Archive for October, 2012

After last week’s report included no players drafted outside the first four rounds in April, Week 7 provides us with three first-year players who were drafted in the fifth round or later or not at all. More than half of the rookies profiled this week are getting their opportunity thanks to veterans ahead of them getting hurt and, while some of those players should return to the field soon, they may find themselves ceding snaps to some of this week’s impact rookies. Chris Tripodi will break down what he saw from the first-year crowd on Sunday.

Vick Ballard (RB-Ind)

After an unimpressive 8-carry, 25-yard debut as a starter in Week 6 against the Jets, Ballard found much more success against the Browns on Sunday. The rookie fifth-round pick from Mississippi State ran for 84 yards on 20 carries including a 26-yard fourth-quarter run to seal the Colts’ 17-13 win and caught the only pass thrown his way for 19 yards, putting him over 100 total yards for the first time in his career.

With Donald Brown missing the past two weeks, Ballard has stepped in as Indianapolis’ starting running back and the returns have been mixed. The former Bulldog was indecisive and slow to the few holes that were opened for him against the Jets but he bounced back last week, although without that late long run he had just 58 yards on 19 carries.

Despite his success against Cleveland, Ballard is still a plodder (4.58 40-yard dash) who struggles to make defenders miss in the open field or inside the hole. He has good size (5-10, 218) and the vision and patience to be an effective situational inside runner and goalline back. Brown will miss at least one more game which means Ballard should get most of the work against Tennessee next week, but he will likely return to a reserve role when the veteran returns down the line.

Chris Rainey (RB-Pit)

Despite Jonathan Dwyer drawing the start with Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman sitting out due to injuries, Rainey was the Pittsburgh running back who found the endzone in the fourth quarter on Sunday. The former Florida star has been used for his speed and on gadget plays so far this season but his score came on a traditional 11-yard touchdown run up the middle, as Rainey busted right through an open hole and into the endzone.

Drafted in the fifth round after spending four years at Florida, Rainey lacks size (5-8, 180) but his explosive 4.38 speed makes him a valuable weapon on outside runs, catching passes out of the backfield or in the slot and in the return game. He can cut on a dime, accelerate quickly and is virtually impossible to square up in the open field.

With Mendenhall and Redman questionable for Week 8 as well, Rainey could see 5-10 touches again this Sunday against Washington. His diminutive stature and lack of strength and tackle-breaking ability will prevent him from ever being a feature back in the NFL, but he has the potential to be to the Steelers what Darren Sproles is to the Saints. Anything near that kind of production would certainly make him a steal late in the 2012 draft.

Ryan Broyles (WR-Det)

Nate Burleson’s season-ending leg injury couldn’t have come at a better time for Broyles, who finally looks like he’s fully recovered from his ACL injury last November. Division I’s all-time leader in receptions, Broyles slipped to the second round after his injury but should step into a slot role with the Lions behind Calvin Johnson and Titus Young.

In less than a half of action on Monday night, Broyles turned 4 targets from Matthew Stafford into 3 receptions for 51 yards and his first career touchdown. He looked better than Young and could conceivably steal looks and even the number-two receiver job from the underachieving Young, who many expected to overtake Burleson early this season. Either way, Broyles now has an opportunity to show why the Lions surprised many by drafting the former Sooners star in round two when they had more glaring needs on the defensive side of the ball.

Broyles may not have great size (5-10, 190) or speed (4.5) but he’s a reliable route-runner with good hands that quarterbacks love to throw to. He’s also an excellent punt returner who displays good run-after-catch ability. Broyles doesn’t have the upside of Young but may be the better receiver at this point in their careers, meaning he has a legitimate chance to end up starting by season’s end.

Josh Cooper (WR-Cle)

After debuting in Week 6 due to a slew of injuries to Cleveland’s wide receivers, Cooper increased his role in Week 7 even with Travis Benjamin returning from a hamstring injury. An undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State, Cooper worked mostly in the slot while second-year receiver Greg Little and fellow rookie Josh Gordon saw most of the snaps on the outside.

After 2 catches for 39 yards in his first week on the field, Cooper caught 4 passes for 53 yards on 8 targets from quarterback Brandon Weeden and looks to be carving out a nice role in the Cleveland offense, at least until Mohamed Massaquoi returns from his own injury. Even then, Massaquoi has been a disappointment since entering the NFL and if Cooper can continue to catch passes and build chemistry with Weeden, he may stick in the slot.

Cooper has decent size at 5-10, 190 pounds but his 4.58 speed will likely prevent him from ever making an NFL starting lineup. His toughness, intelligence and solid route-running makes him a potential third or fourth receiver and he could turn into a solid role player in the future. Cooper is also an experienced returner who can play all over the field on special teams, which will only further solidify his NFL roster spot.

Michael Brockers (DT-StL)

After leading all Rams’ defensive tackles with 31 snaps in Week 6, Brockers tripled his tackle total for the season on Sunday, making three for a loss and also picking up his first career sack in a 30-20 loss to the Packers. A first-round pick out of LSU, Brockers was a dominant interior force and a big reason why Green Bay ran for just 70 yards in the game.

The Rams have been rotating their defensive tackles all year inside of Robert Quinn and Chris Long at defensive end but Brockers is by far the most talented of the bunch and looks to be coming into his own halfway through his rookie season. Many thought his size (6-5, 322) and lack of speed and burst (5.25 40-yard dash) would make him a better fit as a 3-4 nose tackle, but Brockers seems to be adjusting just fine to playing in the middle of a 4-3 alignment.

Brockers came into the draft as a raw prospect with great upside and his season so far has proven that, as he had just 2 assisted tackles in his first six games before breaking out in a big way in Week 7. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the former LSU star come back down to earth next week but he has great potential as an inside run stopper and if Sunday was any indication, he’s well on his way to meeting that upside.

Dont’a Hightower (LB-NE)

Returning from a hamstring injury that cost him New England’s previous two games, Hightower registered a career-high 7 solo tackles (1 for loss) and his second sack of the season in the Patriots’ 29-26 overtime victory against the Jets. The sack came on a key third down late in the game that forced the Jets into a field goal that put them up just three with over a minute and a half left, giving Tom Brady plenty of time to drive down the field to tie the game and force overtime.

A first-round pick out of Alabama, Hightower has teamed up with fellow rookie first-rounder Chandler Jones to make a big difference in New England’s front seven so far in 2012. He was able to produce a very good game despite playing just 36 of the team’s 84 defensive snaps as New England decided to ease their young star back into the lineup and while the team will likely still hold Hightower back from a full workload next week against the Rams, he could return to every-down duty after the team’s Week 9 bye.

Hightower has excelled playing on the strong side of New England’s 4-3 after moving from his more natural middle linebacker position. He’s a big hitter with great tackling ability who brings ballcarriers down in the open field with ease. Hightower was arguably a top 10-15 talent but a lack of effort at times in college along with playing on a stacked defense made teams slightly wary of spending a high pick on him. As usual, the Patriots took the risk on a talented player and so far, it’s worked out extremely well for them.

Demario Davis (LB-NYJ)

Bart Scott’s toe injury prevented him from playing in nickel packages on Sunday against New England, creating an opportunity for Davis to see extended snaps for the first time this year. The third-round pick from Arkansas State came up with 7 tackles (6 solo) in his first significant action this season and brought a missing element of speed to the New York defense.

An outside linebacker in college, Davis has moved to middle linebacker with the Jets despite being small (6-2, 235) for the position. He struggled at times handling blocks in college and is a developmental prospect that could also fit well on the weak side of a 4-3. Davis has 4.49 speed that allows him to cover a lot of area no matter where he lines up on the field and his great acceleration and change of direction ability guarantees a role as a nickel linebacker at the least.

As a raw prospect with upside, Davis landed in a great situation with the Jets behind veteran David Harris and the aging Scott. He could continue to see action on passing downs in place of Scott and inject some much needed speed to the Jets defense. The possibility even exists that he could take Scott’s job by the end of the year if he can continue to make plays like he did against the Patriots.

Harrison Smith (S-Min)

The second-rated safety coming out of college last year, Smith was drafted at the end of the first round after Minnesota traded up six spots to get him. The former Notre Dame star has been starting since Week 1 and while he’s had a few solid games so far this season, Week 7 was by far his best performance.

Smith set a career high with 4 solo tackles (5 total) and broke up a pass for the sixth time in seven games, but his biggest play came less than a minute into the second half with Minnesota up 14-7. Smith made his first career interception on a short pass over the middle and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown, opening up a 21-7 lead for the Vikings in a game they would eventually win by a touchdown.

Coming out of Notre Dame, Smith was known as a physical, hard-hitting safety at his best playing in the box to stop the run. Smith has shown solid ball skills and zone coverage ability halfway through his rookie season and while he lacks the speed to get out to the flanks, his size (6-2, 213) makes him an imposing strong safety between the numbers. His awareness and athleticism should allow him to continue making big plays in the middle of the field as well, meaning Smith is certainly a player to watch going forward.

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 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.

Defense rules this week’s Rookie Report, as do second-day draft picks. Just one offensive player found his way onto the list this week, but that’s only because I can’t write about Robert Griffin III every time. Only two of the following eight players were taken outside of the 2nd or 3rd round and Chris Tripodi will let you know which first-year players are starting to hit their stride in the NFL.

Chris Givens (WR-StL)

Equipped with 4.36 speed, Givens hasn’t disappointed as a big-play threat in his first six NFL games. While he has just one touchdown so far this season, the speedy rookie fourth-rounder from Wake Forest has a reception of 50 yards or longer in three straight games and has seen more playing time in the wake of Danny Amendola’s separated shoulder.

Givens’ 3 receptions and 85 yards against Miami on Sunday both represented career bests, as did his 65-yard catch in the first quarter. He was targeted 7 times and while he caught less than half of those passes and is still very raw, he looks to be gaining the trust of the St. Louis coaching staff and some confidence on the field as well.

With Amendola remaining out for the foreseeable future, Givens should continue to get looks as the Rams’ second option and is a far more exciting player than top option Brandon Gibson. If he keeps progressing, his good hands and ability to stretch the field should help Sam Bradford and the St. Louis offense become more productive as the season goes on. Givens doesn’t have the potential to be a true top option, but he can certainly develop into a productive second receiver in the NFL.

Jerel Worthy (DE-GB)

With starting nose tackle B.J. Raji sitting out Week 6’s game due to an ankle injury, Worthy started at nose tackle in Green Bay’s blowout road win over the Texans. Worthy showed he was ready for the starting assignment by making 3 tackles (2 for loss) with his second career sack as well as playing a key role in Houston running back Arian Foster’s pedestrian 29-yard day on the ground.

Worthy lacks the size (6-2, 304) to be a prototypical nose tackle like the 337-pound Raji but he proved Sunday that he has the ability to clog the middle like a lineman 20 pounds heavier, collapsing the pocket and drawing double teams that freed up the rest of the Green Bay defense to swarm to Foster. Raji may not be cleared to play in Week 7 either and with Worthy’s strong play Sunday, the Packers might be wise to hold the veteran out another week if he isn’t 100 percent.

A second-round pick out of Michigan State, Worthy had a reputation for lazy play and breaking down on his fundamentals at Michigan State but if the Packers’ coaching staff can fix that, Worthy has very good upside and the versatility to play any position on Green Bay’s defensive line. His combination of power and interior quickness was on display this week and he looks to have improved his pass rushing skills as well, making him that much more of a dynamic option for the Packers’ defense.

Olivier Vernon (DE-Mia)

A third-round pick out of Miami, Vernon has been seeing rotational snaps behind Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick along Miami’s 4-3 defensive front. Before leaving with an ankle injury against the Rams in Week 6 that cost him most of the second half, Vernon already had 2 sacks on Sam Bradford and was showing the pass-rushing potential that made him a top-75 pick.

One of those sacks made a big difference in the Dolphins’ win despite coming early in the second quarter. Vernon sacked Sam Bradford on third-and-6 to push the Rams’ back to Miami’s 34-yard-line, which led to a Greg Zuerlein missed field goal and a short field for the Dolphins, who capitalized with a touchdown to go up 7-6. Vernon’s second sack came late to push the Rams farther back as well, turning a 63-yard game-tying field goal attempt into a 66-yarder.

The major knock on Vernon is his size (6-2, 261) but he is a great athlete with 4.76 speed who knows how to get to the quarterback. His production with the Hurricanes never matched his skill level with just 7.5 sacks as a sophomore and junior combined but he can definitely be an effective situational pass rusher or a 3-4 outside linebacker. Vernon is still raw and will need time to develop, which his current backup role in Miami should allow him to do.

Quinton Coples (DE-NYJ)

Coples had struggled with the transition from college to the NFL through his first five career games but with an opportunity to start in Week 6, the rookie from North Carolina took advantage. Replacing Mike DeVito at defensive end while DeVito filled in at nose tackle for Sione Pouha, Coples registered 4 tackles (2 solo, 2.5 for loss) including 1.5 sacks.

His first career sack was actually a negative play for the Jets, as a face mask penalty gave the Colts an automatic first down to negate a 14-yard loss on 2nd-and-5. After a breakout junior year that saw him record 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, Coples’ play leveled off as a senior as questions surrounded his effort and work ethic. His performance Sunday, despite the upside it displayed, also showed the inconsistency that plagued Coples during his senior season in Chapel Hill and makes him a work in progress.

The Jets were still willing to take a chance on him with the 16th pick in the first round and they finally saw it pay some dividends in a big win Sunday against the Colts. Coples’ playing time had been steadily decreasing over the previous two weeks so it was nice to see him involved in the defense and around the football, but he still has some work to do to become a consistent force at defensive end. Quicker development from him would certainly help New York’s anemic pass rush.

Courtney Upshaw (LB-Bal)

It surprised many when Upshaw fell out of the first round of April’s draft, considering his key role on the nation’s best defense last season. The Ravens didn’t let him last long in round two, however, drafting the former Alabama star with the round’s third pick. That pick turned out to be very fortuitous for Baltimore as not only did they pick up an excellent football player but he ended up filling a need as well once Terrell Suggs went down with an Achilles injury.

That need hasn’t translated into immediate big production from Upshaw as the Ravens have used him, Alfred McClellan and Paul Kruger at the outside linebacker position so far this season. Upshaw had his best game of the season with 6 tackles (5 solo, 1 for loss) starting in place of Kruger in Week 2 and matched that total in last week’s win against the Cowboys.

While Upshaw still isn’t seeing the lion’s share of the snaps on Baltimore’s defense, Ray Lewis’ injury only opens up more potential playing time for Upshaw in the Ravens’ linebacker rotation. Despite having just a half-sack so far this season, Upshaw is an explosive pass rusher who relies more on strength and agility than pure speed and quickness. He still struggles in coverage at times but his ability to get to the passer and stop the run should be on display as the season progresses, possibly even when Suggs returns from injury.

Mychal Kendricks (LB-Phi)

Despite being listed at just 5-11, 239 pounds, the Eagles liked Kendricks’ explosive pass-rushing ability enough to use a second-round pick on him in April’s draft. The former Cal linebacker has yet to stand out this year with a season-high of 6 tackles coming in Week 3, but he has made at least 4 tackles in five of his first six career games and has played an important role in Philadelphia’s defense so far this season.

Kendricks had just 4 solo tackles against Detroit on Sunday and while he wasn’t known as a strong tackler coming out of college, he certainly has held his own early in his NFL career. This rookie is a tough, smart player who gets the most out of his body and uses his 4.45 speed to cover a lot of ground on the defensive end although he’s slightly misfit in the Eagles’ defensive system.

As a 4-3 outside linebacker, Kendricks may struggle once teams consistently send blockers his way or use tight ends in the passing game to exploit his lack of height. If his responsibilities remain making plays up the field, scraping to the sidelines and dropping back into zone coverage he should be able to stick as a starter, but he also has some limiting factors to his NFL potential if he isn’t rushing the passer in a 3-4 defense. The Eagles had a similarly undersized starting linebacker last season in Brian Rolle, who was recently cut after struggling through training camp and the regular season.

Casey Hayward (CB-GB)

With Sam Shields hurting his shin against the Texans on Sunday night, Heyward received some extra playing time late and took advantage by breaking up 3 passes and intercepting 2 in Green Bay’s big win against Houston. Shields is questionable at this point heading into Week 7, which would put Hayward in line to start if he sits out.

Hayward’s first interception came in the endzone and stopped a Houston drive deep in Green Bay territory, officially ending any slim chance of a Houston comeback with Green Bay up 25 points with just over seven minutes to play. T.J. Yates spelled Matt Schaub on the next Texans’ drive with the game out of reach which also ended in a Hayward interception, his third in the past two weeks.

A second-round pick out of Vanderbilt, Hayward’s ball skills were his biggest strength after intercepting 13 passes in his final two years with the Commodores. That ability has translated immediately to the NFL for Hayward and while he has just 14 tackles (9 solo) in six games so far, he does well coming up the field to stop the run. While he still struggles in man-to-man coverage and isn’t a burner, Hayward is great facing the action and could make a few more big plays if he starts next week.

Jamell Fleming (CB-Ari)

After losing snaps to Greg Toler in Weeks 4 and 5 as the Cardinals’ nickel back, Fleming stepped back into that role with Toler inactive on Sunday due to a hamstring injury. The third-round pick out of Oklahoma responded with a career-high 6 solo tackles even though Arizona lost their second straight game following a 4-0 start.

An all-conference cornerback as a senior with the Sooners, Fleming has solid size (5-11, 206) and speed (4.44) and has seen his game improve since entering the starting lineup as a junior. He’s well-suited as a nickel or dime back at this point in his career however, as he struggles in man coverage and has a tendency to trail behind opposing receivers but tackles well enough to be effective in the middle of the field.

If he can continue to improve with professional-level coaching, Fleming has the ability to be a starter in the NFL. For now he will settle in behind Patrick Peterson, William Gay and maybe even a healthy Toler but could be a player the Cardinals are looking at opposite Person in a season or two, as Gay only signed a two-year deal in the offseason.

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 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.

Five weeks into the season, it’s about the time when the light turns on for some highly-touted rookies who couldn’t get up to speed after training camp and preseason play. A pair of Giants drafted in the first two rounds fit that bill in this week’s version of the rookie report, while a few mid-round picks and an undersized, undrafted linebacker made the most of their opportunities last week as well. Chris Tripodi is back for another weekly edition of the Rookie Report.

David Wilson (RB-NYG)

Expectations were high for Wilson entering the season after getting drafted with the final pick of April’s first round. With Brandon Jacobs leaving New York and the fragile Ahmad Bradshaw not suited for every-down work, many expected Wilson to get 5-10 carries per game right away and even take the job from Bradshaw by midseason.

A key fumble in Week 1 against Dallas put Wilson in the doghouse and dashed his hopes of making a big early impact, as he had just five touches in the team’s next three games. Reports were circling this week that the rookie from Virginia Tech was working his way out of Tom Coughlin’s doghouse with his play on special teams and the coaching staff was looking for ways to further involve Wilson and his big-play ability in the offense.

After just one carry early in the game for 4 yards, Wilson broke off a 40-yard touchdown late against a tired Browns defense to seal a win for the Giants, exactly the big play the coaching staff was looking for all season from the 5-9, 205-pound rookie. Wilson’s 4.41 speed, agility and acceleration make him a threat to score every time he touches the ball and with Andre Brown suffering a concussion against Cleveland his backup role could increase this week, especially after the injury-prone Bradshaw saw 30 carries in the Giants’ win.

Rueben Randle (WR-NYG)

The merry-go-round at receiver behind Victor Cruz continues for the Giants, who have been without the injured Hakeem Nicks for three weeks now. In Week 3, Ramses Barden stepped up and had a big game. Week 4 saw Domenik Hixon draw the extra looks from Eli Manning. A concussion suffered by Barden in that Week 4 game against Philadelphia opened the door for Randle to step in as the team’s third receiver against the Browns on Sunday.

Randle, whose work ethic had been questioned recently by the Giants’ staff, responded to the criticism and his opportunity to play significant snaps with 6 receptions for 82 yards on 9 targets to lead New York in all three categories. Randle had four of those catches on the third drive of the game for the Giants, which led to a Victor Cruz touchdown that cut an early Browns lead to 14-7. The rookie’s fifth reception came immediately after a Browns’ turnover and went for 36 yards down to the Browns’ 4-yard-line. Ahmad Bradshaw scored on the next play to tie the game, 17-17.

A second-round pick from LSU, Randle has great size (6-3, 210) and plays faster than his 4.5 speed. He has the upside to eventually develop into a number-one receiver and big plays like his 36-yard catch on Sunday can be expected on a consistent basis from the former Tiger if he gets enough playing time. With Hakeem Nicks proving to be very injury-prone and his contract expiring after the 2013 season, it is certainly possible Randle could be the Giants second receiver alongside Victor Cruz by his third NFL season. Manning would love to have two big-play threats like that to throw the ball to.

Josh Gordon (WR-Cle)

With Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin sitting out Sunday against the Giants due to injuries, Gordon got an opportunity to show why the Browns used a second-round pick in July’s supplemental draft on him. Gordon has been slow to pick up the Browns offense so far this season and struggled with route-running and drops, but according to coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress, the light seemed to turn on for him in practice last week.

That flip of a light switch was evident in Week 5, when Gordon caught two touchdown passes in Cleveland’s loss to the Giants. One was a 62-yarder where he beat linebacker Chase Blackburn, while the other was from 20 yards out against cornerback Corey Webster. Unfortunately for Gordon, these were his only two receptions of the game on eight targets from fellow rookie Brandon Weeden.

Gordon was dismissed from Baylor’s football team in August 2011 for off-the-field issues and transferred to Utah, but was ineligible to play last season and then entered the supplemental draft. With plus size (6-3, 225) and respectable speed (4.52), Gordon can carve out a bigger role for himself in the Browns’ offense and maybe even move up to the top of a weak wide receiver depth chart with second-year receiver Greg Little struggling to catch the football.

Dwayne Allen (TE-Ind)

The first pick of the third round in April’s draft, many were surprised to see the Colts draft Allen after taking Coby Fleener just a round earlier. We had Allen rated as a second-rounder here at Draft Insider and he represented good value for the Colts early in the third even with Fleener already in tow, considering the success of New England’s two-tight end system and the need to add weapons for Andrew Luck to throw to.

Fleener and fellow rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton have already made their way onto the Rookie Report and now so has Allen after 4 catches for 38 yards and a touchdown in a win against Green Bay on Sunday. The rookie from Clemson saw just five targets to Fleener’s nine and is clearly behind the ex-Stanford Cardinal on the depth chart, but he has 9 receptions in his past two games and his skill set makes it easy for him to see the field at the same time as Fleener.

Allen is an athletic pass catcher with soft hands who is best working in motion rather than as a conventional tight end. He struggles as an interior blocker at just 6-3, 255 pounds but runs fluid routes and quickly gets to top speed to make himself an available target for his quarterback. Like Fleener, Allen has very nice upside and should be a nice weapon for Luck as the young Colts’ offense continues to grow in 2012.

Derek Wolfe (DE-Den)

A hard-nosed defensive tackle in college at Cincinnati, Denver drafted Wolfe early in round two to solidify the defensive end slot opposite pass-rusher extraordinaire Elvis Dumervil.  Wolfe had 9.5 sacks as a senior interior lineman and while he isn’t known as an elite pass rusher, he does have 2 sacks this season including one in Sunday’s loss to New England.

Wolfe has 14 tackles (7 solo, 3 for loss) in five games so far this season and has lived up to his reputation as a hard-nosed defensive lineman. At 6-5, 300 pounds, he is big for a 4-3 defensive end but shows the ability to explode through gaps in the offensive line to make plays in the backfield. He has a powerful lower body and the strength to bulrush opposing blockers off their spots.

After seeing consistent double teams in college, Wolfe hasn’t had to deal with multiple blockers on the NFL level and has used his fiery nature and power-rushing ability to impact both the Broncos’ run and pass defenses. While Wolfe has been a solid defensive end so far in his rookie season, his size and previous experience at tackle makes him extremely versatile and he looks like a solid investment as a second-round pick through five weeks.

Mike Martin (DT-Ten)

A third-round pick out of Michigan in April’s draft, Martin has stepped into a starting role on the Titans’ defensive line after beating out the team’s fifth-round pick last year, Karl Klug. Through five weeks the former Wolverine has put up solid numbers for a 4-3 defensive tackle, making 18 tackles (9 solo, 3 for loss) and picking up 2 sacks, including one this week in a lopsided loss to the Vikings.

Martin also tied his career high with 5 tackles on Sunday and has been everything the Titans expected him to be coming out of college. He was a nose tackle for the Wolverines but wasn’t expected to fill that role at the NFL level at just 6-1, 306 pounds. Martin is an intense competitor with 4.82 speed, an explosive first step and good quickness along the defensive line.

Despite his 2 sacks so far this season, Martin is a one-dimensional run stopper who had just 6 sacks in his final two seasons with the Wolverines. It wouldn’t be wise to expect too many more sacks from him but Martin’s instincts, desire and ability to make plays in a small area should help him keep a spot in a 4-3 defensive alignment throughout his career.

L.J. Fort (LB-Cle)

Undrafted out of Northern Iowa, Fort was pressed into action against the Giants on Sunday after D’Qwell Jackson left with a head injury. In less than a full game, the 6-0, 230-pound rookie put up numbers that many would expect from Jackson, finishing with 10 tackles (6 solo) in a losing effort.

Much like Jackson, Fort is a tackling machine who led the FCS with 184 tackles last season. His lack of size and average speed (4.68) will always be a limiting factor for Fort in the NFL but as he showed on Sunday, football instincts, tackling ability and a nose for the football will play well at any level, especially in a part-time or backup role.

With Jackson’s status up in the air as of right for Week 6, Fort could be in line for his first career start. If Jackson does miss the game and Fort performs well, the rookie could be in line for an increased role even when Jackson returns with the injury issues facing the Browns’ linebackers. His 230-pound frame and ability to chase down ballcarriers may play better on the weak side next to Jackson as well and if the veteran can’t play Sunday, Fort may have a legitimate shot to play himself into a larger role in Cleveland. That’s something nobody would have expected coming into the season.

Nigel Bradham (LB-Buf)

With second-year outside linebacker Arthur Moats struggling and seeing his snaps reduced by the week, Bradham made the most of his opportunity to play in the Bills’ blowout loss to San Francisco on Sunday. With Buffalo switching from a 3-4 that plays to the strengths of a pass-rushing outside linebacker like Moats to a traditional 4-3 scheme, Bradham is a better fit for the team’s struggling defense.

A fourth-round pick out of Florida State, Bradham is an athletic linebacker with the speed (4.56) and ability to gets out to the flanks and make plays. He also understands what opposing offenses are trying to do and is a hard hitter who can make plays up the field as well as in pursuit.

With Buffalo quickly looking at another lost season, it makes sense for them to take a look at Bradham as a starter over Moats, whose upside is limited to a situational pass rusher in a 4-3 alignment. If the former Seminole actually does enter the starting lineup in Week 6 and acquits himself well, he has the ability to be a productive starter on the pro level if he can remain consistent, as the talent and measurables are certainly in place.

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.

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