With many teams out of playoff contention or locked into their seeds Week 17 saw many starters rested, which gave backup rookies a chance to shine in the regular season’s final week. Chris Tripodi tells you which rookies may have earned themselves a larger role next season in his final Rookie Report of the 2010-11 NFL season.
Joe McKnight (RB-NYJ)
The Jets expected more out of McKnight this season after drafting him in the fourth round and cutting the resurgent Danny Woodhead early in the season, but the former USC star had just 7 carries before this week. Getting the start with LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene resting, McKnight went off against the Bills porous defense with 32 carries for 158 yards on the ground and added 2 receptions for 15 yards.
His size (5-11, 205) will prevent him from ever being a workhorse at the NFL level, but McKnight has a similar skill set to another USC running back, Reggie Bush. While McKnight is not as fast, quick or talented as Bush, both have the ability to impact a game running, receiving and returning. A lack of focus, discipline and blocking ability has kept McKnight in the doghouse for most of his rookie season but if he can put everything together, he has the ability to be a solid complement to Greene once Tomlinson’s days in New York are done.
John Connor (FB-NYJ)
A fifth-round pick out of Kentucky, Connor is more well-known for the high praise he received from Jets coaches during the HBO special “Hard Knocks” than for any of his play this season. He has spent most of the year behind veteran Tony Richardson on the depth chart but like McKnight, saw playing time for New York in their meaningless Week 17 blowout of the Bills.
Connor carried 8 times for 44 yards including a 16-yard touchdown that almost ended in a fumble at the one-inch line. In the team’s previous 15 games, Connor had no carries and just 2 receptions. His game is predicated on blocking inside the hole and while he may never see another 8-carry game in his career, he should be the Jets’ starter and a bruising interior blocker once Richardson retires, which could be as early as next season.
Dezmon Briscoe (WR-TB)
Briscoe is the third Tampa Bay rookie receiver to make the reports after Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. With Benn on injured reserve, Briscoe was active in Week 17 and played a big part in the Bucs’ victory over the Saints. He caught 4 passes for 65 yards, including an early two-yard touchdown and a late 54-yard bomb that set Tampa Bay up for a field goal to ice the game.
With Benn’s status for the start of next season in doubt, Briscoe will have a chance to compete for a job in the offseason. He has nice size at 6-2, 210 pounds and displayed the speed to get downfield on Sunday. Briscoe has impressed the Tampa Bay coaching staff and a strong offseason may put him in position to start alongside Williams, especially if Benn isn’t 100 percent.
Chad Hall (WR-Phi)
Undrafted out of Air Force, Hall stepped in for the resting Eagles’ starters and had a big day with 6 receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown. Hall and Kevin Kolb have obviously developed chemistry working with the backups in practice and it showed on Sunday against Dallas.
At 5-8, 187 pounds with average speed, Hall will likely never be an impact receiver at the NFL level. But he showed good hands and the ability to work the middle of the field and may have earned himself a 2011 roster spot with his performance this week.
Clay Harbor (TE-Phi)
Like Hall, Harbor was another beneficiary of the Eagles’ meaningless Week 17 matchup with the Cowboys. With Brent Celek getting the day off, Harbor had a team-high nine targets and caught 4 passes for 32 yards. He handled himself well on the field, outside of a terrible drop on a deep pass in the second half.
A fourth-round pick out of Missouri State, Harbor lacks strength at 6-3, 252 pounds which limits his ability as a blocker. He lacks top-end speed to stretch the field but his athleticism and natural receiving skills should make him a candidate for the Eagles second tight end spot next season, especially with Cornelius Ingram’s career in jeopardy due to injuries.
Rolando McClain (LB-Oak)
McClain struggled through Oakland’s first 10 games, recording zero games with more than 7 tackles. But the 8th pick in the draft out of Alabama picked up his play in his final five games and made 7 or more tackles in four of those contests, giving the Raiders hope the he will start 2011 much stronger than he started 2010.
Coming out of a 3-4 at Alabama, McClain’s adjustment to the Raiders’ 4-3 wasn’t easy. With 4.74 speed he lacks the pursuit ability and sideline-to-sideline range of a prototypical 4-3 inside linebacker and his real strength lies in playing downhill against the run. McClain is as sure-handed a tackler as you will find and once he further adjusts to manning the middle of a 4-3 defense, he should continue to improve and become the impact player most experts thought he could be this season. His adjustment period just may take longer than expected.
Navorro Bowman (LB-SF)
Patrick Willis’ injury opened the door for the third-round pick out of Penn State to get a Week 17 start and Bowman responded with 8 tackles (6 solo). An outside linebacker with the Nittany Lions, Bowman has been backing up Willis and Takeo Spikes on the inside this season as well as seeing time on special teams.
At 6-0, 242 pounds, Bowman is undersized on the inside but makes up for it with good quickness and sideline-to-sideline range. He’s effective in coverage and great in pursuit but is not a dynamic pass rusher, which limits what San Francisco can do with him in their 3-4 alignment. If Bowman can add bulk in the next few seasons he could stick on the inside; if not, he may be a better fit on the weak side of a 4-3 where he can play to his strengths and chase down plays from behind.
T.J. Ward (S-Cle)
Ward was much maligned when the Browns drafted him with the sixth pick in the second round in April, but his play has placed him firmly in the discussion for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Starting from day one in Cleveland, Ward piled up 22 tackles and a forced fumble in his first two career games and hasn’t slowed down at all.
Ward finished the year with 123 tackles to lead all rookies, as no other first-year defender hit triple digits. Ward added 2 interceptions and a forced fumble and was a rock on the back line of Cleveland’s defense all season. Along with rookie corner Joe Haden, Ward looks like a mainstay in the Browns secondary for years to come.