No new rookies from the top 80 of the 2015 NFL draft made a notable impact in Week 15, while many mid-round guys continue to see increased playing time as the season winds down, many due to injuries. This week’s offensive rookies found themselves filling in for high-profile players on playoff teams, while the defensive players that made the report have been playing effective football for a few weeks now, also for contenders. Chris Tripodi takes a look in this week’s Rookie Report.
Cameron Artis-Payne (RB-Car)
With injury-prone starting running back Jonathan Stewart finally succumbing to an ailment, Artis-Payne headed into Week 15 with an increased opportunity in the Carolina backfield. A late fifth-round pick out of Auburn who Draft Insider had rated as a third-round prospect, Artis-Payne led the Panthers backs with 14 carries for 59 yards and two catches for 34.
Mike Tolbert drew the start for Carolina, and Artis-Payne didn’t get his hands on the ball until past the midway point of the first quarter on the Panthers’ second drive. His first carry came with the Panthers just inside the Giants two-yard line, but Carolina’s offensive line got absolutely no push and couldn’t open even a small hole for Artis-Payne, who was taken down for a loss.
The rookie wasn’t heard from for a quarter after that, when he took a shotgun draw on 2nd-and-19 for nine yards. Artis-Payne showed nice patience and vision on the run, staying behind his blockers until they were able to get to their assignments before bouncing the play outside of a seal block from tight end Greg Olsen.
That run got Artis-Payne the first two carries of the following drive, and the 5-10, 220-pounder showed nice agility on a read option from the shotgun to juke away from a crowded spot behind center and hit the hole with power for nine yards. He was swallowed up on another read option on the following play, turning the corner before the pursuit got to him for no gain.
With the Panthers looking to protect their big lead in the second half, Artis-Payne got six carries in the third quarter alone. Those touches went for just 12 yards combined as the Giants keyed on the run on early downs, making it difficult for Artis-Payne to find any holes to run through. He did contribute with a big 20-yard reception to set the Panthers up in the red zone on a drive that culminated in a touchdown.
A versatile receiver out of the backfield at Auburn, Artis-Payne showed off his skills on pass thrown behind him by Cam Newton after swinging out into the flat. Not only did Artis-Payne reach back and make a nice catch on the ball thrown over his head, but he transitioned and accelerated quickly after landing on the ground to leave Giants linebacker JT Thomas in the dust and pick up extra yardage down the sideline.
The former junior college and Auburn standout again showed off his receiving chops on a 14-yard screen pass early in the fourth quarter. Artis-Payne continued to display excellent patience, waiting on a blocker that was behind him to put a hit on his defender before heading upfield and finishing the run with power as the defense tried to tackle him high.
On the next play, Artis-Payne rumbled or 26 yards off the left side on a read option. Another decisive one-cut move led the rookie to daylight through a huge hole, and he ran over Prince Amukamara at the end of the play to finish the run emphatically.
The play many will remember about Artis-Payne, however, is his fumbled exchange with Newton that set the Giants up deep in Carolina territory. It looked like Newton was supposed to keep the ball on the play, as Artis-Payne reacted like a decoy rather than an active runner after the botched handoff, and it looked like Newton rode Artis-Payne too long on the option and lost the ball. While this play isn’t necessarily the rookie’s fault, it shows the effect that inexperience can have on the continuity of any offense.
Artis-Payne wasn’t all that effective as runner, as he averaged barely 2.5 yards per carry excluding his 26-yard run, but the rookie showed good patience along with nice agility and burst for a 220-pound back. He ran with power, finished runs behind his pads and kept his legs moving through the pile, and Artis-Payne’s receiving skills were a nice boost for an offense that lacks elite playmakers at wide receiver.
Stewart seems likely to miss Week 16 as well, and the Panthers should look to get Artis-Payne involved much earlier in the game this time around. Neither Mike Tolbert nor Fozzy Whittaker has the all-purpose skill set that the rookie does, and Artis-Payne was impressive in his first substantial NFL action. For one week at least, he looked like he’ll provide very nice return on the 174th overall pick in this year’s draft.
Tyler Kroft (TE-Cin)
With starting tight end Tyler Eifert out against the 49ers after suffering a concussion in Week 14 against the Steelers, Kroft received his first NFL start in San Francisco. Kroft has primarily been used as a blocker this season and had just four receptions for 52 yards heading into the game, but the rookie caught all three of his targets for 31 yards and his first career touchdown from AJ McCarron, who was replaced the injured Andy Dalton.
Lined up in the backfield on third down early in the second quarter, Kroft released into the flat as McCarron’s safety valve and the quarterback looked his way after finding nothing downfield. The pass was tipped at the line and went high into the air, but Kroft did a great job finding the ball and timing his jump to come down with the catch in between four 49ers to maintain possession for the Bengals, even without getting the first down.
Later in the quarter, Kroft found himself wide open up the seam for an easy 20-yard touchdown. McCarron’s throw was slightly behind the first-year tight end at the five-yard line, but the athletic 6-6, 246-pounder easily reached back to make the grab on his way to the end zone for the score.
Recognizing his athletic talents, the Bengals designed a quick slip screen for Kroft in the third quarter. After chipping on the edge, Kroft caught the short screen and did a nice job following his blocks and moving up the field to pick up 15 yards and the first down. There was holding penalty after the catch, however, which officially shortened the play to nine yards.
Kroft finally got the opportunity to get tight end targets for the Bengals, and the third-rounder out of Rutgers made the most of his chances on a day when McCarron threw just 21 passes, as the two have developed solid chemistry working together on the second team. He’ll go back to being a backup whenever Eifert returns, but Kroft proved to be a more than capable fill-in with the upside to be a good NFL pass-catcher. Once he bulks up and improves his blocking, there’s definite every-down potential in his game.
Danielle Hunter (DE-Min)
With the Vikings devastated by injuries on defense over the past few weeks, they’ve had to rely on young players like Hunter to pick up the slack. Hunter has proven to be up to the task with eight tackles (six solo) and 2.5 sacks in his past two games. In Sunday’s big win over the Bears, the first-year defensive end tallied five tackles (four solo) and 1.5 sacks.
The first of those sacks came with the Vikings up, 10-0, and the Bears driving into Minnesota territory in the second quarter. On 3rd-and-14, Hunter lined up as a wide-nine end and stunted to the inside, going one-on-one with the guard. Using his length at 6’5’’, Hunter’s extension and strong hand fighting got him into the backfield, where he was able to take down Jay Cutler after a teammate couldn’t complete the initial sack.
Despite weighing just 252 pounds, Hunter showed off some strength to stop a run play early in the third quarter. Beating an initial double team when the tackle chipped on him before moving to the second level, Hunter tossed the guard to the inside and was in perfect position to meet Bears running back Jeremy Langford in the hole, bringing him down after just a two-yard gain.
The rookie’s half-sack came on a second-down play late in the third quarter with the Bears approaching midfield. Hunter again stunted at the line of scrimmage, but a nice slap move caught the tackle with his hands too low and the guard went out to stay with tackle Sharrif Floyd, leaving Hunter with a clear path to the quarterback. Floyd got there too, so the two split the sack, but either would have been able to make the play on his own.
Hunter was taken late in the third round, but Draft Insider had him pegged as a late first-round to early second-round prospect thanks to his athletic upside and discipline. Hunter has flashed that upside over the last few weeks, and while his playing strength was a concern coming out of LSU, he’s shown the ability to turn speed to power and utilize his length to gain leverage against opposing linemen.
Along with Everson Griffen, Hunter has shown the ability to really get after the passer, as he has five sacks this season after struggling to finish plays at the NCAA level. Playing for the defensive-minded Mike Zimmer certainly hasn’t hurt Hunter’s progress, and he’s looking like a player who can make a big impact on Minnesota’s playoff run this season, even when some of the team’s starters return from injury.
Jake Ryan (LB-GB)
Nate Palmer’s season-long struggles finally led to an opportunity for Ryan, the Packers’ fourth-round pick out of Michigan. Ryan has started the past three games in Green Bay, making a total of 23 tackles (17 solo). In Sunday’s win over the Raiders, Ryan set a new career-high with seven solo stops.
A prototypical box linebacker, all of Ryan’s tackles came within six yards of the line of scrimmage. He did a nice job of showing in the hole and making Raiders running back Latavius Murray change direction outside the play, and Ryan almost kept Oakland from converting an early 3rd-and-1 as a result.
Ryan flashed in the hole and forced Murray to bounce the run outside, where HaHa Clinton-Dix was waiting off the edge at the line of scrimmage, Clinton-Dix missed the tackle, however, leaving Ryan alone in pursuit of Murray. The rookie was able to bring the runner down, but not before he gained three yards and the first down.
Later on the drive, Ryan was able to quickly fill the hole on a run to the other side of the formation and stop the play for two yards. Ryan’s pursuit was completely horizontal to the line of scrimmage, which would have left him susceptible to a cutback in most situations. On this play, however, Murray hit the hole and was stopped after two yards.
Ryan showed a better angle of pursuit in the second quarter on a stretch play that went for just two yards. Ryan shadowed Murray and stayed in great position just behind the back in his hip pocket, finally closing once Murray committed upfield near the sideline and riding him out of bounds after just two yards.
The first-year linebacker from Michigan had a play in the third quarter where his pursuit again could have left him vulnerable to a cutback, but he didn’t have to travel the same distance and still shut down Murray in the hole. He filled a hole nicely on a fourth-quarter run before whiffing on his tackle attempt, but stuck with the play and ended up making the tackle in traffic after four yards.
Coverage skills were a problem for Ryan at Michigan and were a major reason he had just a sixth-round grade from Draft insider. With the Raiders in passing mode in the fourth quarter, Clive Walford released and ran a quick five-yard curl in the middle of the field. Derek Carr found him for the quick connection, while Ryan had his eyes on Walford the whole time and didn’t start to close on the play until the pass was almost there.
Had Ryan been watching Carr, even just out of the corner of his eye, he’d have seen the young quarterback staring down Walford from the start, which would’ve given him a headstart to break on the ball and cause an incompletion or even a turnover. Instead, Ryan was essentially frozen until he had to make the tackle.
By no means did Ryan play poorly against Oakland, but there were a few subtle things he did that make you think about whether he can be a long-term NFL starter. A back with better instincts than Murray may have embarrassed him with a cutback on one of those plays, and Ryan will find himself as strictly a two-down thumper if his recognition in coverage doesn’t improve, as his speed is no better than average.
Ryan is certainly likely to improve over time, which could help him develop into a starter. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s proven to be quite serviceable and a big upgrade on Palmer in the middle, which is all the Packers can really ask of him at this point.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.