Rarely does the first week of the NFL season give us a matchup between the top two picks in the NFL Draft, but the 2015 schedulemakers did just that, pitting No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against No. 2 pick Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans. To the winner go the spoils, they say, and the winner is one of four rookies Chris Tripodi takes a look at in 2015’s inaugural Rookie Report, along with the league’s newest electric running back and two Pac-12 defenders who made an impact for their new teams.
Marcus Mariota (QB-Ten)
A Heisman Trophy, gaudy statistics and a clean off-the-field resume weren’t enough to get Marcus Mariota drafted over Jameis Winston, but if Sunday was any indication, that could prove to be a mistake by the Bucs. Draft Insider was one of the few places you could find Mariota rated ahead of Winston in pre-draft rankings, with the former Oregon quarterback sitting one spot ahead of the Florida State star at No. 3. Mariota’s debut was a smashing success, as he went 13-for-16 for 209 yards and four touchdowns and became the first rookie since Fran Tarkenton in 1961 to toss at least four scores.
After consecutive incompletions to start the game, Mariota threaded the needle between two Bucs to Delanie Walker over the middle for a 22-yard gain before hitting Kendall Wright with a 52-yard catch-and-run touchdown strike. While Mariota had Walker eyed from the moment he received the shotgun snap, he put enough velocity on his pass and threw high so Walker could grab it without either defender having much chance to make a play on the ball. The score to Wright came on a play-action pass from the shotgun, which froze the linebacker and gave Mariota an immediate window to hit Wright in stride and create the opportunity for yards after the catch.
Many of Mariota’s completions were quick-hitting passes after play-action fakes, but the rookie showed excellent accuracy in the short field and on the move, as his second score to Bishop Sankey from 12 yards out came on a bootleg right where Mariota again made sure to give his receiver a chance to keep running after the catch. His third touchdown to Harry Douglas, a four-yard slant in the second quarter, was another first-read throw delivered with impeccable accuracy to prevent the defensive back from closing on the route.
Earlier on that second touchdown drive, however, Mariota almost made a fatal mistake that could’ve resulted in points for the Bucs and taken some of the luster off his debut. After staring down Justin Hunter on a quick curl, Mariota’s pass hit fellow rookie Kwon Alexander in the chest after the linebacker jumped the route, and Alexander would’ve had a legitimate chance to take the play 70 yards to the house if he was able to secure the pick.
Mariota was outstanding as a whole in this game and while his first read was generally open, mitigating this issue, he showed a tendency to lock onto receivers and wasn’t forced to look to his second and third options very often. He wasn’t asked to throw a pass beyond 20 yards, and multiple throws in the intermediate 15-yard range were a beat behind, forcing his receivers to slow down or reach back to adjust and make the catch.
Mariota’s 158.3 passer rating may say he was perfect on the day, but the concerns highlighted in his scouting report were still there, particularly his pass placement on intermediate balls and tendency to miss high. It didn’t hurt him in Week 1, and it may not in Week 2 against a Browns’ secondary that couldn’t shut down Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Mariota is still very much a work in progress. Credit him for making the plays that were there, but also credit the Titans’ often-maligned coaching staff for a near-flawless offensive game plan. Even with the aforementioned issues, it should be exciting to watch Mariota develop as a passer this season.
Ameer Abdullah (RB-Det)
After an offseason full of endless hype during padless practices, where a 5-9, 205-pound back with elite explosiveness and agility should rightfully shine, Ameer Abdullah started to justify the hype when the pads came on in the preseason. Week 1 was no different for the former Nebraska star, who lived up to his high expectations in Sunday’s loss to the Chargers, rushing seven times for 50 yards and a touchdown and catching four passes for 44 yards out of the backfield.
On the eighth play of Sunday’s season opener, Abdullah took his first career carry on a third-and-short and scampered 24 yards into the endzone. The rookie took a handoff to the right and punished Manti Teo’s overpursuit with an immediate cutback to a wide open middle of the field. Only three-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle stood between Abdullah and the end zone, and the rookie shook the veteran with an ankle-breaking juke that left Weddle stumbling to give the Lions a 7-0 lead.
Abdullah also made an impact in the return game, taking a first-quarter kickoff from five yards deep out to the 43-yard line, showing the strength and balance to easily run through arm tackles from special teamers and setting Detroit up with great field position. He displayed those skills on multiple runs up the middle as well, consistently falling forward at the end of his runs and using his low center of gravity to drive for extra yardage.
As a receiver, Abdullah’s big play came on a first down in the third quarter, as he turned a short swing pass from Matthew Stafford into a 36-yard catch-and-run past midfield. After Stafford bobbled a tough snap, he floated a pass to Abdullah, who immediately redirected and cut inside the block of his pulling guard before using another quick cut to break free into the open field. One of the rookie’s biggest strengths at Nebraska was the ability to string multiple moves together in quick succession without losing speed out of his cuts, which was certainly on display against the Chargers.
Abdullah did fumble late, which is a concern based on his college history and small hands, but he was able to tally 94 total yards on just 11 touches in his debut, getting three more touches than veteran Joique Bell, who was banged up throughout the offseason. Based on Abdullah’s electrifying skill set and Bell’s declining game, it would shock nobody if Abdullah was getting 15-plus touches per game by the end of September as the Lions’ lead back. The one thing to watch is whether he can curb the fumbles, which is a quick way to find the bench as an NFL runner.
Henry Anderson (DL-Ind)
With Arthur Jones’ continued struggles to stay healthy landing him on injured reserve in early September, Henry Anderson was thrust into an expanded role sooner than expected. A late-third round out of Stanford, the 6-6, 294-pound Anderson logged 49 snaps on defense in Week 1 against the Bills and made an immediate impact with 11 tackles (8 solo), including three for loss, despite his team’s opening-week loss.
Anderson always used his hands well to keep himself from getting stuck on blocks with the Cardinal and through one week, that skill has translated to the NFL level. On two of his three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Anderson’s active hands prevented opposing linemen from engaging their blocks and locking onto his pads, which allowed him to break free. Early in the first quarter, his extension got him into the backfield to blow up any opportunity for LeSean McCoy to bounce the play outside, quickly closing down the running lane and creating a short loss. Later in the first half, Anderson kept his head up while staying free with his hands and shut down a potential Tyrod Taylor scramble before it even began, resulting in a two-yard loss.
The rookie defensive end also displayed a quick first step and the ability to penetrate the backfield, which resulted in his final tackle for loss in the fourth quarter. Anderson protected himself from a reach block by center Eric Wood before shooting into the backfield to bring down McCoy three yards behind the line of scrimmage. This play combined Anderson’s strengths as a player nicely, and almost pushed the Bills out of field-goal range late in a two-possession game.
Anderson played to his scouting report Sunday, which means teams won’t be surprised by his play as the season moves along. Draft Insider had him rated as a second-round pick and he was widely lauded as an excellent value for the Colts at No. 93 overall, so the early returns are promising for Anderson. His versatility should make him a key cog along a Colts’ defensive line that will need him to play at a high level if they hope to stop the run this season.
Marcus Peters (CB-KC)
Touted by many as the most talented cornerback in the 2015 draft class, Peters’ stock was once inside of the top 10. After being dismissed from the University of Washington program in November due to issues with the coaching staff, Peters became a character question mark. An “impulsive personality” unafraid to challenge authority, the 6-0, 197-pound corner’s stock dropped only slightly, as many said his personality would not have been a problem at other programs. The Chiefs were comfortable enough with Peters’ background to draft him at No. 18 and plug him into the starting lineup Week 1 against the Texans.
Peters tallied 7 tackles (5 solo), intercepted a pass and broke up three others in his debut for the victorious Chiefs, and it didn’t take him long to make his presence felt. Tasked with covering Texans star receiver DeAndre Hopkins on Houston’s first play from scrimmage, Peters made what could turn out to be the easiest interception of his career. Brian Hoyer was late delivering the ball to Hopkins on a curl and left the throw well inside, allowing Peters to break on the ball and secure the easy interception, something that wasn’t always a given for him in college.
Matched up against Hopkins again late in the first quarter, Peters was beat on a four-yard fade for a touchdown. The rookie played it well, though, keeping himself between the 6-1 Hopkins and the ball and coming up just short of deflecting the pass with a well-timed leap. Peters bounced back the following quarter, forcing a three-and-out by breaking up a pass from Hoyer to Nate Washington that was thrown slightly behind the receiver.
Washington made Peters look bad on a 32-yard reception in the third quarter, however, using a quick move off the line to turn the rookie around and create immediate separation on a square-in route. Once he caught the pass 15 yards downfield, Washington quickly stopped and reversed field, leaving Peters in the dust until the rookie could catch up to make the tackle. Peters also allowed a 19-yard reception to Washington earlier in the game by not trailing closely enough after the receiver’s break while in off coverage.
Peters’ second-half struggles continued into the fourth quarter, as Hopkins beat the rookie for another red-zone touchdown. Peters was again close in coverage, but never took his eyes off Hopkins and Ryan Mallett took advantage, firing a bullet to his receiver, who abruptly stopped in the end zone and let Peters’ momentum take him out of the play to pull Houston within two scores.
Cornerback is one of the more difficult positions to adjust to as a rookie, as even the league’s best players at the position generally take at least a year to develop, if not longer. Peters’ willingness to mix it up with receivers, coverage talent and ball skills were on display in spurts during Sunday’s season opener, but his inexperience showed against starters Hopkins and Washington, while he held his own against backup Keith Mumphery. Peters will likely take his share of lumps this season but the payoff down the line could be huge for Kansas City, as Peters has the skill set to excel as a press corner as well as off the ball.
Chris Tripodi has been contributing rookie reports and player interviews to Draft Insider since 2008. Follow him on Twitter to talk football and the NFL Draft.