Preseason Week 1 Report Cards for Notable NFL Rookies and Vets
The opening week of the NFL preseason was one for first impressions. From rookies like Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles and Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, to veterans who switched teams this offseason such as Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware and Green Bay Packers edge defender Julius Peppers, many players had their initial game action in new uniforms on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
Wins and losses don’t matter in the preseason, but impressions do for players who are competing for jobs. Even for players whose roles are seemingly more defined, teams relish the opportunity to evaluate their athletes in live action to help determine what each player could bring to the field in 2014.
Not all of the following players were making first impressions in Week 1, but all of them have to prove themselves this summer. In the 10 upcoming slides, we’ll take a look at how some of the most noteworthy rookies and veterans trying to establish themselves performed in their teams’ preseason openers.
Because players only participate in partial games in the preseason and some of these players worked with second-team units in their debuts, it is inaccurate to simply grade them on their statistics. They can be evaluated, however, based on the individual plays they did and didn't make, the skills they demonstrated and the flaws apparent in their play.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars have been adamant since drafting Blake Bortles that they expect him to sit behind Chad Henne in 2014, but they might want to reconsider their plan after the rookie quarterback’s impressive performance in his preseason debut against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday.
In his first chance to make an impression to the public at large, Bortles made the Jaguars look smart for selecting him. The No. 3 overall pick showed poise and confidence as he threw with velocity downfield, fit passes between tight coverage windows and trusted his receivers to make plays on the ball.
It didn’t take long for Bortles to show that he had composure—that the lights of the NFL weren’t too bright for him. On his second passing snap of the game, he slipped at the back end of his seven-step drop but regained his footing, stepped up in the pocket and fired a laser between two defensive backs to receiver Allen Hurns for a 24-yard connection.
Altogether, Bortles finished his preseason debut with seven completions for 117 yards on 11 attempts. He wasn’t perfect, but outside of an underthrown checkdown pass that was almost intercepted by Buccaneers defensive lineman Da'Quan Bowers, every pass he threw was catchable.
Bortles was a promising but inconsistent talent coming out of Central Florida; it’s clear that his game has improved this summer. His accuracy and ball speed were as on point as they have ever been.
According to Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said Saturday that he “wouldn’t count on” Bortles getting first-team reps ahead of Henne this week. Expect that to change soon enough if Bortles continues to perform as well as he did in Week 1 of the preseason.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
Johnny Manziel’s preseason debut against the Detroit Lions on Saturday might not have lived up to its immense hype, but it was a solid performance that should have met reasonable expectations for the Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback.
Manziel completed seven of 11 passing attempts for 63 yards, and he could have had more if not for a couple of drops by his receivers. He also gained 27 yards on six plays where he kept the ball and ran it himself.
He was shaky on his first two series, where he had more rushing attempts (three) than passes (two), but the No. 22 overall pick looked more comfortable and in rhythm on his third and fourth drives. He displayed strong throw velocity and a fast delivery, although he only completed one pass that entered his receiver’s hands more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Manziel made some big plays with his feet, including a 16-yard tuck-and-run up the middle that converted a 3rd-and-8, but at times he was too prone to running when he should have looked to pass.
One example from Saturday’s game where exciting wasn’t necessarily smart came on a 4th-and-1 conversion. While he managed to outrun pressure from Lions linebacker Kyle Van Noy on a bootleg and then tiptoe up the right sideline to reach the sticks, he could have made the conversion in much simpler fashion by finding fullback Ray Agnew, who was wide open going to the sideline, with a short pass.
Overall, Saturday’s game didn’t add much clarity to the quarterback battle between Manziel and Brian Hoyer, who completed six of 14 passes for 92 yards in the contest. Manziel needs to improve in his final three preseason games to take the job from Hoyer, but he showed enough Saturday to remain in the competition.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Teddy Bridgewater still has a shot to win the Minnesota Vikings’ starting quarterback job, but he’s going to have to be better than he was Friday night against the Oakland Raiders.
Bridgewater completed just six of 13 passing attempts for 49 yards. None of those completions were caught more than nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage. (He completed an impressive 21-yard pass on the run to Greg Jennings going out to the right sideline, but an illegal formation penalty nullified the play.)
The rookie from Louisville showed his athleticism—he has a distinct advantage in that attribute over incumbent starter Matt Cassel—and did a nice job of evading the rush to extend plays.
That said, Bridgewater showed a tendency to hold onto the ball too long in his preseason debut. He was charged with taking two sacks—once when he was stripped in the pocket and once when he ran out of real estate while scrambling and had to step out of bounds for a four-yard loss. He was also taken down in the pocket for what would have been a third sack, but he caught a break when defensive holding was called.
The No. 32 overall pick was inaccurate under pressure Friday and had too many forced throws. If he’s going to seize the job away from Cassel—who played well on Friday, completing five of six passing attempts for 62 yards—he has to find more rhythm throwing downfield and make quicker, more efficient reads.
For more analysis on Bridgewater’s preseason debut, Bleacher Report’s Zach Kruse analyzed all 18 of his passing snaps from Friday night.
EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
A 2-of-7 outing in the Hall of Fame Game wasn’t what the Buffalo Bills wanted to see from EJ Manuel as he opened his second NFL preseason against the New York Giants. He performed much better Friday against the Carolina Panthers.
Manuel completed nine of 13 passes for 96 yards. For the most part, he displayed composure in the pocket and accuracy on his downfield throws.
He threw with velocity on connections with Chris Hogan, Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins that went for 32, 28 and 14 yards, respectively. The Bills need their quarterback—who had the NFL’s fourth-highest percentage of throws 10 yards or less in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo—to continue to throw downfield with confidence.
Manuel still needs to continue improving, however. His lowlights of Friday night included a forced screen pass into coverage intended for Watkins and a sack on which he had time to throw the ball away under pressure but failed to do so. Specifically, Manuel needs to become more comfortable progressing to second and third reads and less prone to staring down intended targets.
Nonetheless, Manuel’s overall progress Friday was promising and represented a positive building block for the remainder of the preseason.
Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
Like EJ Manuel, Geno Smith is a second-year quarterback who needs to play significantly better than he did as a rookie for his team to have any chance of contending in the AFC East. He only played two series in the New York Jets’ preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday but had a solid debut.
Smith faced significant pressure on nearly all of his dropbacks, which affected his ability to throw the ball downfield. Still, he displayed improved pocket presence as he evaded the rush more effectively and made smarter decisions than he did in his 21-interception, 43-sack rookie year.
Smith’s final stat line—four completions on six attempts for 33 yards—is underwhelming. That said, he really didn’t have any opportunities to take shots downfield. His best downfield throw of the night, a first-down completion to Eric Decker under heavy pressure on 3rd-and-9, was wiped out by a false start penalty.
The Jets should want to see more from Smith in their final three preseason games, but the most important thing from Thursday’s outing is that he made sound decisions and didn’t force throws. So long as he continues to make progress this preseason, he’ll hold New York’s starting job comfortably over veteran backup Michael Vick.
Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Few players generated more hype this NFL offseason than Seattle Seahawks running back Christine Michael, whose spring workouts were so impressive than some wondered whether Seattle even needed feature back Marshawn Lynch to return to the team.
His first opportunity to live up to the hype in a preseason game fell flat. He gained just 28 yards on 10 touches in Seattle’s Super Bowl rematch Thursday against the Denver Broncos.
Michael had some positive moments. An eight-yard burst through the middle in the red zone set Seattle up at the 1-yard line. Although the Seahawks would end up being backed up by a penalty and a sack, Michael finished that series off with a rushing touchdown.
He also showed his ability to adjust as a pass-catcher. On a poorly thrown back-shoulder pass to the left sideline from quarterback Russell Wilson, Michael did a nice job of turning around and then going to the ground to pull in a low ball for a five-yard reception.
However, there was more bad than good for Michael on Thursday. Specifically, he needs to work on his ball security, as he had a fumble in this contest. He also struggled as a pass-blocker, including one play where he picked up a 15-yard penalty for a chop block.
Overall, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him negatively as a receiver, runner and pass-blocker. He’ll have to perform better if he wants to vault Robert Turbin, who started ahead of him Thursday, on the depth chart.
Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
As a then-sophomore at South Carolina, Jadeveon Clowney achieved instant fame in the 2013 Outback Bowl from “The Hit,” when he clobbered Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the backfield for an eight-yard tackle for loss and forced a fumble that he would scoop up and recover for a takeaway.
The No. 1 overall pick had a play reminiscent to that in his preseason debut against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday. Matched up with Cardinals tight end Darren Fells, Clowney made mincemeat of his opponent and then blew up running back Stepfan Taylor for a five-yard loss before Taylor had any time to react and avoid the Texans edge defender.
Those two plays are a microcosm of what makes Clowney special. Possessing a burst off the line of scrimmage that may be unmatched even in the NFL, he can make a blocker look silly and destroy a play in the backfield when he anticipates the snap and jumps it accordingly.
The aforementioned tackle was the only one Clowney was credited with for the game, in which he played two series. That said, he brought pressure on a number of other plays, combining his explosive athleticism with a strong push to challenge blockers off the edge. He also tackled Cardinals running back Andre Ellington on a short checkdown pass in front of him, but that play was nullified by a defensive holding penalty against Texans cornerback Brandon Harris.
Saturday’s game also showed where Clowney needs to get better. As he is playing outside linebacker for the first time in his football career, he is still learning how to play in coverage. On one play where he had to pick up Cardinals tight end John Carlson in coverage, he got toasted up the left sideline for what would have been a 13-yard touchdown if the play was not brought back by an offensive penalty.
Clowney’s contributions didn’t yield any significant results for the Texans defense, which allowed touchdowns on both of the series he played. Still, he showed in his debut why he could be one of the NFL’s defensive superstars for years to come.
Michael Sam, DE, St. Louis Rams
In Friday’s preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam made history by becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in any game for an NFL team. Now that the action on the field has begun, however, the focus is on whether the seventh-round pick can perform well enough to earn a spot on the Rams’ 53-man roster.
Sam was more than just a storyline Friday. He recorded two quarterback pressures as he showed some ability to bend around the edge with speed and bring heat. He also used a nice jump off the snap on one running play to burst inside a Saints blocker and shut down running back Khiry Robinson at the line of scrimmage to limit him to no gain.
Outside of those few plays, however, Sam didn’t do much to sell his stock as an NFL player.
While he turned the corner well and showed he has enough speed to bring pressure when he has a free rush, he struggled to come off blocks once engaged and demonstrated no impactful hand skills. He did a decent job overall of setting the edge but was pushed away from a few running plays.
If not for his personal story, Sam’s performance likely would have been paid no significant attention. It was a fine start for a seventh-round rookie—unspectacular but not bad.
That said, he will have to improve in further preseason games to lock down a roster spot. His primary competition to make the team—undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks—outperformed Sam on Friday as he recorded three total tackles and two quarterback hits.
DeMarcus Ware, DE, Denver Broncos
One of a number of high-profile free-agent signings by the Denver Broncos this offseason, DeMarcus Ware stood out in his first outing wearing orange.
Ware’s 2013 season was the worst of his nine-year career with the Dallas Cowboys. He battled injuries throughout the year and failed to display the same explosive pass-rushing ability that had propelled him to the Pro Bowl for seven consecutive seasons prior.
The 32-year-old defensive end looked back to his old self on Thursday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Ware showed impressive speed, acceleration and agility in the process of recording one sack and three total quarterback pressures. He also caused a run stop by shooting past a blocker into the middle of the backfield and redirecting Robert Turbin.
All of those plays came over the course of just 10 total snaps.
We won’t find out until the regular season whether Ware can still maintain his explosiveness over the course of playing four quarters. His first impression, nonetheless, was a great sign for the Broncos defense.
Julius Peppers, DE/OLB, Green Bay Packers
Like DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers is an aging pass-rusher with a new team who is trying to prove that he can still perform at a Pro Bowl level after a disappointing 2013 season.
He didn’t prove anything in his preseason debut Saturday for the Green Bay Packers versus the Tennessee Titans.
Peppers played 10 snaps—some with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, others standing up on the edge as an outside linebacker—over the course of the Packers’ first two defensive series. He failed to record any statistics but whiffed on one diving tackle attempt and was driven away from a number of run plays.
His entire effort Saturday seemed to be at half-speed. That was understandable, considering his time in the game came in the midst of a heavy downpour at Tennessee’s LP Field.
Questions linger, however, about how much the 34-year-old edge defender still has left in the tank. He didn’t seem to be as explosive in 2013, and on Saturday, he never hit full speed while being manhandled by Titans tight ends on a number of plays.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.