Rusty Smith (QB-Ten)
On last week’s podcast Smith was discussed and I mentioned that he might be better off turning and handing to Chris Johnson all day. But even that wasn’t an option against the Texans, who held Johnson to 5 yards on 7 carries and intercepted Smith three times while keeping Tennessee off the scoreboard all game. Smith, a sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, was hurt by 6 drops by Titans receivers, but still went just 17-for-31 for 138 yards on the day.
Two of Smith’s interceptions really hurt the Titans; one from his own endzone that led to a Houston touchdown and the other in Houston’s endzone that halted a potential scoring drive. If this is what Smith and the Tennessee offense looks like against the league’s worst pass defense, the rest of his tenure as Tennessee’s starter won’t be pretty to watch.
Toby Gerhart (RB-Min)
Gerhart saw extended action in Minnesota’s win over the Redskins on Sunday when an ankle injury forced Adrian Peterson to the sidelines. The second-rounder out of Stanford ran the ball 22 times for 76 yards and a touchdown as the Vikings made the running game a focus in their first game under new coach Leslie Frazier. He was a big part of the Vikings second-half gameplan and picked up two key first downs on the team’s final drive that kept the ball away from Donovan McNabb for the game’s final six minutes.
Gerhart is a powerful inside runner with great vision and instincts and the footwork to make defenders miss in small areas. He doesn’t have the speed to break away from defenders in the open field but adds pass-catching ability out of the backfield and if Peterson is forced to miss any games, Gerhart should be able to handle another big workload.
Anthony Dixon (RB-SF)
Another rookie running back who received an opportunity thanks to injury, the sixth-rounder out of Mississippi State had 14 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown while splitting time with Brian Westbrook (23 carries, 136 yards). Frank Gore’s season-ending hip injury should open the door for Dixon to receive more work, although Westbrook will likely shoulder the majority of the load for San Francisco.
Dixon led the league in rushing yardage in the preseason and his powerful inside running style will complement Westbrook’s skill set nicely and should give the 49ers two solid options to replace Gore’s production. Dixon lacks the speed and elusiveness of Westbrook but is perfectly suited for short-yardage and goal-line work as well as keeping the aging, injury-prone veteran fresh for the season’s final stretch. He has starting potential in the future and with Gore’s injury prone nature, that future could come sooner than many expect.
Marlon Moore (WR-Mia)
Brandon Marshall’s injury opened the door for the undrafted rookie receiver out of Fresno State to see reps as Miami’s third receiver on Sunday. While Moore had just 1 catch on 4 targets he made the most of it, taking it 57 yards down the sideline for his first career touchdown.
After a strong sophomore season Moore looked like an up-and-coming prospect but struggled with injuries and totaled just 38 catches in his final two seasons with the Bulldogs. His size (6-0, 190), speed (4.51) and athleticism make him an intriguing player to watch but he will have to improve his focus and awareness to stick as a fourth or fifth receiver in the NFL.
Maurkice Pouncey (C-Pit)
It’s rare to hear offensive lineman thrown into the mix for Rookie of the Year honors but Pouncey was Brent Sobleski’s choice as of last week and has been discussed as a legitimate candidate in many circles. With injuries and inconsistency being the norm on Pittsburgh’s offensive line this year and over the past few seasons, the first-round pick out of Florida has been one of the few constants in the trenches for the Steelers.
Pouncey has the size and athleticism any team would want in their starting center. He also possesses great awareness, vision and blocking fundamentals and plays with a nasty attitude on the field. There’s good reason he was the highest-drafted center since Damien Woody in 1999 and Pouncey has made an impact from day one and should continue to develop into one of the league’s best centers.
Jason Pierre-Paul (DE-NYG)
When Pierre-Paul was drafted 15th overall out of South Florida, most thought he would be a project after playing just one season in college. He had just 11 tackles on the season before breaking out against Jacksonville this week with 8 tackles (6 solo), 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, both of which were recovered by Jaguars quarterback David Garrard and the second of which set up a long third-and-26 that led to Terrell Thomas’ game-clinching forced fumble on Garrard.
Pierre-Paul has the size (6-5, 270), growth potential and edge pass-rushing ability to be one of better defensive ends in football. His limited exposure to big-time competition in college will lead to inconsistencies until he can develop a wider array of pass-rush moves and learn to shed blocks quicker. If he can build on this performance and continue to take steps forward every week, it might only be a matter of time until he cashes in on his vast upside.
Dan Williams (DT-Ari)
Although Williams has been unable to beat out Bryan Robinson as Arizona’s starting nose tackle, coach Ken Whisenhunt has been pleased with his progression throughout the season. That improvement was evident on Monday night against San Francisco, when Williams had a career-high six tackles compared to Robinson’s two.
At 6-2, 327 pounds, the first-round pick out of Tennessee has prototypical nose tackle size and went from a free agent grade entering his senior season to a first-rounder in April. He has continued that development since joining the Cardinals and while he has marginal pass-rushing skills, he is very difficult to move off the line of scrimmage and has the potential to anchor the Cardinals’ interior defensive line for years to come.
Amari Spievey (S-Det)
A third-round pick out of Iowa, Spievey has been starting at strong safety for Detroit and had a huge game against New England on Thanksgiving Day, racking up a career-high 10 tackles (8 solo). In his past four games, he has 25 tackles and has distanced himself from former starter C.C. Brown.
A cornerback in college, Spievey has been great in run support around the line of scrimmage as a safety. He’s a physical player who works hard to get off blocks and make plays up the field. He has the size (5-11, 195) and skill set to stick at safety in the NFL or develop into a starting cornerback, and that versatility will serve him well in the future.