NFL News & Analysis

Highest-graded rookies from Week 1 of the 2023 NFL preseason, including Eli Ricks and Aidan O'Connell

2RH78RG Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Aidan O'Connell #4plays during a pre-season NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

• Eli Ricks leads the pack: The undrafted free agent, once thought to be a top draft prospect, was the lone rookie to earn a 95.0-plus overall grade in Week 1.

• Three UDFAs headline the list: In addition to Ricks, Packers running back Emanuel Wilson and Saints edge defender Anfernee Orji make up the top three.

• Raiders QB Aidan O'Connell puts on a show: When most eyes were on the 49ers' backup quarterback battle, O'Connell starred en route to a 92.3 game grade.

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With Week 1 of the 2023 NFL preseason in the books, all 32 NFL teams have had the chance to see what their rookies are capable of.

These are PFF’s 10 highest-graded rookies from the first full week of preseason action.

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1. CB Eli Ricks, Philadelphia Eagles (96.7)

Anytime a player gets a pick-six, in their first NFL game or not, their initial PFF grade is bound to be near the elite range. That was the case for the undrafted Ricks. He logged 12 coverage snaps for a 96.1 coverage grade with one interception, one forced incompletion and only seven yards allowed on one catch. 

2. RB Emanuel Wilson, Green Bay Packers (93.5)

Wilson makes it back-to-back undrafted free agents on the highest-graded rookies list. The former Fort Valley State running back rushed for 111 yards on just six carries with two touchdowns. Three of his six carries went for 10 yards or more, and he earned a 93.2 rushing grade on the day.

3. EDGE Anfernee Orji, New Orleans Saints (93.4)

Now it's three straight undrafted free agents to start this list. New Orleans Saints edge defender Anfernee Orji also recorded an elite grade in his first preseason game. Orji, who played his college ball at Vanderbilt, logged 16 snaps, with his best facet being pass rush (92.2). It was a small sample size, but he recorded a pressure on one of his two rushes. He also recorded a 78.6 run-defense grade in run defense and a 78.2 coverage grade.

4. QB Aidan O’Connell, Las Vegas Raiders (92.3)

It was a great first game for Raiders fourth-round pick Aidan O’Connell, who went 15-for-18 (with two drops) for a 94.4% adjusted completion rate. He also had one touchdown, one big-time throw and a 90.8 passing grade on a 7.8 yards-per-attempt average. Hopefully he gets to see some additional playing time against first-team defenses. 

5. EDGE Markees Watts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (92.1)

Although Watts' performance came on a somewhat small sample size against the Steelers, he was very productive, especially as a pass rusher. He played 23 snaps total, seven of which were pass-rush reps. He recorded two pressures — one being a sack — and earned a 94.3 pass-rush grade. Watts is Charlotte’s all-time sack leader, so backfield production is nothing new to him.

6. WR Xavier Malone, Atlanta Falcons (91.0)

Malone finished with just two catches, but they went for 50 yards — one of which was a 27-yard gain. Malone was an undrafted free agent out of Henderson State. He played only 12 snaps (four in the slot and eight out wide), but both of his receptions were explosive catches of 15 yards or more. For that elite impact, he earned an elite grade.

7. LB Jack Campbell, Detroit Lions (90.6)

The Lions’ first-round linebacker, Campbell played 23 total snaps — 12 in coverage, 10 in run defense and three in pass rush. He earned an 80.5 coverage grade and a 75.5 run-defense grade after recording one solo stop in run defense and a forced incompletion in coverage. 

8. LB Henry To’oTo’o, Houston Texans (90.6)

The former Alabama linebacker logged 16 snaps this past weekend, earning a 90.0 coverage grade and a 68.2 pass-rushing grade. He let up two catches on two targets for just five total yards. He also recorded one pressure on his lone pass-rush rep. 

9. S Ronnie Hickman Jr., Cleveland Browns (90.3)

Hickman’s 45 snaps in Week 1 ranked in the top 15 for all rookie defenders. He played 25 snaps in coverage with 19 snaps in run defense. He earned an 88.3 coverage grade, which is impressive for a player who logged that many snaps in coverage. He allowed two receptions for 26 total yards but also grabbed two catches himself in the form of interceptions. 

10. CB William Hooper, Green Bay Packers (90.3)

Hooper was another undrafted free agent who really stood out in Week 1 of the preseason. He played 25 snaps total with 20 snaps in coverage, earning a 90.3 coverage grade. He allowed three receptions for 19 total yards while tallying three forced incompletions to highlight a very solid day.

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