With a limited amount of new rookies making a big impact in Week 13, Chris Tripodi returns to break down their successes and revisit some other higher-profile rookies who had impressive weeks after struggling at times this season.
John Skelton (QB-Ari)
A fifth-round pick out of Fordham, Skelton is likely to start this week with Max Hall lost for the season and Derek Anderson suffering a concussion in the team’s last game. Skelton was 3-for-6 for 45 yards in limited action last week, once both Anderson and Hall were knocked out of the game. According to Coach Ken Whisenhunt, Skelton could be the right fit for Arizona’s offense right now but he is “by no means” ready to be a starting NFL quarterback.
Skelton has a big arm but faced a lower level of competition in college. He was seen as a project heading into April’s draft; the kind of prospect that could pay dividends down the line but needed a few years to be developed as a professional quarterback. That timetable has been accelerated due to injuries and it will be interesting to see if Skelton can ignite a struggling Cardinals offense against a porous Denver pass defense.
James Starks (RB-GB)
The Packers coaching staff loves this sixth-round pick out of Buffalo and at 6-2, 218 pounds, Starks can give Green Bay the inside running game they had before Ryan Grant was lost for the season. He made his season debut on Sunday and was only supposed to see 8-10 carries. But Starks improved as the game went along and seems to have quickly earned the trust of the Green Bay brass, as he ended up with 18 carries for 73 yards compared to just 4 carries for starter Brandon Jackson.
Packers running backs coach and former Packer running back Edgar Bennett called Starks an every-down back that has the talent to stay on the field in every situation. Starks is a strong runner who falls forward and is patient setting up his blocks. He has impressive footwork, the ability to make quick moves in small spaces and the receiving skills to see third-down action as well. He’s not a burner, but the coaching staff loves him and he’s a better fit than Jackson as Green Bay’s featured back down the stretch.
Aaron Hernandez (TE-NE)
After catching fewer than 4 passes just twice in his first eight career games, Hernandez caught just two balls over the past three weeks leading up to New England’s Monday Night matchup with the Jets while Rob Gronkowski emerged with two 5-catch games and a 3-touchdown performance. But Monday night against the Jets man coverage schemes, it was Hernandez who made more plays.
Hernandez had 6 catches for 101 yards against the Jets in Week 2 and added 3 receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown this week. He was quiet early as Tom Brady was able to involve his receivers more but had a 35-yard catch-and-run to go along with a short touchdown catch later in the game. Hernandez and Gronkowski will continue to be hit-or-miss while splitting time, but Hernandez’s speed and open-field running ability will continue to make him a matchup nightmare for teams that play man-to-man defense.
Joe Haden (CB-Cle)
Haden was named Defensive Rookie of the Month for November, a month that saw the first-rounder out of Florida rack up 3 interceptions and 7 pass breakups. He continued his strong play Sunday against Miami, adding another interception and 4 breakups to go with 6 tackles.
Haden was excellent in coverage all game, staying with the Dolphins receivers out of their breaks and making countless impressive plays on the ball. His one interception came on a play where he was beat down the sideline by Brian Hartline, but an underthrown ball from Chad Henne allowed Haden to recover and come underneath Hartline for the pick.
Haden was making just his third career start and while Miami’s receivers are nothing to write home about without Brandon Marshall, Haden was able to hold his own on the outside. He also showed his ability to come up and stop the run around the line of scrimmage. When I wrote about Haden earlier this season it was to document his early struggles; now his continued improvement throughout the season should make him a fixture in the Browns starting lineup for years.
Eric Berry (S-KC)
Like Haden, Berry is another rookie drafted in the top 10 who had his share of early-season issues. Berry was beat constantly in coverage in the first few weeks, but has improved in that area as the season has gone on and has started to add the big plays that the Chiefs and many others expected out of him.
In his last seven games, Berry has 42 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble and is doing a great job in run support and creating turnovers. The Chiefs are looking good at 8-4 atop the AFC West and Berry is part of the reason for their improvement on the defensive side of the football. It will be interesting to see how he handles playing in a playoff atmosphere, but all recent signs say the rookie out of Tennessee should thrive the rest of the way.
Nate Allen (S-Phi)
Allen got off to a quick start as the Eagles starting strong safety with 15 tackles, 3 interceptions and a sack in his first four career games. His production has tailed off since then but he rebounded with his best game in months in Week 13, recording 4 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
Allen has been up-and-down in his rookie season, but he has shown the ability to play centerfield, rush the passer and make plays against the run around the line of scrimmage. Combine Allen’s play with the lack of success Donovan McNabb has had with the Redskins and the resurgence of Michael Vick, and the Eagles trade of McNabb for the second-round pick they used to acquire Allen looks great. He’s still raw and inconsistent at times but looks like a player who will be a solid starting safety.
Stevie Brown (S-Oak)
A late seventh-round pick from Michigan who has been used mostly on special teams, Brown saw work in the secondary against San Diego on Sunday with Nnamdi Asomugha and Tyvon Branch playing at less than 100 percent. Brown had five tackles and a pass defensed in what was his best performance of the season.
At just 6-0, 215 pounds, Brown was an undersized linebacker for the Wolverines who also saw time at safety. His uncertain role in college stunted his development as a defensive back but the Raiders hope that with a more defined role he can be a key reserve at the back end of their defense. A hard-hitter who plays well in the box, Brown lacks the speed (4.55) and closing burst to make plays on the football in the secondary despite solid instincts. As a result, he probably won’t develop into an NFL starter but he can definitely be an impact reserve and special teamer.
Clint Stitser (K-Cin)
The Fresno State rookie debuted as the Bengals kicker this week replacing Aaron Pettrey, who was cut after missing two easy kicks in his two games replacing Mike Nugent. Despite missing an extra point, Stitser made all three of his field goal attempts, two inside 30 yards and one 47-yarder that gave Cincinnati a lead they would soon relinquish.
Stitser didn’t last long while trying out for the Jets in the offseason and if you can’t beat out Nick Folk for a starting kicking job, I’m not sure how long you can last as an NFL starter. Stitser converted less than 70 percent of his field goals during his final two college seasons and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled enough to force Cincinnati to make another move for a kicker before season’s end.