This week’s rookie are a mixture of impressive and disappointing early-round picks, as well as more late-rounders and undrafted players who continue to take advantage of the opportunities they are given. Chris Tripodi breaks it all down in this week’s report.
Sam Bradford (QB-StL)
After throwing 8 interceptions in his first five career games, Bradford went four games without throwing a pick and set an NFL rookie record with 169 consecutive passes without an interception before being picked off late in this week’s game. While he continues to average less than 10 yards per completion, Bradford has been extremely efficient this season, completing over 60 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and just 9 interceptions in 10 games while working with very mediocre receivers.
It’s difficult to live up to the expectations of being the top overall pick, especially as a quarterback, but Bradford has done that and more. He’s taken a bad offense with one playmaker, running back Steven Jackson, and turned it into a unit that can move the ball down the field and stay competitive in games. Once the Rams surround him with more talented receivers and give him the green light to throw downfield, the sky is the limit for this former Oklahoma star as long as he stays healthy.
Donald Jones (WR-Buf)
Jones has seen extra playing time with Roscoe Parrish’s season-ending injury and took advantage this week with 5 receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown. The undrafted rookie out of Youngstown State did most of his damage in the two-minute offense at the end of the first half, catching 3 passes for 43 yards and a score. He caught all five passes thrown his way while his competition for playing time, fellow rookie David Nelson, was targeted just once by Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Jones improved steadily over his final two college seasons and at 6-0, 214 pounds, has nice size for a receiver. He’s smooth and fluid in his routes and has considerable upside for a player who went undrafted. His field awareness could use improvement and it wouldn’t be wise to expect performances like this on a weekly basis, but with the Bills passing game clicking right now Jones could continue to see a healthy number of targets as Fitzpatrick’s third option if he can hold off Nelson for reps out of the slot.
Blair White (WR-Ind)
Undrafted out of Michigan State, White got an opportunity this week once Austin Collie left the game with a head injury. With the Colts playing from behind against New England, White caught 5 passes for 42 yards and two touchdowns, one coming when he laid out nicely for a ball in the endzone.
White is a tough, smart receiver who we had rated as a fourth or fifth-round pick heading into the draft. He’s a one-speed receiver who lacks quickness off the line and out of his breaks but sells routes effectively and finds open spots on the field. Despite his lack of speed he can be very effective out of the slot, a role he will have to play while Collie is sidelined. His field awareness combined with Peyton Manning’s ability to find the open man are an ideal match; expect White to thrive in the third-receiver role until Collie returns.
Marc Mariani (WR-Ten)
Mariani was drafted in the seventh round out of Montana by the Titans and hasn’t caught a pass on offense this season. But he has made a big impact on Tennessee’s return game, returning a punt 87 yards for a touchdown this week against Washington for his second touchdown of the season, his first coming on a kickoff return earlier in the year against Denver.
With just 4.51 speed, most wouldn’t expect much out of Mariani as a returner. But he has great field awareness and showed it this week, effectively using his blocks in open space and showing the patience and vision with the balls in his hands to score untouched. For the season, he is averaging over 17 yards per punt return and over 26 yards per kick return and will continue to be a special teams asset for the Titans.
Michael Hoomanawanui (TE-StL)
The first pick of the fifth round out of Illinois, Hoomanawanui showed a strong early rapport with Sam Bradford in the preseason but missed four of the Rams’ first five games due to injury. He caught a career-high four passes for 46 yards and a touchdown this week despite continuing to split snaps with Daniel Fells and Billy Bajema at tight end.
Hoomanawanui’s poor 40-yard dash time of 4.75 caused many team to overlook him, but he is a solid pass catcher as well as a strong blocker. He won’t create mismatches in the secondary or make big plays downfield, but he is a complete tight end who can contribute blocking and in the short passing game. He has far more upside than his competition for playing time and should see more snaps as the season wears on, as he has been a favorite of Bradford’s since day one.
Sean Lee (LB-Dal)
Lee was named to several All-American team after a great junior season, but his 2008 season ended before it started due to a torn ACL. He never looked fully recovered the following season at Penn State, but Dallas picked Lee late in the second round in April. He saw extensive snaps in the second half of this week’s game and had 4 tackles, including a forced fumble that set the Cowboys up with a short field and led to a touchdown.
Lee was supposed to be the next great linebacker prospect out of Penn State before his injury. At his peak he’s extremely athletic, has great instincts and awareness and can play downhill or sideline-to-sideline. He has limited coverage skills and may be nothing more than a two-down NFL linebacker unless he improves in that area, but he has great upside as a run-stopper if he can return to pre-injury form.
Devin McCourty (CB-NE)
McCourty’s play through 11 weeks is one of the major reasons the Patriots are enjoying an 8-2 season. I wrote about him back in Week 1 when he did a nice job containing Terrell Owens, something other teams have struggled mightily with this season. McCourty had no interceptions in the season’s first five weeks but has three in his last five games, with two of those coming against the league’s elite – Philip Rivers in Week 7 and Peyton Manning last week.
McCourty has also done a very good job on special teams and has 20 tackles in the last three weeks. Firmly entrenched as New England’s top corner and a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, this first-round pick out of Rutgers continues to improve on a weekly basis and is proving to be a complete NFL corner more than halfway through his rookie season. Without him, New England’s young secondary would be in dire straits.
Chris Cook (CB-Min)
The Vikings second-round pick out of Virginia, Cook is one of the corners Minnesota has used opposite Antoine Winfield to replace the injured Cedric Griffin. That position has been a disaster all season for Minnesota and the story was no different against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay this past week. Rodgers picked on Cook relentlessly until he was benched in favor of Asher Allen, who proceeded to get beat multiple times for touchdowns by Greg Jennings.
Cook has the ability to start at the next level down the line, but it’s obvious he’s not ready yet. He is very indecisive in coverage and must improve his footwork to cover effectively down the field, allowing too many short passes as a result of playing too soft in coverage. His size (6-2, 212) allows him to be physical at the line and he has the speed to stay with receivers downfield, but he’ll need to develop his game further to be a viable NFL starter.