A couple rookie quarterbacks saw their first significant action of the season this week, while many other offensive rookies continue their impressive first-year production. Chris Tripodi will break down this week’s impact players.
Tim Tebow (QB-Den)
Tebow has seen sporadic playing time spelling Kyle Orton at the goalline this season but with Orton injured, Tebow got his first career start against the Raiders and played well. He completed just 8 of his 16 passes but accumulated 135 yards and a touchdown, which came on a deep ball that Tebow put between Raiders defenders to Brandon Lloyd in the back corner of the endzone as Lloyd made one of the spectacular catches we’ve become accustomed to seeing from him. Tebow also ran 8 times for 78 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown run where he broke numerous tackles on his way to paydirt.
Tebow’s performance has earned him the starting nod for Denver’s final two games, whether Orton is healthy or not. The Broncos called a very conservative game in his first start but with Knowshon Moreno’s status for Sunday against Houston uncertain, they may need to let Tebow shoulder more of the load against one of the league’s worst secondaries. His passing still needs work but one thing we know Tebow will do is work to improve each and every day. If he does that and can continue to progress as a passer, there may be a place for him at quarterback in the NFL after all.
Joe Webb (QB-Min)
Webb was slated to start all week with Brett Favre ruled out and Tarvaris Jackson placed on IR, but Favre was upgraded at the last minute and started Monday night’s game against the Bears. But Favre suffered a head injury in the second quarter that gave Webb the opportunity he was expecting all along. The sixth-rounder out of UAB struggled against a tough Bears defense, going 15-for-26 for 129 yards and 2 interceptions while adding 38 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
The 6-4, 220-pound Webb was drafted by the Vikings with the intentions to play him at receiver but he has been working at quarterback this season and injuries paved the way for him to play. His ability to escape the rush and improvise on the run was on display a handful of times against the Bears, both passing and running. Like Tebow, Webb has a lot of work to do on his mechanics and accuracy but he showed ability on Monday night. He should start for Minnesota in the final two games and his performance may decide whether the Vikings draft a quarterback next year and if so, how early they do.
LeGarrette Blount (RB-TB)
Since taking over starting duties for Cadillac Williams, Blount has rushed for 675 yards and 5 touchdowns on 143 carries in eight games for Tampa Bay. With three running backs taken in the first round this year, it has been the undrafted Blount who leads rookies in rushing this season. Blount topped the 100-yard mark for the third time this season and the second in his last three games with 110 yards and a touchdown against Detroit on Sunday.
Blount has been replaced at the goalline occasionally in recent weeks by Earnest Graham and has just 2 catches on the season, which has limited his impact. He was also absent on the Bucs’ final drive against the Lions due to ball security issues. While Blount has fumbled just twice this season, one came the week before against Washington and the coaching staff seems to lack confidence in his ability to hang onto the football at the moment. That will probably pass but it’s a legitimate question whether Blount will ever be a factor in the passing game. His bruising interior running style and deceptive athleticism means he should at least maintain a platoon role with a smaller, quicker back over his career.
Mike Williams (WR-TB)
It can be argued that Tampa Bay has seen the biggest impact from its rookie class in the NFL this season after the Patriots and this rookie could be the most important piece. After catching three passes or less in three of his last four games, Williams caught 6 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Lions on Sunday. The Bucs used pre-snap motion and even a screen pass to get the ball in the hands of their best playmaker, who is starting to draw more attention from opposing defenses thanks to a breakout rookie season.
After falling to the fourth round due to off-the-field issues stemming from his years at Syracuse, Williams has been the NFL’s best rookie receiver this season with 58 receptions, 880 yards and 8 touchdowns. He isn’t a burner but has enough speed to get separation from defensive backs, shows good hands and makes plays after the catch. He has the size and ability to consistently get open in the red zone and if he can move past his recent DWI and continue to improve his behavior off the field, his on-field performance will speak for itself.
Jimmy Graham (TE-NO)
Jeremy Shockey’s injury has opened the door for Graham to develop chemistry with Drew Brees. Even with Shockey back in the lineup, the third-round pick out of Miami has taken over as Brees’ top target at the tight end position. This week, he tied a career-high with 5 receptions for 29 yards and 2 touchdowns, one coming on a ridiculous one-handed grab along the sideline where Graham even had the awareness to stretch for the pylon after the grab. He was targeted 7 times compared to 6 for Shockey but was much more productive, as Shockey caught just 3 passes for 26 yards.
A former basketball player, Graham has the kind of playmaking talent that could make him a Pro Bowler at some point in his career. At 6-6, 260 pounds he has the size to outmuscle defensive backs and is too athletic for linebackers. He attacks the ball in the air, shows strong hands and has already gained the confidence of Brees. Graham was considered a project coming out of Miami but has contributed much more than most would’ve expected him to and if he continues his improvement, might be one of the league’s better tight ends in the near future.
Ed Dickson (TE-Bal)
With Todd Heap out, the third-round pick from Oregon started against the Saints and responded with his first career touchdown, a 34-yard catch where he leaked out of the backfield after staying in to pass protect and caught the New Orleans defense off guard. Dickson was targeted just twice on the day and caught both for 33 yards.
Dickson was an accomplished pass catcher at Oregon who runs well, gets into the secondary and is a solid route-runner. The Ravens haven’t used their tight ends much this season with the strong-armed Joe Flacco under center, but Dickson’s ability to get downfield could lead to him eventually taking over for the slower Heap. Until then, he will need to improve his strength and balance in the blocking game to stay on the field for the Ravens, who tend to keep their tight ends in to block often.
Pat Angerer (LB-Ind)
Since his first start in Week 6 against Washington, Angerer has three double-digit tackle performances to his credit. This week against Jacksonville he led the Colts defense with 8 tackles (6 solo), bouncing back from his worst performance of the season against Tennessee where he had just 2 tackles.
Angerer has played well in his first year, racking up impressive tackle numbers. The question with him has never been his tackling ability, rather whether his lack of prototypical size (6-0, 235) and speed (4.77) would prevent him from being an effective 4-3 middle linebacker. With the return of Gary Brackett three weeks ago, Angerer has been playing on the strong side and seems like a much better fit there in the long run. But whenever Brackett moves on, the Colts may opt to move Angerer back inside to fill in.
Devin McCourty (CB-NE)
The first-round pick from Rutgers continues to impress and has been a big part of the Patriots’ 12-2 start. McCourty was a game-time decision after being limited all week by a rib injury but had one of his best games of the season despite not intercepting a pass.
McCourty made 10 tackles (7 solo) including his first career sack and also defended a pass. While he was beat by James Jones on his 66-yard touchdown catch from Matt Flynn, his coverage was decent but Flynn beat him with a perfect throw after Jones got early separation on a stop-and-go. McCourty might have made the tackle and prevented the touchdown if it weren’t for Brandon Meriweather taking a poor angle and knocking McCourty out of the play.
McCourty also showed he can hit with the best, as his inadvertent helmet-to-helmet hit on Andrew Quarless resulted in a flag and a likely fine. It was a great hit regardless and one in which McCourty led with his shoulder rather than his head, but got flagged anyway after a long conference. McCourty has had an excellent rookie season and looks ready to be a big contributor to New England’s playoff run.