Week 5 of the NFL season brought us the same thing we see almost every week: Injuries to multiple running backs, and late-round picks and undrafted free agents unknown to the common fan making a name for themselves. Only one player drafted in the first 100 picks made the list this week, and Chris Tripodi returns to tell you who it was and break down what he saw from a few players taken outside the first three rounds that are making an impact for their teams.
Branden Oliver (RB-SD)
With the San Diego backfield beset by injuries to Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead and ineffectiveness from free-agent acquisition Donald Brown, Oliver provided Chargers fans with glimpses of another diminutive back that used to wear #43 in powder-and-blue, Darren Sproles. Standing at just 5-8, the undrafted Oliver took over after Brown suffered a first-half concussion against the Jets. After rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and adding 68 yards and another score on four receptions, Oliver is likely to take over as San Diego’s lead back until Mathews returns to the field, regardless of Brown’s status.
The former University of Buffalo star may look similar to Sproles, but there are two big differences in their skill sets. Oliver is a far sturdier runner on the inside, playing bigger than his height with a 208-pound frame and showing the tendency to fall forward and finish runs. Sproles, on the other hand, is purely a space back with the top-end speed to take plays to the house, while Oliver ran just a 4.56 at his pro day and doesn’t have that extra gear. Both of these differences were easy to spot on Oliver’s 52-yard run in the third quarter.
A patient runner who sets up his blocks before ducking behind his lineman to make himself difficult to locate, Oliver started the play running outside to the left of the formation. Oliver quickly changed direction to cut inside his blocks and showed nice burst to head up the seam, but was met by David Harris in the hole. Unfortunately for Harris, Oliver stiff-armed the lunging linebacker to the ground and burst into the secondary. While Sproles may have been stuffed for a short gain or taken this play to the house if he was able to break free, Oliver was eventually caught just outside New York’s 20-yard-line.
Oliver’s other long play came on a 50-yard reception where he had tons of space to work with in front of him. Oliver did use his quickness and shifty feet in the open field to make two Jets defenders miss before being dragged down from behind. It’s rare to see such a small back pushing the pile and carrying tacklers for extra yardage, but that’s exactly what Oliver has the ability to do. He uses his low leverage to his advantage and stayed lower than Jets safety Calvin Pryor on his second touchdown of the game, a nine-yard reception where Pryor met Oliver at the goal line and went for the big hit out of desperation. Oliver stayed lower than Pryor and bounced right off the tackle, showing incredible balance and core strength as well as top-notch technique for a small back.
The rookie from Buffalo displayed that balance earlier in the game as well after going to the air to make a catch, barely landing before being hit. It looked like he was about to go down, but Oliver used his left hand to keep himself up to gain a few extra yards on the play. Oliver runs like he’s burrowing through a hole in the ground, always keeping his legs moving and making sure he’s the low man upon contact. Mathews is due back soon and Oliver should inherit Woodhead’s old passing-down role when Mathews returns, but the injury-prone starter may not last the rest of the season even when he does return. Fortunately for San Diego, this undrafted gem shows enough skills running inside that he won’t be overmatched getting 15-20 carries per game if the team needs him in that role. With Philip Rivers already playing at an MVP level, Oliver should be continue to make an impact regardless of his role in the offense.
Andre Williams (RB-NYG)
After sporadic usage through the season’s first three games, Williams saw an increased role in Week 4, as the Giants played the Redskins just four days after giving starter Rashad Jennings over 30 carries. The fourth-round pick from Boston College ran for 66 yards and a touchdown, serving as a precursor to his Week 5 performance. Jennings suffered a sprained MCL in Sunday’s win over the Falcons, giving Williams an opportunity to take over as the team’s bellcow. Williams responded with another 65 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and should start the team’s next two games before New York heads into their Week 8 bye.
The first thing that’s evident when watching Williams is the power and violence he runs with. Williams is a smooth runner at 5-11, 230 pounds and shows surprising 4.5 speed as well, which he uses in conjunction with his size to punish defenders. The 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist is devastating at the second level, lowering his shoulder into defensive backs and running them over with ease to create extra yards. Williams even punishes defenders his own size as well, as he ran right through Falcons inside linebacker Paul Worrilow on his three-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
Not only is Williams a powerful runner who always falls forward, he also has quick feet in the backfield that he uses to change direction and slightly alter his path of attack. The former Boston College standout shows good patience on inside and outside running plays and obviously trusts his ability as a runner. Williams consistently breaks through first contact at the line of scrimmage, shows the speed to turn the corner and get into the secondary and loses very little momentum in and out of cuts.
The main knock on Williams coming out of college was his lack of pass-catching ability and while he caught two passes for 18 yards against Atlanta, he’s still a work in progress as a receiver. His first reception went for 14 yards, but Williams trapped the ball against his body before breaking first contact and running for the first down. His second catch went for just four yards in the right flat, but he extended to make a catch with just his hands, a promising look for a player most thought would never have an impact as a receiver. Williams has been better as a pass protector than as a receiver, but lacks experience as a blocker and needs to work on his skills in that area as well to keep Eli Manning upright and stay out of head coach Tom Coughlin’s doghouse.
Coughlin is usually tough on rookies, but said he is very confident giving Williams the ball. The rookie was on the field for 31 out of 37 snaps once Jennings was injured, proving that he has the trust of Coughlin and the coaching staff. Williams is a better pure runner than his fourth-round draft status would suggest and if he can continue to impress with patience, power and speed, he has a chance to play himself into 8-10 carries per game even when Jennings returns, likely after New York’s bye. Williams is the type of runner that can wear a defense down as the game goes on, and should prove to be extremely effective in the fourth quarter.
Odell Beckham Jr. (WR-NYG)
With new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo installing a West Coast offense heavily predicated on three-receiver sets, it was disappointing to see Beckham struggle with injuries during training camp and the preseason. Finally healthy after missing New York’s first four games of the season, the team’s first-round pick (12th overall) made an instant impact despite playing just over half of the Giants’ snaps in Week 5. The team originally planned on the rookie playing 20-30 snaps but his explosive ability was immediately evident, leading to Beckham seeing the field more than twice as much as fill-in third receiver Preston Parker.
Beckham was quiet in the first half, catching his only target for seven yards and a first down on a curl route. Beckham slipped coming out of his break, but was able to keep his feet and make the catch for a first down. With the Giants down 20-10 more than midway through the third quarter, though, the rookie burned Falcons cornerback Robert Alford down the left sideline, showing off his 4.4 speed in the process. An accurate throw from Eli Manning would have resulted in an 81-yard touchdown, but the throw landed out of bounds instead.
Manning and the Giants started to recognize the need to get Beckham more involved in the second half and continued to feed him the ball. The former LSU star stands just 5-11, 198 pounds, but understands how to avoid contact, uses his hands well at the line to keep defenders off his body and shows the awareness to cut crossing routes sharply to avoid contact over the middle. After eluding defenders in coverage, Beckham has the speed and acceleration to quickly create separation, which helped him draw a pass interference penalty in the second half and get to the sideline on a crossing route against a linebacker.
Beckham’s biggest impact came on the first drive of the fourth quarter, as he did a great job selling a deep route before gathering himself at the stem of a curl route to create separation, make an easy catch and gain a few yards after the play to get the Giants into Falcons territory. Six plays later, Beckham made his biggest play of the game to put New York ahead. Fighting through contact at the line and throughout the route, the rookie was able to stay on his feet while Manning lofted a jump ball to him in the end zone. Despite standing less than 6-0, Beckham showed off his ability to attack the ball in the air, letting the corner’s momentum take him beyond the catch point and high pointing a catch for the go-ahead touchdown. This clutch play allowed New York to decline the defensive holding penalty against Robert Alford, who was covering Beckham.
Every skill Beckham offers was on display against the Falcons, from his top-end speed, quickness and burst to his body control and ability to box defenders out with his frame in the air. He extended away from his body on multiple catches to show off his strong hands, and Giants fans are loving the upside Beckham showed in Week 5. The rookie is set for more snaps going forward and as long as he stays focused on the field in practice and on game days, Beckham has a bright future ahead of him and will be an asset to the New York offense.
Prince Shembo (LB-Atl)
An outside linebacker at Notre Dame, the Falcons drafted Shembo in the fourth round and shifted him to the inside of their 3-4 defense thanks to a lack of depth at the position. A prospect with off-the-field questions stemming from a 2010 sexual assault, Shembo’s stock was in limbo leading up to the draft before Atlanta grabbed him 139th overall. After seeing time off the bench in the first three weeks of the season, Shembo has started the past two games and filled up the box score against the Vikings and Giants. A week after he made eight tackles (four solo), Shembo upped the ante with 14 takedowns, including seven solo stops, against New York in Week 5.
While Shembo was very involved against the run, the Giants also ran over 70 offensive plays, which helped him pad his stats. Just three of his tackles came on plays that gained less than three yards, and only one of those was a solo stop. This is a classic case of film telling a different story than the box score, as even Shembo’s late solo tackle that stopped a play for one yard was him guiding Andre Williams out of bounds after a teammate slowed him up. While many of the rookie’s tackles were ineffective, he did show some skills that could help him make more of an impact for the rest of the season.
At 6-0, 253 pounds, Shembo has the size to play inside and take on blocks, which he did well against the Giants. He used his hands well to keep blockers off his body and was only taken out of plays when he was caught standing straight up. Shembo showed good discipline in sticking with his assignments, keeping gap integrity and following his keys. On one play in the second half, Giants right guard John Jerry pulled to the left looking for a kickout block to spring Andre Williams off tackle. Shembo attacked Jerry’s pull on Jerry’s outside shoulder, setting the edge and forcing Williams to stay inside. Multiple Falcons swarmed to the ball and stopped Williams for two yards, while Shembo only picked up an assist coming back into the play late. This was one of his best plays of the game from a team defense perspective, yet one barely reflected on the stat sheet.
The former Notre Dame star was also effective reading and reacting to plays, but lacks special speed or athleticism to make big plays in the backfield from an inside alignment. He showed reliable tackling ability by not missing a tackle during the game, filled holes and gaps nicely and used his strength and toughness to fight through blockers to get involved in the action. Shembo lacks great potential but has the skill set to be an effective “thumper” in the 3-4, taking on blocks to free up teammates to make plays while showing an ability to make plays on his own as well. While his play on the field didn’t quite match the box score against the Giants, Shembo has played well overall this season and should continue to see the bulk of the snaps next to Paul Worrilow on the inside.
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.