What a showing for rookie wide receivers in Week 8. While Sammy Watkins and Kelvin Benjamin have dominated the headlines for first-year pass catchers, and rightfully so, they aren’t the only notable receivers to make a big impact for their teams this season. They’ve been the most consistent, but have also been given the biggest opportunity as No. 1 targets on their respective teams. Chris Tripodi breaks down what he saw from four other rookie wideouts who enjoyed their best performances of the season in Week 8.
Brandin Cooks (WR-NO)
After a big Week 1 that saw Cooks burst onto the scene in Atlanta with seven receptions for 77 yards and his first career touchdown, many expected him to continue that success through the first half of the season. Like the Saints, however, the speedy Cooks struggled away from the Superdome turf and caught just 10 passes for 71 yards in his next three road games. The first-round rookie did put up 17 receptions for 130 yards in two home games before Sunday, but even those performance were underwhelming in terms of a lack of big plays. That certainly wasn’t the case Sunday against the Packers, as Cooks caught six balls for a career-high 94 yards and a touchdown, while adding a rushing score as well.
On the Saints’ first possession, Drew Brees drove the team inside the Packers’ five-yard line to set up Cooks’ first touchdown, a jet sweep to the left where the rookie scored untouched. Cooks motioned from the right slot and the Green Bay defense didn’t keep outside contain on the quick snap and handoff, giving Cooks an easy lane to quickly speed through. Two possessions later, Cooks got a step deep on a post route against Davon House and Brees hit him perfectly in stride for what would’ve been a 45-yard catch. Unfortunately, Cooks couldn’t hang onto the pass as he fell to the turf.
Brees showed great confidence in Cooks even after the drop, however, going right back to him on the next play for a 14-yard gain. The former Oregon State star ran a 15-yard in on the play, but rounded off his break at the stem and allowed Tramon Williams to close on the pass. Brees did a nice job throwing behind Cooks to avoid Williams’ break, but the pass was high and Cooks couldn’t secure it, knocking it up into the air. The ball came right back down to Cooks, who showed impressive concentration to keep his eye on the pass and pull it in before safety Charles Woodson could come over and snatch it out of the air. Brees continued to go back to Cooks after that acrobatic catch, hitting him on an 18-yard comeback route during a two-minute drill at the end of the first half. It took Cooks a few choppy steps to slow down at the top of his route before flipping around to his quarterback, but the threat of his speed deep in that situation still allowed him to break open.
Even though Cooks blew his chance at a long catch and possible touchdown in the second quarter, he made up for it on the same route in the second half. Cooks used his 4.3 speed to blow by Williams and a safety to get deep and Brees hit him again in stride, but Cooks secured the catch this time before rolling over into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown. The rookie showed a short memory in this game, a great trait for an NFL receiver, as his second-quarter drop was the only missed connection between him and Brees on the day.
The Saints targeted Cooks multiple times on slant routes as well, two coming against off coverage when Brees got the ball to Cooks immediately to allow him to go to work, although there ended up being no running room. New Orleans looks committed to getting the ball in Cooks’ hands both short, deep and on running plays, which is a wise way to use a home-run hitting game breaker. He may continue to struggle with consistency due to a skill set geared towards big plays and playing half his games on grass away from the Superdome, but Cooks will be a big part of the Saints’ push for a playoff spot, especially with Jimmy Graham less than 100 percent and Marques Colston struggling.
Donte Moncrief (WR-Ind)
With Reggie Wayne missing Week 8 due to an elbow injury, Moncrief was in the discussion with Hakeem Nicks to replace Wayne in the starting lineup. Nicks eventually got the call, but he was brutally ineffective and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton decided it was time to give Moncrief a chance to shine early in the second quarter. A third-round pick out of Ole Miss, the 6-2, 201-pound athletic freak with 4.4 speed played over 60 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and saw an impressive 12 targets from Andrew Luck, catching seven for 113 yards and his first career touchdown.
Moncrief made his presence felt immediately once he entered the game, catching a short crossing route on a busted coverage and showing impressive speed and run-after-catch ability to pick up 52 yards. While the safety had a shot at Moncrief as he sprinted down the sideline, Moncrief showed nice vision to recognize the safety’s overpursuit and cut inside to pick up an extra 10 yards rather than running out of bounds. That drive led to a touchdown, and Luck actually looked Moncrief’s way on all three plays of the following drive. The first was batted at the line and another thrown well short, but Moncrief did show that he was on the same page as Luck on a four-yard completion in between. The slot corner on Moncrief’s side blitzed, and the rookie quickly turned back to Luck to give him a hot read and show his numbers to the quarterback.
Luck’s emerging trust in Moncrief was apparent throughout the game, especially when he hit the rookie on an 11-yard curl to pick up a first down in the third quarter. Luck released the pass a second before Moncrief started his break and turned back to the quarterback, which allowed the pass to be completed to move the chains. Moncrief had a tough drop on the next play, as Luck had him open on another crossing route but led him a bit too far. The first-year receiver didn’t extend as much as he needed to bring in the catch, and it’s possible footsteps from Troy Polamalu caused the alligator arms. Later in the drive, Moncrief did made a nice catch above his head in close coverage, and Luck went back to him again on the next play, both crosses, for 10 yards combined and a first down. The second was impressive, as Moncrief broke a tackle right after making the grab short of the marker and just barely managed the yardage he needed.
The former Ole Miss star’s touchdown came late in the third quarter, when he used his speed to get a step on the cornerback on a sideline go route. Rather than trying to run through the catch, Moncrief left his feet to turn back to the pass and put the corner in a tough position trying to defend the ball. The rookie knew where he was in relation to the sideline and reached the ball across the goal line before Polamalu could come over to prevent the score, an impressive display of athleticism and coordination to separate, make the grab and find the end zone.
Week 8 had some ups and downs for Moncrief, but overall he played well enough to see more time as the third receiver ahead of Nicks when Wayne returns to the lineup. His size and speed make him a legitimate playmaker in the short passing game and on deep routes, and further development of his route tree should make him even more effective. Right now, the Colts seem content dragging Moncrief across the middle and running him deep on shot plays, which will combine with Wayne’s return to make this likely to be Moncrief’s best performance of the season. With Wayne heading into free agency this offseason, Moncrief has a great chance to be one of Luck’s top two receivers next season if he can continue his development into the offseason.
John Brown (WR-Ari)
With 17 catches and three touchdowns through his first six career games, Brown has already made an impact on the Cardinals’ offense, even though most of those games were played without starting quarterback Carson Palmer. Arizona’s third-round pick out of Pittsburg State went over 50 yards just once in those games, but has been a big part of Bruce Arians’ vertical scheme thanks to blazing 4.34 speed. The 5-11, 179-pound Brown had a huge day in Arizona’s win over Philadelphia in Week 8, catching five passes for 119 yards and a game-winning 75-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Brown’s touchdown was worthy of multiple replays, as the rookie burnt the Eagles’ secondary on a stop-and-go route. Even though the first-year speedster broke free and was heading towards the middle of the field, Palmer led the throw over Brown’s outside shoulder, away from the safety to the inside. The former D-II star showed great ball-tracking skills to adjust, make the catch in stride and stay on his feet despite a slight stumble and wasn’t caught until he reached the end zone. As this play demonstrated, Brown is more than just pure speed; his ball skills are extremely impressive as well.
That touchdown wasn’t Brown’s only nice catch of the game, either. Quick pressure almost got to Palmer in the second quarter, and the veteran quarterback just threw a ball up to Brown down the left sideline. Brown showed nice concentration and made a great lunging grab while draped in tight coverage from the cornerback, looking the ball into his hands to bail out his quarterback. The rookie also showed skills on the sideline as well, extending nicely for an early third-down pass from Palmer on an out route and tapping his feet in to move the chains.
Brown also made a few nice catches on plays that didn’t count, making a reaching grab on a contested crossing route over the middle for 21 yards that was called back for holding. He also made a nice catch just out of the end zone when Palmer led him too far to the boundary, but Brown again flashed the skills to make grabs over his head on high passes look easy. The Cardinals have recognized his explosive skills in the passing game, and fed him multiple screen passes as well against the Eagles to get the ball in his hands, hoping for a big play. They didn’t hit this game, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Brown bust loose on a screen pass in the next few weeks.
After the win, a report came out saying Arians had compared Brown to a young Marvin Harrison. While Harrison was a couple inches taller at 6-0, they are both thin receivers who made an immediate impact during their rookie seasons. With Larry Fitzgerald turning into more of a possession receiver with a bloated 2015 cap number, Brown’s quick transition from Division II football to the NFL may influence the team’s decision on Fitzgerald this offseason. Even if Fitzgerald sticks around for another season, Brown’s playmaking ability will be on display every week in Arizona for years to come.
Martavis Bryant (WR-Pit)
For a player who was inactive for the first six games of the season, Martavis Bryant sure has made a quick impression with his play in the past two weeks. After debuting with a 35-yard touchdown in primetime during Week 7, Bryant’s encore was even more impressive: five receptions, 83 yards and two touchdowns. At 6-4, 211 pounds, Bryant was always expected to be a threat in the red zone, but he struggled with route running at Clemson and didn’t always play to his 4.4 40-yard dash time. The Steelers decided his upside was worth the risk in the fourth round, and Bryant has paid dividends so far despite playing just two games.
Both of Bryant’s touchdowns came in the red zone, and the first one was too easy. Bryant ran a quick slant route against a corner playing with outside leverage, likely protecting against a fade route, and Bryant sat down quickly between defenders once he realized how open he was. Ben Roethlisberger found the rookie for an easy five-yard score. His two-yard touchdown in the third quarter was more of Bryant’s specialty, as Roethlisberger lofted up a fade to Bryant in single coverage. The rookie used his height and long arms to snatch the ball at its highest point and secure it away from the corner to avoid any attempts on the ball. This is where Bryant wins, and he’s shown the ability to do it consistently in the NFL so far.
While those touchdowns showed Bryant’s red-zone prowess, his 52-yard catch displayed his threat as a field stretcher. Lined up against Darius Butler, Bryant ran right by the Colts’ cornerback and Roethlisberger hit him in stride 40 yards down the field. Bryant also showed no fear over the middle on an early 19-yard grab, beating a linebacker and making a nice hands catch away from his frame for 19 yards.
Bryant had many positive moments in this game, but also had a bad drop on a wide open slant route. The rookie beat his man to the inside, but just flat-out dropped a ball from Roethlisberger with some room to run after the catch. Bryant will need to make easy plays like this, but the positives certainly outweighed the negatives and he looks to have gained the trust of his veteran quarterback. While second-year speedster Markus Wheaton has struggled to create chemistry with Big Ben, Bryant has stepped right in and made important and efficient contributions, and the Steelers will likely continue to increase his reps if his improvement continues.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews along with interviewing NFL prospects. He has worked as a regional scout for Optimum Scouting since 2013, writes Jets-related content for Pro Football Spot and previously worked on a college football project at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft, and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.
Another weekend of close games on the college football schedule saw a shake-up at the top as Mississippi went down to defeat at the hands of LSU. It was also a weekend in which running backs improved their draft stock while offensive line prospects made news in the scouting community.
A year ago at this time I was touting Corey Robinson of South Carolina as one of the better offensive tackles in the nation and graded him as a first round pick. I’ve been slightly disappointed in his play this season as I expected more dominance and progress from the massive blocker. That opinion is not shared by a number of area scouts who have given Robinson high grades for his play in 2014. How high are those grades? At this point the first round grade I gave him a year ago seems on the mark, though its likely to be later in the frame.
On the other hand I’m told there is a diversity of opinion on the grades given to Tyler Sambrailo of Colorado State. The athletic tackle who caught a pass in the game against Wyoming on Saturday, only to have it called back by penalty, was given early round grades entering the season and is still considered a top 45 choice by a number of scouts. I am also aware of a few teams that have stamped Sambrailo as a later round (5th) pick believing he’s an average right tackle prospect, something I disagree with.
Just as Byron Jones of UConn was ready to make an appearance on our Risers list come word the senior tore his labrum and will be out for the remainder of the season. Considering the way UConn has played of late the timing its probably best it happened now. I’m told Jones had been struggling with a shoulder injury and was in fact wearing a harness when the labrum tore. I like Jones in the middle rounds and would not entirely exclude him from the third frame considering the way the cornerback class is shaping up.
Duke Johnson/RB/Miami-Fl: Prior to his fourth quarter injury Johnson was a one-man show for the Hurricanes, steamrolling Virginia Tech for 249 yards rushing and one score. He also led the team with 37 receiving yards on 2 receptions. The elusive ball carrier combines quickness, instincts and a burst of speed to beat defenders every time the ball’s in his hands. Johnson’s a three down back, well schooled in all areas of the position, and will land in the second round if he declares for the 2015 draft, which he’s expected to do.
Jeremy Langford/RB/Michigan State: Langford grades out as one of the better running backs from the senior class heading towards next April’s draft. He proved as much against in-state rival Michigan as Langford carried the ball 35 times for 177 yards, pushing the ball into the end zone for 3 scores. For the year Langford is averaging 5.3-yards on 125 carries. Though 205-pounds Langford plays big, breaking tackles and displaying himself as a potent short yardage runner. He also has the speed necessary to beat defenders into the open field and holds his own as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Though Langford won’t be rated as highly as many of the talented underclassmen expected to enter the draft, he has all the tools necessary to produce at the next level.
A J Cann/G/South Carolina: Cann was dominant in every area during the Gamecocks final quarter loss to Auburn. The team rolled up 535-yards of combined offense as Cann opened massive holes for the running game while easily handling opponents to protect his quarterback. He’s a thick and powerful blocker that has no problem holding the point of attack. Better in a small area, scouts love Cann, who should be off the board by the time the third round ends next April.
Rob Havenstein/T/Wisconsin: Melvin Gordon’s record breaking performances garner the headlines but its’ always started up front at Wisconsin and right tackle Havenstein is in the midst of a terrific campaign. He’s a massive blocker (6-feet/8-inches and 335lbs) who dominates the run game while also showing skill in pass protection. Havenstein is one of those offensive line prospects who slips into the late rounds of the draft then finds a starting spot in the NFL.
Terrell Hartsfield/DE-OLB/Cincinnati: Hartsfield could well be listed as a sleeper but scouts have been talking about him for a while now. The junior college transfer made few scouting lists entering the season after 23 tackles and 1.5 sacks a year ago. Seven games into the 2014 campaign he’s already registered 6 sacks with 7 tackles for loss. An athletic prospect with natural pass rushing skills, Hartsfield could well sneak into the late rounds if he performs well in pre-draft workouts.
Chris Hackett/S/TCU: Believe it or not, TCU’s blowout victory over Texas Tech (82-27) was close in the early going until Hackett intercepted a pass which the Horned Frogs converted into a score. Scouts have been raving about Hackett all year and with good reason. He’s a complete safety that plays smart, disciplined football. Hackett is terrific in coverage leading TCU in interceptions (3) and PBUs (4) while also listing third on the team in tackles (51). He lacks great size but as we’ve recently witnessed teams are willing to sacrifice measurables for a versatile safety effective making plays on the ball or defending the run, skills where the junior Hackett excels.
Garrett Grayson/QB/Colorado State: After a slow start to the season the light seemingly went on for Grayson during the second half of CSU’s closely fought victory over Boston College and he’s been on an upward swing ever since. Against Wyoming, a team which had a top five pass defense in the Mountain West, Grayson threw a career 5 touchdown passes and completed all but three of the 21 passes he attempted for 390-yards. The big armed passer is poised and patient in the pocket while showing the uncanny ability to accurately place throws into the hands of intended targets. Grayson has the physical skills to play at the next level but scouts wonder if he can handle a loaded playbook.
Xzavier Dickson/OLB/Alabama: As a sophomore in 2012, Dickson displayed flashes of big time ability but fell flat a year ago. So much so scouts graded him as barely camp worthy before the season began. Thus far the old Dickson has returned and improved on prior form, leading the Tide in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (9) while also breaking up two passes. He’s a solid athlete with the size (6’ 3.5’’ and 270lbs) to play out of a three point stance as well as the speed (4.75s) to stand up at linebacker. Continued positive play will push Dickson into the draft’s late rounds.
Sleeper of the Week- AJ Derby/TE/Arkansas: The junior college transfer came to Arkansas as a quarterback but rarely saw action underneath center. Hence the talented Derby moved his 6-foot/4-inch, 250lbs frame to tight end and is seeing immediate results. He’s averaging 15.5-yards on 16 receptions thus far in 2014 and has 3 touchdowns to his credit. Improving almost weekly, Derby looks natural catching the pass and does not fight the ball. In many ways Derby reminds me of former Michigan quarterback turned tight end Jay Riemersma, the seventh round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1996, who went on to play 8 years in the NFL.
Small School Prospects: C.J. Roberts/CB & Stephan Dickens/CB CSU-Pueblo: Roberts and Dickens, unmentioned by scouts entering the season, have both solidified themselves as legitimate NFL prospects for the one loss Pueblo Thunderwolves. Roberts is well sized (6-foot/190lbs), explosive and physically beats down opponents to defend the pass. Rarely challenged, he plays with a great degree of suddenness and forces the action up the field. Meanwhile Dickens is an opportunistic cornerback with solid ball skills. He’s recorded 6 interceptions in eight games this season and competes against larger receivers to defend the pass. Roberts projects as a nickel back in man coverage while Dickens is better backed off the line of scrimmage or as a zone corner in dime packages. While I don’t think either player will be drafted I expect both to compete for roster spots next summer.
Cedric Reed/DL/Texas: Reed entered the season with high hopes after posting 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a junior in 2013. In eight games this season those numbers have fallen dramatically as Reed’s totals include 1.5 sacks and 4 tackles for loss. Many scouts believe he’ll be a better pro-player than college-prospect but there’s no denying Reed’s draft stock has taken a big hit this season.
As we move into the final week of October it’s as good a time as any to report on the scuttlebutt surrounding which underclassmen are seriously considering entering the 2015 NFL Draft. While many of these decisions are not yet in cement, and there may be some denials, this is the most up to date information from around the nation.
The recent news stating Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is likely to enter the draft should come as no surprise to anyone as this was expected to be his last season with the Noles. What is surprising are reports which have MLB agents pursuing Winston in the hopes of signing him as a client. As told to us, Winston is a legitimate baseball prospect as a relief pitcher. Speaking with league insiders there are several theories as to why baseball agents are in pursuit of Winston. They include 1) Winston using his baseball opportunities to leverage where he will play in the NFL (ala Bo Jackson) 2) an instance such as Jeff Samardzija where Winston chooses baseball over the NFL. To be clear that’s all speculation as of now and assumes baseball agents are able to sign Winston.
Running back is the position expected to be most effected in the draft by an infusion of underclassmen talent as a number of top 60 prospects will be entering. The two no-brainers are Todd Gurley of Georgia and Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin, who came close to leaving for the 2014 draft, entering the 2015 event.
Sources have indicated Jay Ajayi of Boise State and Mike Davis of South Carolina are also entering. I’m told Davis and his people have been vetting agents. I’m also told Davis is not lacking for confidence and feels he’ll be as highly rated as Todd Gurley come draft day.
There’s been scant news directly from the source but people close to the Indiana Hoosier program are planning for the departure of Tevin Coleman at seasons end. The story is similar at Miami with Duke Johnson, something even more likely after his injury last evening.
When it comes to pass catchers the only solid information at this time surrounds Michigan tight end Devin Funchess and Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong. I’m told Funchess will enter and he’s close to deciding which agent he’ll sign with while the word in Tempe is Strong will declare at season’s end.
Everyone is assuming Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat, an expected top 12 pick, will enter the draft. I’ve been told all along Peat is concentrating on the season at hand and will move his focus towards the draft after the campaign. So at this point there’s no definitive word.
Starting on defense I’m told its near 99% Randy Gregory of Nebraska enters the draft and area scouts talk of him as top five material.
Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr. is admittedly leaning towards entering the draft and I’m told there’s a chance his teammate Jonathan Bullard could join him.
To no one’s surprise sources out west tell me its a foregone conclusion Leonard Williams enters the draft.
The other PAC 12 defensive lineman I’m hearing will enter is Xavier Cooper of Washington State, though his draft grade draws mixed reviews. While some stamp Cooper as a top 45 pick, area scouts presently grade the junior as a middle (3rd/4th) round prospect at best.
At linebacker it looks like a pair of Georgia Bulldogs are headed out the door.
A month ago I was told Leonard Floyd (DE/OLB) would consider entering the draft after a good season but recent word is the true-sophomore will declare himself eligible at the end of the season. So too will teammate Jordan Jenkins, whom I’m told is closing in on an agent and is a linebacker I’m very high on.
Another SEC linebacker, Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi State, is also likely to enter. McKinney considered the 2014 draft from arm’s length and as of two weeks ago the word from the program was “he’s gone” in 2015.
Out west I’m informed two Washington Husky juniors, linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Marcus Peters will enter the draft.
Stanford cornerback Alex Carter is also expected to enter the draft. Carter, whose father Tom was a first round pick of the Washington Redskins in 1993, is in the midst of a terrific season.
Finally, several sources have indicated to me Alabama safety Landon Collins, another defensive back that’s turned heads with terrific play this season, will also declare for the draft.