Another week of the NFL season is in the books and another group of undrafted rookies and late-round picks are making an impact around the league, not just on offense and defense but in the return game as well. Chris Tripodi is back for this week’s installment of the NFL Rookie Report.
Keiland Williams (RB-Was)
An undrafted rookie out of LSU, Williams became Clinton Portis’ backup early in the season when the team cut Larry Johnson and Willie Parker. But when Portis got hurt, the team promoted Ryan Torain from the practice squad to start in his place and Williams was relegated to third-down duty. With Torain straining his hamstring on Sunday, Williams may get a chance to start in Week 10 when Washington returns from their bye.
Williams has more receptions (14) this season than carries (10) and despite good size (5-11, 225), Williams struggles running between the tackles. His quickness and elusiveness serve him well as a third-down back, but he will need to run more decisively on the inside to be effective in a starting role, which he may need to do if Torain is unable to go in two weeks.
Brandon Banks (WR-Was)
Signed off the practice squad before Week 4 to bolster the worst return game in football, Banks has had an instant impact on the Redskins’ special teams unit. In Washington’s past five games, the 5-7, 150-pound undrafted rookie from Kansas State ranks third in the NFL in average yards per punt return and seventh in average yards per kick return.
Against the Lions on Sunday, Banks totaled 271 return yards including a 96-yard kickoff return that put Washington up 25-20 midway through the fourth quarter. Banks also added a 35-yard punt return and had a punt return touchdown called back due to a block in the back.
With 4.37 speed, Banks is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. His size limits him to special teams duty and gadget plays on offense, but Week 8 won’t be the first time his impact is felt by the Redskins.
Lamarr Houston (DE-Oak)
Lots of Raiders defenders had a good day against Seattle in Oakland’s 33-3 win. Houston, a second-round pick out of Texas, has seen consistent playing time in the Raiders’ defensive line rotation this season and had 3 solo tackles (2 for loss), a sack and a forced fumble against the Seahawks.
Houston had a big senior season for the Longhorns, pushing his draft stock up from a free agent grade to a second-rounder. He’s a high-motor player and a hard worker who can play any position along a four-man line and will continue to see snaps for the Raiders this season.
Larry Hart (DE-Jac)
Hart saw action in the Jaguars’ blowout victory over Dallas and recorded his first career sack on Jon Kitna late in the fourth quarter. A fifth-round pick from Central Arkansas, Hart is a project that the Jaguars hope to develop for the future.
Hart dominated small-school competition with 21.5 sacks in his final two college seasons and many teams looked at him as a potential 3-4 rush linebacker. The 6-0, 250-pound Hart has been seeing time at defensive end for Jacksonville despite his size limitations, but only time will tell what position he ends up calling home.
Sean Lissemore (DT-Dal)
The Cowboys took Lissemore towards the end of the seventh round out of William & Mary, where he was a very productive defensive tackle. Another rookie who saw action in the blowout Jaguars-Cowboys game, Lissemore was on the active roster for the first time this season.
Lissemore responded to the opportunity by making a few plays for Dallas, recording 3 tackles and a half-sack. Lissemore lacks ideal bulk for an interior lineman, particularly in Dallas’ 3-4 scheme, but could see time backing up Jay Ratliff at nose tackle and both defensive end positions if he remains on the active roster.
Rolando McClain (LB-Oak)
McClain was taken in the top 10 by Oakland in April’s draft but through 8 games, he has struggled more than most expected. A tackling machine at Alabama, McClain has just 40 tackles (25 solo) as the starting middle linebacker in the Raiders’ 4-3 defense.
McClain has the potential to be an impact two-down linebacker in the NFL due to his struggles with man coverage, but his skills are better suited for a 3-4 scheme. He lacks great speed to the sidelines and his pursuit ability leaves something to be desired. Regardless, he’s a disciplined run defender and an excellent tackler inside the box. He has serious long-term upside, but looks like he won’t be the instant impact run-stopper that many expected him to be.
Frank Zombo (LB-GB)
An undrafted free agent who played defensive end at Central Michigan, the 6-3, 254-pound Zombo has stepped into the Packers’ starting lineup replacing the injured Brad Jones at outside linebacker on the other side of Clay Matthews and made an instant impact against the Jets on Sunday.
Zombo had 5 tackles for the game, including stripping Brad Smith inside the Green Bay 30-yard-line to take a potential score off the board for the Jets in a game where points were at a premium. The rookie linebacker flew around the field and his non-stop motor was on display the entire game.
Zombo was seen as a tweener by many scouts heading into April’s draft; too small to play defensive end and too slow to play linebacker. But he plays with a tenacity and determination that makes him easy to root for on the field and with continued hard work, Zombo may be able to turn himself into more than just a backup and special teamer at the NFL level.
Javier Arenas (CB-KC)
A second-round pick out of Alabama, the 5-9 Arenas has made an impact for the Chiefs in nickel packages and has come on since their Week 4 bye. After making just 3 tackles in the team’s first three games, Arenas has 13 tackles, a forced fumble and a passed defensed in the last four weeks.
Arenas’ lack of height and top-end speed will likely prevent him from ever starting at corner but his ability in the return game will be his niche in the NFL. He took over return duties from fellow rookie Dexter McCluster against the Bills, as McCluster was inactive with an ankle injury.
Arenas was a decorated punt returner with the Crimson Tide, scoring four touchdowns in his final two collegiate seasons. He had 82 total return yards against Buffalo and if McCluster is forced to miss another week, Arenas will again pull double duty as the Chiefs’ nickel corner and primary returner.