NFL preseason Week 1 grades for first-round draft picks: Who stood out, disappointed and surprised in NFL debut

What kind of analyst would I be if I didn’t rate first-round draft picks after their first preseason game? Disappointing. And I’m not here to disappoint, but to give you, the reader, what you want. Now, of course, don’t read too much into these results. We’re just one exhibition trip into these players’ professional careers — or in the case of the Jaguars and Raiders, two contests.

But now that there’s legitimate NFL film to watch, grades must be handed out, pointless play or not.

These are preseason grades for first-round draft picks. Before I begin, if a rookie isn’t on the roster, it’s either because he didn’t play in his respective team’s first game, or for any number of reasons, he hasn’t been able to make much of an impact at all, bad or good.

1. Travon Walker, EDGE/DL, Jaguars

Grade: A-

Most of Walker’s snaps were blocked immediately, but he was a solid tackler against the run, forced a fumble against the Browns when he collapsed on the backside and drew a holding call on Cleveland’s starting left tackle Jedrick Wills. His sack in the Hall of Fame game was due more to Jarrett Stidham trying to sneak right past him than to any individual victory by Walker. He had another hit against Stidham on a sudden burst of speed that was more impressive. Overall, for a raw but freaky athletic specimen, the Jaguars should be decently pleased with Walker’s early returns thus far in the preseason.

2. Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Lions

Degree: B

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Hutchinson had two tackles on 10 snaps in his preseason debut for the Lions, one of which was a tackle for loss. No pressure though. Hopefully we can see a bit more of the #2 overall pick before the regular season begins.

5. Kyvon Thibodeau, EDGE, Giants

Degree: B

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Thibodeaux wasn’t credited with an official snap in the preseason opener against the Patriots, but he was damn close on several occasions. His first snap was a push-pull to the New England right tackle that brought the blocker to the turf. Thibodeau didn’t explode out of the gate, but he hardly looked out of place against pro talent.

6. Ikem Ekwonu, OT, Panthers

Grade: A-

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Mainly battling against Montez Sweat and Efe Obada – two super-long, athletic rushers – Ekwonu was strong at the point of attack, winning all but one of his reps in pass protection. He got up under those defenders in the run game on most occasions as well. A solid start for the first offensive tackle off the board.

7. Evan Neal, OT, Giants

Grade: C+

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Neal’s debut could have gone better. Depth Anfernee Jennings got the best of him with a variety of moves in several one-on-one matchups. The former Alabama star was thrown off balance on those reps. For the run and screen game, Neal was nimble and under control, doing what appeared to be his assignment.

9. Charles Cross, OT, Seahawks

Grade: A-

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The silky smooth passing that made Cross a top 10 selection was on full display against the Steelers over the weekend. Granted, he didn’t see TJ Watt screaming around the corner, but he was sudden and powerful in his shots, most notably against Derrek Tuszka, allowing no pressure, although several were close.

10. Garrett Wilson, WR, Jets

Grade: B+

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Wilson was urgent in beating the press and generating separation relatively early in his routes early in the preseason against the Eagles. He caught two passes for 25 yards. Nothing to worry about his debut.

13. Jordan Davis, DT, Eagles

Grade: C

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Davis played as I expected him to — flashed a bit against the run, pushing off the Jets’ center on one play and swimming past him on another — but he wasn’t a factor as a pass rusher. I will say, however, that his size alone draws a lot of attention from the interior of the opposition’s offensive line.

14. Kyle Hamilton, S, Ravens

Grade: C+

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I’ll start with the bad — Hamilton missed three dive attempts against the Titans. Otherwise, he demonstrated dynamic deep coverage ability, often erasing throwing lines as they materialized thanks to his fluid footwork at his intimidating size. If the dive attempts turn into clean, under-control closeouts, Hamilton will be fine.

17. Zion Johnson, OG, Chargers

Grade: A-

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Out of the gate, Johnson looked like a seasoned veteran, mostly because the Chargers ran often, and Johnson’s terrifically low center of gravity and natural strength were often on display to carve up play lanes on the ground. His anchor was solid in the pro passing game, except for an overzealous whiff late in the first quarter and a rush that started to get the better of him late in the game. Overall a positive start for the rookie right guard.

19. Trevor Penning, OT, Saints

Grade: D+

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In the preseason opener against the Texans, Penning was hit with the harsh reality that he was no longer blocking against FCS outside linebackers. He surrendered five pressures on just 27 pass blocks and looked mostly shaky against any type of quarterback using any type of rush. Consolation: He moved people in the running game.

20. Kenny Pickett, QB, Steelers

Degree: B

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I saw a tweet that the Steelers turned their offense into the Dolphins offense in 2021 after Pickett entered the competition, and after watching the film, that’s basically true. From halfback throws with first reads downfield, to quick checks, to wide receiver screens, the Steelers didn’t ask their first-round pick to do much in his preseason debut. That’s not to say it was a failure of the rookie’s performance. He was decisive and accurate with the ball and managed to make an impressive layup near the sideline early in the fourth quarter.

23. Kaiir Elam, CB, Accounts

Grade: B-

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It was a clean debut at Orchard Park for the rookie corner, aside from a pass interference when he was caught peeking into the backfield on a pass. Also, Elam’s coverage was sticky and he had a pass breakup. For a mostly male cornerback playing in a zone-heavy scheme, Elam was smooth but unimpressive.

24. Tyler Smith, OG, Cowboys

Grade: A-

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After watching film of Tulsa at length to target Smith during the pre-draft process, the Cowboys’ first-round debut as a pro went pretty much exactly as expected. He looked a little lost at times, even bumping into the center or the tackle. But he wrestled like hell and showed raw, veteran strength in straight-up, man-to-man, pro pass and run game scenarios. There was seemingly one failed assignment against him, which led to pressure. Also, I like how Smith played against the Broncos.

26. Jermaine Johnson II, EDGE, Jets

Grade: C

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Johnson saved his best shot for…first. Yes, his opening pass rush snap, from the wide nine against Lane Johnson, was the most impressive of the afternoon against the Eagles, shaking up the established right tackle. That aside, Johnson looked like a nimble, long first-round pick, but he was held back.

29. Cole Strange, OG, Patriots

Degree: B

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First, Strange gets extra points for playing gloveless in his Patriots preseason debut. Very much his New England inside blocker. In all seriousness, if slightly sloppy, Strange didn’t look out of place at left guard with his 13 tackles and the tenacious finishing he displayed in [Les Snead voice] UT-Chattanooga was obvious against the Giants defenders.

30. George Karlaftis, EDGE, Chiefs

Grade: A-

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Karlaftis busted out a full arsenal of pass rush moves against the Bears and was very effective, registering three snap pressures in which he was tasked with chasing down the quarterback. Looked explosive and armed well with weapons at the point of attack. Karlaftis won with a one-handed bull rush, an outside speed rush and a floater later in the game. He was washed out on a few occasions against the run but overall had a great debut.

31. Daxton Hill, S/CB, Bengals

Grade: B+

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Hill was ubiquitous in his first preseason game, logging 40 snaps and hardly ever looking lost or out of place. Midway through the second quarter, he quickly reacted to a throw up the middle and almost had an interception. He missed a tackle.

32. Lewis Sinn, S, Vikings

Degree: B

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Just like he showed at Georgia, Cine was lightning fast roaming against the Raiders to start his preseason journey. He had a solo shot on a lower route and otherwise didn’t see much of the ball thrown his way.

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