After an impressive Week 8 showing by first-year wide receivers, two more made a big impact for their teams during Week 9. One was a first-round pick who had been waiting for a breakout game up until this point, while the other wasn’t drafted at all and had to fight his way onto an NFL roster during training camp and preseason. There were a few other impact rookies around the league as well, including a second-round running back and third-round linebacker taking advantage of injuries to turn in productive games. Chris Tripodi will tell you who showed out to him in this week’s Rookie Report.
Jeremy Hill (RB-Cin)
With a banged-up Giovani Bernard sitting out the Bengals’ Week 9 game against the Jaguars, the second running back drafted this past May was thrust into a starting role. Coming into the game with just one outing of 40 yards or more this season, Cincinnati’s second-round pick exploded for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries to help the Bengals win in the absence of their 2013 second-round pick. With Bernard looking doubtful to play on Thursday Night Football this week as well, Hill should get another shot to show off his skills.
The skills that Hill put on tape against Jacksonville were highly impressive, especially his change of direction ability as a 238-pound running back. The LSU product showed the ability to quickly alter his path against backfield penetration and cut against the grain, even completely reversing field on one run to pick up 11 yards. A toss play to the right side was going nowhere and Hill stopped moving, recognized the defense’s overpursuit on the backside and ran back parallel to the line of scrimmage and around the corner for the first down. Hill accelerated better than a back his size would be expected to, which allows him to trust his quick feet.
Patience was another skill Hill displayed in spades Sunday. On a 15-yard run in the second half, Hill busted through an open hole and broke an arm tackle before running into defenders in the secondary. Rather than bulldoze ahead for a few extra yards before going out of bounds, Hill had the vision to see an opening towards the middle of the field. The Bengals runner stopped in his tracks and quickly cut back inside to pick up an extra 10 yards. On the first play of the following drive, Hill took a toss to the right and waited for his pulling guard and center to make their blocks before accelerating towards the line of scrimmage. The play resulted in just five yards, but a less patient back wouldn’t have allowed his blocks to develop before moving forward and gained just a couple of yards.
Hill’s big run came late in the game after he had worn down the Jacksonville defense. Hill took a handoff right and cut quickly inside a kickout block from his tight end, who was lined up in the backfield with him. He showed good straight-line speed to get into the secondary without being chased down from behind, but safety Josh Evans had an angle on him heading towards the sideline. Instead of trying to outrun Evans’ pursuit, Hill used a series of stop-and-start moves to threaten a cutback to the middle of the field and force the safety to hesitate. Hill then made a beeline for the endzone and broke Evans’ diving tackle attempt, which was made necessary by Hill’s patient running to set up the hesitation and change his angle of attack.
The Bengals used Hill often on toss and stretch plays, allowing him to take advantage of his vision, patience and agile footwork. After carrying the ball just seven times in the first half for 27 yards, Cincinnati relied on Hill more as the game went along, as he ran for 127 yards on 17 second-half carries. That’s a great recipe for using a big back successfully, and Hill proved, at least for one week, that he has the talent to be a legitimate feature back in the NFL. Bernard will be back sooner than later, but both backs will see their share of action in what is shaping up to be one of the NFL’s best backfield combinations.
Mike Evans (WR-TB)
As the seventh overall pick of the 2014 draft, expectations were high for Evans, who was the second wide receiver off the board in a loaded class. Just once had the 6-5 rookie from Texas A&M caught more than four passes in a game or surpassed 65 yards receiving before Sunday, however, but he set season-highs across the board with seven receptions for 124 yards and two touchdowns against Jacksonville. Even though the trade rumors surrounding No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson never came to fruition, it looks like Evans is becoming a bigger part of the Tampa Bay offense even with the veteran still on the roster. With the other receivers drafted in the first round making noise recently, it was finally Evans’ time to shine in Week 9.
Although Evans posted gaudy numbers, he was probably wishing he had Johnny Manziel throwing him passes again rather than Mike Glennon. Glennon struggled all game, and Evans had to work hard to make his targets count. The rookie’s ability to smoothly adjust to inaccurate passes was a big part of his success against the Browns, and was key to both of his touchdown catches. His first touchdown went for 24 yards, as Evans got behind his man despite the defender playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. The pass was underthrown by Glennon but Evans, recognizing the flight of the ball, slowed his route and cut off the defensive back on his way back to the ball, using his frame to keep the defender away from the pass.
Evans’ second touchdown also came from 24 yards out, as the former Aggies star ran a fade down the right sideline. The ball was placed over Evans’ outside shoulder where only he could make the catch, and the rookie did a nice job tracking the ball and extending to make the grab. Evans also covered up the ball to secure the touchdown and prevent the cornerback from making a play once it was caught. While this ball wasn’t as poorly thrown as the pass on his first touchdown, Evans showed off his natural fluidity and instincts as a receiver to make a difficult play look easy.
Glennon did throw two interceptions on passes to Evans, but one was severely underthrown and the other was airmailed high and behind the receiver. While his quarterback continued to struggle with inconsistent ball placement, Evans bailed him out by catching balls thrown behind him, extending to snag passes led too far in front of him, and making back-shoulder adjustments when necessary as well. The rookie made an early 27-yard grab where he made one such adjustment, as Glennon lofted a pass down the sideline that couldn’t quite keep pace with Evans in stride. He added a 31-yarder later in the game as well, beating the corner down the sideline and making a nice grab away from his frame before protecting the ball from the closing safety.
The skills that made Evans such a high pick were obvious after his breakout game, as he consistently caught the ball with strong hands and showed top-notch focus, concentration and body control. The rookie also showed awareness and ball security beyond his years, turning his body to protect the ball from defenders after a few of his catches Sunday. Some scouts questioned Evans’ ability to separate from NFL defenders due to average speed, but his height and ability to make adjustment to balls in the air should make him very effective in contested situations even if he doesn’t produce consistent separation. With the Bucs turning back to Josh McCown for Week 10, it will be interesting to see if he has the same trust in Evans that Glennon did, or if he relies more on the veteran Jackson.
Allen Hurns (WR-Jac)
Hurns was one of the biggest surprises of Week 1, as the undrafted free agent caught four passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. While Hurns had an outstanding training camp and preseason, most expected that to be his best game of the season. The former Miami star topped 50 yards just twice in his next seven games to give credence to that thought, but enjoyed a seven-catch, 112-yard, two-touchdown explosion in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals. Like Evans above, Hurns had to work for his numbers and bailed out rookie quarterback Blake Bortles on numerous occasions.
Hurns had just two receptions for 11 yards before scoring his first touchdown of the game midway through the third quarter on a 40-yard catch. Hurns burned the cornerback lined up over him on a corner route from the slot, but Bortles threw the ball way short while rolling out to the right. The rookie receiver quickly changed his path to the ball, stopping to let the corner run by him and getting in position to make the catch before falling into the end zone for the score, showing a nice combination of speed and awareness to put points on the board.
Three drives later, Hurns’ next catch went for an 18-yard touchdown on the same route out of the same alignment. This time Hurns’ route took him into double coverage, but Bortles threw the pass anyway. With a safety over the top and a cornerback underneath, the former Hurricanes star made a great adjustment to the ball. Rather than continuing with his route towards the sideline, ensuring an interception, Hurns showed good change-of-direction ability to stop his route again and cut in front of the underneath corner to the ball, making a contested grab to turn what should’ve been an interception into another touchdown.
Hurns impressed with his field awareness and route-running too, making sharp breaks out of his stem. In particular, Hurns did a nice job on a late third-and-four play to run his route to the marker, but had to adjust to make a catch on a ball thrown behind him. Knowing this adjustment cost him a yard, Hurns had the awareness to reach the ball forward as he was dragged down to ensure the third-down conversion. The rookie receiver bailed out Bortles again on a late 28-yard reception, as the quarterback threw a pass behind Hurns, who smartly left his feet to slow down, make the grab and shield the defender from making a play.
While consistency has been an issue for Hurns, much of that has to do with the offense around him. When an undrafted rookie puts together multiple big games in a season, it’s absolutely time to take notice, especially when they weren’t open as a result of scheme or blown coverages. Hurns has shown sufficient speed to get behind the secondary and the ball skills to make plays to help out his quarterback. Running ahead of second-round pick Marqise Lee already, Hurns may have an opportunity to start opposite Allen Robinson, another second-round rookie, next season if Cecil Shorts leaves in free agency. He seems more likely to settle in as a slot receiver in the long run, but that’s more than most expected from him coming out of college.
Chris Borland (LB-SF)
With the 49ers missing both of their starting middle linebackers after Patrick Willis joined NaVorro Bowman on the sideline a few weeks ago, Borland has filled in admirably and has outplayed Michael Wilhoite, who had been starting all season. A third-round pick out of Wisconsin, Borland came into Week 9 with 15 total tackles on the season, but racked up a whopping 18 on Sunday, including 15 solo stops and three for a loss. The 23-year-old was a beast against the run, showing the natural feel and football instincts scouts loved about him despite a lack of size and speed.
The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 may have been overlooked on draft day, but his intensity is impossible to miss on the field. As Tony Pauline’s scouting report states, Borland plays “all out” on the field and flies to the football. He also plays with great discipline and gap integrity, staying within his responsibilities to make positive plays. Borland consistently flashed into the hole to force Rams running back Tre Mason to pick another, but more often than not Borland was able to scrape and chase Mason down once he committed to a running lane.
Borland is very explosive playing downhill and quickly reaches the ball carrier once he reads the play. His first tackle for loss came early in the game, as Borland wasn’t fooled by counter-action from the Rams and fired into the hole to hit Mason right after he took the handoff for a two-yard loss. The rookie linebacker showed the ability to use his hands to keep himself clean and avoid getting engulfed by bigger offensive lineman, as well as good footwork and quick moves to keep blockers from getting a clean shot at him. The hustle aspect of his playing style was on display early, when he chased down Benny Cunningham from behind on a screen pass 17 yards down the field after getting caught upfield on a blitz.
His instincts in coverage are excellent as well, and Borland showed a knack for breaking towards running backs and tight ends right as the ball left the quarterback’s hand. While he didn’t get a hand on any passes in Week 9, he did time his hits perfectly to meet pass catchers right as they caught the ball. Borland also stayed home against the play-action passing game and refused to overpursue plays run away from him, instead waiting to shoot creases between blockers when the Rams running backs decided to cut plays back to the weak side.
Willis was close to playing last week and seems likely to return for Week 10, but his return Borland shouldn’t send Borland back to the bench. Bowman shouldn’t be out much longer himself but until he returns, the third-round rookie has earned his chance to start until the 49ers are healthy in the middle of their defense. He’s unlikely to match his tackle total from last week with Willis back on the field, but Borland showed veteran-level instincts and was creative with his feet and hands to avoid blockers. If he can sustain his intensity and playing style at the NFL level, Borland should be able to carve out a long career in the league.
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.