Week 6 saw some impressive performances from rookies around the NFL, with Jets tight end Jace Amaro becoming the fifth tight end this season to pull down 10 receptions in a game and Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett intercepting his first career pass and setting a new career-high in tackles. Chris Tripodi returns again to break down what he saw from Amaro, Verrett and a couple of other rookies who had opportunities to impress this weekend.
Storm Johnson (RB-Jax)
A seventh-round pick out of Central Florida, Johnson got the start for the Jaguars in Week 6 thanks to Toby Gerhart’s foot injury and general ineffectiveness. The question for Johnson was whether he could overcome Jacksonville’s poor run blocking up front when Gerhart couldn’t, considering many (myself included) believe Johnson is the most talented runner in the Jaguars’ backfield, despite his low draft status. With college teammates Blake Bortles under center as well, Johnson had the advantage of being comfortable with his quarterback in his first start. Coach Gus Bradley said after the game that the goal was to give Johnson 10 carries, and he ended up with exactly 10 carries for 21 yards and a touchdown. While Johnson started and received the bulk of Jacksonville’s carries, he played just 19 snaps in total.
The rookie’s first carry of the game went for just one yard, but could’ve hit for a few more if Johnson had been more patient. Instead of waiting an extra split-second behind his fullback and seeing a small hole develop on the backside, Johnson charged forward into multiple Titans defenders. Johnson corrected this issue later in the first half on his longest run of the game, a six-yard carry from a single back formation. Without a fullback block to read in the backfield, Johnson recognized penetration on the right side of the line, cut quickly to the back side and showed nice burst through the crease before falling forward for extra yardage on first contact.
Johnson’s burst and ability to push forward on contact were two of his better attributes coming out of Central Florida, and he gained a few extra yards on his 10 carries by pushing through multiple defenders at first contact. In fact, he gained 15 yards of his 21 yards after contact (per Pro Football Focus), a testament to how poor the blocking was in front of him. Johnson’s touchdown on the Jaguars’ first drive was all effort on his part, as he did well to power through defenders at the line to push the pile backwards and reach the end zone from a yard out with no discernable openings to hit. Besides the power, the former UCF star showed an ability to quickly cut behind the line of scrimmage, using jump cuts and quick feet to avoid penetrating defenders. Johnson also made a nice leaping grab on a screen pass thrown over his head and broke a tackle in the backfield, but was still stopped for a four-yard loss on the play.
Unfortunately for Johnson, Jacksonville called a pass on 57 of its 78 offensive plays Sunday, putting the game in the hands of Blake Bortles instead of hoping their offensive line could open up running lanes. Gerhart’s Week 7 status is unknown and could result in another start for Johnson against a Browns defense that is one of just three in the NFL to allow at least five yards per carry. With the Jaguars’ struggles up front, running room could still be hard to come by, but Johnson will need to put together a better performance in his second career start if he hopes to seize the job. He showed some positive traits but also left a few yards on the field, and taking advantage of every opportunity for extra yardage behind a porous offensive line will go a long way towards giving him the upper hand in Jacksonville.
Jace Amaro (TE-NYJ)
After catching just three passes for 13 yards in the first two games of the season, Amaro has made at least three receptions in his last four games and has reeled in 21 of the 24 passes thrown his way, for 199 yards. His breakout performance in Week 6 resulted in career highs in both receptions (10) and receiving yards (68) as well as his first career touchdown. Amaro proved to be an effective safety valve for struggling quarterback Geno Smith and while rookie tight ends tend to struggle with consistency, Amaro looks to be the offense’s second option behind Eric Decker moving forward.
Amaro made three catches for 30 yards on the Jets’ second drive of the game that gave them a 7-3 lead, culminating in a two-yard touchdown catch for the rookie. The former Texas Tech standout showed off the natural hands that allowed him to catch 106 passes last season, consistently extending away from his body for the ball. Amaro’s first catch came by jumping to use his 6-5, 265-pound frame to box out a defender when the ball was late, showing off strong hands to not only make the catch through contact, but confidently get moving downfield for extra yardage. Later on the drive, Amaro got the Jets close to the goal line on a 13-yard slant route. Just like he did so often with the Red Raiders, Amaro used his hands to get free of Brandon Marshall and into his route, making a nice reaching grab above his head before being dragged down.
The rookie’s touchdown to end the drive came on a fade route, and Amaro was late to get his hands up in good position after battling with safety T.J. Ward for position. Despite being late to react, the ball settled right into Amaro’s soft hands in the corner of the end zone and the rookie gave himself plenty of room to get his feet down for the score. After his touchdown catch, Amaro was used mainly on screens and crossing routes for the rest of the game. The screen plays looked unnatural, as Amaro is too big to accelerate quickly after making a catch behind the line of scrimmage, but the Jets should continue to utilize him on crossing patterns. While he gained just 17 yards on four of those plays, Amaro shows the strength and hand use to get himself free at the line of scrimmage and the speed to separate from corners and safeties once he gets moving dragging across the field.
The rookie did make a first-year mistake, however, gaining just four yards on a third-and-five cross that he ran just two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. As long as he works on understanding down and distance, that should be correctable moving forward. Amaro had two other plays worth noting, one being an impressive one-handed catch on ball thrown well behind him. Breaking wide open on a drag over the middle, Amaro had to reach back with his right hand to corral a poorly thrown pass from Smith. Not only did Amaro use his right hand to knock the ball back towards him to secure the catch, he didn’t break stride and was able to gain 12 yards and a first down despite not being led. Earlier in that drive, however, the rookie had an awful drop after breaking wide open across the middle. The ball hit him right in the hands, but Amaro just dropped it. That drop can likely be chalked up to a focus issue on that particular play, but it’s something Amaro will need to eliminate from his game considering the already inefficient Jets’ passing game. His hands are too good to let balls get away from him.
With a short week to prepare for New England on Thursday, the Jets will need Amaro to step up against the Patriots and have another big game for them to stand a chance at beating Tom Brady in Foxboro. Some of the rookie’s efficiency can be chalked up to being peppered with passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, but New York needs plays like that to keep the ball moving downfield without a player who can stretch the field and gain yardage in big chunks. Expect Amaro to continue to be a big part of the Jets’ gameplan going forward, along with a healthy Decker.
Jason Verrett (CB-SD)
Despite standing just 5-9, 189 pounds, Verrett was still drafted in the top 25 despite the NFL’s obsession with size. If Verrett was just two inches taller, he likely would have been a surefire top-10 pick; he’s that talented. The rookie cornerback out of TCU has yet to turn in a poor performance through six career games and as alluded to earlier, came up with his first career interception in Sunday’s win over the Raiders. Verrett also set a new career-high with six solo tackles and two pass deflections, and his excellent all-around skill set has helped key the Chargers’ impressive defense in 2014.
Against Oakland, Verrett allowed just two receptions on seven passes thrown his way, which is the same amount of plays he disrupted. One catch was a short six-yard slant route where Brice Butler used a pick to get a sliver of separation on Verrett, who still almost got into position to make a play on the ball but was just a split-second late. The rookie did get beat down the sideline by Andre Holmes for 30 yards, but had the receiver in tight coverage before getting beat by a great throw from David Carr that allowed the 6-4 Holmes to make a leaping, back-shoulder grab and gave Verrett no chance to make a play on the ball.
Verrett got payback on a deep route by Butler with just over a minute left in the game, however, showing impressive ball skills and even tighter coverage to seal a 31-28 win for the Chargers. Playing off coverage, Verrett didn’t bite on a shoulder fake from Carr and stayed with Butler step-for-step down the field. Rather than throwing a back-shoulder jump ball, Carr tried to lead Butler and hit him in stride downfield. Verrett kept the receiver in front of him and played the ball like he was on offense, out-leaping the 6-3 Butler at the catch point for one of the best defensive plays of the season so far, considering the game situation and the fact that he was giving up six inches to the receiver. If Verrett mistimed the play even a little bit or blew the coverage, Butler would’ve had a touchdown and San Diego would’ve been faced with a late deficit to come back from. Instead, Verrett ended the game and made Carr pay for challenging him down the field.
The former All-American at TCU was also solid in run support, coming up hard from the secondary to ride Darren McFadden out of bounds on multiple occasions. Verrett also made a nice play on a screen to Holmes, using his quickness to elude an offensive lineman in space and bring Holmes down for an eight-yard gain. He also knocked a ball away from Holmes with a jarring hit late in the second quarter that helped force a longer field-goal attempt, one that Sebastian Janikowski missed just before the half and proved to be the difference in the game. Verrett found himself in better position on a deep pass to Holmes in the third quarter, just like he did against Butler on his interception, but the ball was too far overthrown for Verrett to make a play.
Through six career games in San Diego, Verrett has played like not just one of the best cornerbacks in the 2014 draft class, but one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. The Chargers have to be ecstatic with what they’ve gotten from Verrett as a late-first round pick, as he’s proven to be just as complete of a player as scouts expected coming out of TCU. He’s also stayed disciplined in coverage and avoided biting on fakes from quarterbacks and receivers, two of his weaknesses in college, while showing an ability to gain position on taller receivers and out-jump them for the ball with his 39-inch vertical leap. If Verrett continues to show those skills, there may be multiple Pro Bowls in his future. Most corners struggle transitioning to the NFL, particularly shorter ones, but Verrett has made an immediate impact for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
HaHa Clinton-Dix (S-GB)
The 21st overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, Clinton-Dix is still technically behind Micah Hyde on the Packers’ depth chart at free safety despite playing more snaps than Hyde so far this season. The former Alabama star led Green Bay with seven solo tackles in a Week 6 win over the Dolphins despite playing just 37 snaps, and has steadily improved as a run defender over the last three weeks after struggling in that department early in the season. Clinton-Dix has been solid in coverage all season and if he continues to improve against the run, his playing time should keep increasing as well.
Early in the game, Clinton-Dix was gifted with a big tackle for loss when Dolphins running back Lamar Miller broke a tackle that sent him backwards. The rookie quickly recognized that the play wasn’t over and closed into the backfield to take Miller down for a nine-yard loss. Clinton-Dix again showed his quick closing ability on a short curl by Charles Clay over the middle, breaking from his single-high perch to wrap Clay up before he could gain yards after the catch. The former Crimson Tide star showed impeccable timing on the first drive of the following drive, spotting Mike Wallace crossing over the middle, closing quickly from behind and timing his hit perfectly to make sure Wallace had no chance of securing the short catch.
Clinton-Dix’s range to the sideline was also evident Sunday, as was his sure tackling ability. After Miller broke a tackle on a second-half screen pass, Clinton-Dix got to the sideline in time to force Miller out of bounds after a long play to prevent a bigger play, or even a touchdown. There were a few other plays where Clinton-Dix was forced to clean up after his teammates’ missed tackles, and he showed that he can bring ballcarriers down in different ways. Clinton-Dix showed the strength to wrestle down receivers after tackling high, the ability to drop his shoulder to stop their momentum before grabbing their legs to secure the tackle and the aggression to drive his shoulder into their thighs to flip them at the point of contact.
While Clinton-Dix didn’t have any big splash plays in this game, he played his role as single-high centerfielder to perfection and limited mistakes as Green Bay’s last line of defense. Calvin Pryor was the flashy pick at safety in this year’s draft and went three spots higher than Clinton-Dix, but the Packers had to be happy to add a solid player who gives them a nice complement to strong safety Morgan Burnett, who can now play more in the box knowing Clinton-Dix has his back.
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.