Week 2 of the NFL season was one of the weirdest weeks in recent memory, but one thing wasn’t strange about it: Rookies stepping up and making a big impact in wins for their team, including many who had poor or quiet Week 1 performances. Three of the four rookies Chris Tripodi breaks down today played instrumental roles in their team’s victories, including a top pick who was a big reason for his team’s loss in Week 1.
Jameis Winston (QB-TB)
To say Winston had a rough Week 1 would be doing the word “rough” a huge disservice. Winston’s first career touchdown pass actually went the other way, as Coty Sensabaugh picked him off on the rookie’s first possession. While he threw two touchdowns, the Florida State product completed just 16 of 33 passes for 210 yards in a 28-point loss. He was much more efficient against the Saints in Week 2, completing 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown and adding 23 yards and a score on the ground.
Winston’s first pass of the game came on an early third-down play, as he rifled a 21-yard completion to Austin Seferian-Jenkins for a first down. The rookie quarterback stood tall in the pocket despite some pressure and put the pass high enough to prevent the trailing defensive back from making a play on the ball and allow his 6-6 tight end to go up and get the ball. Winston almost had another big completion to Seferian-Jenkins in the second quarter, but underthrew the wide-open tight end deep down the field on a play-action pass, leading to a drop. If Winston had driven the ball further, the play had an outside chance to be a touchdown despite safety Kenny Phillips bearing down on Seferian-Jenkins.
With the Bucs trailing 7-3 late in the first half, Winston engineered an impressive 63-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead. After quickly driving into New Orleans territory thanks to a couple of short passes, a scramble and a roughing-the-passer penalty, Winston hit Louis Murphy for a 23-yard gain to reach the red zone. The ball was thrown short and forced Murphy to go to the ground to secure the catch, but Murphy had time to get up and pick up extra yards anyway. The next play was vintage Winston, as the quarterback floated a beautiful 15-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson in the back of the end zone.
The ball arrived on time and in stride, sailing over the outstretched arms of the linebacker and past the trailing defensive back and allowing Jackson to use his height to sky for the grab with enough room to get his feet down in bounds. Winston showed great anticipation on this play, as Jackson wasn’t open when the pass was released. Reading the positioning of the defenders and recognizing that Jackson would be the first one to the back of the end zone, Winston led him perfectly and allowed his receiver to make a huge play.
After running in a one-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, Winston had a chance to score for the third time late in the period and increase Tampa Bay’s lead to 27-7. Instead, he floated a pass just a bit too high for Seferian-Jenkins to reel in on second down and led Jackson too far toward the sideline on third down as the Bucs settled for a field goal. While his overall numbers are highly efficient, those were helped by numerous screen passes and Winston definitely had a few throws he’d like back. He also fumbled in the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead to give the Saints an opportunity to make it a one-possession game, but a missed field goal kept the Bucs up by double digits.
Despite a few hiccups, Winston looked good Sunday and he showed a lot more promise than he did in his debut. He put his arm strength on display often, which prevented defenders from closing to the ball late, and continued to make progress with his fundamentals, shortening the hitch in his throwing motion that was ever-present in college and widening his base. He still sailed a few passes high, which is tough to do considering his three top targets are 6-5 or taller, but Winston showed great composure in the pocket along with escape-ability and the strength to break away from sacks.
Not only did Winston escape the pocket effectively, but he did it under control, keeping his eyes up while scrambling and even creating a big play as a result. Rolling to his right, Winston directed Louis Murphy to break off his double-covered route and head deep down the field. The rookie quarterback dropped a dime down the field to Murphy while on the move, resulting in a 54-yard gain to set up his aforementioned incompletions to Seferian-Jenkins and Jackson in the end zone.
Winston’s Week 2 performance won’t garner the hype that Marcus Mariota’s debut in Week 1 did, but it was a good display of efficient and effective football. Winston also showed the ability to push the ball down the field and create big plays, and his sky-scraping weapons will help him in the red zone and on contested passes. While the rookie did a great job of not forcing balls into coverage and made good decisions, that may not be the case all season. But after a disastrous Week 1, Winston showed why the Bucs believed in his talent enough to make him the top overall pick.
Matt Jones (RB-Was)
Jones was a player many in the draft community slept on after Florida’s rough 2014 season. Respected evaluator Scot McCloughan and the Redskins saw enough talent to grab Jones at the end of the third round, even comparing the former Gator to Marshawn Lynch and hyping him relentlessly throughout the summer. Here at Draft Insider, our scouting report on Jones said he “has an upside and will surprise at the next level.” That upside was on display Sunday, as Jones surprisingly came out of nowhere to gash the Rams for 123 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, splitting work almost evenly with starter Alfred Morris.
Jones’ first carry of the game went for a 39-yard touchdown, as he took a handoff to the left and cut inside a block at the line of scrimmage before turning the corner and out-running the Rams defense to the end zone, showing impressive wheels for a 231-pound back. He continued to display his burst throughout the first half, busting a 25-yard run in the second quarter on a similar script, only to the right side as Jones showed the acceleration to quickly get to the second level and through into the secondary.
Another impressive trait Jones showed Sunday was balance, which is a great quality for a big back to have. Not only does Jones sink low enough in his cuts to maintain his speed, it also allows him to stay on his feet and keep his legs moving forward. Jones showed all of these impressive skills on his second touchdown in the fourth quarter. Taking another carry left, he got around the corner and patiently rode his pulling guard until the kick-out block was complete. Jones then cut inside and used his strength and balance to pull trailing defenders with him into the end zone from three yards out.
Jones also showed clean hands out of the backfield, catching all three passes thrown his way and proving effective in space. Considering that is one of Morris’ deficiencies, Jones should continue to see work on passing downs even when the Redskins aren’t playing with enough of a lead to mix both backs in extensively on the ground. There will be some games where Jones struggles to hit 10 carries, and others where he pushes for 20, but he’s shown that he’ll be effective with whatever work he gets. With Morris in a contract year and Jones having many fans within the organization, he’s essentially a lock to be the Redskins’ full-time starter in 2016, if not later this season. If Sunday was any indication, he’ll have no trouble handling the role.
Vic Beasley (DE-Atl)
An amazing NFL Combine performance solidified Beasley’s draft stock within the top 10, and new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn jumped all over the opportunity to add an elite pass rusher to a defense that sorely needed one at No. 8, as Atlanta ranked second-to-last in the NFL with just 22 sacks last season. After a quiet debut with 3 tackles (1 solo) and a pass deflection, Beasley busted out against the Giants, recording his first career sack and forced fumble along with 5 tackles (3 solo).
Beasley didn’t have much impact in the first half as the Falcons trailed heading into the locker room, 13-10. He did show good discipline against the run and an ability to keep blockers off him at times, the second of which he struggled with at Clemson. On a play run away from him, Beasley did a nice job staying home and not overpursuing, which kept Shane Vereen from reversing field and allowed Beasley to get in on the tackle for a two-yard loss. The rookie made another nice play in the second quarter to keep Vereen in check, using his hands to push away a Larry Donnell cut block and wrapping up Vereen’s legs at the line of scrimmage, giving his teammates time to come over and help stop the play.
While Beasley did nothing of note in the third quarter, he almost set the Falcons up with great field position trailing by three early in the fourth. Beasley used his elite first-step quickness and a quick rip to get around the edge and force Eli Manning to step up in the pocket. After missing his first swipe at the ball with his right hand, Beasley used his left to punch the ball out of Manning’s hand and knock it forward, where it was recovered by the Giants. Beasley did a nice job sticking with the play, and his second effort almost forced a big turnover.
Beasley’s lack of bulk may hinder him against the run, but he consistently beat fellow first-round pick Ereck Flowers off the edge before Flowers was forced out of the game due to injury and was a big reason the Giants had to use the quick passing game to get the ball out of Manning’s hands. That’s the kind of impact the Falcons envisioned when they drafted Beasley in the top 10, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he continues to wreak havoc on opposing passing games. It will be interesting to see if teams starting running at him more in an attempt to force him off the field on earlier downs, but he held his own in that regard Sunday. If he can continue to be a passable run defender, the sky is the limit for Beasley considering his skill set as a pass rusher.
Jordan Hicks (LB-Phi)
With both Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks suffering injuries in Week 2, Hicks was the next man up in the middle of Philadelphia’s defense. The third-round pick out of Texas struggled with injuries of his own in two of his final three season with the Longhorns, but looked healthy Sunday and acquitted himself nicely against the Cowboys with seven solo tackles, his first career sack and a forced fumble.
Hicks’ first big impact Sunday came on Dallas’ initial drive of the second half with the Eagles facing a 13-0 deficit. On the first play of the possession, Hicks chased down Joseph Randle for a four-yard gain. While that description may not sound impressive, the way he got there was. Hicks threw Cowboys guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to the ground before sprinting towards the sideline in pursuit as Randle bounced outside. Just as Randle was shaking loose of another tackle to turn up the field, Hicks knocked him out of bounds with a hard shoulder blow to keep him from getting near the first-down marker.
A few plays later, Hicks found himself untouched on a blitz with a clear path to Tony Romo. After multiple pump fakes, Romo saw Hicks and slid to his left in the pocket, but Hicks extended his arm towards the exposed ball to knock it loose and bring Romo to the ground. The Eagles recovered the fumble and while they did nothing with the ensuing drive, it was Hicks’ big play that gave them a shot and also knocked Romo out of the game.
In addition to those plays, Hicks showed the instincts and awareness that made him such an effective player at Texas. He quickly diagnosed a fourth-quarter run by Darren McFadden and filled the hole, but McFadden spotted him and moved on to the next opening. Hicks quickly changed direction to fill McFadden’s new path and stopped him for a three-yard gain. On the next play, Hicks kept himself clean by avoiding Travis Frederick with a nifty step-back move to put himself in position to bring down McFadden after four yards.
A solid pass defender in college, Hicks showed the ability to trail both Jason Witten and Lance Dunbar in coverage, although he allowed receptions to each. He did keep Dunbar at bay in the open field, breaking down effectively and forcing the Dallas runner to make the first move while waiting for help. With Alonso potentially done for the season and Kendricks’ Week 3 status in doubt, Hicks will likely be the starter this week against the Jets next to DeMeco Ryans. Chris Ivory and the New York running game will be a good test to see if Hicks can continue his success, but his play against one of the best lines in the league Sunday should give the Eagles hope.
Chris Tripodi has been contributing rookie reports and player interviews to Draft Insider since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.