Two first-round picks made the Rookie Report for the first time this season in Week 14, which says a lot about how their respective seasons have gone to this point. One plays for San Francisco, which also had a mid-round pick play well in his first career start this week. In addition, an undrafted safety made a positive impression in prime time in a possible audition for a starting spot down the line. Chris Tripodi breaks down what he saw from a new batch of first-year players in this week’s Rookie Report.
Nelson Agholor (WR-Phi)
The Eagles entered the 2015 NFL draft in need of a playmaker on offense to complement possession receiver Jordan Matthews. By drafting Agholor with the 20th pick of the first round, Philadelphia thought it was getting just that, a 6-0, 198-pound receiver with sub-4.4 speed.
Instead, all the Eagles had gotten through 13 weeks was 16 receptions and 163 scoreless yards from Agholor, who has struggled to adjust to a starting role as a rookie, as Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline suggested would be the case in Agholor’s scouting report. The former USC star finally found the end zone in Week 14 and finished with three catches for 62 yards on six targets.
Agholor’s first catch was rather uneventful, a four-yard gain on a curl route in the first quarter. Going against zone coverage from the Bills, Agholor settled just in front of the secondary with a sharp stop and made a nice grab with his hands out in front of his body before the defense quickly took him down, limiting any yards-after-catch opportunities.
On a 3rd-and-4 on Philadelphia’ next possession, Agholor had a bad drop that cost the Eagles a first down and forced them to punt. The rookie rounded off a quick out route, allowing slot corner Nickell Robey to creep tighter in coverage. Bradford led the throw nicely to the sideline away from Robey and Agholor stretched to make the grab, but the ball bounced off his hands for a bad drop.
Agholor redeemed himself on a 2nd-and-26 in the second quarter, using his straight-line speed to get behind the Bills secondary for a 53-yard touchdown, putting the Eagles up, 14-7. Safety Corey Graham got caught moving up the field and let Agholor get behind him, while Bradford dialed up a perfect deep ball that Agholor was able to extend to secure on his way to the end zone.
The rookie’s third and final catch of the game came on a quick-hitting slant route late in the first half. Agholor again did a nice job catching the ball away from his body, but didn’t have much of an opportunity to create yardage after the catch with the corner bearing down on him.
With the game tied late in the fourth quarter, Agholor had another chance to keep an Eagles drive going on 3rd-and-4. The former Trojan ran a quick in route a yard past the line of scrimmage but let the pass get into his body before cornerback Ronald Darby came in with a perfectly timed hit on the ball to break up the pass. While it was a play that could’ve been made and may have led to a first down depending how many yards Agholor could manage before going down, it was nowhere near as bad as his first-quarter drop thanks to a nice play from Darby
Week 13 was one of Agholor’s better games of the season, but that says much more about his lost rookie campaign than his performance Sunday. His touchdown wound up being a key to Philadelphia’s victory, but he also left a few plays on the field that could have extended drives. The big play is nice, but doing the little things is an important part of being a starting receiver in the NFL. Agholor will have to clean up his game in the offseason if he wants to make more of an impact in 2016.
Blake Bell (TE-SF)
A quarterback at Oklahoma until his senior season, Bell switched to tight end and caught just 16 passes in his final season with the Sooners, but four of them went for touchdowns. At 6-6, 252 pounds, Bell is a top-notch athlete with good quickness, strength and surprising natural receiving skills. He put all these on display in Sunday’s loss to the Browns, catching all three of his targets for 49 yards.
Bell’s first catch came on the final play of the first quarter on a short crossing route. Bell crossed from right to left as Blaine Gabbert sat uncomfortably in the pocket. Rather than continuing across the field or breaking off his route, Bell slowed down and settled in where he was open over the middle, giving Gabbert a big target to hit for nine yards as he stepped up in the pocket.
Bell was quiet until the fourth quarter, when he made two chunk plays with the game out of hand to flash his skills. Flexed off the line to the left, Bell ran a crossing route and did a nice job staying in Gabbert’s sight line as the QB rolled right. Bell made the grab in front of one defender and secured the ball tightly before taking a hard hit from the safety, holding on for a 16-yard grab.
On San Francisco’s final drive of the game, Bell showed his ability to stretch the seam and displayed those natural hands that most former quarterbacks don’t have. Bell flashed wide open in the middle of the field and caught the pass with perfect form before turning upfield and looking for somebody to hit, wasting no steps to gain extra yards for a 24-yard gain.
Bell’s opportunities may have been limited in his first NFL start, but he looked good for a player in just his second year at the position. His blocking and footwork still need to improve, but that’s to be expected, and his athletic prowess was on display as well as his ability to understand where to be to make a scrambling quarterback’s job easier, which isn’t surprising as a former QB. After being drafted in the fourth round, Bell has proven to be a worthwhile project that could be the 49ers’ tight end of the future if he continues to develop.
Arik Armstead (DE-SF)
Glenn Dorsey’s injury opened up extra playing time for Arik Armstead a few weeks ago, but his snap totals have been inconsistent over the past few weeks. After making six tackles (three solo) in Week 11, Armstead was kept out of the box score with decreased snaps the following two weeks. He saw more time against the Browns in Week 14 and responded with three tackles, including his second career sack.
Armstead single-handedly shut down an entire Cleveland drive in the second quarter, showing good fight with his hands to get free and make a tackle on Isaiah Crowell after a modest three-yard gain. On the very next play, Armstead owned left guard Austin Pasztor on third down for a sack of Johnny Manziel.
Off the snap, Armstead bull-rushed Pasztor and tossed him a few yards into the backfield. This made it easy to get free and take down Manziel, who had Pasztor nearly right in his lap within seconds of the snap.
After the sack, Armstead was quiet until the fourth quarter, when he once again showed the ability to use his hands to get free against the run. After starting the play with good extension, Armstead fought his way off the blocker to make a tackle on Duke Johnson as he went by for a four-yard gain.
Our scouting report on Armstead had hand moves as one of his two major weaknesses, and it looks as if he’s worked hard to improve in that aspect of the game, even if it’s only shown through in his ability to fight with them so far. With his quickness off the snap and pad level leading to powerful moves like the ones we saw Sunday, the 6-7, 292-pounder flashed his massive upside at multiple positions along the line. San Francisco hasn’t seen immediate results from its No. 1 pick just yet, but they should be coming if the 21-year-old can continue to develop the nuances of his game.
Anthony Harris (S-Min)
An undrafted free agent out of Virginia, Harris made his first career start Thursday night against the Cardinals with Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo out with injuries. Harris did a nice job in the expanded role, making eight tackles (seven solo) including a pass breakup in Minnesota’s close 23-20 loss. Despite the numbers, he did have his share of struggles against the NFL’s top passing offense.
Harris had a quiet first quarter, but did make a nice play to close on and shut down a short screen pass to Cardinals receiver John Brown. Despite being listed at just 6-1, 192 pounds, Harris fought off a Michael Floyd block and quickly moved upfield to clean up after Captain Munnerlyn missed a tackle, grabbing Brown’s ankle and not letting go.
Brown got the best of Harris in the second quarter, as the safety took a terrible angle on Brown’s long catch-and-run TD. Harris either misread the play or misjudged Brown’s speed in coming up way short, and by the time he went to recover there were too many bodies in the way for him to even have a chance to catch Brown down the sideline, which was an unlikely outcome anyway.
When his pursuit angles were good, Harris showed off his discipline and hard-hitting ability before the half was out. The rookie laid a jolt into Cardinals running back David Johnson to pick up an assist and prevent him from falling forward at the end of his run and did a nice job staying with Johnson a few plays later. Harris went to fill the hole inside before Johnson bounced it out, and Harris stuck with him in his hip pocket, slapped away Johnson’s stiff arm and made the tackle, albeit 13 yards downfield.
Harris’ biggest play of the game came in the third quarter, where the safety got good depth covering the deep middle and read Carson Palmer’s eyes once he locked in on Brown, who had gotten behind the defense. Harris met Brown right as the ball got there and went for the interception. The ensuing collision prevented either player from making the catch, but Harris laid a solid lick on Brown while nearly creating a turnover as well. He even slowed down ever so slightly before making contact as he was a beat early to the spot, and his instincts kept him from getting flagged for pass interference.
Later in the quarter, however, Harris’ lack of bulk came back to haunt him as he was pancaked by Larry Fitzgerald as Floyd scampered for a 42-yard touchdown. The entire Vikings defense was confused on the play, leaving Harris as the last line of defense against a convoy of Cardinals. He approached the convoy in a predictably passive manner, which led to him getting planted to the turf on his back.
Harris wasn’t perfect in coverage, however, as he stayed deep too long after Floyd beat a linebacker over the middle in the fourth quarter, leading to a 22-yard gain. If Harris had recognized his teammate was beat sooner and reacted, he could have most likely broken the pass up or at least shaved a few yards off the completion.
Overall, Harris showed well in his first career start, displaying block-shedding and hard-hitting skills that most players his size don’t possess. He closed well against the run and showed nice timing in deep coverage, although his recognition skills could use work. That will come with experience though and once Harris builds up strength, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him as a starter down the line as a safety that can defend both the run and the pass.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.