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Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder come up aces; Matt Corral flops: Grading NFL rookie QB preseason debuts

Sporting News logo Sporting News 8/14/2022 Vinnie Iyer
© Provided by Sporting News

Nine quarterbacks were selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. Eight of them saw their first game action in Week 1 of the preseason this weekend.

Although only one QB was selected in the first round last April — the Steelers' Kenny Pickett — the group showed promise playing for the first time as professionals. 

Other than Pickett, who's battling Mitchell Trubisky for the starting job in Pittsburgh, there's little chance any of them will become their team's No. 1 for Week 1 of the regular season. But all of them, from the potential franchise passers to the developmental backups, made an initial impression. The Sporting News ranks how they fared.

MORE: Breaking down Pickett vs. Trubisky in Pittsburgh

NFL rookie quarterback grades

1. Kenny Pickett, Steelers (1st round, No. 20 overall)

Grade: A+

Stats: 13-of-15 passing, 95 yards, two TDs, 6.3 yards per attempt, 132.6 passer rating, three rushes, 16 yards

There was electricity at Acrisure Stadium, and for good reason. Pickett felt right at home in Pittsburgh, playing as if he were still a Pitt Panther. He showed off everything that made him a first-rounder while ripping the Seahawks: moxie, arm, accuracy and athleticism. He worked within the downfield passing offense that suited his skill set, and he also brought some of the improv flair that's a part of his all-around game.

Let's hope the Steelers are thinking a lot more about Pickett winning the job outright over Mitchell Trubisky, whose camp struggles have been well-documented.

2. Malik Willis, Titans (3rd round, No. 86 overall)

Grade: A

Stats: 6-of-11 passing, 107 yards, 9.7 yards per attempt, 88.1 passer rating, five rushes, 38 yards, one TD

Where there's a Willis, there should be nervous Ryan Tannehill. Tennessee may have gotten a steal with a player who should have been a first-rounder given his physical upside.

Willis was playing in a contained offense at times, and like many raw athletic QBs he relied plenty on taking off and running vs. the Ravens. But he also delivered a "wow" deep ball to wide receiver Racey McMath.

The conservative Titans don't have plans to play him over Tannehill yet, but no one would be shocked if Willis is their best option by midseason.

MORE: Vrabel details Willis' biggest area for improvement after 'OK' preseason debut

3. Desmond Ridder, Falcons (3rd round, No. 74 overall)

Grade: A- 


Video: Should Starters Play in the Preseason? (Stadium)

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Stats: 10-of-22 passing, 103 yards, two TDs, 4.7 yards per attempt, 89.8 passer rating, six rushes, 59 rushing yards

The Falcons, with former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith as their coach, likewise aren't expected to rush their third-rounder into action over experienced bridge QB Marcus Mariota. But they took Ridder because of his similarities to Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015.

Ridder showed the seasoning he gained from his long, winning career at Cincinnati as he led a comeback victory over the Lions. The final numbers weren't all that efficient, but he made clutch plays and proved that he is a plus runner. It's only a matter of time before the Falcons will want to see Ridder get significant regular-season snaps with their inevitable early fall from playoff contention.

MORE: Ridder not focused on winning starting QB job over Mariota immediately

4. Sam Howell, Commanders (5th round, No. 144 overall)

Grade: A-

Stats: 9-of-16 passing, 145 yards, 9.1 yards per attempt, 86.7 passer rating, thre rushes, 19 yards, two TDs

Howell also experienced a shocking fall in the draft given how he played at North Carolina. He showed promise as a developmental QB with a smooth, confident performance against the Panthers. He excelled in the intermediate and deep passing games and showed his athleticism as a decisive runner.

Carson Wentz, like Trubisky, hasn't had the best camp reviews, but the Commanders are committed to him for now. Howell is far from pushing from the veteran, but he inspired as a potential Day 3 steal who could, at worst, be Washington's No. 2 soon.

MORE: Behind Howell's drop in draft stock

5. Bailey Zappe, Patriots (4th round, No. 137 overall)

Grade: B 

Stats: 19-of-32 passing, 205 yards, one TD, one INT, one sack, 6.4 yards per attempt, 75.8 passer rating

There's no question that Zappe, based on his video-game highlights and numbers from Western Kentucky, can spread the ball all over the field. But what stood out from his debut against an aggressive Giants defense was his composed nature in the pocket. He showed good mental and physical toughness.

Zappe doesn't have a lot of early pressure on him with Mac Jones cemented as the starter and Brian Hoyer a seasoned No. 2. But he showed he can grow in New England's post-Josh McDaniels system. He made solid throws, including a sharp scoring strike to Lil'Jordan Humphrey.

MORE: Why did the Patriots draft Zappe?

6. Skylar Thompson, Dolphins (7th round, No. 247 overall)

Grade: B

Stats: 20-of-28 passing, 218 yards, one TD, 7.8 yards per attempt, 106.0 passer rating, three rushes, 25 yards

The Kansas State product was the only Miami QB who played vs. Tampa Bay. He handled himself well, with good accuracy and distribution (10 different receivers caught passes). Mike McDaniel found the right guy for his system to bring along behind Tua Tagovailoa.

7. Brock Purdy, 49ers (7th round, No. 262 overall)

Grade:

Stats: 3-of-6 passing, 36 yards, one TD, 6.0 yards per attempt, 108.3 passer rating

Purdy was an interesting "Mr. Irrevelant" as the final pick in the draft. He is a Kyle Shanahan-style pocket passer. Whenever Jimmy Garoppolo is moved, Nate Sudfeld should be the backup to Trey Lance. Purdy, after an accomplished career at Iowa State, looked very rookie-like in a short, late stint in preseason Week 1. He did show intangibles with a game-winning TD and two-point conversion. Purdy can put himself in position to make the team as a No. 3 without Jimmy G if he puts in more good work before the season.

8. Matt Corral, Panthers (3rd round, No. 94 overall)

Grade: D

Stats: 1-of-9 passing, 11 yards, 1.2 yards per attempt, 39.6 passer rating, one rush, 6 yards

Corral is buried on Carolina's depth chart behind Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. He confirmed why he's not a threat to either 2018 first-rounder with his uncomfortable debut outing. Corral needs to do plenty to prove he can be even a competent third-stringer.

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