This week’s Rookie Report has an interesting mix of rookies for evaluation purposes. Three of the four players profiled below were viewed as either too raw to make much of an early impact or question marks when it came to effort level, but went in the first two rounds anyway. The only one who had neither of those labels entering the NFL wasn’t taken until Day 3 and has enjoyed a two-week audition for 2016 while replacing his team’s injured starter, who also happens to be a free agent in the offseason. Chris Tripodi reveals the identities of these players and breaks down what he saw in Week 10.
Jeremy Langford (RB-Chi)
Langford made his second straight start in place of the injured Matt Forte on Sunday against a tough Rams defense. After totaling 142 yards and a touchdown on 21 touches the week before in San Diego, Langford turned 20 carries and seven receptions into 182 total yards and two scores to help lead the Bears to a 37-13 win in St. Louis. There’s a chance Forte returns to the lineup in Week 12 but if he doesn’t, Langford has proven he can carry the load successfully against any defense, and the Bears are less likely to rush their starter back as a result.
It was tough sledding for Langford during most of the first half, as his longest run went for just five yards while the Rams’ defense got consistent penetration into the Bears’ backfield. He showed nice patience behind his offensive line to grind out tough yardage and keep the offense on schedule by not getting stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, but Chicago’s insistence on running from the shotgun was a hindrance to their ground game early on. Langford’s big play came with the Bears up 17-10 past the midway point of the second quarter, as Langford took a screen pass from Jay Cutler 83 yards for a touchdown.
St. Louis blitzed on the play and Jay Cutler beat it with the quick dump to Langford, who used his burst, 4.4 speed and vision to make a big play. The rookie runner wasted no time getting upfield into open space, as most of the remaining Rams defenders were caught on blocks. After gaining 20 yards, safety Rodney McLeod shed Bears receiver Marquess Wilson’s block and looked to be in position to make a play on Langford around midfield. The Michigan State product showed off his instincts as a rusher to set up Wilson to seal a second block to the outside, redirecting to the sideline to force McLeod to move back towards Wilson, who was able to hold up the safety just long enough to give Langford a path to the end zone which he used to outrun McLeod’s pursuit for the score.
Langford wasn’t a huge factor in the passing game in the second half despite the high catch total, as he worked mostly as a safety valve for Cutler on plays that couldn’t go downfield or when pressure came early. The rookie’s first big run came late in the third quarter with Cutler under center, as Langford took a handoff to the right and was able to turn the corner, showing nice burst to get to the second level quickly for 23 yards. Later on the drive, Langford finally found success out of the shotgun, taking a pitch left and cutting back inside as the Rams protected the flanks well. The rookie’s vision and anticipation were apparent on this play and he used a quick two-cut move to get upfield without losing speed.
With the Bears up 30-13 midway through the fourth quarter, Langford provided all of the offense during the game-sealing TD drive. Set up with a short field at the Rams’ 24-yard line, Langford busted a 14-yard run from a single-back set, using a quick hop step to the right to set him up to run right through a skinny crease in the offensive line before stiff-arming the safety to create extra yardage before getting taken down by the ankles. Three plays later, Langford again recognized the Rams’ overpursuit to the flanks, taking a handoff meant to go off tackle and easily cutting back to the middle of the field untouched for his second score.
The Bears’ offense hasn’t missed a beat with Langford filling in for Forte, as the rookie brings a similar three-down skill set to the table. The 29-year-old veteran is set to hit free agency this offseason, and Langford’s recent performance should make it easy for Chicago to let Forte walk and instill Langford as their new starting running back. If his performances over the last two weeks are any indication, Langford should be more than up to the task.
Maxx Williams (TB-Bal)
Coming off their bye week missing Steve Smith Sr. thanks to a season-ending injury, the Ravens needed somebody to step up in the passing game to give Joe Flacco another receiving weapon. Second-round rookie tight Maxx Williams came through Sunday, tying his career-high with four receptions for 40 yards and his first NFL touchdown. The former Minnesota star formed a nice one-two receiving punch with starter Crockett Gillmore, who posted a similar stat line in the loss.
It was a slow start for Williams against the Jags, as Nick Boyle saw more action as the No. 2 tight end early and Williams wasn’t even targeted until late in the second quarter with the Ravens running a two-minute drill. The rookie tight end entered in a three-tight end set on 3rd-and-2 with Baltimore driving deep in Jacksonville territory. After Flacco’s play-action fake pulled the linebackers up towards the line of scrimmage, Williams found himself open down the seam.
Williams used a very subtle move off the release to help bait the linebackers into playing the run as well. The 21-year-old showed awareness beyond his years, releasing slowly off the line to the inside with the rest of Baltimore’s offensive line to sell the run. After his two inside steps helped take the linebackers out of the play, Williams busted through to the second level and turned to make a nice hands catch at the five-yard line before easily beat the closing safety’s tackle attempt at the goalline.
As the game went on, the Ravens recognized their need for additional playmakers and used Williams more often in one- and two-TE sets. None of his receptions went for big yardage, but Williams showed soft hands and the ability to power through defenders for extra yardage after the catch, forcing defensive backs to catch him on their heels and dragging tacklers with his 6-4, 249-pound frame.
Williams now has four receptions in two of his the last three games he’s played in, and looks to be becoming a bigger part of the Ravens’ passing attack. While he’s still a bit raw, the job Williams did selling the play fake on third-and-short was a big reason why he found himself open for his first career score. If the Baltimore coaching staff continues to see more situational awareness like that from the rookie, it will be tough to keep his skill set off the field with Flacco relying on the likes of Gillmore and Kamar Aiken as his top targets.
Mario Edwards Jr. (DE-Oak)
Looking for help on the defensive side of the ball in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Raiders drafted Mario Edwards Jr. out of Florida State early in the second round. A 6-3, 280-pound defensive end, he has good size for a 4-3 defensive end and showed off excellent athleticism with the Seminoles. After Justin Tuck got hurt in Week 5, Edwards took over the starting role on the right side opposite Khalil Mack and has acquitted himself well in four starts, culminating with 11 tackles (eight solo) and a sack against the Vikings on Sunday.
Edwards was productive defending both the run and the pass against the Vikings. He worked his hands well against tight ends and tackles early, using his strength to push Kyle Rudolph into the backfield a few times before filling running lanes. Edwards also used that strength to throw blockers off him before flashing in the hole, giving Adrian Peterson nowhere to run on a few occasions. Even when the rookie was contained by a block, he still found a way to make an impact, getting his head outside his opponent’s shoulder pads to fill gaps inside before using his hands to slide back outside when Peterson tried to bounce around tackle.
His impact in the run game aside, Edwards also showed off his athleticism as a pass rusher. On an early 3rd-and-9, the former Seminole fought off two separate blockers before chasing down a scrambling Teddy Bridgewater for a sack. Later in the first half, Edwards got free on a stunt and used his speed to create quick interior pressure, forcing Bridgewater to scramble and eventually throw the ball away.
Not only did Edwards use his athleticism to pressure Bridgewater, he also chased down multiple plays to the flanks from his inside alignment. In the first half, Edwards hustled back into a screen play after an attempted cut block at the line of scrimmage and ended up with an assisted tackle on a short two-yard gain. On a 3rd-and-14 in the second half, Edwards couldn’t get to Bridgewater before chasing down Matt Asiata to force him out of bounds after an 11-yard gain, keeping him from getting to the sticks and forcing a punt.
Edwards flashed often during his days at Florida State, but was rarely consistent and didn’t make many plays considering the NFL talent surrounding him. He showed off his entire skill set Sunday against the Vikings despite Peterson running for over 200 yards on the day and if Edwards continues to develop and becomes a more consistent player, the sky is the limit for him and the exciting young nucleus the Raiders are putting together in Oakland.
Malcom Brown (DT-NE)
The Patriots continue to invest in interior defensive linemen who fall in the draft with their late first-round picks, and Malcom Brown is no different. New England selected the former Texas star with the 32nd overall pick a year after taking another defensive tackle, Florida’s Dominique Easley, with the 29th overall pick in 2014. While Easley is a smaller, gap-shooting three-technique, Brown is a 320-pound hole clogger who earned All-American honors last season. The rookie has played behind Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga for much of the season, but made the most of a start Sunday against the Giants with seven tackles (four solo) and a sack.
Draft Insider wasn’t the only outlet questioning Brown’s effort at Texas, but that was a non-issue throughout Sunday’s win. On a play late in the first half, Brown was blocked out of the hole on a run, but fought to get back in the play and pick up an assist on a four-yard gain. Later in the game, Brown rushed the passer but couldn’t get any push into the backfield before the pass was released. Many big tackles would give up on the play at that point, but not Brown. The 6-2, 320-pounder turned and saw Rueben Randle trying to create extra yardage running parallel to the line of scrimmage, and used his athleticism to get downfield and bring down Randle after a seven-yard gain.
On the next play from scrimmage, Brown slipped off the snap and fell to the ground, but kept moving towards the play and tripped up Rashad Jennings to get an assist. When Brown is giving maximum effort, his athleticism can really shine through. Despite his big frame, he fires off the snap with good pad level and does a great job sliding off blocks and keeping opponents from controlling him by staying compact and not giving them a big target to block.
While Brown isn’t a great pass rusher on the inside, he does have nice burst once he fires off the line and works his hands well throughout plays. On a late 3rd-and-5 with the Patriots up by a point and the Giants driving deep in New England territory, Brown fought through multiple blocks and chased down a scrambling Eli Manning, who gave himself up to stay in bounds and keep the clock moving for a field-goal attempt. If Manning had time to scan the field and find a receiver to extend the drive, New England may not have been able to keep New York out of the end zone and come back for the win.
Whenever a player like Brown falls to a team like the Patriots, it’s tough to ignore. The only thing that was keeping Brown from being a top-15 pick were questions that had nothing to do with talent, and landing with New England looks like it has motivated Brown to be as good as he can be, as is the case with many players. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the AFC East and after his performance Sunday, it would be surprising if his snaps didn’t continue to rise for the rest of the year.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.