More first-year receivers made Chris Tripodi’s Rookie Report this week, and that is most certainly a trend that has been set throughout the entire 2014 season. Many are referring to this receiver class as one of the best of all time, and it’s becoming more difficult to argue with that statement as the season goes on. But this week wasn’t all about wide receivers, as a late-round quarterback turned in one of the better performances for a first-year signal caller this season and another Day 3 pick showed well in his opportunity on the defensive side of the ball.
Zach Mettenberger (QB-Ten)
A sixth-round pick out of LSU, Mettenberger became the fourth rookie quarterback to start for his team this season before the Titans’ Week 8 game against the Texans. A strong-armed, statuesque passer who fits the old-school quarterback prototype, Mettenberger dropped in the draft after tearing his ACL during his senior season. He also had a few off-field issues dating back to his days at Georgia that had teams worried as well. Through three starts, the first-year passer has played relatively well, especially considering the struggles of his rookie counterparts with much higher draft pedigree. The “Mett Show” almost led Tennessee to an upset of Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football, finishing his best game with 15 completions on 24 attempts, 263 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
On the Titans’ first offensive play of the game, Mettenberger was pick-sixed by William Gay. He tried to throw an out pattern to Justin Hunter, who stumbled out of his break. The ball was thrown well behind Hunter anyway, and it turned into an easy interception and a short return by Gay into the end zone. Mettenberger bounced back nicely on the following drive though, hitting Kendall Wright twice for 37 yards before a Bishop Sankey touchdown brought Tennessee within three, 10-7. A short memory is a great trait for a quarterback to have, particularly a rookie, and Mettenberger didn’t look fazed after his opening gaffe.
While Mettenberger looked good, he did much of his damage against the Steelers when they weren’t blitzing. His interception came against extra pressure, and he completed 8 of 13 passes for 84 yards and no scores when the Steelers brought more than four rushers, compared to 7 of 11 for 179 yards and two scores against base calls, according to Pro Football Focus. Pittsburgh’s beat-up defense struggled to get to Mettenberger, who tends to be a sitting duck in the pocket, which allowed him to push the ball downfield and utilize his elite arm strength. His longest pass of the day came against a four-man rush and went for an 80-yard touchdown to Nate Washington, who burned the Steelers deep with a double move. Mettenberger was actually pressured on the play, but no initial blitz allowed him to get into his drop and set his feet comfortably before standing in the pocket and taking a shot while releasing the pass.
The rookie’s second touchdown came late in the third quarter, extending the Titans’ lead to 24-13. Mettenberger dropped back into a clean pocket inside the Steelers’ five-yard line and saw Chase Coffman breaking towards the back of the end zone. The ball was thrown into double coverage, but Mettenberger trusted his arm to get the ball high enough in the air with the velocity necessary to give only Coffman a chance at making a play on the ball. The tight end went up for the pass and made the catch between Steelers defenders for the short score.
Mettenberger wasn’t perfect on the day, but he carried an offense that managed just 49 rushing yards on 11 attempts. Working from a consistently clean pocket, the first-year signal caller did a nice job of keeping his composure, finding open receivers and delivering the ball on time, with one of the few exceptions being his early interception. But his ability to recover from that play and give his team a legitimate chance to win against a playoff contender says a lot about Mettenberger’s confidence and natural talent. Draft Insider had him rated as a second or third-round prospect in this year’s draft, and the Titans were able to find a high-upside passer late in Day 3, where any risk far outweighs the reward. Mettenberger still has work to do though, especially against teams that look to get more pressure on him. Tennessee will travel to Philadelphia this week to face the Eagles, a team that ranks second in the NFL with 33 sacks. Their secondary has leaked big plays all season, so it will be interesting to see if Mettenberger will get the time he needs to push the ball downfield. Week 12 should be a nice test for the young quarterback, and may go a long way towards giving himself a chance to start heading into next season, as the Titans seem destined to be picking in the top five.
Jordan Matthews (WR-Phi)
Through his first eight NFL games with Nick Foles at the helm, Matthews had just one game with more than 50 receiving yards, an eight-reception, 59-yard, two-TD performance in Week 3. With Foles going down in Week 9 against the Texans and Mark Sanchez taking over, the Eagles’ second-round pick has staged his own takeover amongst Eagles receivers. While Foles preferred to target Jeremy Maclin downfield and outside the hashes, Sanchez favors the middle of the field, where Matthews makes his living. Add in good chemistry with his new quarterback from backup reps in training camp and preseason, and Matthews’ explosion over the past two weeks becomes a bit less surprising. After posting five receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Packers, Matthews now has 15 receptions for 285 yards and four scores in his last three games.
The former Vanderbilt star continued to show a nice rapport with Sanchez, hooking up on a couple deep passes for 36 and 40 yards. The first came on a wheel route up the seam late in the first half, where Matthews used his 6-3, 212-pound frame well by leaving his feet to box out the corner trailing in close coverage. His second long catch came much later in the game, well after the game was decided, but also showed off his high-pointing skills and concentration in tight coverage, as he was blanketed on the play but still made the catch. Matthews could’ve had another long reception on an early third-down play, as he ran free to the sideline on a corner route. While it wasn’t a perfect ball from Sanchez, Matthews was able to stretch his arms and get both hands on the pass, but couldn’t reel it in to keep the drive alive. This game was 24-3 at that point, and that catch would’ve put the Eagles in the red zone with a chance to cut the Packers’ lead to two scores.
Going back to the positives though, Matthews again used his size and strength to his advantage on his third-quarter touchdown, which came on a quick screen pass from 10 yards out. Matthews excelled on these plays at Vanderbilt, using his vision to spot holes in the blocks in front of him before getting up to top speed and taking plays to the house. The rookie took this play to the end zone as well but had to create his own yardage, as safety Morgan Burnett came up hard to stop him shortly after the catch. Matthews used a strong stiff arm to keep Burnett away from his body, then chucked the safety out of his way before scampering into the end zone. Game situation aside, it was an impressive play that will get Matthews more screens in the future.
Unfortunately, Matthews’ results from this game weren’t all positive. While he ran solid routes and showed the ability to use a quick stutter step off the line of scrimmage to give himself the space he needed to release, the former Commodore struggled to separate from defenders on his routes, particularly when dragging across the middle of the field. This was a problem for him in college and the major knock to his draft status, and it continues to show up on film. Matthews bulled through contact at the five-yard mark on an early drag route but still couldn’t gain separation against his man, leading to a pass breakup. Matthews caught a 16-yard pass on a drag later in the game, but it took a perfect throw from Sanchez to hit Matthews in stride and keep the closely trailing defenders from making a play on the ball. Matthews’ big plays down the field were also covered well, but he was strong enough at the catch point to make up for it.
From what I’ve seen of Matthews so far, he profiles as an Anquan Boldin-type receiver. Not prime-years Boldin, who played much faster on the field, but post-prime Boldin who consistently wins at the catch point despite rarely creating separation. Matthews is faster as a rookie than Boldin is now, which will make him more of a threat down the field, but that kind of player requires extreme trust from his quarterback to be where he needs to on the field and catch the balls thrown his way. Matthews has that trust from Sanchez, and didn’t with Foles, but still needs to make sure he doesn’t leave plays on the field. He has the skills to be an effective No. 2 receiver at the NFL level, but I don’t think the Eagles will look to him to be their top target anytime in the near future, especially with Maclin’s emergence as a big-play threat.
Kelvin Benjamin (WR-Car)
Considering the season Benjamin has had so far, with 52 reception for 768 yards and eight TDs in 11 games, it’s a bit surprising he hasn’t been profiled this season. Of course, two of his biggest games came last week and in Week 1, when there was no report, but he showed up again in Week 11 to finally get his time in the sun. Benjamin set a season-high with his nine catches against the Falcons, turning them into 109 yards and a touchdown on 13 targets, which was actually one of his most efficient games of the season.
Benjamin was extremely quiet in the first three quarters, catching just two of the six passes thrown his way for 21 yards as the Panthers found themselves in a 16-3 hole. Two of those incompletions were overthrown by Cam Newton, but the blame can be placed on Benjamin for two others. In the first quarter, Benjamin rounded the break on an out route that gave the corner just enough to beat him to the ball and break up the pass. A flatter break to the sideline from Benjamin would have helped him use his 6-5, 240-pound frame to shield the corner and make the catch. The other play that can fall on Benjamin came on a slant route, where Falcons corner Desmond Trufant read Benjamin’s route and Newton’s eyes to break on the ball for an interception. While this was certainly a nice play by Trufant, Benjamin gave up on the route once Trufant beat him to the spot rather than fighting for position and maybe preventing the interception.
The first-round rookie from Florida State did show better awareness and route-running skills on his two early receptions, making a nine-yard grab on a busted play. Newton was flushed out of the pocket right, Benjamin recognized it and altered his route to the sideline to give Newton a target. The first-year receiver also ran a sweet double move later on, faking a stop-and-go route before making a sharp break on a comeback to Newton, showing nice extension to catch the ball away from his frame and the sideline awareness to get his feet down.
The fourth quarter, however, was when Benjamin was at his best in comeback mode. Benjamin’s touchdown cut Atlanta’s lead to 16-10, as the rookie did a great job meeting the ball at its highest point on a go route down the left sideline. He didn’t make the catch initially, but timed it well enough that the tipped pass came right down into his arms for the 22-yard score. Benjamin showed excellent concentration on the play to not only secure the catch, but to make sure his body landed in bounds so it would count. On top of that score, Benjamin turned a short curl route into 17 yards on the next drive to get the Panthers into field-goal range down just two points, breaking a tackle from the corner and picking up the necessary extra yardage to set up Graham Gano for a try under 50 yards. Unfortunately, Gano missed the field goal, but Benjamin did a great job putting his team in position for the win.
Benjamin also showed nice awareness on the final drive of the game to get his team in position for another shot at the game-winning field goal. He was able to get out of bounds after catching a seven-yard pass over the middle, followed by an 18-yard reception with eight seconds left where he couldn’t get out of bounds. Instead of going down in bounds or fighting and letting the clock run out, Benjamin handed the ball back to Greg Olsen who stepped out with a second left. Gano missed the 63-yard try, but he only had a chance because Benjamin was thinking on his feet.
Benjamin has had an up-and-down rookie season, and his seven dropped passes (per Pro Football Focus) are tied for fourth-most in the NFL. But despite his lack of production early, Benjamin turned in arguably his best overall performance of the season despite playing well for just a quarter. It was an impressive quarter that helped his team get back into the game, and gave them multiple chances to win. Benjamin may turn in another stinker after the Panthers’ bye, but hopefully he can build on this momentum for a big stretch run with the Panthers still inexplicably in the NFC South race. As a 24-year-old rookie, he will need to get rid of his inconsistency quickly to reach his potential at the NFL level, but he may always be a player who drops a lot of passes. As long as the big plays continue to flow, Carolina will live with the bad from time to time.
Devon Kennard (LB-NYG)
A fifth-round pick out of USC, Kennard has seen limited playing time at weak-side linebacker this season behind Jacquian Williams. With Williams missing the Giants’ Week 11 game with the 49ers due to a concussion, Kennard stepped into the starting role and played well, totaling nine tackles (seven solo, one for loss) and playing 55 of 68 snaps on defense, per Pro Football Focus. Kennard also turned in a solid performance in limited opportunities in pass coverage, something the Giants haven’t gotten from the veteran Williams.
Despite lacking bulk at 6-3, 249 pounds, Kennard was able to effectively stack and shed blocks when matched up against 49ers tight end Vernon Davis in Sunday’s loss. He showed good extension to prevent Davis from getting into his body and keep his sightline open, reacting quickly once he diagnosed plays to make tackles. Kennard was moved off his spot a few times when matched up with offensive lineman, but did well to stay extended to eventually shed the block and get in on the action. He was jolted early in the game by a pulling guard, but stayed on his feet to stack, shed and assist on a short gain by Frank Gore.
Kennard’s best play of the game came with San Francisco lined up in the shotgun. Carlos Hyde motioned directly behind Colin Kaepernick, who faked a zone-read handoff to the rookie runner. Kennard kept his focus on the ball and didn’t bite on the fake to Hyde as Kaepernick broke out of the pocket to the left. Kaepernick was able to evade Jason Pierre-Paul, but Kennard was right there to clean up the play and stop the QB for a seven-yard loss. The rookie showed good awareness on the play as well as a keen understanding of his responsibilities within the defense.
The former Trojans star also did well moving through trash in the middle of the field to get to the ball carrier. On one play late in the game, Kennard scraped from the weak side and was just fast enough to beat a blocker to his spot at the second level. Once he was clear of the potential block, Kennard was able to chase down Gore moving to the other side of the formation and stop him after just a four-yard gain. On a few other plays, Kennard was quick to recognize the play, work through the trash and quickly fill the hole to make stops for short gains.
While the rookie didn’t make any outstanding plays in coverage, he did a nice job of keeping plays in front of him in zone before closing to make the tackle. He did bite on reverse action on one play, however, which allowed Gore to leak out of the backfield for an easy catch and 11-yard gain before Kennard could chase him down. The rookie plays to his timed speed in the 4.6 range and isn’t fast out to the flanks, but knows his own speed and takes good angles to ensure he makes the tackle.
Williams is considered questionable for Week 12 at this early point in the week and if he’s forced to miss another game, Kennard did nothing in Week 11 to have his starting spot taken away from him. While he may not be the most talented linebacker on the field, he plays smart and efficient football with the fundamentals and awareness to ensure he’ll never be too far out of position. Kennard projects as a backup in the long run, but one who can fill in for a few weeks when necessary without being a major liability against the run or the pass.
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/