We got our first look at much of the 2021 NFL rookie class over Week 1 of preseason, and honestly, so far things are looking really fun. There’s considerable excitement around this vaunted class, and rightfully so.
Now, I know we need to have the eternal caveat of “well, it’s preseason,” and yes, I agree. We all know it takes time to see how a player can really adapt to the league, but I’m of the opinion that as college offenses set more and more trends that bleed into the NFL, the old idea of “it takes three years to evaluate a player” has evaporated. We are seeing who a player really is quicker than ever, and while one week of preseason certainly isn’t enough to render any verdicts, these were the performances that jumped out at me the most.
No. 1: Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears
14-of-20, 142 yards, 1 TD, 106.7 QB rating — 5 carries, 33 yards, 1 TD
I am 100 percent okay with you getting excited over this, Bears fans — because you should be. Keep in mind that Fields was supposed to be the developmental guy of the class, the passer who needed time. He came out against a very good and deep Dolphins defense and proved he can get the job done.
The stats are obviously good, but the most impressive quality to Fields’ game was his intangibles. The rookie shook off a rough start, didn’t get overwhelmed by the game, then eventually took it over. We all know for a 1st round pick a preseason game is really fairly insignificant, but Fields played like he really cared about getting the win. That’s the kind of leadership and attention the position hasn’t had in Chicago.
If Fields turns in another performance or two like this there is absolutely no justifying starting Andy Dalton this season in Chicago.
No. 2: Rhamonde Stevenson, RB, New England Patriots
10 carries, 127 yards, 2 TD
The Patriots have been lacking a bellwether running back for, well, a really long time. Epitomizing the concept of running back by committee, New England was once again entering the season with a huge stable of runners and questions about who would make it through.
Now, after one week, fourth round rookie Rhamonde Stevenson is turning heads for all the right reasons. This wasn’t a case of all the Patriots running all over Washington, it was specific to Stevenson. While Sony Michel, Damien Harris and J.J. Taylor struggled to his 5.0 yards-per-carry or worse, Stevenson was gashing for over double that.
Definitely something to watch, because this could be a ton of fun.
No. 3: Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, Carolina Panthers
3 receptions, 88 yards
Carolina may have massive questions on their offensive line while putting a lot of faith in Sam Darnold to be their starting quarterback — but it’s possible the Panthers found a gem in Terrace Marshall Jr.
The former LSU receiver showed incredible deep threat potential and did more than expected as he made an impact whenever he touched the ball. Marshall won’t start with D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson on the roster, but the rookie showed he could be the perfect big-bodied slot receiver in the new NFL trend of putting size and athleticism at the position.
Keep an eye on him as preseason progresses, because the Panthers could sneakily have the best receiving corps nobody is talking about. Now, if only they found a quarterback to leverage it. I guess we’ll see of Darnold is up for the job.
No. 4: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos
1 interception, 1 TD, 2 passes defended
The top cornerbacks in this draft were rightfully hailed, and so far Surtain II looks like everything the Broncos hoped for and more. He’s an impact player at corner who didn’t get overwhelmed against the Vikings, and lived up to the vaunted praise he was getting from teammates and coaches in training camp.
Denver were desperate for a major secondary upgrade in a division that boasts Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, so seeing him break out will be a huge boon.
A big-bodied ball hawk, Surtain showed an incredible ability to play his man while locating the ball in the air and breaking up key passes. That’s the cornerback position in a nutshell, really — but it’s often something that takes longer for rookies to grasp than Surtain II showed.
No. 5: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Cleveland Browns
8 tackles, 1.0 sacks
Owusu-Koramoah lasted too damn long in the draft, period. The perfect hybrid defender, he was a second round steal for Cleveland and had an eye-opening debut. Comfortable supporting his team in pass coverage, rushing the passer, and holding his own in the box — Owusu-Koramoah registered seven solo tackles in the Browns win.
This is a Swiss Army Knife defender who excites defensive coordinators because he can do absolutely anything asked of him. That flexibility is incredible on a team that already boasted a pretty dang good defense. This game showed that coaches are ready to move him around and let him be the defensive weapon he was at Notre Dame.
Don’t be surprised for a second if Owusu-Koramoah ends up being one of the best all-around defenders in the league this season. That’s how promising his debut for the Browns was, and it’s really exciting.