2023 NFL Preseason Week 2 rookie grades: Mixed bag for C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young
Jul 09, 2023
Members of the 2023 NFL Draft class have had some time to get acclimated to their new cities and teammates. Now it's time to see how they handle the best competition they've ever faced.
I've graded the performance of one rookie from each of the past five days' 16 preseason contests to get a sense of how some of the NFL's freshest faces are stacking up at the start of their respective careers.
These evaluations are not predictions of how players will fare in this upcoming season, nor are they long-term career projections. Each mark simply takes stock of how the rookie played in Week 2 of the 2023 preseason.
Tillman showed in Thursday night's 18-18 tie between the Browns and Eagles that he can be a No. 2 receiver for Cleveland. The third-round pick started the contest, displaying a clear advantage over the DBs covering him in terms of size and strength. Tillman caught two passes on the first series, sitting down between zone defenders for a 14-yard gain, then beating cornerback Zech McPhearson on a slant-and-go route for 36 yards. He caught the deep jump ball with his hands and secured the catch before being brought down by safety Terrell Edmunds. Also, he blocked fellow rookie Nolan Smith on a second-down run late in the first quarter. Tillman didn't look sudden in his routes and does not possess the upper-body flexibility to adjust for back-shoulder throws in the end zone, but he should be a physical presence outside, in the James Jones mold.
There was a lot of almost and not quite in Young's second start, but the No. 1 overall pick flashed promise in Carolina’s 21-19 loss to the Giants. He did not press the action, running out of bounds on a bootleg on his first play and throwing away a couple passes on later drives. Young fell to the turf in the pocket on one play late in the first quarter, but he bounced up and nearly found veteran Adam Thielen on the sideline. His ability to improvise showed on a third-down sidearm throw on the first drive, although he missed fellow rookie Jonathan Mingo on the play (their connections later in the game portend a strong future partnership). Young showed happy feet in the pocket at times, missed on an out route to Mingo while facing interior pressure and took a delay of game on third down in the red zone early in the second quarter.
Robinson's first carry was indicative of his potential as a feature back. Following a fullback on a zone run, he patiently waited for the cutback lane, accelerated into it, sidestepped a safety he somehow spotted flying into his path and then bounced outside for a 12-yard gain. He did not have a lot of room to run on a couple other attempts but showed his ability as a receiver, using his left hand to grab a screen pass thrown behind him and refusing to go down before stepping out of bounds. Robinson picked up an outside blitzer to allow Desmond Ridder to complete a first-down throw on that series, showing he's ready to be a three-down back from Day 1.
Campbell did not start in the Lions' 25-7 loss to the Jaguars, but the rookie looked the part when he entered the game and led all players with seven tackles. Campbell fought off blocks and found the ball, thumping running backs in the hole. He was solid in coverage, whether lining up in the slot, covering backs out of the backfield or carrying a tight end down the middle. His physicality sent a tight end to the ground on a failed two-point conversion attempt at the end of the half. Campbell was near the ball on kickoff and punt return coverage teams, as well. However, he struggled to catch up to rookie back Tank Bigsby on the outside, allowing a big gain on a cutback (negated by penalty), losing the race to the corner a few plays later and then missing an arm tackle attempt midway through the second quarter.
Stroud struggled right off the bat in the Texans' 28-3 loss to the Dolphins after starting the first drive on Miami's 7-yard line. The team took a delay of game on third down and failed to score when unable to convert on the next two plays. Stroud's accuracy was inconsistent throughout the second quarter, as well. Fans saw a glimpse of his potential on the team’s second drive of the first quarter, though; he found a rhythm with a completed slant, second-level throw off a play-action bootleg and pinpoint out route to convert on third down. Stroud showed poise on a play where his receiver missed a hot route, double-clutching under pressure to find tight end Dalton Schultz over the middle. He was a tick late on a third-down throw over the middle, though, allowing corner Xavien Howard to knock away the pass, leading to a field goal.
Torrence started at right guard and played nearly the entire first half of the Bills' 27-15 loss to Pittsburgh. Defensive linemen had no chance escaping the big man's grasp in the run game, and he generated movement off the line when the play required it. His anchor was strong in pass protection, and when no defender came to him, Torrence adeptly assisted the right tackle. He couldn't find a target getting out in front of a receiver screen to the outside midway through the first quarter, but the fact that he was out there is impressive, given his size. Torrence can overextend in pass protection at times, getting off-balance. He was able to get his feet into position for back-side blocks, but he needs to sustain when in open space to prevent the defender from chasing the play, as Steelers defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk did on a third down late in the first quarter.
The former Texas Longhorn entered the Bears’ 24-17 loss to the Colts in the second quarter, finishing with 32 yards on seven carries (4.6 per). His quickness and intelligence as an inside runner showed on his second tote, as he paused in the backfield to find the hole, stepped quickly to his right and exploded into the lane. Johnson then finished the run, tacking on 4 more yards to cover a total of 14. He caught a screen pass (11 yards), displaying just enough suddenness to make hay on those plays. Also, Johnson showed he can cut back against the grain and avoid a penetrating defender in the red zone. He was running routes in most passing situations, but he chipped to help the right tackle make a block on a first-down pass.
Mauch was a tackle for North Dakota State, but he’s the potential starter at right guard for Tampa Bay. His mobility showed throughout the first half of the team's 13-6 win over the Jets when reaching linebackers on combo blocks or pulling to negate the weak-side end on an early second-quarter play-action pass. Mauch gave full effort to reach the nose tackle on a second-and-short conversion in the second quarter. In pass protection, he handled a bull rush on the Bucs’ second drive, resetting his hands and only losing balance when tripped by a teammate. He did not get a great double-team on a nose tackle on the opening drive, leading to a tackle for loss (he stayed a bit longer on a similar block early in the second quarter). His average length showed up when linebackers were able to stop his advances with a strong punch on a couple of runs.
The first-rounder used his speed to stay with Packers wide receiver Christian Watson in the Patriots’ 21-17 win in Green Bay, which helped force quarterback Jordan Love to check down on a second-down play on the first series. Gonzalez was called for pass interference late in the first half, negating what appeared to be an excellent play to high-point a pass in front of his man into the hands of a teammate for an interception. A couple of plays later, the rookie showed his inexperience by opening his hips inside, allowing receiver Malik Heath to cut outside for a sideline completion. He could have been more aggressive against a block by quarterback Sean Clifford on a first-down run earlier in the second quarter, but he still earned the tackle by pushing the back out of bounds. The former Colorado and Oregon defensive back form-tackled a receiver on a screen pass soon afterwards, forcing a punt.
Skoronski made his second straight start at left guard in the team's 24-16 victory over the Vikings. His nasty attitude was on full display early on, moving his man off the line and pounding the defensive end when helping the left tackle in pass protection. The first-round pick pulled on runs and reached the second level over the next few series, including a just enough block on a linebacker to help spring Tyjae Spears' first-quarter touchdown run. Skoronski has a stout anchor in pass pro, though he did stop his feet on a third-down play, leading to a pressure and incomplete pass. Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry is going to love running behind this guy.
Johnson, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, started at right tackle and played on the first three offensive drives for the Cardinals in their 38-10 loss to the Chiefs. He moved quickly from his stance and anchored well against bull rushes in pass protection. Johnson generally hit targets in the run game, but he missed a couple of open-field blocks on the first two series. His impressive size/speed combination was on display when leading on a James Conner outside run for 9 yards, hitting his man near the sideline. Johnson needed that athleticism to hold off George Karlaftis two plays later, as he lost the hands battle and just restricted the end's inside shoulder enough so quarterback Colt McCoy could scramble for a 6-yard gain.
Brown, a third-round pick in April, started the Niners' 21-20 win over the Broncos on Saturday and mostly lined up in single- or two-deep formation, occasionally playing over the slot. He allowed a deep ball over his head late in the first quarter, coming forward after the snap and high-tailing it back to (luckily) see the pass to Jerry Jeudy fall incomplete. Brown consistently did his job reading screens, covering a lot of ground in a hurry to force the play inside if he was unable to make the stop. His biggest play came at the end of the first half, as he hustled to prevent a touchdown with a tackle of receiver Jalen Virgil near the goal line. Denver could not get another play off before the quarter ended.
After missing time with a hamstring injury, Allen made his preseason debut in the Rams’ 34-17 loss to the Raiders on Saturday night. Coaches played him for nearly the entire game. The fifth-round pick blocked well, sealing the edge, climbing to the second level on run plays and moving his feet to sustain in pass protection. He missed a couple of blocks in space on the Rams' touchdown drive late in the third quarter, however. As a receiver, he lined up all over the field and snared a high pass down the seam in the second quarter. Allen was a nice safety valve and proved tough to tackle in the flat and over the middle. Allen led the team with eight catches for 53 yards. A false-start penalty midway through the fourth quarter was one of his few mistakes.
Smith had a tough outing against Seattle veterans Evan Brown and Phil Haynes in the Cowboys' 22-14 loss to Seattle. The center and right guard were able to control Smith with their hands and active feet, moving him off the line of scrimmage and stoning his advances on pass plays. Smith ended up on the ground on a long Zach Charbonnet run in the first quarter. Smith played most of the game, getting upfield a bit more and holding his ground better against double teams when facing reserve linemen, though he still was pushed downfield and was not able to shed or split blocks to get to the football. The first-round pick was taken off the field in obvious passing situations.
New Orleans picked Bresee 29th overall in April as part of its interior defensive line rebuild. The rookie struggled to get off blocks but held his ground in the run game early in the team's 22-17 win over the Chargers. Bresee's game picked up against reserve linemen. He penetrated with slants and won with strong hands on initial contact. His athleticism was on display when dropping into a short zone on a blitz on the first play of the second quarter. Bresee recovered Chargers quarterback Easton Stick’s fumble a couple of plays later, stunting across the line to get outside the left tackle and jump on the ball. Late in the second quarter, his penetration forced Stick out of the pocket, where he was intercepted. Bresee knocked down a Stick pass at the line on the next series as he pushed his man into the pocket and kept his eyes on the quarterback.
Forbes started Washington's 29-28 defeat of metro-area rival Baltimore on Monday, playing nearly the entire first half. His night started slowly, with Ravens rookie receiver Zay Flowers avoiding Forbes' high arm-tackle attempt on his first catch, turning a 5-yard stop route into an 11-yard gain. Flowers scored on his next reception, as Forbes carried a stacked inside receiver downfield (with second-round pick Jartavius Martin), leaving the flat wide open. Forbes mostly lined up in off coverage, but quickly lost his receiver when trying to jam on a play midway through the second quarter. (Martin wound up intercepting a juggled ball on that play.) Forbes didn't throw himself into run plays in his area, but made a great tackle on third-and-1 late in the first quarter, sneaking around pulling linemen to wrap up the legs of veteran back Melvin Gordon III for a TFL.
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