The start of the 2021 NFL regular season is still a few weeks away. But lucky for us, there is some actual football on our television screens this weekend.
Each team will play three preseason games this year (except for the Steelers and Cowboys, who will play four, including the already-completed Hall of Fame Game), and this weekend marks the first of them for most teams. In fact, there are 22 teams playing their first preseason game on Saturday.
Because most teams don’t play most of their starters in the early preseason contests, we’ve got our eye on the rookies at the moment. In the space below, we’re going to chart some of the notable highs and lows of the 2021 rookie class as they see their first real NFL action.
Bears rookie Justin Fields showed exactly why he was such a highly touted prospect. He finished his debut game 14 of 20 for 142 yards and a touchdown through the air, while adding five carries for 33 yards and another score on the ground. His performance earned a shoutout from LeBron James, as well as just about everybody who was watching.
Jaylen Waddle shows off playmaking skills
Waddle, the No. 6 overall selection, played 19 snaps of 23 with the starters (in the absence of Will Fuller and DeVante Parker) but was largely uninvolved in the offense during his preseason debut. However, he showed off his gamebreaking skill set with a 24-yard punt return that at first looked like it was going nowhere before he abruptly reversed field and hit the jets, turning the corner for a big gain to give the Dolphins good field position.
The Broncos’ first two draft picks helped spearhead a 33-6 blowout against the Kirk Cousins-less Vikings. Patrick Surtain II had a nice pass breakup early in the game, reading Jake Browning’s eyes on a slant to Ihmir Smith-Marsette before breaking on the ball and knocking it away to force fourth down. Later, he jumped an under-thrown out route from Browning to Smith-Marsette, picking it off and taking it to the house.
It was a somewhat quieter debut for Denver’s second-round pick, though Williams did get most of the work with the starters in the absence of Melvin Gordon. Williams carried five times for 29 yards, showing good burst and decisive quickness that should make him a strong contributor for the Broncos offense throughout this season.
In the same game, Vikings rookie quarterback Kellen Mond struggled to throw the ball (6 of 16 for 56 yards) but made some plays with his legs, including a scramble that picked up a first down. (Smith-Marsette, who was the intended receiver on Surtain’s two big plays, had two catches for 16 yards on six targets.) Undrafted running back Asim Rose out of Kentucky was the lone star of the day for the Vikings, rushing for 100 yards on 25 carries,
Trevor Lawrence overcomes shaky first play, but Travis Etienne is M.I.A. from first-team offense
The No. 1 overall pick was strip-sacked on the first snap of his career by Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Day. Luckily, Lawrence recovered the ball himself to avoid the turnover. He later completed his first pass to Laviska Shenault Jr. on a smoke screen, then stood tall on a third down and found Marvin Jones on a curl route to pick up a new set of downs.
Jacksonville was forced to punt on that drive, but Lawrence came back on the next series and picked up another third-down conversion with another pass to Jones — this one for 35 yards on third-and-10. Lawrence had plenty of time in the pocket, stepped to his right and then up, and delivered the ball over the top of the defender to Jones, who climbed the ladder and plucked it out of the air.
Lawrence’s former Clemson teammate, Travis Etienne, was notably absent from the proceedings on the team’s first drive. He was not on the field for any of the eight snaps, with five going to James Robinson and three to Carlos Hyde. Etienne did play five snaps of the next drive and had one carry for 2 yards. Lawrence finished his debut 6 of 9 for 71 with two sacks. Once the backups came in, Browns rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah picked up a sack of Gardner Minshew on an up-the-middle blitz. Not a great start for the Jacksonville offensive line.
Two of the Bengals’ big offseason acquisitions combined to take down Tom Brady on the first drive of the preseason. Trey Hendrickson beat Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith around the edge on one side of the line, while third-round pick Joseph Ossai beat Tristan Wirfs with an inside move on the other. They arrived at the quarterback at the same time and took Brady to the ground on third-and-10, ending Tampa’s drive.
Ossai would later add two more tackles after Brady left the game. First-round pick Ja’Marr Chase, meanwhile, picked up his first catch on a tunnel screen that he was able to take for a 16-yard gain thanks to good blocking in front of him. Cincy’s drive was ultimately cut short by a Samaje Perine fumble.
New York, New York
No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson had a solid debut for the Jets. He targeted free agent signing Corey Davis early and often, throwing to Davis all four times he dropped back on the team’s first drive. Wilson made a couple nice throws on third downs, and finished his night 6 of 9 for 63 yards.
Rookie running back Michael Carter worked in a timeshare with veteran Ty Johnson, with the pair splitting carries and snaps with the first-team offense. Johnson outcarried Carter 7-5 and outgained him 30-17. On the other side of the ball, Giants first-round pick Kadarius Toney did not suit up, but second-round pick Azeez Ojulari made a nice play, shedding a block from stud left tackle Mekhi Becton to bring Carter to the ground for a short gain on one of his carries.
A couple of the Jets’ defensive rookies combined for a nice play as well, with Hamsah Nasirildeen forcing a red-zone fumble by Corey Clement, and Michael Dwumfour jumping on the ball for the recovery.
This post will be updated throughout Saturday evening.