This week’s Rookie Report features a few first- and second-round picks on both sides of the ball, but also highlights the unheralded performances of rookies drafted in the late rounds or not at all. Draft Insider’s Chris Tripodi has the story from Week 3 around the NFL.
Blaine Gabbert (QB-Jac)
After receiving garbage-time reps against the Jets to clean up the mess Luke McCown got Jacksonville into, the Jaguars’ first-round pick out of Missouri got his first career start on Sunday. Coincidentally, it came against fellow rookie Cam Newton, who had thrown for a total of 856 yards in his first two career games.
The weather conditions were far from ideal for either quarterback, as torrential downpours made their way into the Charlotte area. It was a sloppy game from the start and Gabbert was a victim; he threw the game’s lone interception and fumbled three times, although he didn’t lose any of them.
Overall, Gabbert completed 12-of-21 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, but 36 of those yards and the only touchdown came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half to Mike Thomas, who seems to have a knack for catching long passes at the end of halves. If you take away that play, Gabbert completed just 11-of-20 passes for 103 yards, with only four of those 11 going to wide receivers.
That stat may be misleading, as Jacksonville can rival the Rams for the NFL’s worst receiving group and Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis are inviting targets for any quarterback. It’s also tough to judge Gabbert’s play thanks to the weather conditions, as he was considered by many the most accurate quarterback in this year’s draft class.
I find it difficult to make too much of Gabbert’s debut either way. He’s definitely a work in progress, coming out of a spread system at Missouri and needing improvement on his footwork and more consistency in his throwing mechanics. He should remain the starter in Jacksonville for the remainder of the season and he will definitely find his way onto a report later in the season, when we have multiple game tapes to make an accurate assessment.
Daniel Thomas (RB-Mia)
For all the preseason hoopla over Reggie Bush being the Dolphins’ featured back this season, that lasted just a week. And that was Week 1, when Thomas didn’t play due to a hamstring injury.
Over the past two weeks, a healthy Thomas has 41 carries for 202 yards and 4 receptions for 37 yards, compared to 16 carries for 31 yards and 2 receptions for 15 yards for Bush. I think it’s safe to say that Thomas is the lead back this offense needs after letting both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams leave via free agency in the offseason.
At 6-0, 230 pounds, Thomas is a bruising downhill runner who does his best work between the tackles. A late second-round pick out of Kansas State, he combines good vision with the consistent ability to drive his shoulder into tacklers and fall forward for extra yards after initial contact. Thomas timed out at just a 4.55 40-yard dash at the combine, but has the shown the ability to get off tackle as well, where he is a load for opposing corners to bring down.
Thomas is no game-breaker and runs very upright, which has led to durability issues in the past. His early injury issues were worrisome, as he had similar issues with his hamstring in the offseason. But if Thomas can remain healthy, he could average close to 20 carries a game this season and lead all rookies in rushing.
Torrey Smith (WR-Bal)
An injury to Lee Evans opened up a starting spot for Smith opposite Anquan Boldin and the speedy second-round rookie out of Maryland made the most of it. In the first quarter against the Rams, Smith caught his first three career passes. They all went for touchdowns.
On his first two receptions, Smith burned the Rams secondary on deep routes for 74 yards and 41 yards, showing off his 4.4 speed and game-breaking ability. His third touchdown showed off other talents, as Smith beat his man off the line and skied to grab an 18-yard fade from Joe Flacco, showing great body control on the play. He caught just two passes the rest of the game, but still put up a monster 5-reception, 152-yard, 3-touchdown day.
At 6-1, 204 pounds, Smith can be so much more than just a true burner. He has the height and vertical leaping ability to be a factor in the red zone, which gives him the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Combine his skill set with the strong-armed Flacco and you have the match made in heaven that many expected Lee Evans to be when he was traded from the Bills.
This performance came out of nowhere for most observers, but Jim Harbaugh said Smith was catching everything thrown his way in practice and had already developed the trust of Flacco. Lee Evans may not get his starting job back when he returns from his ankle injury.
Smith’s route-running is still a work in progress and he will have the occasional concentration lapse in his first season, but he has the talent to be a game-breaker in the mold of DeSean Jackson and Mike Wallace. Flacco-to-Smith might become a household connection in the very near future.
Dane Sanzenbacher (WR-Chi)
Undrafted out of Ohio State, Sanzenbacher has found his niche as a slot receiver in Mike Martz’s offense. Earl Bennett’s injury issues have opened the door for Sanzenbacher to play a majority of the team’s offensive snaps over the past two weeks and the rookie has responded, catching 8 passes for 60 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The former Buckeye seems to have the trust of Jay Cutler, but that could also be a product of Chicago’s inability to protect their quarterback long enough for him to look downfield to his speedy receivers. Sanzenbacher was targeted 14 times in the past two games and while he had a couple of drops in Week 2, he bounced back against Green Bay to catch five of the seven passes thrown his way.
At 5-11, 182 pounds, Sanzenbacher has just average size and average speed (4.53 40-yard dash) which prevents him from successfully stretching the field. Despite his physical limitations, Sanzenbacher is an intelligent and dependable underneath target that runs crisp routes, separates well from defenders and shows an ability to find open areas against zone coverage.
He may have limited upside but if Sanzenbacher can continue to produce on the field, he could overtake Bennett as the team’s main option in the slot. Along with running back Matt Forte, he can provide the underneath safety valve that Cutler will desperately need if the team’s offensive line struggles continue.
J.J. Watt (DE-Hou)
Looking to bolster their pass rush, which ranked tied for 23rd in the league last season with just 30 sacks, the Texans spent their first-round pick in April on the former Wisconsin standout. Watt has not disappointed through three games and is quickly becoming a fixture along the Houston defensive line.
After totaling 9 tackles (8 solo) and recovering a fumble in his first two career games, Watt broke through against Drew Brees and the Saints with his first career sack along with 4 solo tackles, including 2 for loss. He has been a dominant force on the defensive front for Houston and is currently tied for third on the team with his 13 tackles.
While many of this year’s top defensive end prospects were pass-rush specialists, Watt brings a very balanced skill set to the table. His explosive athleticism off the edge will help him get to the passer consistently at the NFL level, but he needs to work on a more varied array of pass-rush moves.
Watt is also powerful enough to push tackles off the ball and hold his ground in the running game, which makes him a valuable commodity even when he’s not pressuring opposing quarterbacks. He possesses a high football IQ and a relentless motor and Watt’s immediate impact makes it very difficult to find obvious flaws in his game. Offensive coordinators will have nightmares for years to come with Watt and Mario Williams manning the right edge of Houston’s 3-4 defense.
Phil Taylor (DT-Cle)
I wrote about Cleveland second-round defensive end Jabaal Sheard last week and made it a point to mention Taylor, who could combine with Sheard to help the Browns’ defensive line make huge strides this season. Just a week later, the first-round pick out of Baylor didn’t disappoint.
Taylor racked up 11 tackles (7 solo) in his first two games as a pro, an impressive feat for a rookie defensive tackle. He followed up those impressive performances with his best effort in Week 3, making 7 tackles (4 solo) and notching his first career sack on Miami’s Chad Henne. At 6-3, 335 pounds, Taylor has been a disruptive force clogging the middle of the Browns defense alongside fellow 330-pounder Ahtyba Rubin.
Taylor’s unique combination of size, strength and athleticism made him one of the highest-upside prospects in this year’s draft but he fell to 21st overall thanks to character concerns and weight issues stemming from his days at Penn State, which forced him to transfer to Baylor after being kicked off the Nittany Lions squad. As tends to be the case with players who drop thanks to character red flags (see: Dez Bryant and Mike Williams in 2010), Taylor’s talent has taken over and he already has the look of an impact lineman in Cleveland and a steal outside the top 20.
Cleveland’s rush defense may still leave something to be desired, as they have allowed the fourth-most yards on the ground through three games. But with talents like Taylor, Sheard and Rubin developing along the defensive front, the Browns should be able to turn that stat around sooner rather than later. This team made it a point to address their issues up front with their high draft picks and the early returns look great.
Jacquian Williams (LB-NYG)
Drafted with the second-to-last pick in the sixth round, few draft experts projected much if any immediate impact for the former South Florida star. He was viewed as nothing more than a project, a player the Giants could stash away on special teams or the practice squad in the hopes he could develop into a starter.
Just three weeks into his rookie season, Williams has already surpassed everybody’s expectations and has forced his way onto the field for the Giants. Thanks to the rash of injuries that has hit the New York defense, Williams played 16 defensive snaps in his Week 1 debut in addition to his special teams work. A solid performance landed him almost twice as many snaps in Week 2 alongside Michael Boley in nickel packages and Williams again responded with 7 tackles (5 solo).
But Williams’ true breakout came against the Eagles on Sunday. His snaps increased once again at the expense of fellow sixth-round rookie Greg Jones and because the Giants relied heavily on their nickel package to contain Michael Vick and the Philadelphia passing attack. Williams led the team with 10 solo tackles and his impressive instincts and athleticism were on display the entire game.
One knock on Williams entering April’s draft was his lack of size at just 6-3, 223 pounds. While he may lack the bulk to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL, he has already proven he can impact a game without playing every down. Whether he’s flying around on special teams or stepping into the rotation at linebacker, Williams has shown he has the ability to stick in the league. And he’s done it much sooner than anybody could have realistically expected.
Dan Bailey (K-Dal)
There was only one kicker drafted this April and his name was not Dan Bailey. Nebraska’s Alex Henery was taken by the Eagles in Round 4 and while the strong-legged Henery has been solid for Philadelphia in the first three weeks, Bailey was the kicker grabbing headlines after a record Week 3 performance.
Bailey’s six field goals on Monday night tied an NFL record and bailed out the Cowboys struggling red-zone offense in their 18-16 win over the Redskins. His 40-yarder with just under two minutes to play was his third make of at least 40 yards on the day and in 10 attempts so far this season, he has missed just one kick, a routine 21-yarder against San Francisco in Week 2 that can be considered a fluke.
That miss didn’t seem to faze him at all either, as he confidently booted a 48-yarder on his next attempt with no time left on the clock to send the game into overtime. Bailey then atoned for his earlier short miss with a 19-yarder in overtime to win it for Dallas.
Bailey won the Lou Groza Award last season as college football’s top kicker and despite lacking a powerful leg – the Cowboys kept David Buehler as a kickoff specialist because Bailey struggled to reach the endzone in camp, even from the 35 – seems to be confident in his ability to hit field goals from reasonable distances in any game situation.
It’s rare to see a kicker garner headlines in a prime-time game, but Bailey’s consistency and accuracy on Monday night did just that. As long as he’s not being asked to kick many beyond 50 yards, Bailey should be a key player for the Cowboys this season if they continue to struggle to convert long drives and red-zone opportunities into touchdowns.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, compiling Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and conducting draft interviews with NFL prospects. He has been a sportswriter for multiple newspapers and has previously worked at ESPN and with the Rochester Red Wings, the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.
It took a couple games, but Draft Insider’s Chris Tripodi is back with his weekly installment of the NFL Rookie Report, which will evaluate the performances of select first-year players around the league.The first report of the year includes three top-five picks that are already making their presences felt for their respective teams along with a few mid-round picks who have been presented with opportunities to play early in their careers.
Cam Newton (QB-Car)
It wouldn’t be much of a Rookie Report if April’s top overall pick wasn’t mentioned, especially when that player ended up in the record books after his first career start.
Newton, who won the Heisman Trophy last season while leading Auburn to a national championship, shined in his NFL debut against an inept Arizona secondary, throwing for a rookie-record 422 yards and two touchdowns while adding another on the ground. Newton upped the ante in his encore performance against the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, throwing for 432 yards and rushing for another 53, becoming just the seventh player in NFL history to throw for 400 yards in consecutive games.
It wasn’t all good for Newton against Green Bay as he fizzled after an early touchdown pass, throwing three interceptions and blowing a 13-0 lead as Green Bay’s defense made the necessary adjustments to keep him out of the endzone. Despite racking up insane numbers through the air, Newton’s Panthers head into Week 3 with an 0-2 record.
While the Panthers most likely expected to start winless, they have to be encouraged with what they’ve seen from Newton. Nobody questioned his talent coming out of college, but Newton wasn’t asked to play much under center in Auburn’s spread system. He has adjusted quicker than anybody thought and really displayed his athleticism and arm strength in the first two weeks. Look no further than his deep throw to Steve Smith late in the Packers game, where he stepped up in the pocket and rifled a pass 60 yards in the air between two defenders for a completion.
Newton will continue to make his share of big plays as well as mistakes, especially if the Panthers keep letting him throw the ball 40 times per game. But he’s a special talent who has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. After watching his first two games, it may happen a lot sooner than most thought.
Andy Dalton (QB-Cin)
Four quarterbacks were drafted in the first round of April’s draft, but Dalton wasn’t one of them. An early second-round pick out of TCU, Dalton is the only rookie besides Cam Newton starting for his team. The similarities don’t end there, as Dalton has set a record of his own in his first two starts.
After leaving the Bengals’ season opener with a wrist injury, Dalton returned to start on Sunday and threw for a franchise rookie record 332 yards. Overall, he was 27-for-41 with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a very impressive performance. If his first two career games are any indication, the Bengals won’t miss Carson Palmer very much.
With accuracy and poise beyond his years, Dalton shredded a Broncos secondary that was missing top cornerback Champ Bailey. Like Newton, Dalton had his share of doubters heading into the season, mostly due to his team situation.
But Dalton has teamed up with fellow rookie A.J. Green, second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham and 2010 late-season sensation Jerome Simpson to make the Bengals competent on offense, something few expected from such an inexperienced unit. With Cedric Benson able to handle 20 carries per game the Bengals should have respectable balance on offense and be able to move the ball effectively against most defenses.
Dalton may not have the physical skills of Palmer, Newton or even a few of the other quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, but the accuracy and intangibles we heard about leading up to the draft have been on display through his first two NFL games. Dalton was thought of by many, including us at Draft Insider, as nothing more than a potential game manager in the NFL. While that may still be the case, Dalton showed the ability to get the ball downfield and create big plays last week. He will only continue to become more comfortable with his young core of receivers and it’s possible that there may be more upside in Dalton’s right arm than many gave him credit for.
A.J. Green (WR-Cin)
Speaking of the Bengals, you can’t overlook the impact Green made on Sunday. For everything good I said about Dalton, 10 of his 27 completions on the day went to Green, who turned those receptions into 124 yards and a touchdown just a week after catching only one ball, a 41-yard touchdown from Bruce Gradkowski.
The expectations are high for Green after being drafted fourth overall and through two games he has given me no reason to think he can’t be a star in the NFL like he was at Georgia. He’s an explosive, well-rounded receiver with great size, hands and speed and the body control he displayed on his touchdown Sunday was impressive, reaching up for the ball along the sideline and somehow keeping his feet in bounds with very little room for error. Plays like that separate good players from All-Pros.
There are no holes in Green’s game outside of blocking in the running game, which can be improved through hard work if he so desires. Obviously his real impact will come in the passing game and Green’s talent, much like Newton’s, could eventually lead to him a perennial Pro Bowler. It may not happen this season, but it may not take much longer than that.
Denarius Moore (WR-Oak)
If my inaugural 2011 Rookie Report came after Week 1, Moore wouldn’t have even been in consideration for a write-up. The rookie fifth-round pick out of Tennessee was targeted just once in the Raiders’ opening week win over the Broncos, but injuries to Oakland’s top three receivers opened up an opportunity for the young speedster in Week 2.
Moore’s performance against Buffalo shows what happens when talent meets opportunity. Moore had 5 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown, none more impressive than his 50-yard touchdown grab deep down the middle to give Oakland the lead with just under four minutes to play. Moore beat two Buffalo defenders to a ball in the air, showing an impressive vertical leap as well as strong hands in traffic and impeccable timing to come down with one of the top catches of the week.
Little was expected from Moore after the draft but he had an impressive training camp and was lauded as the best receiver on the field by the Raiders’ coaching staff. Even when Jacoby Ford, Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey get healthy again, Oakland is going to have a tough time keeping Moore off the field. Combining 4.43 speed with long arms and impressive leaping ability, the former Volunteer is a big play waiting to happen. Everybody knows Al Davis loves speedy players.
Jabaal Sheard (DE-Cle)
All it took for Sheard to have a big week was a position switch. Used to playing on the left side at Pittsburgh, Sheard started at right end in Week 1 and made 3 tackles for a loss. It was a solid start, no doubt, but Sheard’s encore was even better.
Left end Jayme Mitchell was moved to the right side so Sheard could play his more natural position and it paid dividends for the Browns in their win against the Colts. Sheard was stout against the run and had 5 tackles, including 2 for losses. He also lived in the Indianapolis backfield and made numerous big plays, including forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble and picking up his first career sack on Kerry Collins.
Although Mitchell is a prototypical run-stuffing left end at 6-6, 285 pounds, the Browns plan on keeping Sheard, the better pass rusher, on the left side to allow him to play his natural position and cause havoc. As long as Sheard is making big plays, expect this arrangement to remain intact. And if he can continue to be a disruptive force and rookie first-round tackle Phil Taylor develops, the Browns could be much improved along their defensive line in the near future.
Mason Foster (LB-TB)
After being drafted in the third round out of Washington, Foster made a name for himself in the preseason with a hard hit on Chad Ochocinco that drew a fine from the league office. Ochocinco himself praised the hit, calling it clean and offering to pay any fine Foster may draw from it.
After some preseason attention, the former Huskies linebacker has made himself known for other reasons through two weeks in 2011. He replaced free agent departure Barrett Ruud in the middle of the Tampa defense but despite starting in Week 1, his snaps were limited, particularly in nickel and dime situations. An injury to strong-side linebacker Quincy Black in Week 2 allowed Foster to see more reps on passing downs.
Foster responded to the increased playing time by recording 10 tackles (7 solo) including two for loss, forcing a fumble and sacking Donovan McNabb. He also played well in coverage and was a key component in Tampa Bay’s defensive resurgence in the second half Sunday against Minnesota.
Foster has enough versatility to play on the outside as well, but will continue to roam the middle of the Bucs’ 4-3. That’s a big responsibility for a third-round rookie but Foster has been more than up to the task through two weeks. Expect continued improvement from him as he gains experience and adds to the Bucs’ talented young nucleus on both sides of the football.
Ryan Kerrigan (LB-Was)
The Redskins drafted Kerrigan 16th overall out of Purdue and it didn’t take long for him to crack the starting lineup opposite Brian Orakpo. It also hasn’t taken him very long to make his presence felt in multiple ways as a 3-4 outside linebacker after playing as a 4-3 end with the Boilermakers.
Kerrigan broke a 14-14 tie early in the third quarter of Washington’s opening game against the Giants, deflecting an Eli Manning pass in the air, intercepting it deep in New York territory and returning it nine yards for a touchdown. It may seem like a fluky play to some, but Kerrigan came out of college with a reputation for being an intense pass rusher with a nonstop motor. Those are the types of scrappy, blue collar plays you can expect to see throughout Kerrigan’s career.
For an encore in Week 2, Kerrigan registered his first career sack while also making 3 tackles and holding his own in pass coverage. Kerrigan may lack the big-time upside of his teammate Orakpo but he’s fast off the edge, relentless in pursuit and known for being a hard worker. He could very well be the perfect complement to the former Texas star.
Patrick Peterson (CB-Ari)
Peterson is a player many thought was the best overall talent in the draft. We had him ranked second to Marcell Dareus here at Draft Insider, so the expectations are high for the LSU cornerback after he was taken fifth overall by the Cardinals.
Peterson made an immediate impact in Week 1, but as a returner rather than a cornerback. His 89-yard punt return in the fourth quarter put Arizona up 28-21 against Carolina and proved to be the game-winning score, atoning for a shaky game on defense where he was picked on by fellow rookie Cam Newton and beat on numerous occasions by Steve Smith, who finished with 178 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Santana Moss didn’t have a day as big as Smith’s in Week 2 but Moss still caught 5 passes for 61 yards and a 19-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-three. It’s unfair to judge Peterson’s future after his first two games against solid veteran receivers, especially as he gets used to the speed and physicality of the NFL as a corner that likes to mix it up with his opponents.
Peterson’s upside is that of not only a shutdown corner, but a game-breaker on special teams as well. He could serve to improve his footwork and polish off his already well-rounded game, but he’s one of the better athletes in the draft and I expect improvement as the season goes along, much like Joe Haden last season in Cleveland.
There are some terrific match-ups this week on the college field which will impact national rankings. Many could also effect opinions in war rooms around the NFL. Here are just a few to keep an eye on.
Iowa vs Pittsburgh
Brandon Lindsey of the Panthers is a defender well liked in scouting circles. He did a terrific job filling in for the injured Greg Romeus last year and makes a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. An undersized college defensive end that occasionally stand up over tackle, he’ll face off against two next level Iowa prospects blocking the edge. Riley Reiff is considered a possible first round pick and does a solid job on the left side of the Hawkeye line while we feel right tackle Markus Zusevics is one of the most underrated players at his position.
Another good match-up is Panther junior receiver Mike Shanahan against Iowa cornerback Shaun Prater. Prater is explosive and flashes ability but at times seems lost on the field. Shanahan does not possesses elite speed but plays smart, tough football.
Washington vs Nebraska
The game could be a blow-out in Nebraska’s favor for a second season but the battle between Husky receiver Jermaine Kearse and Cornhusker corner Alfonzo Dennard should be a good one. Both are feisty, physical players that battle hard.
Ohio State vs Miami-Fl
Despite several suspensions for both teams this is a game NFL scouts will target.
Mike Brewster of Ohio State, possibly the most underrated offensive lineman in the nation from a next level point of view, will have his work cut out for him against the solid Marcus Forston. Ditto for Buckeye tackle JB Shugarts whenever Adewale Ojomo is lined up across from him.
Receiver DeVier Posey against a talented Hurricane secondary which includes safety Vaughn Telemaque is also a match-up to watch.
Oklahoma vs Florida State
One of the most important games of the coming weekend which could impact the top five in the nation. We’ll go on record saying we think the Seminoles will pull the upset.
FSU cornerback Greg Reid, one of the top rated corners on our board, had a tough go of it last year against the Sooners- but then again so did anyone dressed in a Seminole uniform. He’ll be matched against the very quick, elusive and reliable Ryan Broyles, potentially the top slot receiver available in next April’s draft.
We’ve taken heat for our opinions on the next level potential of Landry Jones. In our minds this game will be a measuring stick as the Seminole pass rush is fierce and their secondary loaded with talent.
Seminole defensive end/outside linebacker Brandon Jenkins and Oklahoma tackle Jarvis Jones are a pair of developing talents. Jenkins is a proto-typical FSU defensive end; explosive, athletic and very fast but small while Jenkins is also athletic but raw. The times they face off is something to key on.