After highlighting the rookie quarterbacks last week, including Vikings first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, this week’s Rookie Report focuses on two of Bridgewater’s teammates in Minnesota. Anthony Barr was taken ninth overall and was fully expected to start and see a heavy snap count early in his career, but third-round pick Jerick McKinnon was stuck behind Adrian Peterson on the depth chart with no upward movement in sight. Peterson’s legal troubles have opened up snaps for McKinnon, and the talented rookie took advantage this week. Chris Tripodi returns again to break down Barr, McKinnon and a few other first-round picks who impressed him in Week 4.
Jerick McKinnon (RB-Min)
A freak athlete who played mostly as a triple-option quarterback at FCS school Georgia Southern, the 5-9, 209-pound McKinnon’s top performances in almost every event at the NFL Scouting Combine boosted his stock into the third round, where he was drafted as the Vikings’ potential heir apparent to Peterson. Peterson’s absence from the team has given McKinnon an opportunity to play while sharing the backfield with Matt Asiata, but the dynamic rookie hadn’t touched the ball more than four times until Week 4, when he turned 18 carries and a reception into 152 total yards as the Vikings ran the ball 44 times against the Falcons.
On his first touch of the game, McKinnon ripped off a 55-yard run on a draw play. He had a huge hole up the middle and easily reached the second level, accelerating quickly past a safety who was playing near the line of scrimmage. McKinnon then used his quick feet to cut outside the cornerback, who was subsequently shielded by Cordarelle Patterson as a result of McKinnon’s vision. Instead of heading right for the sideline, McKinnon waited patiently to set up Patterson’s next block, cutting inside at just the right moment to break a weak attempt at an arm tackle and quickly stopping to allow a pursuing defender to overrun him before going down a few yards later. This run opened the eyes of the Minnesota coaching staff enough to allow the rookie to essentially trade drives with Asiata for the rest of the game.
McKinnon continued to show impressive patience throughout the game, resisting the temptation to bounce plays all the way to the sideline with his home-run speed and waiting to set up his blocks before quickly accelerating through open lanes. He showed an effective jump cut in the backfield to quickly square himself into holes developing away from the play’s initial script. McKinnon was decisive once he took the handoff, cutting just once before attacking the line and refusing to dance behind the line of scrimmage like many backs with his skills. Once in the hole, he showed excellent foot quickness to set up defenders and create hesitation that gained him extra yardage along with the ability to stay skinny in tight spaces and take on tacklers with surprising power.
The Vikings’ staff again took notice of his effectiveness, trusting him as the workhorse on the offense’s final two drives while nursing a seven-point and a 10-point lead. It’s obvious from watching McKinnon run that he has great trust in his own skills, allowing him to be patient yet decisive as holes open up. While the Falcons’ defense is one of the league’s worst, McKinnon still impressed with his skill set and showed that the talent gap between him and Asiata is vast. Asiata will still receive at least half of the workload as the bigger and more veteran back, but McKinnon is a playmaker this offense needs to utilize to help Bridgewater in Peterson’s absence. Despite his struggles as a receiver (three drops compared to five receptions) and his inexperience in pass protection, McKinnon should continue to see the field thanks to his skills with the ball in his hands. And if he can improve in the passing game, there’s a legitimate chance the Vikings may feature him over Asiata later in the season.
Eric Ebron (TE-Det)
Tight ends usually don’t command top-10 picks in the NFL Draft, but Ebron’s talent level enticed the Lions to spend their 10th overall pick on the former North Carolina star, who was the first tight end drafted that high since Vernon Davis went sixth in 2006. Draft Insider had Ebron as its 10th-ranked player of last year’s class despite issues with focus and concentration that led to some easy drops with the Tar Heels. At 6-4, 265 with 4.6 speed and an explosive 10-foot broad jump, it was easy for Detroit to deem his issues fixable. Second-year tight end Joseph Fauria’s Week 4 absence gave Ebron a chance to increase his snap count Sunday against the Jets.
After playing just over one-third of his team’s plays in the first three weeks, Ebron was on the field for 34 of 66 snaps in Sunday’s game. Lined up mainly as an outside or slot receiver with Brandon Pettigrew playing the inline role, Ebron was targeted four times by Matthew Stafford, all in the second quarter as the Lions ran more in the second half to sit on a two-score lead. Their first attempted connection was either a miscommunication or a throwaway, as Stafford overthrew Ebron up the left sideline. Covered well, Ebron slowed his route but Stafford’s pass from a collapsing pocket landed a few yards out of bounds. This was most likely a ball thrown away, with some far-fetched hope that Ebron could make a spectacular play like he did many times in college or it would fall incomplete.
Ebron’s next two targets were short curl routes, and the first was a double catch where Ebron did show good concentration to secure the pass as he fell to the ground bobbling the ball. On the second, Ebron caught the pass and used his strength to bull forward for extra yardage against the much smaller Darrin Walls. Two plays later, Ebron made his best catch of the game. Flexed out in the left slot, Ebron ran a seam route as the Jets left the deep middle of the field open, running David Harris down the field with his back to Ebron. Recognizing Harris’ back was to the ball, Stafford ripped a beautiful bullet pass behind Ebron to avoid the linebacker. Ebron’s adjustment was just as impressive, showing deft footwork to plant his front foot and the body control to turn his torso to the ball while reaching and making a strong grab through contact from Harris. That catch put the Lions up 17-3 shortly before halftime against a Jets’ team that was struggling to score and gave the Lions some much-needed cushion.
With extended playing time, Ebron was highly impressive in Week 4, albeit against a team that generally struggles to cover tight ends. Fauria is a great red-zone target, but Ebron is a dynamic receiving option who should see his role continue to expand as the season goes on. Along with Golden Tate, Ebron did a great job keeping the Lions’ offense on track with Calvin Johnson playing the decoy role at far less than 100 percent. The Lions continue to look strong at 3-1 early in the season and if this game proves to be a springboard towards more production from Ebron, they may not fall off that pace as they did last season.
C.J. Mosley (LB-Bal)
Despite racking up 16 tackles and two pass breakups in his first two games this season and playing well in run defense, Mosley struggled in coverage like most rookie linebackers do when they first reach the NFL and also missed three tackles. Baltimore’s first-round pick in the 2014 draft bounced back with two strong games in coverage against Cleveland and Carolina over the past two weeks and cleaned up his tackling as well, missing no tackles in those two games and coming up with 13 stops out of 17 total tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Against the Panthers, just one of his 11 tackles came more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage and Mosley could always be found around the football.
Despite being the second inside linebacker drafted this year, Mosley was the top-ranked ‘backer on the Draft Insider big board. He lacks the speed and athleticism of Ryan Shazier, who went two picks earlier to Pittsburgh, but is a more fundamentally sound linebacker with the strength and hands to take on blocks. Against the Panthers, Mosley was aggressive playing downhill and taking on blockers with violent hands, showing nice extension to keep his line of vision open and great strength to shed blocks once he located the ball. His initial footwork after the snap is very polished and helps him maintain correct pursuit angles. The former Alabama star also showed great awareness of down-and-distance as well, knowing when he needed to aggressively come upfield to stop running backs short of the sticks while patiently waiting for runners to commit to a hole before filling himself in long-yardage situations.
Two examples of this came on separate Carolina draw plays, one in the first half and one in the second. The first came on an early third-and-seven, where Mosley avoided false steps and took a good angle in the direction of the play. Knowing where he was on the field, Mosley waited for Panthers running back Darrin Reaves to commit to the hole before filling and stopping the scatback in his tracks two yards in front of the marker. Later on, Mosley read a first-and-10 draw from the shotgun and filled the hole immediately as an unblocked defender. The first-year linebacker then showed off his fundamentally sound technique by staying square to the line and exploding his hips violently into Reaves before driving him in into the ground. His recognition of each situation allowed him to make the best play available while avoiding any big risks.
While Mosley combines textbook technique against the run with enough strength and athleticism to find ways to the football, he’s also improving his drops and instincts in coverage. His footwork again comes into play here, as he flips his hips quickly into his drop while keeping his eyes on the quarterback to watch the play. Mosley isn’t a great pass rusher on the inside and will be used in coverage often, so his improving skills in that regard bode well for his future as a three-down player. His awareness is also excellent against the pass as well, as Mosley made a nice play getting his hands up to deflect a ball at the line of scrimmage after he was stopped on a blitz.
As a smart linebacker with incredible instincts and no holes in his game, Mosley has stepped right into the middle of Baltimore’s defense and made an immediate impact for a unit allowing just 3.3 yards per carry despite facing two top-10 rushing attacks (Pittsburgh, Cleveland) and another ranked in the league’s top half (Cincinnati). Injury concerns were really the only knock on his draft stock throughout the process, like with many Alabama players, and as long as Mosley stays on the field, he should continue to be a menace against the strong running games of the AFC North. If the Steelers could have the 15th overall pick to do all over again, they’d be smart to take Mosley over Shazier.
Anthony Barr (LB-Min)
After a very impressive debut in Week 1 against the Rams, Barr has remained consistent over the past three weeks and has at least five total tackles in each of his first four career games. Billed as a potentially dominant pass rusher coming out of UCLA, Barr made the first two sacks of his career in the last two games but has been most impressive playing the run as the team’s strong-side linebacker, using his size (6-5, 255) to set the edge more effectively than many who thought he needed to be in a 3-4 to thrive expected. In Week 4 against Atlanta, Barr had six tackles (five solo) along with his second sack against the Falcons, continuing his strong play.
Most of his tackles last week came on running backs in the passing game, but the former Bruin has actually struggled in coverage since the opening week. Barr has done a nice job of keeping plays in front of him, but his instincts are still raw and have kept him from being as aggressive as necessary in man coverage. In the first quarter, his coverage key was fellow rookie Devonta Freeman out of the backfield. Instead of reacting immediately when Freeman released into the flat, Barr chopped his feet in place. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan recognized this and immediately dumped the ball to Freeman, who would have gotten a first down if he didn’t slip on the play. Instead, it was a six-yard gain setting up third-and-short. On a second-and-six play in the third quarter, Barr found himself 10 yards off the line of scrimmage as Steven Jackson made an in cut just in front of the first-down marker for an easy catch and first down. Barr came up quickly to make the tackle, and he’s been very solid in that respect, but he still doesn’t trust himself to come up aggressively on short routes by running backs.
Despite those coverage issues, the rookie’s closing speed has been very impressive and that continued against the Falcons. On the final play of the third quarter, Barr chased Devonta Freeman down on a play run to the other side of the formation. Barr fought through a block on his way to the ball and showed the combination of speed and strength that made him a top-10 pick. The rookie showed that explosiveness on the previous drive by blowing up pulling guard Jon Asamoah on Antone Smith’s 48-yard touchdown run, but his aggressive allowed Smith to get around the edge. Barr laid into Asamoah with his inside shoulder and knocked him to the ground, but Smith used his speed to get outside of the failed block before Barr could recover. Smith was able to cut back inside his receiver’s block on the outside and take the play to the house. If Barr had altered his angle to beat Asamoah to the spot and force Smith back inside, the play likely would have been stopped before the first-down marker, let alone the end zone.
While Barr has shown his share of inconsistency, he came up with one of the biggest plays of the game for the Vikings on a third-and-12 in the fourth quarter. His man-coverage key was running back Jacquizz Rodgers and when Rodgers stayed in to help pass protect, Barr saw an opportunity to make a play. His delayed blitz up the middle was unblocked and his closing speed flashed on tape again, as Barr was able to get to Ryan before he could react to the pressure, taking him down for a big sack to force a punt and preserve the Vikings’ seven-point lead.
Barr is still a raw player in a lot of ways, but his talent is exceptional and has allowed him to be a positive piece of the Vikings’ defense so far in 2014. With continued development and improving instincts in the passing game, Barr has the potential to be a complete, three-down linebacker who can make an impact in every facet of the game and have a very long NFL career. Defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer has to be ecstatic over his progress thus far.
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