As the NFL season winds down, coaches and general managers of non-playoff teams are actively using the final weeks to evaluate their rosters heading into 2016, seeing who can be valuable contributors for their teams’ future. Three youngsters saw increased roles Sunday for their downtrodden squads, while a second-rounder continues to emerge on defense for the NFC East champions. Chris Tripodi breaks down what he saw from the first-year crop in the Week 16 Rookie Report.
Jarryd Hayne (RB-SF)
With Carlos Hyde and Shaun Draughn out of commission in Week 16, Hayne was recalled from the practice squad on Dec. 26 and thrown into the starting lineup a day later against the Lions. The former Australian Rugby star carried nine times for 27 yards and caught five passes for 20 yards in his first extended NFL playing time.
Hayne picked up over half his rushing yards on San Francisco’s opening drive, which culminated in a short touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead. On the game’s second play, Hayne took a handoff and cut back against the grain to find the hole in the defense before being taken down rather easily by a defensive lineman after four yards. A few plays later, Hayne showed good vision and squeezed through a tiny hole before running through multiple arm tackles on his way to 11 yards and a first down.
The 27-year-old rookie showed good strength and rushing fundamentals throughout, slipping weak tackles in the backfield and keeping a low center of gravity to stay on his feet after having his legs cut out by defensive backs. The 6’2’’, 220-pound Hayne did a nice job fighting for extra yardage and falling forward despite generally having nowhere to run.
Hayne’s passing-game work came late in the game with the outcome decided, as Hayne snagged several dumpoffs from quarterback Blaine Gabbert. He did show the ability to extend and catch the ball with his hands while making sure to stay with his quarterback when Gabbled scrambled out of the pocket, giving him a necessary safety valve once he found nothing open downfield.
While Sunday’s showing wasn’t the most impressive from Hayne, it’s important to consider the context. On a talent-deficient 49ers team just playing out the string until next year, Hayne showed he could at least competently step into an extended role and not be a detriment to the offense. His age limits his growth potential and while Hayne is a nice story, he’s probably not even San Francisco’s long-term answer as a No. 2 running back behind Hyde. At least for next year, Draughn seems likely to be the team’s top backup, with Hayne battling fellow rookie Mike Davis for No. 3 duties.
Preston Smith (LB-Was)
With Brian Orakpo leaving in free agency, the Redskins drafted Mississippi State edge rusher Preston Smith with the sixth pick of the second round in the 2015 NFL draft. While Trent Murphy has started opposite Ryan Kerrigan, Smith has made a nice impact as a sub-package rusher and played a key role in Saturday’s NFC East-clinching win over the Eagles with three sacks, including a forced fumble.
Smith’s first sack came on a 3rd-and-15 early in the second quarter with the Eagles driving into Redskins territory. The rookie destroyed veteran left tackle Jason Peters, getting off the line quickly and using his speed off the edge to get by Peters almost immediately. Smith didn’t even need to do much to disengage from Peters, using a very subtle rip move to maintain his balance and turn the corner before getting to Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford for the takedown. Peters was even flagged for a hold on the play, but nothing could stop Smith.
His second sack came later in the quarter and once again was at the expense of Peters. This time, the tackle got a good jump off the line to set the edge, but Smith ripped right through the slow-moving Peters to easily get the corner and bring down Bradford again. The rookie showed great strength on the play, not letting Peters get him off his path to the quarterback and turning the corner nicely before closing on Bradford.
With Peters sitting in the fourth quarter, Smith abused backup Dennis Kelly with another strong outside rip move, forcing Bradford to step up in the pocket. Smith didn’t quit once his initial pursuit was thwarted, however, and the rookie got to Bradford for his third sack, stripping the Eagles quarterback in the process. Philadelphia center Jason Kelce hopped on the ball, so it didn’t turn into a turnover, but Smith continued to dominate around the left side.
While Murphy still has two seasons remaining on his rookie contract and should continue playing a big role on early downs, Smith’s explosive ability off the edge will make Redskins fans quickly forget about Orakpo, as both have seven sacks this year. Smith obviously comes with a much friendlier contract, and his bend and leverage off the edge combined with an ability to quickly redirect to the quarterback make him a potential monster at 6-5, 271 pounds. Smith will be a key cog for Washington’s defense over the next few seasons and will allow Kerrigan to avoid constant double-teams.
Hayes Pullard (LB-Jax)
Telvin Smith’s absence from the Week 16 lineup opened up a starting role for Pullard, who responded with nine tackles (seven solo, one for loss) in Jacksonville’s loss to the Saints. A four-year starter with the versatility to play both inside and outside, Pullard fell to the seventh round due to questions about his size (6-0, 240) and speed (4.72). Originally drafted by the Browns before being stolen off their practice squad by Jacksonville in October, he proved he could handle starting in a pinch Sunday at the Superdome, even if there were a few warts.
Pullard started Sunday’s game playing well despite the struggles of his teammates, as he made two nice plays on the Saints’ opening drive. Playing on the edge, Pullard flattened nicely in pursuit along the line of scrimmage to bring running back Tim Hightower down for a three-yard gain. A few plays later, Pullard came in unblocked off the edge and laid a solid blow on Hightower, stopping the runner in his tracks in the backfield for a four-yard loss.
Later in the quarter, Pullard helped limit Brandin Cooks to just one yard on an end around. Not biting on quarterback Drew Brees’ pump fake, Pullard stayed home and strung Cooks out to the sideline, forcing the receiver out of bounds after a nominal gain.
In the second quarter, Pullard showed the downhill explosiveness to blow up tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in the backfield and assist on a run that went for a short loss. He also showed good closing speed to quickly shut down underneath passing plays in front of him, keeping the Saints tight ends from creating yards after the catch.
The second half was a slightly different story for Pullard, as he was the culprit on running back Travaris Cadet’s 44-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. Lined up over Cadet in the slot, Pullard bit hard on Cadet’s out-breaking route before the back pulled out a double move and headed downfield. Pullard fell trying to transition to running deep with Cadet, giving New Orleans an easy TD down the sideline.
Pullard’s size does hurt him at times, and that was exposed as the game wore on. He couldn’t gain ground on a late five-yard touchdown run by Hightower and wasn’t able to make contact with Hightower until the goal line, when it was too late. Pullard was also blown off the ball later in the fourth quarter, and while he managed to make the tackle nine yards downfield, he was only able to shed the blocker after being pushed back several yards.
All in all, the rookie showed some nice ability moving downhill, but struggled in coverage and when forced to hold his ground at the second level. Those were issues for him in college, too, and it seems unlikely that the 23-year-old will be able to overcome these deficiencies now that he’s in the NFL. He played well at times Sunday, but didn’t show anything that would make Jacksonville consider him anything more than a backup in its future plans at linebacker.
Nate Orchard (LB-Cle)
Like Smith, Draft Insider had Orchard pegged as a firm second-round prospect, and the Browns followed suit by taking the former Utah star 51st overall. Orchard struggled early in the season, especially setting the edge against the run, but he has since displaced disappointing 2013 first-round pick Barkevious Mingo on the depth chart and has three sacks in his past three games, including one in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs along with his first career interception.
His increasing comfort level showed early in the first quarter, as Orchard made a nice play to hold Chiefs running back Spencer Ware to a three-yard gain. Keeping nice extension off the edge to keep the right tackle off his 6’4’’, 255-pound frame and maintain vision into the backfield, Orchard got back into the play after having the tackle beat upfield. Instead of giving up, Orchard stayed extended and easily redirected himself off the block to tackle Ware from behind after a short gain.
The rookie’s interception came in the second quarter with the Chiefs up 10-3 and driving in Browns territory. Orchard showed good physicality bumping tight end Demetrius Harris off his route at the line, and the result was a tipped pass from quarterback Alex Smith intended for the covered Harris. The pass was batted at the line and bobbled by teammate Craig Robertson before landing in the hands of Orchard, who was finally able to corral the pass with some help from Robertson on a bizarre play before returning it 46 yards into Chiefs territory.
On a third-quarter 3rd-and-6 with Kansas City driving past midfield, Orchard battled for his lone sack of the contest. After failing to gain the edge on right tackle Jah Reid, Orchard stayed aggressive and used his left arm to gain enough leverage on the 340-pound Reid to force his way to a sack of Smith. The rookie came awfully close to a face-masking penalty, but got his hand underneath Reid’s helmet on his way to the sack.
The Browns have whiffed on an awful lot of high draft picks in recent years, but Orchard’s late-season resurgence gives them hope that he’ll be a rare hit for a team that desperately needs some young talent to emerge. With the futures of Paul Kruger and Armonty Bryant uncertain and Mingo a constant disappointment, Orchard could very well be Cleveland’s No. 1 outside linebacker next season. If he continues to improve in one-on-one situations, Orchard’s natural pass-rushing skills should eventually shine after a slow start to his career coming out of the Pac-12.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.