Just a week after Jameis Winston had the best game of his young career, two of his former Florida State teammates played key roles in a big win for their current team. The highest-drafted receiver in the 2015 class showed why he was so highly regarded, while a first-year linebacker got a shot to play significant snaps in a win. Chris Tripodi breaks down Week 3’s impact rookies, all of whom helped their teams to victory.
Karlos Williams (RB-Buf)
Hyped by some as a potential first-round pick heading into his senior year thanks to elite size (6-0, 230) and speed (4.45), Karlos Williams fell to the middle of the fifth round before the Buffalo Bills snatched him up. A former safety at Florida State, Williams moved to running back before his junior season but found himself leapfrogged on the depth chart by Dalvin Cook towards the end of his final year. Williams is making teams pay for passing on him so far in his rookie season, as his 12-carry, 110-yard performance Sunday has him up to 186 rushing yards in three games on just 24 carries, and he’s scored a touchdown in each contest.
Williams didn’t touch the ball until Buffalo’s fourth possession Sunday, but made a quick impact with an 18-yard run. On a toss left, Williams patiently followed his blockers before showing a nice burst through the opening on the outside to get the first down. On the next play, he showed his ability to find the cutback lane nicely on a five-yard run. Williams stayed tight to his linemen waiting for their blocks, drawing the linebacker towards him before quickly cutting into the vacated hole for five yards. The rookie then busted a 12-yard run up the middle by running through multiple arm tackles around the line of scrimmage.
With LeSean McCoy nursing an injury, Williams had a few more uneventful carries until his 41-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter extended the Bills’ lead to 27. Williams took a draw from the shotgun and cut inside pulling guard Richie Incognito’s block into a hole up the middle. Reading the position of the deep safety, Williams took the play outside and blew by everybody at the second level, cutting inside his receiver’s block on the outside and leaving the corner flat-footed on his way to the end zone.
Williams’ patience and downhill running ability fit Greg Roman’s offensive scheme extremely well, arguably better than McCoy’s skill set, which suffers from his tendency to dance and move east/west rather than north/south. Williams wastes no time getting downhill after setting up his blocks and showed the power to move the pile multiple times in Sunday’s breakout game. While Williams is not a creative runner who can make space that isn’t there and just puts his head down and runs into linebackers at times, he’s been extremely effective as a change-of-pace runner despite not changing his upright running style.
McCoy’s nagging injuries may threaten his Week 4 status, in which case Williams would be given an opportunity to start against a Giants’ run defense that bottled up the Redskins’ rushing attack last Thursday and will have had 10 days to prepare for the Bills. Here at Draft Insider, we had Williams graded as a sixth-round prospect who would fit best as an early-down change-of-pace back, which is where he’s thrived this season. It will be interesting to see what he can do as a starter if he gets the opportunity, as Roman and Rex Ryan will likely give him every chance to succeed considering his early-season success.
Amari Cooper (WR-Oak)
After an impressive seven-catch, 109-yard performance in Week 2 that saw him catch his first career touchdown, Amari Cooper upped the ante in Week 3, catching eight passes for 134 yards as the Raiders beat the Browns. One of the most polished receivers to come out of college in recent years, the former Alabama star and this year’s No. 4 overall pick has lived up to the hype and put the league on notice with 20 receptions for 290 yards in his first three NFL games.
Cooper got off to a hot start Sunday, catching three balls for 54 yards on the first drive of the game. His first grab was a quick fade where Cooper used his hands to beat Joe Haden’s press coverage at the line and did a nice job adjusting to the ball on his back shoulder to make the first-down catch. Cooper again got away from Haden three plays later, using his speed to create separation on a banana route, leading to an 18-yard reception. On third-and-eight a few plays later, Cooper caught a curl at the sticks and broke Haden’s tackle attempt to gain an extra 15 yards on the play. The Raiders settled for a field goal, but Cooper was the main reason they were able to move the ball down the field.
The rookie receiver was quiet on Oakland’s next few drives, including a drop on a short crossing route, but Cooper atoned with a 40-yard reception to set up a second-quarter touchdown. Cooper had the corner on his heels with a nice stop-and-start move before cutting to the middle of the field, and followed the reception with a stiff arm of the safety to create yards after the catch. Cooper wasn’t even targeted over the next quarter-and-a-half, however, as the Browns seemed to make a concerted effort to keep him in check.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, keeping a talent like Cooper down is hard to sustain. Taking advantage of off coverage, Derek Carr hit Cooper on a quick turnaround route and let his receiver do the rest. Cooper broke two tackles on the play to turn a short pass into 17 yards, pushing the overpursuing corner to the ground before another stiff arm got him free. With the good comes the bad when it comes to rookies in the NFL, however, and even Cooper isn’t immune, as his fumble three plays later gave Cleveland the ball in Oakland territory. Cooper made a nice catch on a slant thrown behind him, but never fully secured the ball and had it squirt out of his hands after getting hit by two defenders, giving possession back to the Browns.
Since a quiet 47-yard debut, Cooper has been highly impressive after whipping Haden and looks to be quickly building chemistry with second-year quarterback David Carr. Cooper’s 290 receiving yards rank eighth in the NFL, and the rookie has to be licking his chops ahead of a Week 4 matchup with a shaky Bears’ defense. With there may be an occasional hiccup along the way, Cooper’s playmaking ability is obvious and his presence has allowed Carr to take a big step forward in his second year. The Bills haven’t yet reaped the benefits of taking Sammy Watkins in the top-five last season, but the early returns show Cooper as being well worth the high draft pick Oakland spent on him.
Eric Kendricks (LB-Min)
Many draft analysts, including us here at Draft Insider, had Eric Kendricks rated as the top inside linebacker in this year’s draft class. Kendricks was drafted behind Stephone Anthony and Bernardrick McKinney, however, and the Minnesota Vikings finally grabbed him with the No. 45 overall pick. Despite Gerald Hodges being Kendricks’ only obstacle to an every-down role, however, he’s yet to move into the starting lineup through three weeks. Kendricks did make nine tackles this week playing on passing downs, which had him on the field on over half of Minnesota’s plays.
One of Kendricks’ best traits at UCLA was his ability in coverage. With the speed to stay with running backs and tight ends up the seam and good discipline in his assignments, that area of the game was supposed to translate immediately for Kendricks. While he didn’t let any pass plays get behind him Sunday, the rookie has looked slightly tentative and conservative in coverage as he gets his feet wet in the NFL.
Kendricks has shown the ability to get good depth on his drops, but has lacked aggression from that point of the play on. He allowed two catches to Chargers backup tight end John Phillips on Sunday, and wasn’t aggressive enough against a player who is unable to stretch the seam. One reception came on a short curl where he gave Phillips too much cushion, but quickly wrapped him up for the tackle. The other came when Kendricks showed blitz before dropping into coverage, and his slight hesitation before sprinting out to cover Phillips’ route to the sideline kept him in trail position for the entire play, which turned into a 15-yard gain.
The rookie was caught trailing again on a short crossing route to Keenan Allen, but the play went for just two yards as Kendricks was able to work around a natural pick after the catch to make the tackle. He showed the instincts that had many high on him throughout the draft process on a play late in the second quarter, immediately reading Philip Rivers’ eyes and quickly reacting to a slant throw to Allen, putting a hard hit on the receiver to stop him in his tracks after seven yards.
Kendricks also was slightly tentative in the run game as well, reacting just a beat slow and losing ground with false steps on a few runs that went for five or more yards. He did show good speed to get outside the tackle box to make plays on the speedy Melvin Gordon, and his fundamentals taking on blockers were also solid. While he does have a tendency to get stuck on blocks once engaged, Kendricks did an excellent job on a third-quarter run to keep Gordon contained in the middle of the field. The former Bruin engaged the lineman’s outside shoulder with nice extension and slid his feet to keep his head outside, showing himself in the running lane and forcing Gordon to cut back inside where Kendricks had help.
After three games, Kendricks has yet to force his way into a full-time role but is making strides towards seeing the field more. The game should slow down for him soon and when it does, he’s far too talented for Hodges to hold off for long. The Vikings will probably use their nickel defense often in a Week 4 showdown with the Broncos in Denver, giving Kendricks even more reps to increase his comfort level on the field and convince the coaching staff he’s ready for a bigger role.
Ronald Darby (CB-Buf)
Overshadowed by P.J. Williams the past few seasons at Florida State, Ronald Darby found himself drafted 28 spots higher than Williams at No. 50 overall. Darby has been excellent in coverage through three weeks as a starter opposite Stephon Gilmore, intercepting two passes to tie for the NFL lead while breaking up eight more, good enough for sole possession of first in the league. The 5-11, 193-pounder also has 15 tackles (13 solo) on the young season.
Darby was raw coming out of Florida State, but has developed quickly which is allowing his athleticism to shine through. He’s already shown the ability to stay on the hip of opposing receivers without interfering, and his 4.37 speed helps him recover quickly if he allows separation. Darby consistently stayed with Miami’s receivers down the field in Sunday’s win, flipping his hips nicely to transition from his backpedal and getting his head around immediately once his receiver committed, attacking the ball quickly and aggressively to break up passes.
The rookie’s interception was a gift from Ryan Tannehill, who wasn’t on the same page with Jordan Cameron against zone coverage. Darby quickly got into his drop and read Tannehill’s eyes, closing to the ball quickly for the pick while Cameron continued downfield. The former Seminole almost had a second interception later in the game, as he stayed with Rishard Matthews through contact and ran Matthews’ wheel route for him, putting himself in perfect position for the pick before Matthews got his hand in to prevent the interception.
Darby showed the ability to turn and run with any receiver and displayed fluid hips not only out of his backpedal, but also to stay with receivers out of their breaks. Combined with his top-notch closing speed, Darby’s coverage skills already pop off the screen and give the Bills a great complement to the highly regarded Gilmore. Darby did get beat by DeVante Parker early in the game for a 19-yard grab, however, as the rookie corner got turned around as Parker sold a deep route at the stem of his route. Instead, the Dolphins rookie receiver broke towards the middle of the field for the grab, but Darby recovered to make the tackle and limit yards after the catch.
Darby would get revenge on Parker on the game’s final play with the score out of hand, sticking with his 6-3 opponent on a fade route and knocking the ball away after Parker made an adjustment on a short throw. The rookie cornerback has shown the ability to stick with receivers in tight coverage through three games and his ball skills have been extremely impressive. If Darby continues his rapid development, he will help give the Bills an excellent tandem on the outside for years to come.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.