While many highly drafted rookies are already making an impact in their teams’ starting lineups, some had yet to see an opportunity to start sitting behind veterans on the depth chart. This week’s Rookie Report breaks down three rookies who shined filling in for injured starters and stated their case to keep their newfound roles, while a first-year Packers cornerback made the list for a second straight week. Chris Tripodi breaks down the best of Week 6’s rookie performances.
Stefon Diggs (WR-Min)
A former five-star recruit out of high school, Diggs slid to the fifth round of the this year’s draft after two injury-plagued seasons at Maryland, including a broken fibula that cost him six games in 2013. As a result, Diggs ended up being a nice value according to our WR board, which had him rated as a late-third or early-fourth rounder. With ineffective starter Charles Johnson sidelined for the second straight game, Diggs caught seven passes for 129 yards in Sunday’s win over the Chiefs just a week after making six receptions for 87 yards in his first significant playing time of the season.
Diggs put on a clinic in the first quarter, making Chiefs cornerbacks look silly with his precise route-running. His first catch came on the Vikings’ initial drive, as Diggs lined up outside to the right. He sold the deep route well at his stem before sharply cutting out to the sideline, turning fellow rookie Marcus Peters around and creating great separation. He showed nice extension to make the grab above his head along with the awareness to tap his feet before his momentum took him out of bounds.
On Minnesota’s next drive, Diggs again used a sharp cut to break open, this time on the left sideline. Diggs crossed up Sean Smith so badly that Smith fell to the ground, giving Diggs space to run after the catch for a 31-yard gain. Three plays later, the rookie receiver repeated the feat, turning Peters around again on another out for a 14-yard catch. Diggs then jumpstarted the Vikings’ third possession with a 20-yard back-shoulder grab on second down. Smith’s coverage was tight, but Diggs turned back to the ball and brought his hands up late enough to make the play without Smith having much of a chance to react.
Diggs wasn’t heard from again until the third quarter, when he used his trademark elusiveness to create extra yardage on a screen pass that went for 15 yards. Then, with the Vikings nursing a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, Diggs combined with Teddy Bridgewater for one of the biggest plays of the game for Minnesota on third-and-15 deep in their own territory. Diggs worked through press coverage at the line to make it downfield as Bridgewater was forced to step up in the pocket. Diggs rolled in the same direction as his scrambling quarterback and settled in between four Chiefs in the middle of the field, giving Bridgewater a nice target and securing the grab for 30 yards and a huge first down.
Johnson was reportedly “close” to playing in Week 6, but his absence gave Diggs a chance to prove that his Week 5 performance was no fluke. The rookie receiver did just that, as the only two incompletions thrown his way were balls that sailed well high. Head coach Mike Zimmer wouldn’t commit to Johnson keeping his starting spot after the game, and it’s obvious Diggs has chemistry with Bridgewater that no other Vikings receiver does. Diggs’ speed and agility to make things happen after the catch meshes well with Bridgewater’s accuracy on short and intermediate throws, and Mike Wallace compared Diggs to former teammate Antonio Brown on Tuesday. While that comparison may be a stretch, it’s not hard to see Diggs taking over as Bridgewater’s most trusted target for the rest of the season.
Denzel Perryman (LB-SD)
An ankle injury to starting linebacker Manti Te’o opened the door for Perryman to make his first career start Sunday against the Packers. The No. 4 inside linebacker on the Draft Insider board, the former Miami star made a big impact in his first extensive playing time of the season, making eight tackles (seven solo) including one for loss and a forced fumble in San Diego’s hard-fought loss to Green Bay.
Early in the game, Perryman showed off his explosiveness moving downhill and his speed to chase down plays both to the sideline and into the secondary. After blowing up tight end Richard Rodgers in the hole on an early run by James Starks, Perryman was able to help chase down Starks after the back made it 25 yards downfield, despite starting the chase from the backfield. The rookie linebacker put his range on display again on the next play, knocking James Jones out of bounds down the field after a short pass turned into a 22-yard gain. Two plays later, Perryman maintained his key on Eddie Lacy, beat the left guard to the spot on a reach block and filled the hole violently, stopping the 230-pound Lacy in his tracks after three yards.
Not only did Perryman show off his speed and explosiveness against the run, but he also showed he can be an asset as a pass rusher. Perfectly timing an A-gap blitz up the middle after Aaron Rodgers spent over 10 seconds changing the play at the line, Perryman showed off his great closing speed to make sure Starks didn’t make it out of the backfield, bringing the veteran back down for a two-yard loss and showing the sure-tackling skills that allowed him to rack up 100 tackles in each of his final two seasons with the Hurricanes.
Perryman almost made the biggest play of the game for the Chargers early in the fourth quarter, with his team down four points and the Packers starting a drive at their own 29-yard-line. The rookie patiently waited to protect the middle of the field while the entire offensive line slid right, and when Lacy cut back into the middle, he was met immediately by Perryman. The first-year linebacker filled the hole with a perfect form tackle, putting his head on the ball and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Green Bay. If San Diego was able to fall on the ball, they would’ve had great field position and a chance to take the lead.
While Perryman showed a ton of positive traits in this game, he did have a few issues in coverage. Not that anybody should realistically expect a rookie linebacker to cover a Pro Bowl wide receiver, but Randall Cobb made Perryman look silly in the third quarter. Cobb broke inside before putting a double-move on Perryman and heading towards the sideline, and the rookie lost his footing as Cobb created separation and turned a quick-hitting pass into a 26-yard gain against man coverage.
The injury-prone Te’o is not a lock to return in Week 7 as the Chargers host the Raiders, which could give Perryman another shot to impress in the starting lineup. Te’o has played a big part in San Diego’s struggles against the run this season, as the Chargers are allowing an NFL-high 5.4 yards per carry. While Green Bay ran all over San Diego even with Perryman in the lineup, the rookie is far more explosive than Te’o and could provide a spark for a run defense that desperately needs one if he gets another opportunity. If Te’o returns to the starting lineup, Perryman at least earned himself more snaps, and he already looks like the Chargers’ best linebacker.
Ramik Wilson (LB-KC)
Even before Josh Mauga was sidelined due to Achilles and groin injuries, Wilson stated his case for more playing time with eight tackles in Week 4. Mauga hasn’t played the last two weeks which opened up a starting job for Wilson, and the rookie may never give it up. A fourth-round pick out of Georgia, Wilson has been more productive in his last two games than Mauga was all season, and the first-year linebacker racked up nine tackles, including seven solo stops, in Sunday’s loss to Minnesota.
What stands out most when watching Wilson is his play recognition and overall discipline, two traits that were also apparent in his college film. He was rarely caught out of position against the Vikings and was a big reason the Chiefs’ run defense held Adrian Peterson to 60 yards on 28 carries. Peterson consistently makes defenders pay for being out of position with his great cutback ability and acceleration, but both Wilson and veteran Derrick Johnson did a great job of staying home and not overpursuing to keep Peterson on script.
Wilson did a nice job both scraping down the line and fighting through blocks at the second level, something he had previously struggled with at just 237 pounds. On one second-quarter run, Wilson scraped to fill the initial hole on the left side of the line, forcing Matt Asiata to cut back against the grain. Quickly recognizing Asiata’s change of direction, Wilson scraped back across the formation to make the stop after a short gain. The rookie did a very nice job all game of keeping his feet moving when filling holes and staying in his opponents’ hip pockets to keep them from cutting back.
On a handoff to Peterson in the fourth, Wilson patiently mirrored the All-Pro back’s movements as no gaps opened in the offensive line. When Peterson committed to bouncing the play outside, Wilson was right there with him to shut down the play after just two yards. The young linebacker showed the ability to fight off reach blocks and shed at the second level on multiple occasions while flashing in perfect position to clog the hole and shut down run plays. Wilson also showed the speed to beat the Minnesota guards to their spots, beating a third-quarter reach-block attempt and tackling Peterson at the line of scrimmage, blowing up the play.
The Chiefs reportedly viewed Wilson as the eventual successor to Johnson in the middle of their defense, and he’s already shown he deserves to stay on the field even when Mauga, a career special teamer before last season, returns from injury. As long as Wilson continues to show the ability to anticipate blocks and avoid getting knocked off his spots, he should continue to make an impact defending the run as an ideal complement to Johnson in the middle of Kansas City’s 3-4 defense.
Damarious Randall (CB-GB)
Randall was somewhat unknown early in the draft process, but the defensive back rose into first-round consideration with a strong offseason as scouts eventually caught up to the junior-college transfer’s on-field prowess. Drafting 30th overall, the Packers added the Arizona State safety with an eye towards moving him to cornerback, and he has settled in as Green Bay’s third corner early in his rookie season. Randall was ever-present in Sunday’s win over San Diego as Philip Rivers threw a whopping 65 passes, allowing the rookie to rack up seven solo tackles and two pass deflections while playing heavy snaps.
The numbers look nice for Randall, but several of his tackles came after allowing completions to Keenan Allen, who beat pretty much everybody who tried to cover him Sunday. Randall maintained tight coverage against Allen on an early back-shoulder throw, but was beaten for 12 yards on the timing play. The rookie struggled playing press against the third-year receiver, as he didn’t engage with his hands quickly enough and allowed Allen free release. Randall also bit hard on an outside jab step to give Allen the inside track on a slant route, and he couldn’t stay with the receiver on double moves.
Randall isn’t the first corner who has struggled with Allen this season, and the positive for the rookie is that he bounced back to make two outstanding plays in the fourth quarter. On a second-and-eight play midway through the quarter with the Chargers in Green Bay territory, Rivers tried to take advantage of Randall in single coverage against Malcom Floyd. Randall stayed with Floyd the entire time down the field and did a nice job tracking the pass out of Rivers’ hands, timing his jump well to break up the potential touchdown and looking like a receiver in the process.
That play, however, wasn’t even close to Randall’s most important of the game. On fourth-and-goal from the three-yard line with 20 seconds left and the Packers up seven, Randall was playing outside and was responsible for Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. The rookie corner followed Rivers’ eyes from across the formation and once the quarterback settled on Woodhead with the pressure baring down, Randall made his break for the ball. Showing the burst of closing speed and ball skills that made him so effective as a college safety, Randall broke up the pass to prevent the potential game-tying touchdown and seal the win for the undefeated Packers.
While Randall is unlikely to jump either Casey Hayward or Sam Shields on the depth chart anytime soon, he certainly made his presence felt in Green Bay’s win over San Diego. While he struggled to stay with Allen on multiple occasions, those failings didn’t shake his confidence and Randall made big plays in the fourth quarter to keep the Chargers out of the endzone. While his 5-11, 196-pound frame is small for an NFL safety, he has good cornerback size and Green Bay seems to prefer him outside. His ability to play safety will only help him stay on the field in the future, however, and his solid tackling skills allow him to prevent big plays after the catch. With Hayward hitting free agency after the season, Randall could start opposite Shields in 2016.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.