We’re at the point in the NFL season where rookies who didn’t come out of the gate hot have had a month and a half to get their feet wet in the pros, which usually leads to an increased comfort level as October comes to a close. This week’s edition of the Rookie Report features a slow-starting rookie running back who carried his team’s offense to a Week 7 win, as well as two speedy wide receivers who made the most of their opportunities in their team’s victories. Chris Tripodi breaks it all down in this week’s report.
T.J. Yeldon (RB-Jax)
Just one year after signing Toby Gerhart to a three-year, $10.5 million contract, the Jaguars admitted the failure of that move by drafting T.J. Yeldon with the fourth pick in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Yeldon burst onto the scene as a freshman at Alabama, rushing for 1,108 yards while sharing carries with Eddie Lacy and totaling over 3,000 rushing yards in his three years with the Crimson Tide. Jacksonville saw enough in Yeldon to make him the third running back off the board, hoping he could spark a running game that put too much responsibility on a raw Blake Bortles last season. After missing Week 6 with a groin injury, Yeldon’s career-high 115 yards against the Bills in London on Sunday played an important role in Jacksonville’s close victory.
While Yeldon is 6-1, 225 pounds, he isn’t the power back that his former teammate Lacy is. Yeldon’s skill set is more based in patience, vision and quick feet, traits that have proven vital behind Jacksonville’s shaky offensive line. The rookie runner showed off those skills on multiple carries in the first quarter, mimicking Le’Veon Bell’s tendency to come to a near-stop around the line of scrimmage to wait for holes to open up. Like Bell, Yeldon showed good burst through the hole once he made up his mind and the vision to find cutback lanes to maximize yardage on every play. The rookie’s nimble footwork was on display even on a first-quarter loss, where he impressively evaded Mario Williams in the backfield before getting swarmed by the rest of the pursuing Bills’ defense.
Yeldon’s second-quarter touchdown run came from 28 yards out, and displayed all of his major traits in one run. Taking a draw out of the shotgun, Yeldon found no immediate running room and quickly juked away from tight end Julius Thomas, who had been pushed into the backfield. Never stopping his feet, Yeldon spotted a hole to the left side and broke through a weak tackle attempt from safety Corey Graham before hitting the crease. Once at the second level, Yeldon made it look like he was heading outside to force the corner to protect the sideline and allow Allen Robinson to seal a lane to the inside. After setting up his teammate’s block perfectly, Yeldon cut back inside and made a bee line for the end zone to put the Jags ahead, 27-3.
Jacksonville opened the third quarter with a nearly 10-minute long drive fueled by Yeldon’s effective running. The first-year back carried seven times for 41 yards on the possession, highlighted by a 16-yard scamper where Yeldon bounced outside, slipped a tackle at his feet and turned the corner before running through another defender at the second level. If there’s a knock on Yeldon, it’s that he’s a one-speed runner who struggles to beat defenses around the corner and in the open field, something that would’ve hurt him on this play if he was unable to shake the tackle. As a big runner who consistently stays on the move, Yeldon can get away with his lack of above-average speed at times.
Yeldon ran very decisively during the entire drive, locating holes when they opened up before planting and cutting to get moving downhill. He continued to show quick feet in the backfield, juking effectively to avoid penetration and keep his vision clear while continuing to shed tackles behind the line to make positive plays out of nothing. Inexplicably, Yeldon was pulled for Toby Gerhart on first-and-goal at the one-yard line, and the veteran ran four times without success as the Jags turned the ball over on downs. Whether it was due to fatigue after a long drive or game-planning, there’s little doubt Yeldon would’ve been able to turn one of those totes into a score.
Jacksonville’s questionable pass-heavy approach to the fourth quarter almost cost them the game, especially with the way Yeldon was chewing up clock and picking up first downs on the ground. Regardless, Yeldon looked fully recovered from his groin injury and showed the ability to maximize yardage against one of the league’s stingiest run defenses. The Jaguars offensive line is still a work in progress, which may prevent its rookie runner from enjoying many big games, but Yeldon has proven himself to be a decisive runner with the smooth movement skills and patience to survive behind a below-average line. While he’ll never be a big-play machine, Yeldon looks like a very effective, drive-sustaining runner who should help the Jaguars’ offense stay on schedule.
Tyler Lockett (WR-Sea)
Looking to inject some speed into their receiving corps and return game with 2014 second-round pick Paul Richardson on the shelf, the Seahawks nabbed Tyler Lockett with the fifth pick of the third round in this year’s draft. The former Kansas State star was an All-American kick returner with the Wildcats and topped both 100 receptions and 1,500 yards as a receiver during his senior season. Lockett has already scored two special-teams touchdowns this season, and added his first NFL receiving score in Seattle’s blowout win Thursday night in San Francisco.
Lockett matched his season-high with five targets in the passing game Thursday, turning one into a 43-yard touchdown in the second quarter to give the Seahawks a 17-0 lead. Lined up outside right, the 5-10, 182-pound receiver fought through press coverage from Tramaine Brock and used his 4.3 speed to burn the corner deep across the field. Lockett did a nice job of tracking the long throw from Russell Wilson, slowing down over the final 10-15 yards to catch the pass in stride while maintaining separation and not allowing Brock to get back into the play.
While that play accounted for over half of Lockett’s receiving yardage on the day, he also provided a nice safety valve for Wilson when the quarterback was under duress. Lockett caught two passes for first downs when the 49ers didn’t cover him in the flat, and Wilson found him open after rolling to evade pressure on both catches. On a similar play early in the fourth quarter, Lockett was tightly covered before faking a deep route and coming back to his quarterback nicely, allowing Wilson to hit him for a short gain after scrambling to the right.
Seattle continues to make an effort to get the ball to Lockett in situations where he could make things happen after the catch, but were only able to get him one screen opportunity while playing with a big lead in San Francisco. Lockett had little room to work with on the late second-down play, turning the corner for just two yards before the defense cut off his running angles and forced him out of bounds.
Considering the Seahawks’ issues along the offensive line, Lockett should continue to see a role on offense, especially as Seattle tries to keep opposing pass rushes at bay with screens and draws. His speed, route-running skills and field awareness are assets that help Lockett make up for what he lacks in size, and his deep-ball skills and yards-after-catch ability are a nice mesh for Wilson’s strong arm and ability to keep plays alive with his feet. As the Seahawks continue to integrate Lockett further into their offensive gameplan, expect his usage to increase as the season moves along. As the lone explosive player among a non-descript group of receivers, it’s a must for Seattle if they want to sustain offensive success this season.
Chris Conley (WR-KC)
Given an opportunity to start with Jeremy Maclin sidelined by a concussion, Chris Conley enjoyed an efficient game in his first significant action of the season, catching six passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. A third-round pick out of Georgia who blew up the combine with a 4.34 40-yard dash at 6-2, 213 pounds, Conley has been viewed by many as ill-fitted for a Chiefs offense led by the risk-averse Alex Smith. For one week, at least, Conley showed the ability to be effective in the Chiefs’ short and intermediate passing offense.
Conley didn’t see a pass thrown his way until the final minute of the first quarter, turning a deep crossing route into a 25-yard gain. Lined up in the slot right, Conley got a free release off the line and found space in Pittsburgh’s zone, reaching to catch a high pass above his head before going to the ground and rolling for a few extra yards. His lone other target on a deep pass was Smith’s only incompletion intended for Conley on the day, an overthrown fly route down the left sideline after Conley had created separation from cornerback Antwon Blake.
Outside of his 25-yarder, Conley had just one other reception go for 10 yards, and it came on a third-quarter screen pass to set up first-and-goal for the Chiefs. Catching a bubble screen to the right and getting a nice block from Jason Avant, Conley looked to be forced to the sideline before using a nice stop-and-start move to avoid pursuit and cut back inside for extra yards, breaking an ankle tackle in the process before getting shoved out of bounds.
Conley’s touchdown came on first-and-goal from six yards out in the fourth quarter to extend Kansas City’s lead to 23-13. Lined up in the slot left, Conley ran straight into the flat and was left uncovered. Smith found him quickly and while the throw was slightly behind him and forced Conley to turn his body to make the grab, he didn’t lose enough momentum to keep him out of the end zone for the crucial score.
Conley’s other grabs were on short routes, where he ran smooth, precise routes to get open and showed the ability to make hands catches with defenders on his back and hang onto the ball. Speed may be Conley’s best trait, but he showed the ability on Sunday to fit into a Chiefs’ offense that doesn’t seem to play to his strengths. If the rookie can continue to develop as a receiver and be more than just a speedster, he could find his way into more snaps opposite Maclin as the season goes along. Outside of Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs have very few reliable targets in the passing game.
Byron Jones (DB-Dal)
Part of a rough two-win season at UConn, Byron Jones flew under the radar as a prospect for much of the 2014 regular season. After showing out at the NFL combine with a record-setting broad jump, 44.5-inch vertical and 4.36 40-yard dash, Jones settled in as a Day 1 prospect on many boards, including Draft Insider’s. Jones’ tape matched his workouts as well, and the Cowboys drafted him 27th overall to shore up their cornerback position, one of the biggest weaknesses on their defense. Jones had been quiet for much of the season behind Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, but broke up two passes Sunday against the Giants in addition to a career-high seven tackles (six solo).
Jones was busy on the Giants’ first drive of the game, splitting time between lining up as a deep safety and playing press coverage at the line of scrimmage. After quickly closing from his safety spot to hold Larry Donnell to one yard on a second-down catch, Jones lined up on Donnell’s outside eye and allowed the tight end to beat him inside for 10 yards and a first-down conversion. On the next play, Jones again came up from his safety spot to make a tackle, this time stopping Rashad Jennings after the back gained six yards on a shotgun running play.
Two plays later, Jones showed his physicality and coverage skills on third-and-four. Lined up in man coverage with Will Tye, who has 60 pounds on Jones, the rookie corner controlled the Giants backup tight end from the start, getting physical with him at the line and using his hands to ride Tye all the way across the formation. Eli Manning tried to find Tye after stepping up in the pocket under pressure, but Jones was right there in tight coverage to get a hand on the ball to knock it away and bring Tye to the ground, forcing New York to punt.
Jones almost had his first career interception late in the second quarter, as he picked up coverage on Shane Vereen coming out of the backfield. Manning threw well behind Vereen and the pass bounced off Jones’ foot and into the air. The rookie dove for the catch, which was ruled a pick on the field, but was overturned by replay. Jones made another nice play on the ball early in the fourth quarter to prevent a big play down the middle, coming over from his single-high alignment as Rueben Randle attempted to make a long grab and knocking the ball out of Randle’s hands before the receiver could secure the catch. If Jones had read the play a second or two earlier he may have had a chance at another interception, but he showed nice ball skills to break up a potential long pass despite being slightly late.
After a somewhat quiet first month of the season, Jones has stepped up over the past few weeks. After playing a big part in the Cowboys holding Rob Gronkowski to just four receptions in Week 5, Jones came out of the bye week playing with increased confidence, and it showed despite Dallas’ loss to the Giants. With the ability to play both safety and corner and a nice blend of size (6-0, 205) and speed, Jones is showing why he was so well-regarded throughout the draft process. He gives the Cowboys a moveable chess piece in the secondary, one that may prove more valuable to their defense than any other defensive back on the roster for the rest of the season.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.