NFL Draft Notebook: Aidan O’Connell and Keion White shine in preseason Week 1

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 13: Quarterback Aidan O'Connell #4 of the Las Vegas Raiders warms up before a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers at Allegiant Stadium on August 13, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 13: Quarterback Aidan O'Connell #4 of the Las Vegas Raiders warms up before a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers at Allegiant Stadium on August 13, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images) /

This week we saw football officially back with all 32 teams playing a preseason game. One of the things coaches pay the most attention to during this time of the year is how their NFL Draft picks did in their first live action.

In this week’s NFL Draft Notebook, we look at ten rookies that had stellar performances, led by Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Aidan O’Connell. In addition to highlighting these rookies this week’s article also scouts the top prospects at the University of Texas, previews the 2024 middle lineback class, and much more.

Top Ten Rookie Performances of Preseason Week One

1. Aidan O’Connell, QB, Las Vegas Raiders: Last year’s day three quarterback who proved he had starter potential was Brock Purdy, and against Purdy’s 49ers, Aidan O’Connell showed this type of potential. He showed outstanding poise in the pocket, and impressive accuracy in this game. Overall, on the day O’Coneel completed 83 percent of his passes and a few of his missed passers were due to his receivers dropping the ball.

2. Keion White, DE, New England Patriots: New England Patriots defensive end Keion White is showing why he was NFL Draft Notebook 17th rated payer in the 2023 NFL Draft, and why the Patriots got an absolute steal with him when they took him with the 46th overall pick. In just five drives he was able to come away with three tackles, two quarterback hurries, and a big play that allowed the Patriots to recover a fumble.

3. Nick Herbig, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh’s Nick Herbig made the most of his limited reps on Friday. He came away with 1.5 sacks in just eight pass-rushing downs. The main reason why he was able to be so dominant was his quick first step off the ball which allowed him to beat his man off the ball. This trait also allowed Herbig to account for 11 sacks at Wisconsin last year where he played in a similar scheme to what the Steelers run.

4. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB, Cleveland Browns: For the second consecutive week, Dorian Thompson-Robinson has had an outstanding game. In the August third Hall of Fame game, he went 8-11 for 82 yards with one touchdown. In the team’s preseason game on Friday, he had an even more impressive night throwing the football going 9-10 for 102 yards and a touchdown. There is no doubt so far Thompson-Robinson is showing he has the ability to develop into a starting quarterback.

5. Emanuel Wilson, RB, Green Bay Packers: It was a night to remember for Green Bay Packers running back Emanuel Wilson, who lost his father 14 years ago to the day he played in his first game. He averaged a very impressive 18.5 yards per carry with his biggest running coming in the fourth quarter when he broke off an 80-yard touchdown scamper. In addition to piling up impressive statistics, he also showed surprising speed for a 226-pound back, and also the ability to run through arm tackles.

6. Ronnie Hickman, S. Washington Commanders: Washington’s Ronnie Hickman showed elite ball skills in the team’s win against the Cleveland Browns. In this game, he was able to pick off two passes and showed outstanding range on the first interception. He also played a big role on special teams seeing the second most snaps of any Commanders in this area.

7. Elijah Dotson, RB, Los Angeles Chargers: Dotson like Wilson is another small school running back who looked outstanding this past weekend. Dotson showed why he was one of the best backs in Division Two last season, with his performance against the Rams. Overall, on the night he was able to account for 92 yards and had two touchdown runs over 35 yards on just six carries. If he continues to play like he did on Saturday he could be the fourth running back to make the Chargers.

8. Carrington Valentine, CB, Green Bay Packers: Carrington Valentine in one preseason game already has the same amount of interceptions he had last year at Kentucky with one pick. In his game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he was able to get his hands on four balls which includes a pick he made in the second quarter. He also displayed the ability to support the run making a nice tackle on Chase Brown. Overall, Valentine showed why he had a fifth-round grade on my board despite being a seventh-round pick.

9. A.T. Perry, WR, New Orleans Saints: Another player I had rated than where he went in the 2023 NFL Draft, that had a strong week was New Orleans wide receiver A.T. Perry. He made a nice touchdown grab from Jameis Winston and also led the team in receptions and receiving yards.

10. John Stephens Jr. TE, Dallas Cowboys: The top performance from a rookie tight end came from Dallas Cowboys undrafted free agent John Stephens Jr. He finished as the Cowboy’s leading receiver with five catches for 56 yards and also had one touchdown. This game and his strong camp should be enough for Stephens to make some team this year, even if it’s not the Cowboys.

Texas NFL Draft Prospects

Xavier Worthy, WR, Second Round: The Texas prospect with the highest draft grade on my board is wide receiver Xavier Worthy. The biggest reason he carries a second-round grade is his ability to make the big play. Last season he was able to get behind Alabama’s secondary several times and in 2021 he averaged 15.8 yards per catch. One concern scouts will have with him is his lack of bulk since he comes in at only 172 pounds.

Ja’Tavion Sanders, TE, Second Round: Texas’s second-best prospect is also the second-best tight end in the 2024 NFL Draft. What makes Ja’Tavion Sanders such a highly thought of prospect is his ability to help in the pass game. Last season, he caught 54 passes which is the most for a tight end in program history. He also finished second in school history for receiving yards by a tight end with 613 yards. If he can improve as a blocker he has a chance of sneaking into the late part of the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

Quinn Ewers, QB, Third Round: The third round grade Ewers has here might seem low, considering he has a top ten grade by some people, but he needs to prove himself on the field first. Last season, was his first year as a starter and he was inconsistent most of the year. A couple of things he needs to improve on are his accuracy, footwork, and pocket awareness. If he can improve in all of those areas he has the raw tools to be a high first-round pick.

Jaylan Ford, MLB, Third Round: Expectations were not big for Jaylan Ford when he signed with Texas, as he was rated as the 102nd-best outside linebacker and 112th player in Texas by ESPN. To say the least, Ford has outplayed these low expectations, having made 119 tackles last season and being named a third-team All-American. When watching his film the first thing that stands out is the power he plays with, and how physical of a tackler he is. He also is a playmaker in coverage having recorded four picks last season.

Adonai Mitchell, WR, Third Round: While Quinn Ewers might be a little overrated going into the season one Texas prospect who is being underrated is wide receiver Adonai Mitchell. The reason people are overlooking him is that he missed most of last season due to an ankle injury. However, when he is in the lineup he shows the soft hands, athletic ability, and focus to be a day two pick next April.

T’Vondre Sweat, DT, Third Round: Teams that are looking for a run-stuffing defensive tackle are going to like what they find in T’Vondre Sweat. Sweat’s massive 6-foot-4 365-pound size allows him to consistently clog up running lanes, and shows the power to go with this size as well. While Sweat is not much of a pass rusher he does show a quick burst off the ball for someone his size.

Barryn Sorrell, DE, Fifth Round: There are very few defensive ends in the 2024 NFL Draft who play the run better than Texas’s Barryn Sorrell. What makes Sorrell such a force against the run is his power that allows him to control his man at the point of attack, and his 6-foot-4 261 pound size. Another thing working in his favor is that he is an extremely disciplined defensive end who rarely finds himself out of position.

Jahdae Barron, CB, Sixth Round: Another Texas Longhorn who is being overlooked is cornerback Jahdae Barron. Barron is one of the better nickel cornerbacks in the 2024 NFL draft for several reasons. One of these is how well he holds up in coverage only allowing a 64.2 passer rating against him. He also is not afraid to come down and be a force vs. the run. Last season, Barron led Texas in tackles for loss with 11.5 and he consistently sets the edge against the run. One more positive with him is he can help out on special teams having blocked one punt which he returned for a touchdown.

Jalen Catalon, S, Seventh Round: Texas safety Jalen Catalon would be rated much higher if he could stay healthy. However, that has been a big concern with him as he has had season-ending injuries each of the past two years, and also only played in one game his senior year of high school due to injury. When he is on the field though he is an aggressive player who sets the tone for his defense with the big hits he consistently puts on opposing ball carriers.

2024 NFL Draft Middle Linebacker Class Preview

Top Player: Tommy Eichenberg, Ohio State
Ohio State’s Tommy Eichenberg is the top middle linebacker in the 2024 NFL Draft, due to his well-rounded game. He is an excellent run-stuffer who does a great job fighting through traffic to make the tackle. He also has some of the best instincts in the 2024 NFL Draft, which helped him account for 120 tackles last year. In addition to those traits, he shows the coverage ability to be a three-down linebacker, displaying the speed to keep up with most backs and a good understanding of where to be in zone coverage.

Guy I Would Stand on the Table for: Jason Henderson, Old Dominion
The most productive middle linebacker in the 2024 NFL Draft is Old Dominion linebacker Jason Henderson. Last season, he led the nation with 186 tackles which was 39 tackles more than anyone else. When looking at how his game translates the first thing that stands out is his impressive instincts which allow him to diagnose plays at a rapid pace. He also is a sound tackler who rarely misses a tackle. I currently give Henderson a fifth-round grade, and think at worst he will be able to make an NFL team as a core special teams player.

Overrated: Jeremiah Trotter Jr, Clemson
While Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter Jr. has had outstanding college production and was named second-team All-American last year, his game might be limited at the NFL level. The first reason for this is his lack of athletic ability. He is more of your traditional run stuffing middle linebacker compared to today’s linebacker who has the ability to flourish in space. He also lacks ideal size coming in at only six feet tall. That said, he could find a role as a starter in the NFL, as a two-down linebacker who excels at stopping the run.

Sleeper: Jaylan Ford, Texas
As mentioned earlier in the article I have a third-round grade on Ford, due to his physical style of play and ability to hold up in coverage. This grade is significantly higher than other draftniks see him though as he carries only a seventh-round grade NFL Mock Draft Database. If he falls to the late portion of the 2024 NFL Draft, he will be one of the biggest steals in the draft.

Biggest Risk: Jacob Dobbs, Holy Cross
The main reason why Jocob Dobbsi is a risky pick is he coming off a season-ending elbow injury. On the positive side, he is fully healthy now and if he can stay healthy this year it shouldn’t be a major issue for him. One other concern with him though that he won’t be able to overcome is his lack of height as he comes in at just 6 feet and 237 pounds. Despite these concerns look for teams to consider him late on day three due to his impressive production, strength to fight through traffic, and overall leadership ability.

Overall Rankings

Please note in parentheses is the draft grade I give them

1. Tommy Eichenberg, Ohio State (second round)
2. Junior Colson, Michigan (second round)
3. Jeremiah Trotter Jr, Clemson (third round)
4. Jaylan Ford, Texas (third round)
5. Smael Mondon Jr., Georgia (third round)
6. Jason Henderson, Old Dominion (fifth round)
7. Aaron Beasley, Tennesse (fifth round)
8. Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Georgia (fifth round)
9. Maema Njongmeta, Wisconsin (sixth round)
10. Tristan Wheeler, Richmond (sixth round)
11. Ben Bywater, BYU (seventh round)
12. Tatum Bethune, Florida State (seventh round)
13. Jacob Dobbs, Holy Cross (seventh round)
14. Jason Johnson, UCF (seventh round)

Scouting Notes

— Tennessee’s Aaron Beasley is an intriguing day-three linebacker to keep an eye on. He is a proven playmaker who makes his share of tackles in the backfield having led Tennesse in tackles for loss last year with 13. He also is one of the top athletes in this year’s middle linebacker class showing both the speed and change of direction to hold up in space. One concern with his game is that he is underweight for a middle linebacker coming in at only 225 pounds, so he may make more sense as an outside linebacker.

— One of the better cornerbacks in the 2024 NFL Draft is Florida’s Jason Marshalll Jr. The reason scouts are so high on him is his ability to mirror receivers in coverage. He is able to do this due to his quick feet and overall impressive athletic ability. This combination allowed him to lead the SEC in completion rate allowed according to Pro Football Focus and also breakup eight passes last year. One area he does need to improve though is being more physical at the catch point since receivers can outmusle him currently.

— Richmond’s Tristan Wheeler has been a standout since arriving at Richmond. He was named the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, and since then has been named to the All-CAA team three times. Going into this season he has 366 tackles, and will likely have his fourth 100-tackle season this year. While his college production is impressive he shows the NFL traits to be a day three pick as well. His top trait is his instincts which allow him to always be in the right spot. He also shows impressive strength and is a player who will not stay blocked.

— In last week’s NFL Draft Notebook we talked about how Jordan Addison will likely be the Viking’s number two wide receiver this year, and he backed it up in limited action in Minnesota’s first preseason game. His most impressive play was a toe-dragging catch he made despite referees incorrectly calling it an incomplete pass. He also made a tough reception when Nick Mullens underthrew a pass.

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— While there were plenty of rookies who made strong first impressions this past week one who who didn’t was New York Ginats wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton. He was targeted three times during the game and wasn’t able to come up with a reception. He also was called for pass interference once. If he doesn’t look more impressive in the team’s other two preseason games it is hard to see Ford-Wheaton making the team despite being one of the top-ranked undrafted free agents.

— For all the latest NFL Draft news make sure to check out The Notebook.

Quotes of the Week

"“I can’t really explain the emotions, but I just know that he’s proud of me, reaching my goals and everything in life. He’s always been with me since the day he died. I can’t even explain it. I just know that he was always here for me.”"

Green Bay running back Emanuel Wilson on playing his first NFL game on the 14-year anniversary of his father’s death

"“His whole demeanor changed after he cut that mullet (before spring football). I don’t know what it was about that mullet, but whatever he did after cutting that mullet, it’s like he’s a whole new person – like he went from a young kid to an adult. And it shows in the whole way he carries himself. He even started to be more of a leader now on this team – maybe one of the biggest leaders on this team, really. Just the way he’s playing the game now, how he’s moving within football and out of football. Overall, he’s just a better man, really. As soon as we got back for winter workouts, he was getting extra work in the weight room and with (quarterbacks) Coach (AJ) Milwee, and all that’s starting to show. He’s gonna do what he gonna do on that field for sure.”"

Texas tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders on quarterback Quinn Ewers via Horns 247.

"“He’s going to be a great player. I’m extremely impressed with the way he’s able to move. The way he runs his routes, they’re crisp, they’re defined. Knows how to get open. When you give him the ball, he’s going to catch it. He’s sure-handed. I’ve been really, really impressed with him. There’s guys who walk out on the practice field day one and your eyes open when they do their first route or run their first play, and he was one of those guys for me.”"

Seahawks quarterback Drew Lock on rookie wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba

"“It’s gonna start with Beaux. I mean Beaux is a great player, there’s a reason why he could’ve gone wherever he wanted to go in the country. He’s really, really developed. If he stays healthy, he’s going to have an amazing year. He’s a really, really good player and a great kid, a great leader. He’s super, super talented. He’s fast, strong, he’s polished, he really understands all the nuances of the position and he’s passionate about it,”"

Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney on wide receiver Beaux Collins

"“I feel like I was born to be a Steeler. I’m supposed to be here, wearing that Black and Gold. I feel that Black and Gold running through my veins right now. It feels like exactly what God wanted for me.”"

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Nick Herbig

Jaguars top target Calvin Ridley set to remind the NFL he is HIM. dark. Next

"“I’m a first-round cornerback. I mean, I feel like I’ve been slept on because of my injuries and because of who knows what, but I’m a first-round cornerback and I’ll show that, for sure.”"

Notre Dame cornerback Cam Hart

"“What a camp he’s having. He has impressed since Day 1. He’s stood out in OTAs and you got to camp and the opportunities he’s had with the older guys, it wasn’t too big for him. You could see out there tonight, he was out there competing. He was having fun. It was what you want.”"

Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Mike McCarthy on tight end John Stephens Jr.