It took a couple games, but Draft Insider’s Chris Tripodi is back with his weekly installment of the NFL Rookie Report, which will evaluate the performances of select first-year players around the league.The first report of the year includes three top-five picks that are already making their presences felt for their respective teams along with a few mid-round picks who have been presented with opportunities to play early in their careers.
Cam Newton (QB-Car)
It wouldn’t be much of a Rookie Report if April’s top overall pick wasn’t mentioned, especially when that player ended up in the record books after his first career start.
Newton, who won the Heisman Trophy last season while leading Auburn to a national championship, shined in his NFL debut against an inept Arizona secondary, throwing for a rookie-record 422 yards and two touchdowns while adding another on the ground. Newton upped the ante in his encore performance against the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, throwing for 432 yards and rushing for another 53, becoming just the seventh player in NFL history to throw for 400 yards in consecutive games.
It wasn’t all good for Newton against Green Bay as he fizzled after an early touchdown pass, throwing three interceptions and blowing a 13-0 lead as Green Bay’s defense made the necessary adjustments to keep him out of the endzone. Despite racking up insane numbers through the air, Newton’s Panthers head into Week 3 with an 0-2 record.
While the Panthers most likely expected to start winless, they have to be encouraged with what they’ve seen from Newton. Nobody questioned his talent coming out of college, but Newton wasn’t asked to play much under center in Auburn’s spread system. He has adjusted quicker than anybody thought and really displayed his athleticism and arm strength in the first two weeks. Look no further than his deep throw to Steve Smith late in the Packers game, where he stepped up in the pocket and rifled a pass 60 yards in the air between two defenders for a completion.
Newton will continue to make his share of big plays as well as mistakes, especially if the Panthers keep letting him throw the ball 40 times per game. But he’s a special talent who has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. After watching his first two games, it may happen a lot sooner than most thought.
Andy Dalton (QB-Cin)
Four quarterbacks were drafted in the first round of April’s draft, but Dalton wasn’t one of them. An early second-round pick out of TCU, Dalton is the only rookie besides Cam Newton starting for his team. The similarities don’t end there, as Dalton has set a record of his own in his first two starts.
After leaving the Bengals’ season opener with a wrist injury, Dalton returned to start on Sunday and threw for a franchise rookie record 332 yards. Overall, he was 27-for-41 with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a very impressive performance. If his first two career games are any indication, the Bengals won’t miss Carson Palmer very much.
With accuracy and poise beyond his years, Dalton shredded a Broncos secondary that was missing top cornerback Champ Bailey. Like Newton, Dalton had his share of doubters heading into the season, mostly due to his team situation.
But Dalton has teamed up with fellow rookie A.J. Green, second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham and 2010 late-season sensation Jerome Simpson to make the Bengals competent on offense, something few expected from such an inexperienced unit. With Cedric Benson able to handle 20 carries per game the Bengals should have respectable balance on offense and be able to move the ball effectively against most defenses.
Dalton may not have the physical skills of Palmer, Newton or even a few of the other quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, but the accuracy and intangibles we heard about leading up to the draft have been on display through his first two NFL games. Dalton was thought of by many, including us at Draft Insider, as nothing more than a potential game manager in the NFL. While that may still be the case, Dalton showed the ability to get the ball downfield and create big plays last week. He will only continue to become more comfortable with his young core of receivers and it’s possible that there may be more upside in Dalton’s right arm than many gave him credit for.
A.J. Green (WR-Cin)
Speaking of the Bengals, you can’t overlook the impact Green made on Sunday. For everything good I said about Dalton, 10 of his 27 completions on the day went to Green, who turned those receptions into 124 yards and a touchdown just a week after catching only one ball, a 41-yard touchdown from Bruce Gradkowski.
The expectations are high for Green after being drafted fourth overall and through two games he has given me no reason to think he can’t be a star in the NFL like he was at Georgia. He’s an explosive, well-rounded receiver with great size, hands and speed and the body control he displayed on his touchdown Sunday was impressive, reaching up for the ball along the sideline and somehow keeping his feet in bounds with very little room for error. Plays like that separate good players from All-Pros.
There are no holes in Green’s game outside of blocking in the running game, which can be improved through hard work if he so desires. Obviously his real impact will come in the passing game and Green’s talent, much like Newton’s, could eventually lead to him a perennial Pro Bowler. It may not happen this season, but it may not take much longer than that.
Denarius Moore (WR-Oak)
If my inaugural 2011 Rookie Report came after Week 1, Moore wouldn’t have even been in consideration for a write-up. The rookie fifth-round pick out of Tennessee was targeted just once in the Raiders’ opening week win over the Broncos, but injuries to Oakland’s top three receivers opened up an opportunity for the young speedster in Week 2.
Moore’s performance against Buffalo shows what happens when talent meets opportunity. Moore had 5 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown, none more impressive than his 50-yard touchdown grab deep down the middle to give Oakland the lead with just under four minutes to play. Moore beat two Buffalo defenders to a ball in the air, showing an impressive vertical leap as well as strong hands in traffic and impeccable timing to come down with one of the top catches of the week.
Little was expected from Moore after the draft but he had an impressive training camp and was lauded as the best receiver on the field by the Raiders’ coaching staff. Even when Jacoby Ford, Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey get healthy again, Oakland is going to have a tough time keeping Moore off the field. Combining 4.43 speed with long arms and impressive leaping ability, the former Volunteer is a big play waiting to happen. Everybody knows Al Davis loves speedy players.
Jabaal Sheard (DE-Cle)
All it took for Sheard to have a big week was a position switch. Used to playing on the left side at Pittsburgh, Sheard started at right end in Week 1 and made 3 tackles for a loss. It was a solid start, no doubt, but Sheard’s encore was even better.
Left end Jayme Mitchell was moved to the right side so Sheard could play his more natural position and it paid dividends for the Browns in their win against the Colts. Sheard was stout against the run and had 5 tackles, including 2 for losses. He also lived in the Indianapolis backfield and made numerous big plays, including forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble and picking up his first career sack on Kerry Collins.
Although Mitchell is a prototypical run-stuffing left end at 6-6, 285 pounds, the Browns plan on keeping Sheard, the better pass rusher, on the left side to allow him to play his natural position and cause havoc. As long as Sheard is making big plays, expect this arrangement to remain intact. And if he can continue to be a disruptive force and rookie first-round tackle Phil Taylor develops, the Browns could be much improved along their defensive line in the near future.
Mason Foster (LB-TB)
After being drafted in the third round out of Washington, Foster made a name for himself in the preseason with a hard hit on Chad Ochocinco that drew a fine from the league office. Ochocinco himself praised the hit, calling it clean and offering to pay any fine Foster may draw from it.
After some preseason attention, the former Huskies linebacker has made himself known for other reasons through two weeks in 2011. He replaced free agent departure Barrett Ruud in the middle of the Tampa defense but despite starting in Week 1, his snaps were limited, particularly in nickel and dime situations. An injury to strong-side linebacker Quincy Black in Week 2 allowed Foster to see more reps on passing downs.
Foster responded to the increased playing time by recording 10 tackles (7 solo) including two for loss, forcing a fumble and sacking Donovan McNabb. He also played well in coverage and was a key component in Tampa Bay’s defensive resurgence in the second half Sunday against Minnesota.
Foster has enough versatility to play on the outside as well, but will continue to roam the middle of the Bucs’ 4-3. That’s a big responsibility for a third-round rookie but Foster has been more than up to the task through two weeks. Expect continued improvement from him as he gains experience and adds to the Bucs’ talented young nucleus on both sides of the football.
Ryan Kerrigan (LB-Was)
The Redskins drafted Kerrigan 16th overall out of Purdue and it didn’t take long for him to crack the starting lineup opposite Brian Orakpo. It also hasn’t taken him very long to make his presence felt in multiple ways as a 3-4 outside linebacker after playing as a 4-3 end with the Boilermakers.
Kerrigan broke a 14-14 tie early in the third quarter of Washington’s opening game against the Giants, deflecting an Eli Manning pass in the air, intercepting it deep in New York territory and returning it nine yards for a touchdown. It may seem like a fluky play to some, but Kerrigan came out of college with a reputation for being an intense pass rusher with a nonstop motor. Those are the types of scrappy, blue collar plays you can expect to see throughout Kerrigan’s career.
For an encore in Week 2, Kerrigan registered his first career sack while also making 3 tackles and holding his own in pass coverage. Kerrigan may lack the big-time upside of his teammate Orakpo but he’s fast off the edge, relentless in pursuit and known for being a hard worker. He could very well be the perfect complement to the former Texas star.
Patrick Peterson (CB-Ari)
Peterson is a player many thought was the best overall talent in the draft. We had him ranked second to Marcell Dareus here at Draft Insider, so the expectations are high for the LSU cornerback after he was taken fifth overall by the Cardinals.
Peterson made an immediate impact in Week 1, but as a returner rather than a cornerback. His 89-yard punt return in the fourth quarter put Arizona up 28-21 against Carolina and proved to be the game-winning score, atoning for a shaky game on defense where he was picked on by fellow rookie Cam Newton and beat on numerous occasions by Steve Smith, who finished with 178 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Santana Moss didn’t have a day as big as Smith’s in Week 2 but Moss still caught 5 passes for 61 yards and a 19-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-three. It’s unfair to judge Peterson’s future after his first two games against solid veteran receivers, especially as he gets used to the speed and physicality of the NFL as a corner that likes to mix it up with his opponents.
Peterson’s upside is that of not only a shutdown corner, but a game-breaker on special teams as well. He could serve to improve his footwork and polish off his already well-rounded game, but he’s one of the better athletes in the draft and I expect improvement as the season goes along, much like Joe Haden last season in Cleveland.