking over for another former Buckeye in Corey Linsley, who went to the Chargers in free agency after a first-team All-Pro season. If Myers' first quarter-plus of work is any indication of his future play, Green Bay will be just fine at that position. In the run game, he pancaked a defender on one play late in the first quarter and proved agile enough to stay with defensive tackles down the line of scrimmage on later stretch plays. His powerful punch stopped linebackers when combo-blocking and helped both guards in pass protection. Myers' most important block was his last, taking out veteran Kamu Grugier-Hill a few yards downfield on the screen-pass touchdown scored by fellow rookie Kylin Hill. Myers wasn't tested by great quickness from the Texans' front, but he will likely be up to that challenge.

Grade
C+
Trey Lance
North Dakota State · QB
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
0-1

Jimmy Garoppolo started the 49ers' loss to the Chiefs on Saturday night, but fans got to see the team's first-round pick for several series afterward. It's easy to see the skill set Lance possesses, but also the areas where he needs to grow as a passer. His arm strength did not disappoint, as he lasered passes to all parts of the field (albeit with three drops from receivers). Lance's 80-yard touchdown pass (45 through the air) caught the defense napping on the back side of a rollout to the left, but that's the sort of play an athletic quarterback opens up. He made a nice throw from his own end zone on the next drive, hitting an open receiver without panic, and then nicely anticipated a short out in the face of pressure. However, Lance was sacked four times; he needs to identify potential blitzers and use his footwork to step away from oncoming rushers. He nearly threw two interceptions late in the first half, failing to see a dropping zone corner and another defender on a late throw over the middle.

Grade
A-
Alex Leatherwood
Alabama · OT
Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders
1-0

Leatherwood did not start at right tackle at Alabama, but looked comfortable there in his first NFL action. His experience at right guard during his sophomore year with the Tide may have helped, given that he collapsed that side of the line a couple of times during a goal-line effort where running back Trey Ragas (an undrafted rookie also worth mentioning for his strong effort Saturday night) eventually got into the end zone. Ragas found running behind Leatherwood profitable on other plays, too, as the big man can move on zone plays and dominate targets on power runs. In pass protection, Leatherwood was steady, often stonewalling his man but once allowing an edge rusher to touch his quarterback after giving help inside. He got back to clean up the play, though, and allowed Nathan Peterman to complete a pass for a first down. Looks like the Raiders got a plug-and-play guy up front.

Grade
B-
Tutu Atwell
Louisville · WR
Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams
0-1

The 5-foot-9, 155-pound Atwell proved he could take a hit and bounce back up on his initial grab as a pro, getting walloped on a shallow cross. He was explosive on his second catch, turning an out upfield for a 15-yard gain without truly turning on the jets. Atwell only returned four punts at Louisville, but displayed great potential in the role early in the second quarter; his 30-yard, cross-field effort was negated, however, due to a holding penalty. He mostly lined up in the slot, where his two-way quickness was evident despite not getting a ton of targets. A Chargers defender locked on once in the slot, though, and Atwell couldn't free himself. The rookie's lack of strength was also an issue while blocking, as he was summarily pushed aside by defenders multiple times. Atwell also had one route miscommunication with quarterback Bryce Perkins, which is typical in the preseason.

Grade
B+
Tommy Tremble
Notre Dame · TE
Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers
0-1

The Panthers desperately needed a playmaker at tight end heading into the 2021 draft, so I wasn't surprised they picked up Tremble in the third round. He took a hit while crossing over the middle on his first drive, but still finished the play, caught the pass and picked up 8 yards. Tremble ran several different routes during the game, showing off the athleticism to beat defenders short, intermediate and deep. He'll be a nice red-zone target, as shown on his touchdown catch. Tremble initially boxed out his defender on the goal line, then worked hard to give his scrambling quarterback a target deep in the end zone. The former Notre Dame starter is a willing blocker, though not a dominating one. He mixed it up on run plays and served on all special teams units. He was called for holding on the two-point conversion following his touchdown, though, which forced an extra point try that went wide right.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter.

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