A few new rookies emerged onto the scene in Week 16, seeing increased playing time thanks to injuries and blowouts. Other high-round picks also made noise, some who have been impact players since Week 1. Chris Tripodi returns with another set of rookies in his second-to-last report of the season.
Ryan Mathews (RB-SD)
The Chargers’ first-round pick out of Fresno State has had an injury-plagued rookie season, but it was neck and shoulder injuries to Mike Tolbert that have opened up the job for Mathews once again. Mathews was featured once Tolbert left at the end of the first quarter and ran for 55 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, also adding 3 receptions for 28 yards as the Chargers were playing from behind.
With Tolbert ruled out for Week 17, Mathews will be San Diego’s feature back against a porous Denver run defense. Mathews hasn’t topped 19 carries or 75 rushing yards all season but he could be in line for 20-plus carries and a big day on the ground against the Broncos. A good game from Mathews in Week 17 could certainly go a long way towards regaining the trust of the coaching staff and building his own confidence heading into next season.
Andre Roberts (WR-Ari)
I reported on Roberts a few months ago after he caught his first career touchdown, but he has been buried behind Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet on the Cardinals’ depth chart since. But with Doucet being placed on IR due to a hip injury, Roberts slid into the third-receiver role for the Cardinals this week and posted his first career 100-yard receiving game, making 5 receptions for 110 yards and his second career touchdown.
Roberts was targeted nine times by rookie quarterback John Skelton and the two players looked comfortable with each other from a season’s worth of backup reps in practice. Roberts is a talented and surprisingly polished rookie who should be able to build on his big week and develop further with Skelton at quarterback. With Breaston in the final year of his contract and Doucet coming off an injury, Roberts may be a sleeper to open next season as Arizona’s second receiver behind Fitzgerald.
Naaman Roosevelt (WR-Buf)
With Lee Evans and David Nelson both out with injuries, the Bills turned to the undrafted rookie out of Buffalo as their third receiver and he responded with 4 catches for 74 yards. He made a few nice grabs over the middle late in the game when New England was playing soft coverage with the game well in hand.
Roosevelt lacks the size (6-0, 190) and speed (4.65) to be a starting receiver in the NFL, but he’s a good route-runner and a sure-handed receiver who can make difficult catches in traffic. If he continues to see playing time and develop on the field, he should be able to make himself into a solid fourth or fifth receiver as a pro.
Jermaine Gresham (TE-Cin)
After a monster Week 10 performance (9 receptions, 85 yards and a touchdown), the Bengals’ first-round pick out of Oklahoma had been rather quiet with just 8 catches in his next five games. But with Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens out with injuries, Gresham saw more targets from Carson Palmer and had 4 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown as Cincinnati dashed the Chargers’ playoff hopes at home.
With Owens unlikely to be re-signed and Ochocinco’s future with the team uncertain, Gresham could become a much bigger part of the Bengals’ passing game next season. Without Owens and Ochocinco, the Bengals will head into the season with an extremely young receiving corps. Gresham could provide a legitimate downfield threat from the tight end position without Owens and Ochocinco dominating the deep looks. With 52 catches and 4 touchdowns this season as an afterthought in Cincinnati’s offense, imagine what kind of numbers Gresham could post as one of Carson Palmer’s top targets.
Ndamukong Suh (DT-Det)
Suh is looking like the frontrunner for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year with one week to play and rightfully so. His 9 sacks this season lead all NFL defensive tackles and he is already considered the best player at his position in some circles. Whether or not he’s the best defensive tackle in the game right now, there seems to be no question that Suh will be down the line and possibly as early as next season. He is simple a phenomenal athlete along the defensive line.
Devin McCourty, Eric Berry and Joe Haden might make a run at this award too, especially McCourty, but I don’t see any of them overtaking Suh, who has 59 tackles this season including 15 for loss. The scary thing is that the second overall pick out of Nebraska will only continue to improve and if he does, he could end up in the Hall of Fame. If any of these players win the award, it will be the first time since Julius Peppers in 2002 that it will be awarded to a non-linebacker.
Linval Joseph (DT-NYG)
The Giant’s second-round pick out of East Carolina, Joseph has been active in just four games this season as New York’s defensive line has been the team’s strength. But an injury to Dave Tollefson opened up more backup reps for Joseph, who took advantage in Sunday’s blowout loss to Green Bay with 5 solo tackles, all coming in the fourth quarter.
Like first-round pick Jason Pierre-Paul, Joseph fell into a great situation with the Giants. Both are raw athletes with upside that need time to develop their game, and learning behind the Giants’ starters will only accelerate that development. Joseph has the size (6-4, 328) and athleticism to eventually start, as he powers through blocks and shows an impressive closing burst for a big man. Once he works on staying low and develops better hand moves, his upside makes him an intriguing player for the Giants in the future.
Kyle Love (DT-NE)
Undrafted out of Mississippi State, Love saw time in the defensive line rotation in New England’s blowout win over the Bills on Sunday and recorded the first sack of his career on Ryan Fitzpatrick in the third quarter.
Love is stuck behind Vince Wilfork at nose tackle on New England’s depth chart and unless an injury befalls the Pro Bowler, Love will remain a backup. But at 6-1, 310 pounds, he has enough size to clog up the middle if something does happen to Wilfork.
O’Brien Schofield (LB-Ari)
With Joey Porter missing Sunday’s game due to a triceps injury, the fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin got a chance to start in Porter’s stead. Schofield didn’t record a tackle before leaving in the second quarter with a groin injury, but later returned and came up with a third-down sack early in the fourth to stall a Cowboys drive that reached midfield.
A defensive end with the Badgers, Schofield was second in the NCAA in tackles for a loss as a senior before tearing a knee ligament during Senior Bowl practices. An explosive speed rusher off the edge, his stock was on the rise before his injury. At 6-3, 230 pounds he struggles at the point of attack but if his speed returns to pre-injury levels, he has the potential to develop into a talented pass rusher at the NFL level.