As is generally the case when the NFL calendar flips to October, injuries are beginning to dominate the league landscape. Continuing a theme from last week’s report, another rookie running back stole the show in Week 5, this time while filling in for his team’s injured starter. An AFC South wide receiver made the most of his opportunities after being activated for the first time this season, and a couple first-year defensive backs made big plays in the secondary. Chris Tripodi breaks down this week’s impressive rookie performances.
Thomas Rawls (RB-Sea)
With Marshawn Lynch hobbled ever since Seattle’s Week 2 game in Green Bay, Thomas Rawls has taken the reigns in the Seahawks backfield over the past three weeks. An undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan, Rawls impressed enough in training camp to convince Seattle he was ready to be their primary backup, and they shipped 2013 second-round pick Christine Michael to Dallas and waived Robert Turbin before signing Fred Jackson to work on passing downs. Despite a rough outing in Week 4, Rawls has made the Seahawks look smart for entrusting him behind their 29-year-old workhorse, especially after his 23-carry, 169-yard performance in a loss to the Bengals on Sunday.
The 5-9, 215-pound rookie made his presence felt on Seattle’s initial touchdown drive in the first quarter Sunday, showing both patience and vision as a runner. His first run went for seven yards, as he beat backfield penetration to turn the corner before being shoved out of bounds. After a couple two-yard runs, Rawls took a second-and-six handoff out of the shotgun for 23 yards, doing an excellent job of patiently waiting for tiny openings and quickly darting through them. Once at the second level, Rawls ran right through a Pacman Jones tackle attempt for an extra 10 yards, and the Seahawks scored three plays later.
The rest of Rawls’ first half was relatively uneventful, but his biggest play of the game came on the first play of Seattle’s second third-quarter drive. With the Seahawks up three, Rawls took an I-formation handoff and headed right. As the Bengals defense overpursued, Rawls showed off his downhill running skills with a sharp plant and cut to quickly find open space upfield. Weaving patiently and effectively between multiple downfield blocks, Rawls made it 30 yards into the secondary before finding three Bengals defensive backs within three yards of him. The rookie outran two of them with his 4.5 speed and did his best Beastmode impression by busting through the third trying to grab him by his shoulders, finally coasting into the end zone to put his team ahead, 17-7.
Despite the big numbers, Rawls had just three carries go for 10 yards or more in Sunday’s win. That actually makes his 169-yard performance even more impressive, as it shows how consistent he was at beating first contact, picking up tough yards and avoiding negative plays. Keeping his legs moving and pushing the pile consistently, Rawls was rarely stopped in his tracks and fell forward for extra yardage on most of his runs, putting his head down and pulling defenders with him. His tackle-breaking ability, violence and intensity as a runner was impressive and likely further endeared himself to a coaching staff that has gotten accustomed to a similar style from Lynch.
Rawls wasn’t all power however, as he showed good speed for his size on his touchdown run. His quick feet allowed him to redirect smoothly after his initial upfield cuts and to avoid backfield penetration, turning potential losses into short gains. Despite being a zero in the passing game, Rawls impressed as a pure runner and has reportedly earned “eight or 10” carries per game even when Lynch returns. His performance has also given the Seahawks the luxury of being able to hold Lynch out until he is 100 percent, knowing they have a competent backup who has gone over 100 yards in two of three games with their workhorse ailing.
Jaelen Strong (WR-Hou)
A weekly inactive the first four weeks of the season, Strong got an opportunity to play as the Texans’ third receiver with both Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington out with injuries. The rookie third-round pick has seemingly been in Coach Bill O’Brien’s doghouse and still played behind fifth-round pick Keith Mumphery, but Strong made a far larger impact on the game than his first-year teammate, catching his only two targets for 53 yards and both Houston touchdowns.
Strong’s first score was reminiscent of his Arizona State days, as he used his 6-2, 217-pound frame to box out multiple Colts defenders in the end zone on the final play of the first half, catching a 42-yard Hail Mary from Brian Hoyer. The rookie receiver did a nice job of reading the ball in the air and getting in position in front of the defenders before using his height and timing skills to high point the pass and get the Texans within three heading into the half.
With his team down 10 again in the third quarter, Strong took advantage of a blown coverage by the Colts secondary for his second score from 11 yards out. Running a corner route from the left slot, Strong found himself wide open in the end zone and Hoyer hit him in stride, with Strong securing the pass and dragging his back foot to ensure he finished the touchdown.
Despite his big game, Strong still has yet to fully earn the trust of the Houston coaching staff and quarterbacks, as he saw less passes come his way than four other players, including backup running back Chris Polk. Strong did show off his penchant for big plays, however, something the Texans are desperate for from anybody besides potential All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins. We had Strong rated as a second-round pick at Draft Insider, but noted he needed to improve his consistency and attention to detail to reach his full potential. The coaching staff obviously agrees that he’s not quite ready for full-time action at this point in his career, but they saw Strong flash his upside last Thursday night, and it almost helped the Texans capture a win.
Quinten Rollins (CB-GB)
A former basketball player at Miami-Ohio, Rollins made a seamless transition to the gridiron as a senior, earning MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors after making 72 tackles and grabbing seven interceptions. Despite his lack of experience as a football player, the Packers thought enough of his athletic ability to take him towards the end of the second round. Rollins has been working as Green Bay’s fourth corner early in the season, but he made a big impact on Sunday’s win over the Rams in which the Packers’ offense struggled. The former RedHawk intercepted two Nick Foles’ passes, taking one back to the house to put points on the board for Green Bay while also pitching in.
With the Packers up 7-0 near the end of the first quarter, Rollins entered on third-and-long as the Rams spread the field with four wide receivers. Sitting in short zone coverage after letting the slot receiver run past him, Rollins was gifted with an easy interception around midfield. Foles felt pressure off the edge and looked to Jared Cook on a drag route across the middle as his safety valve, but Cook stopped his route just as Foles released the pass, leaving Rollins with an easy interception. The rookie corner made a nice hands catch and didn’t break stride on his way to the endzone for a 45-yard score.
Outside of a few easy tackles, Rollins wasn’t heard from again until the game’s second-to-last play. Again dropping into zone coverage from the slot, Rollins bumped Stedman Bailey at the line before drifting back towards the sideline. Reading Foles’ eyes a second before he released the pass, Rollins quickly broke to the ball for the interception. The rookie bobbled the ball at first, but kept his concentration and showed off his athleticism by laying out to secure the grab while going to the ground.
Rollins had been mostly quiet through the first four weeks of the season, but finally got an opportunity to make an impact in pass defense and ran with it. He’s unlikely to climb the depth chart much this season barring injury to any of Green Bay’s top three corners, but the Packers are surely happy with the potential he put on display with his performance last week. His combination of athletic ability and ball skills is enticing and once he polishes his fundamentals and instincts with more experience as a football player, Rollins has a great chance to develop into an NFL starter.
Delvin Breaux (CB-NO)
An undrafted free agent out of LSU, Breaux has seen a larger role than expected in the New Orleans secondary this season thanks to Keenan Lewis’ hip surgery. Lewis returned in Week 4 but Breaux has continued to see sub-package action for the Saints, recording his first career interception this week to go along with five solo tackles and a pass defensed.
Playing outside in multi-receiver sets, Breaux’s first big impact on Sunday’s loss was actually a negative play. Covering fellow rookie Nelson Agholor just outside the red zone, Breaux got badly turned around by Agholor’s double move and, in an attempt to quickly regain ground, Breaux made hard contact with Agholor well before the ball arrived, resulting in a 13-yard pass interference penalty. Two plays later, however, Breaux would atone for his mistake.
With the Saints nursing a seven-point lead, Breaux matched up with Miles Austin on the outside in press coverage. Breaux quickly gave up inside ground as Austin gained a step on him and streaked into the endzone. Instead of leading his receiver to the back of the endzone with a lofted pass, Sam Bradford tried to throw a low-trajectory bullet to Austin. By then, Breaux had closed nicely on Austin’s route and dove for the interception on a pass thrown slightly behind the receiver, making the grab in the endzone to keep points off the board.
Breaux also showed some skills in the running game, making a nice early tackle on Ryan Mathews in the open field. After Mathews caught a quick swing pass, Breaux closed on him and cut him quickly down to the ground to limit any run-after-catch opportunities. He also strung out DeMarco Murray nicely on a short pass in the second quarter, keeping himself from getting blocked and forcing Murray out of bounds for a two-yard loss. On a later run play, Breaux closed quickly from the secondary, staying in Murray’s hip pocket to bring him down for a short gain while his teammates were caught on blocks.
Overall, Sunday’s performance was a bit of a mixed bag for Breaux, but the positives outweighed the negatives. Besides the pass-interference penalty, Breaux held his own in coverage, showed a short memory to recover for an interception and flashed ability in the run game. The Saints secondary has struggled this season and while Breaux would be stretched as a key piece of a team with playoff aspirations, he’ll have the opportunity to gain experience this year with the hopes of developing into a solid sub-package player down the line.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.