Week 14 of the NFL season saw many first-year players foreign to the average fan make an impact on the field. Chris Tripodi also checks in with a few more well-known rookies who continue to play key roles on their teams.
Arrelious Benn (WR-TB)
The second-round pick out of Illinois has been quiet this season but had a breakout game against Washington this week, catching a career-high four passes for 122 yards. The Tampa Bay coaching staff said this week they were looking for ways to get Benn more involved after using him on end arounds and screens last week and while he was targeted just four times, he made the most of his opportunities.
Benn beat Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall on a go-route for a 64-yard gain and also made a diving 43-yard catch that got the Bucs down to the 1-yard-line, where they proceeded to fumble on the next play. Benn’s combination of size (6-2, 220), 4.45 speed and ability with the ball in his hands should make him a useful weapon for the Bucs down the stretch and he has a lot of potential for the future.
Rob Gronkowski (TE-NE)
Another week, another New England tight end doing big things in a blowout win. Gronkowski had five catches for 43 yards and his 7th touchdown of the season in New England’s 36-7 road thrashing of the Bears, while fellow rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez had just 2 catches for 19 yards.
New England has been using both of their tight ends rather equally all season, as Hernandez has 10 more catches for 167 more yards but 3 fewer touchdowns. Gronkowski continued his recent roller coaster ride, alternating 5-catch games with 1-catch games. It may be difficult to figure out which tight end New England will feature from week-to-week, but both will continue to be heavily involved in the Patriots gameplan as the season continues.
Daryl Washington (LB-Ari)
After 42 tackles in his first six career games, Washington found himself on the bench once Gerald Hayes was activated from the PUP list after offseason back surgery. But with Hayes a healthy inactive for Sunday’s game against Denver, Washington got his first start since Week 7 and capitalized with 8 tackles (6 solo), an interception he returned 39 yards and 2 passes defensed.
Hayes’ struggles in his last few games paved the way for the speedy Washington to return to the starting lineup, along with the Cardinals overall struggles as a team, as they lost seven straight heading into Sunday. After his Week 14 performance, Washington should remain in the starting lineup for the rest of the season and continue to solidify his reputation as a player who consistently improves on a week-to-week basis.
Arthur Moats (LB-Buf)
Antonio Coleman’s injury opened up playing time for the sixth-round pick out of James Madison and Moats delivered. A defensive end in college who had 23.5 sacks in his final two seasons at JMU, Moats saw action on third downs and created a big turnover for the Bills in the fourth quarter.
Standing up over left tackle Joe Thomas, Moats engaged the Pro Bowler and beat Thomas with a swim move to the outside. Then he knocked the ball out of Jake Delhomme’s hand as he was throwing. The ball was scooped up by the Bills and would’ve been returned for a touchdown had the refs not ruled it incomplete on the field. But a challenge reversed the call and give Buffalo the ball in field goal range to take a 13-6 lead.
Former first-round pick Aaron Maybin was also supposed to see more time due to Coleman’s injury, but it was the small-school sixth-rounder who was on the field making plays instead. Moats should continue to see time in pass-rushing situations but his lack of great size (6-2, 250) and inexperience playing in reverse might limit him to third-down duty in the NFL.
Jamar Chaney (LB-Phi)
With Stewart Bradley out for the season, the seventh-round pick out of Mississippi State will take over in the middle for the Eagles. He led the team with 7 tackles (5 solo) once he replaced Bradley on Sunday night and had already been cutting into Bradley’s playing time before the injury. Now he will get an opportunity to start for the rest of the season.
We had Chaney rated as a second-to-third prospect and his athleticism, size (6-0, 242) and 4.55 speed makes him an intriguing rookie to watch. Known as a hard worker, Chaney is a potential three-down linebacker thanks to his coverage skills and is a disciplined and explosive hard-hitter. If he can put everything together for the rest of the season, Chaney might make it difficult for the Eagles to take him out of the starting lineup next year when Bradley is healthy.
Darryl Sharpton (LB-Hou)
The fourth-round pick out of Miami saw extensive action on the weak side this week against the Ravens at the expense of starter Zac Diles. Sharpton finished the game with more tackles than Diles (6 to 4) and added a third-quarter sack that helped stall a Ravens drive and set the Texans up to mount one of the more impressive late-game comebacks in recent memory.
Sharpton started his final two seasons at Miami but his game leveled off and he went from a potential top prospect to a fourth-rounder. He doesn’t have ideal size (5-11, 248) to play in the middle but his overall athleticism makes him a solid prospect on the weak side. However, he lacks the coverage skills you would expect from a smaller linebacker, struggles to shed blocks and isn’t the strongest tackler. He played well this week, but will need to continue to improve his game if he wants to be a starter in the NFL.
Alterraun Verner (CB-Ten)
The Titans’ fourth-round pick out of UCLA continues to start opposite Cortland Finnegan and while the stats from this week look good with 10 tackles, Verner struggled in coverage. Peyton Manning threw at Verner seven times on Thursday night and completed all seven passes in what amounted to Verner’s worst day as a pro.
Verner has been playing since the early weeks of the season and while he’s good in run support and puts up impressive tackle numbers, he has broken up just 10 passes all season and none in the past three weeks. Many of those tackles have come after allowing a completion and Verner’s struggles have been part of the reason Tennessee’s secondary is one of the league’s worst. If he can’t adjust to the size, speed and overall ability of NFL receivers he may be destined for nickel and dime work throughout his career.
Darian Stewart (S-StL)
An undrafted rookie out of South Carolina, Stewart has seen action on special teams and in the secondary recently with the Rams’ starting safeties missing time and snaps with. This week Stewart also saw snaps late in St. Louis’ blowout loss to New Orleans, picking up a sack and recovering a fumble.
Stewart is a run-defending safety who lacks speed to the flanks and ability in man coverage. He’s aggressive coming up the field and on the blitz and has a good straight-line burst and strong wrap-up tackling ability. His skill set limits him to conventional strong-safety duties in a zone system and special teams work and if he can continue to make plays in a limited role, Stewart should see more of the field down the stretch as the Rams make a playoff push.