With no offensive rookies emerging in Week 8, this week’s Rookie Report will focus mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Two first-year defensive backs recently moved into the starting lineup thanks to injuries to the veterans ahead of them, and both were impressive in their extended opportunities. Meanwhile, a Tampa Bay linebacker broke out with a big game in the Bucs’ win and Chris Tripodi breaks down the struggles of one of the most hyped members of this year’s rookie running back class.
Melvin Gordon (RB-SD)
After two straight years where no running backs were drafted in the first round, Melvin Gordon became the second runner taken in the top 15 after the Chargers selected him to replace the departed Ryan Mathews. Like the rest of the Chargers outside of the passing game, however, Gordon has struggled this season, topping 55 rushing yards in a game just once and proving to be a non-factor in the passing game. While the second part of that equation was expected based on his lack of receiving production at Wisconsin, Gordon continued to struggle on the ground in Sunday’s loss to Baltimore, carrying 18 times for just 54 yards.
Despite the poor numbers, Gordon did a nice job of picking up consistent yardage early in the game. Of his first six runs, three went for three yards and three went for four yards as the Chargers offense worked almost exclusively out of the shotgun. Normally a boom-or-bust runner who is often stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, Gordon stayed on schedule with effectively early runs despite the San Diego offensive line struggling to open up holes. The rookie showed good burst to get moving upfield and avoided hesitation at the line of scrimmage, instead just plowing forward for as many yards as he could get. Gordon also used a nice juke move to avoid backfield penetration and a three-yard loss before heading straight up the field for four yards.
Gordon started to produce more middling results in the second quarter, taking eight carries for 24 yards with a long run of six yards, when he followed his blocks well from the shotgun and pushed forward for extra yardage. Gordon could’ve had a longer run on the following play, but ran into his own lineman at the second level rather than cutting back inside the block and ended up with just five yards. While the Chargers’ problems along the offensive line don’t help matters and neither did facing a good Ravens run defense, Gordon seems to be running with a lack of confidence in his patience and vision, which will happen when you’re used to getting hit early. As Gordon’s scouting report noted, he isn’t a creative runner that can create on his own, despite his home-run speed, and that weakness is even more glaring behind a bad offensive line.
His speed hasn’t even helped him in the open field, as Gordon hasn’t capitalized on the few opportunities he’s gotten in space. After catching a short pass early in the third quarter, Gordon had time to put a move on the defensive back and break free. Instead, Gordon hesitated after catching and turning upfield, allowing himself to get undercut and stopped after just four yards. After that play, Gordon touched the ball only four more times all game, including two consecutive plays where he was almost stopped for a safety. The first was a run up the middle where Gordon had no room to run and his forward progress was stopped as he broke a tackle and was taken down in the end zone, but he was ruled down at the one-yard line. On the ensuing swing pass, Gordon had his legs taken out inside the one-yard line, just feet from a safety that would’ve cut the Chargers lead to just two.
Gordon’s rookie struggles continued in Sunday’s loss, and the rookie has yet to break out of his slump. As a runner with great burst and change-of-direction ability, Gordon isn’t getting the opportunity to showcase those skills behind his team’s shoddy offensive line. When he does find himself in space, Gordon lacks the confidence to make moves to get free and create extra yardage. After years of running behind Wisconsin’s traditionally elite offensive line, Gordon is getting a taste of the other end of the spectrum, and it’s affecting him as a runner. It’s tough to have confidence in Gordon breaking out anytime soon, either, especially with Danny Woodhead receiving his share of touches out of the backfield as well.
Kwon Alexander (LB-TB)
After signing Bruce Carter to a four-year, $17 million to play inside linebacker this season, the Bucs changed course thanks to Alexander’s strong play during training camp and the preseason. The fourth-round draft pick out of LSU has been starting in the middle for Tampa Bay since late August and turned in his finest game of the season in Sunday’s win over the Falcons in Atlanta. Alexander made a career-high 11 tackles (six solo), intercepted his second pass of the season and forced a fumble as well as recovering one.
Alexander made a highlight play on Atlanta’s first drive after the Falcons drove inside the Bucs’ 10-yard line. The rookie linebacker made a leaping interception in the end zone and showed off his 4.55 speed with the ball in his hands, bursting through the Falcons offense all the way down to the Atlanta 11-yard line. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they were called for offsides on the play, nullifying the interception, but that doesn’t take away from the talent, speed and ball skills Alexander showed on the play.
It took Alexander just two plays on Atlanta’s following drive to force a turnover that counted. The rookie bit on Matt Ryan’s play-action fake, which allowed Julio Jones to get behind him over the middle for a big gain. Alexander hustled after Jones though, catching the unexpecting receiver from behind and ripping the ball right out of his hands before returning it for 21 yards. This was the ultimate run-and-chase play, which epitomizes who Alexander is as a player based on his scouting report out of college.
Late in the second quarter with the Falcons threatening near midfield, Alexander made another big play for the Tampa Bay defense. Turning and running easily with tight end Jacob Tamme up the seam, Alexander took advantage of a poor throw that Matt Ryan left too far inside and secured the interception, stopping Atlanta’s drive and leading to a Tampa Bay touchdown after returning the pick 15 yards back to midfield.
With the Falcons down big early and forced to abandon the run, Alexander made most of his stops in the passing game. His sideline-to-sideline speed and ability to cover ground was on full display, as the first-year linebacker chased down multiple screens out to the flanks and laid a couple big hits at full speed in the process. Alexander’s emergence has been a key to Tampa Bay’s surprisingly stout run defense this season and will make it easy for the Bucs to cut Carter after the season, as the veteran has no dead money left on his contract. Alexander and Lavonte David should combine to make Tampa Bay’s linebacking corps one of the fastest in the NFL over the next several seasons.
Kevin Johnson (CB-Hou)
Draft Insider’s top cornerback available in the 2015 NFL Draft, Kevin Johnson was the second player drafted at his position after the Texans made him the 15th overall pick. Playing behind both Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph as Houston’s nickel corner, Johnson has been a steady presence in the Texans’ secondary as a rookie and enjoyed his best game of the season last week filling in for the injured Jackson, making six tackles including five solo stops and two for loss as well as breaking up a pass and making his first career interception.
Johnson was quiet for much of the first half, which is generally a good thing for a cornerback, but the one play he made was impressive, showing off his physicality and aggressive nature. Lined up as the closed corner on a first-down run play, Titans receiver Justin Hunter attempted to block Johnson as the corner approached the line of scrimmage. Despite a thin build at 5-11 and just 188 pounds, Johnson tossed the 6-4, 201-pound Hunter several yards into the backfield, knocking him into running back Antonio Andrews in the process to trip him up. Johnson then touched the fallen Andrews down for a one-yard loss.
With Houston up 10-3 midway through the third quarter, Johnson saved a touchdown by chasing down Andrews across the field after the Titans running back had broken multiple tackles to get through the second level. Two plays later, Johnson came up hard on a screen pass to Kendall Wright, stopping the receiver in his tracks for a loss of three and knocking Wright out of the game with an injury.
The Texans entered the fourth quarter with a 17-6 lead as the Titans crossed midfield, but Johnson refused to let Tennessee drive any further. Taking advantage of a Zach Mettenberger pass thrown late and behind Dorial Green-Beckham in tight coverage, Johnson made the easy interception and returned the pick 22 yards back into Tennessee territory. The rookie corner ran Green-Beckham’s out route right with the receiver, putting himself in great position to make a big play.
Johnson showed out against both the pass and the run against the Titans in Week 8 and while Tennessee is a bad football team, standing out against them is a sign that you’re doing your job. Johnson was aggressive coming up to sniff out screen plays and allowed just one catch on the day, while his interception put an end to one of the Titans’ few opportunities for a comeback. Jackson doesn’t seem close to returning from his high ankle sprain, which will give Johnson a few more weeks to show he deserves to hang onto his new starting spot once the struggling veteran returns.
Jaquiski Tartt (S-SF)
Early in the week leading up to Sunday’s game against the Rams, the 49ers placed veteran safety Antoine Bethea on injured reserve with a pectoral injury, opening up the strong safety role for Tartt. A rookie second-round pick out of Samford, Draft Insider had Tartt pegged as a fourth- or fifth-round prospect, but San Francisco coveted him enough to draft him with the 14th pick of Round 2. Tartt had a solid game against a run-based St. Louis team that plays to his strengths Sunday, recording six tackles (five solo) and forcing a fumble.
Playing deep safety late in the first quarter, Tartt found himself too deep and allowed a 24-yard reception to Tavon Austin in front of him after a play-action fake from Nick Foles. Even though Tartt was over 10 yards away from Austin when Foles released the pass, the rookie safety quickly closed the gap and hit Austin shortly after he made the catch, ripping the ball loose in the process and forcing a big turnover early in the game to keep the Rams’ offense off the scoreboard.
Tartt continued to impress with his speed and closing ability throughout the rest of the game, coming up aggressively from his safety position to make plays around the line of scrimmage. He was shot out of a cannon on an early five-yard completion to Bradley Marquez, immediately shutting down any chance of yards after the catch with a strong close and sure tackle. Tartt did the same on a second-quarter swing pass to Todd Gurley, coming up to pick Gurley up in man coverage and riding him out of bounds quickly for no gain.
Sometimes an aggressive safety can be too aggressive, however, which was the case near the end of the first half for Tartt. The rookie came up hard to fill his spot in a Cover 3 zone and allowed Jared Cook to slip past him into the seam. Cook busted through two tackles and rumbled for 49 yards before Tartt used his 4.4 speed to catch up to Cook just before he made it to the end zone. The rookie safety wasn’t responsible for covering the seam on the play, but he showed his intent too quickly, allowing Nick Foles to anticipate Cook running open.
At 6-1, 221 pounds with his aforementioned 4.4 speed, Tartt is a physical freak at the safety position. His explosiveness and closing speed makes him a dangerous run defender, but Tartt could use some work on his efficiency in coverage. Coming out of a small school like Samford, growing pains are to be expected from Tartt, who is one of the few 49ers to flash consistent talent on film. The starting strong safety job should remain his for the rest of the season, and Tartt will give San Francisco fans something to look forward to when it comes to the team’s future.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.