One of the deepest draft classes in recent memory has now had two weeks to prove why scouts and draft pundits were so high on the 2014 crop. As usual, there have been impressive performances by top picks like Bills rookie receiver Sammy Watkins as well as some disappointments, including Eagles’ first-round pick Marcus Smith, who was inactive for Week 2 after being drafted 26th overall. Many late-round picks and undrafted free agents have also made early noise, including Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns and Browns running back Isaiah Crowell, who will likely find their way into future reports. Chris Tripodi returns to break down four rookies who caught his eye in Week 2 of the NFL season.
Terrance West (RB-Cle)
Ben Tate’s knee injury in the Browns’ opener will keep him out at least through Cleveland’s Week 4 bye, giving the team’s third-round pick out of Towson an early opportunity as the starting running back. While the undrafted Crowell has gotten his share of work and shown the talent that made him a favorite of many draftniks despite a laundry list of off-the-field concerns, West is the player Cleveland traded up to take at the end of Day 2 knowing that Tate missing time this season was likely. He was also one of the few backs in this year’s class with true feature-back size at 5-9, 225.
Not only does West have good size, but he also has quick feet that were on display Sunday against New Orleans. West ran for 68 yards on 19 carries in the game and showed the skill set that intrigued the Browns, who hired Kyle Shanahan and his zone-blocking scheme to be their offensive coordinator in the offseason. West is a very patient runner who trusts his feet and skills enough to wait until he spots an opening before darting through it. His combination of patience, vision and burst makes him an ideal fit in Cleveland’s zone scheme. West is also nimble and uses his quick feet and an effective stutter-step to avoid tacklers in the backfield. On his third-quarter touchdown run, West used a plant step in the backfield to cut into the hole, quickly get to the second level and run through an arm tackle for the nine-yard score.
West lacks elite top-end speed and, despite weighing in at 225 pounds, is not a tackle-breaking bruiser on the inside. He falls forward and doesn’t get stopped dead in his tracks, but runs with a more balanced style that combines his footwork with the size to hold up on a heavy workload. West is an adequate receiver who shows good awareness on pass routes, as he did well to find an open area to give scrambling quarterback Brian Hoyer a target early in the first quarter Sunday.
While West didn’t officially fumble, the ball did come loose several times just after he was down by contact or had stepped out of bounds. He was occasionally careless with the ball at Towson and while this hasn’t affected him yet, future fumbles would open the door for Crowell, arguably the more-talented back, to see additional work. Although West may not hold onto the starting job when Tate returns as soon as Week 5, he’s likely earned himself 8-12 touches behind the free-agent acquisition, who doesn’t exactly have a strong track record of staying healthy.
Sammy Watkins (WR-Buf)
After the Bills traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up from the ninth overall pick to fourth in order to draft Watkins, it was obvious the team was going into win-now mode for the 2014 season. Many, including myself, questioned the thought process behind the trade and didn’t see the Bills as a playoff team thanks to quarterback E.J. Manuel’s developmental struggles. On the other hand, Watkins was the best wide receiver in a stacked class and a perfect fit for Manuel’s check-down tendencies as a player who can dominate by racking up yards after the catch.
A quiet Week 1 saw Watkins catch just three passes for 31 yards on four targets, but Manuel threw 11 of his 26 passes in Watkins’ direction in Sunday’s win over the Dolphins. Despite playing at less than 100 percent due to a lingering rib injury, Watkins made eight receptions for 117 yards and his first career touchdown, showing elite quickness off the line and into his routes. He would have had another touchdown if not for a great play by Brent Grimes, who knocked a long first-quarter pass out of Watkins’ grasp on a fly route down the sideline.
Watkins still needs to work on sharpening his route-running on short and intermediate passes, although he did focus on making sharper breaks in tight coverage compared to off coverage. Watkins needs to gather himself at the stem of his route in order to make controlled breaks, as playing at his high speeds leads to rounded-off routes if a receiver doesn’t take chop steps to slow his momentum. His game-breaking skills with the ball in his hands were on display as were his sticky mitts, as Watkins consistently extended to snatch passes away from his body and outran pursuit angles taken by Dolphins defenders.
Playing at less than full health, Watkins was the dominant force that scouts expected him to be. The former Clemson star could’ve actually had three touchdowns against the Dolphins if it weren’t for Grimes’ first-quarter play and a goal-line overthrow by Manuel early in the second quarter. If the Bills can build off their 2-0 start and turn the 2014 season into a playoff campaign, something Watkins will undoubtedly be a huge part of, they won’t miss that first-round pick as badly as some expected. And if Watkins cleans up his route-running, he has the natural talent to be one of the best receivers in football.
Preston Brown (LB-Buf)
A three-year starter at Louisville, Brown was a surprise third-round pick by the Bills in the 2014 NFL Draft. Most experts, including us at Draft Insider, had Brown pegged as a fourth or fifth-round pick and a good choice early on Day 3. Despite his rock-solid play in college, middle linebackers without elite physical traits aren’t usually hotly-contested draft commodities in today’s speed-obsessed NFL. Brown was initially expected to play behind two-down middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who signed a one-year contract in the offseason, but Nigel Bradham’s Week 1 suspension and Keith Rivers’ groin injury have given Brown a big opportunity. After two good games, the Bills will have a hard time sending him back to the bench.
After making seven tackles, including five solo stops, in Week 1, Brown stepped up in Week 2 to lead Buffalo with 13 tackles, including seven of the solo variety. Brown did a great job taking on blockers with his head up to locate the football before shedding and wrapping up ballcarriers. A sure tackler, Brown rarely missed when he had a chance to make a play and did a nice job bringing down backs on first contact. He fought hard through traffic, used his hands to keep blockers away from his body and took good angles to the ball. Brown’s recognition ability was on display, which helped him get to the sideline effectively in pursuit despite lacking great speed.
Brown also showed well in coverage, flashing the skills to stay with running backs in the flat to force the ball elsewhere and reacting quickly to short dump passes, stopping plays for minimal gains. He did a nice job pressing the line of scrimmage when keying on running backs before they got into their routes, forcing them to alter their paths while trailing closely behind. Brown did allow a third-down conversion to Charles Clay, but stayed with Clay well and was close to getting a hand on the pass.
Rivers is expected to remain out for Week 3 before potentially returning for the Bills’ final game in September, so Brown should get another chance to prove he belongs in the starting lineup. If the surprising Bills can beat the Chargers at home and move to 3-0 with Brown performing well, it won’t be easy for head coach Doug Marrone and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to take the rookie out of the lineup. At the very least, he’s likely earned himself significant rotational stops, especially if Rivers isn’t ready to assume a full-time role upon his return.
Kyle Fuller (CB-Chi)
A draft riser throughout the off-season process, Fuller went from a sleeper first-round pick to lock for Day 1. The Bears had one of the NFL’s worst defenses last season and while their numbers against the pass were far better than against the run, their thin, aging secondary was a definite position of need. Fuller had November surgery to repair a core muscle injury, which is a major reason his stock was depressed at the start of the offseason. Once he proved himself 100 percent from the injury, his stock corrected itself and returned to his true talent level.
Fuller was all over the field against the 49ers on Sunday night with seven tackles, including five solo stops, two interceptions and two pass breakups after a quiet Week 1. He started out shaky, as an early defensive holding penalty gave the 49ers an automatic first down on third-and-long, a drive that ended in a field goal. Fuller would bounce back, however, and make his impact felt against the run early. An aggressive run defender, Fuller made a few nice tackles on Frank Gore and Vernon Davis to stop the ballcarriers in their tracks. While he whiffed with his right hand when diving to break up a pass to Michael Crabtree in the red zone, Fuller did well to keep his left hand behind to wrap Crabtree’s waist and prevent extra yardage, showing great instincts and technique in short sideline coverage despite missing the breakup.
The rookie from Virginia Tech made an excellent play chasing down Gore from the backside later in the game on another red-zone run, but his real impact came in the fourth quarter with the two most important plays of Chicago’s win. With the 49ers starting at their own 22, Fuller timed his defense perfectly on a short curl pass to Crabtree, establishing great position to get his right arm in to break up the pass. Somehow, he was also able to pin the ball against Crabtree with that arm and control it for a game-changing interception that he returned inside the San Francisco 10-yard line. After Chicago took a 21-20 lead one play later, Fuller added a second interception on the following drive. Showing great awareness and instincts, Fuller recognized Colin Kaepernick scrambling towards the sideline, peeled off of Crabtree and undercut Derek Carrier’s route to the boundary, extending for an impressive interception and another long return into San Francisco territory, which led to the second Bears’ touchdown of the quarter.
Fuller’s performance against Crabtree late was especially important in the wake of veteran corner Charles Tillman third-quarter injury. The 33-year-old left with a season-ending, and possibly career-ending, triceps injury that has already landed him on injured reserve, meaning Fuller’s development will take on an even more important role for a Chicago team looking to make a playoff run. Fuller was a shutdown corner that opponents avoided at Virginia Tech, and he’s translating those skills quickly to the NFL level. Tillman’s loss is huge for the Bears but if Fuller can continue his solid play and fill the veteran’s shoes, it will be a huge boost for a defense in need of some good news.
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