What a showing for rookie wide receivers in Week 8. While Sammy Watkins and Kelvin Benjamin have dominated the headlines for first-year pass catchers, and rightfully so, they aren’t the only notable receivers to make a big impact for their teams this season. They’ve been the most consistent, but have also been given the biggest opportunity as No. 1 targets on their respective teams. Chris Tripodi breaks down what he saw from four other rookie wideouts who enjoyed their best performances of the season in Week 8.
Brandin Cooks (WR-NO)
After a big Week 1 that saw Cooks burst onto the scene in Atlanta with seven receptions for 77 yards and his first career touchdown, many expected him to continue that success through the first half of the season. Like the Saints, however, the speedy Cooks struggled away from the Superdome turf and caught just 10 passes for 71 yards in his next three road games. The first-round rookie did put up 17 receptions for 130 yards in two home games before Sunday, but even those performance were underwhelming in terms of a lack of big plays. That certainly wasn’t the case Sunday against the Packers, as Cooks caught six balls for a career-high 94 yards and a touchdown, while adding a rushing score as well.
On the Saints’ first possession, Drew Brees drove the team inside the Packers’ five-yard line to set up Cooks’ first touchdown, a jet sweep to the left where the rookie scored untouched. Cooks motioned from the right slot and the Green Bay defense didn’t keep outside contain on the quick snap and handoff, giving Cooks an easy lane to quickly speed through. Two possessions later, Cooks got a step deep on a post route against Davon House and Brees hit him perfectly in stride for what would’ve been a 45-yard catch. Unfortunately, Cooks couldn’t hang onto the pass as he fell to the turf.
Brees showed great confidence in Cooks even after the drop, however, going right back to him on the next play for a 14-yard gain. The former Oregon State star ran a 15-yard in on the play, but rounded off his break at the stem and allowed Tramon Williams to close on the pass. Brees did a nice job throwing behind Cooks to avoid Williams’ break, but the pass was high and Cooks couldn’t secure it, knocking it up into the air. The ball came right back down to Cooks, who showed impressive concentration to keep his eye on the pass and pull it in before safety Charles Woodson could come over and snatch it out of the air. Brees continued to go back to Cooks after that acrobatic catch, hitting him on an 18-yard comeback route during a two-minute drill at the end of the first half. It took Cooks a few choppy steps to slow down at the top of his route before flipping around to his quarterback, but the threat of his speed deep in that situation still allowed him to break open.
Even though Cooks blew his chance at a long catch and possible touchdown in the second quarter, he made up for it on the same route in the second half. Cooks used his 4.3 speed to blow by Williams and a safety to get deep and Brees hit him again in stride, but Cooks secured the catch this time before rolling over into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown. The rookie showed a short memory in this game, a great trait for an NFL receiver, as his second-quarter drop was the only missed connection between him and Brees on the day.
The Saints targeted Cooks multiple times on slant routes as well, two coming against off coverage when Brees got the ball to Cooks immediately to allow him to go to work, although there ended up being no running room. New Orleans looks committed to getting the ball in Cooks’ hands both short, deep and on running plays, which is a wise way to use a home-run hitting game breaker. He may continue to struggle with consistency due to a skill set geared towards big plays and playing half his games on grass away from the Superdome, but Cooks will be a big part of the Saints’ push for a playoff spot, especially with Jimmy Graham less than 100 percent and Marques Colston struggling.
Donte Moncrief (WR-Ind)
With Reggie Wayne missing Week 8 due to an elbow injury, Moncrief was in the discussion with Hakeem Nicks to replace Wayne in the starting lineup. Nicks eventually got the call, but he was brutally ineffective and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton decided it was time to give Moncrief a chance to shine early in the second quarter. A third-round pick out of Ole Miss, the 6-2, 201-pound athletic freak with 4.4 speed played over 60 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and saw an impressive 12 targets from Andrew Luck, catching seven for 113 yards and his first career touchdown.
Moncrief made his presence felt immediately once he entered the game, catching a short crossing route on a busted coverage and showing impressive speed and run-after-catch ability to pick up 52 yards. While the safety had a shot at Moncrief as he sprinted down the sideline, Moncrief showed nice vision to recognize the safety’s overpursuit and cut inside to pick up an extra 10 yards rather than running out of bounds. That drive led to a touchdown, and Luck actually looked Moncrief’s way on all three plays of the following drive. The first was batted at the line and another thrown well short, but Moncrief did show that he was on the same page as Luck on a four-yard completion in between. The slot corner on Moncrief’s side blitzed, and the rookie quickly turned back to Luck to give him a hot read and show his numbers to the quarterback.
Luck’s emerging trust in Moncrief was apparent throughout the game, especially when he hit the rookie on an 11-yard curl to pick up a first down in the third quarter. Luck released the pass a second before Moncrief started his break and turned back to the quarterback, which allowed the pass to be completed to move the chains. Moncrief had a tough drop on the next play, as Luck had him open on another crossing route but led him a bit too far. The first-year receiver didn’t extend as much as he needed to bring in the catch, and it’s possible footsteps from Troy Polamalu caused the alligator arms. Later in the drive, Moncrief did made a nice catch above his head in close coverage, and Luck went back to him again on the next play, both crosses, for 10 yards combined and a first down. The second was impressive, as Moncrief broke a tackle right after making the grab short of the marker and just barely managed the yardage he needed.
The former Ole Miss star’s touchdown came late in the third quarter, when he used his speed to get a step on the cornerback on a sideline go route. Rather than trying to run through the catch, Moncrief left his feet to turn back to the pass and put the corner in a tough position trying to defend the ball. The rookie knew where he was in relation to the sideline and reached the ball across the goal line before Polamalu could come over to prevent the score, an impressive display of athleticism and coordination to separate, make the grab and find the end zone.
Week 8 had some ups and downs for Moncrief, but overall he played well enough to see more time as the third receiver ahead of Nicks when Wayne returns to the lineup. His size and speed make him a legitimate playmaker in the short passing game and on deep routes, and further development of his route tree should make him even more effective. Right now, the Colts seem content dragging Moncrief across the middle and running him deep on shot plays, which will combine with Wayne’s return to make this likely to be Moncrief’s best performance of the season. With Wayne heading into free agency this offseason, Moncrief has a great chance to be one of Luck’s top two receivers next season if he can continue his development into the offseason.
John Brown (WR-Ari)
With 17 catches and three touchdowns through his first six career games, Brown has already made an impact on the Cardinals’ offense, even though most of those games were played without starting quarterback Carson Palmer. Arizona’s third-round pick out of Pittsburg State went over 50 yards just once in those games, but has been a big part of Bruce Arians’ vertical scheme thanks to blazing 4.34 speed. The 5-11, 179-pound Brown had a huge day in Arizona’s win over Philadelphia in Week 8, catching five passes for 119 yards and a game-winning 75-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Brown’s touchdown was worthy of multiple replays, as the rookie burnt the Eagles’ secondary on a stop-and-go route. Even though the first-year speedster broke free and was heading towards the middle of the field, Palmer led the throw over Brown’s outside shoulder, away from the safety to the inside. The former D-II star showed great ball-tracking skills to adjust, make the catch in stride and stay on his feet despite a slight stumble and wasn’t caught until he reached the end zone. As this play demonstrated, Brown is more than just pure speed; his ball skills are extremely impressive as well.
That touchdown wasn’t Brown’s only nice catch of the game, either. Quick pressure almost got to Palmer in the second quarter, and the veteran quarterback just threw a ball up to Brown down the left sideline. Brown showed nice concentration and made a great lunging grab while draped in tight coverage from the cornerback, looking the ball into his hands to bail out his quarterback. The rookie also showed skills on the sideline as well, extending nicely for an early third-down pass from Palmer on an out route and tapping his feet in to move the chains.
Brown also made a few nice catches on plays that didn’t count, making a reaching grab on a contested crossing route over the middle for 21 yards that was called back for holding. He also made a nice catch just out of the end zone when Palmer led him too far to the boundary, but Brown again flashed the skills to make grabs over his head on high passes look easy. The Cardinals have recognized his explosive skills in the passing game, and fed him multiple screen passes as well against the Eagles to get the ball in his hands, hoping for a big play. They didn’t hit this game, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Brown bust loose on a screen pass in the next few weeks.
After the win, a report came out saying Arians had compared Brown to a young Marvin Harrison. While Harrison was a couple inches taller at 6-0, they are both thin receivers who made an immediate impact during their rookie seasons. With Larry Fitzgerald turning into more of a possession receiver with a bloated 2015 cap number, Brown’s quick transition from Division II football to the NFL may influence the team’s decision on Fitzgerald this offseason. Even if Fitzgerald sticks around for another season, Brown’s playmaking ability will be on display every week in Arizona for years to come.
Martavis Bryant (WR-Pit)
For a player who was inactive for the first six games of the season, Martavis Bryant sure has made a quick impression with his play in the past two weeks. After debuting with a 35-yard touchdown in primetime during Week 7, Bryant’s encore was even more impressive: five receptions, 83 yards and two touchdowns. At 6-4, 211 pounds, Bryant was always expected to be a threat in the red zone, but he struggled with route running at Clemson and didn’t always play to his 4.4 40-yard dash time. The Steelers decided his upside was worth the risk in the fourth round, and Bryant has paid dividends so far despite playing just two games.
Both of Bryant’s touchdowns came in the red zone, and the first one was too easy. Bryant ran a quick slant route against a corner playing with outside leverage, likely protecting against a fade route, and Bryant sat down quickly between defenders once he realized how open he was. Ben Roethlisberger found the rookie for an easy five-yard score. His two-yard touchdown in the third quarter was more of Bryant’s specialty, as Roethlisberger lofted up a fade to Bryant in single coverage. The rookie used his height and long arms to snatch the ball at its highest point and secure it away from the corner to avoid any attempts on the ball. This is where Bryant wins, and he’s shown the ability to do it consistently in the NFL so far.
While those touchdowns showed Bryant’s red-zone prowess, his 52-yard catch displayed his threat as a field stretcher. Lined up against Darius Butler, Bryant ran right by the Colts’ cornerback and Roethlisberger hit him in stride 40 yards down the field. Bryant also showed no fear over the middle on an early 19-yard grab, beating a linebacker and making a nice hands catch away from his frame for 19 yards.
Bryant had many positive moments in this game, but also had a bad drop on a wide open slant route. The rookie beat his man to the inside, but just flat-out dropped a ball from Roethlisberger with some room to run after the catch. Bryant will need to make easy plays like this, but the positives certainly outweighed the negatives and he looks to have gained the trust of his veteran quarterback. While second-year speedster Markus Wheaton has struggled to create chemistry with Big Ben, Bryant has stepped right in and made important and efficient contributions, and the Steelers will likely continue to increase his reps if his improvement continues.
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.