This week’s Rookie Report features a few first- and second-round picks on both sides of the ball, but also highlights the unheralded performances of rookies drafted in the late rounds or not at all. Draft Insider’s Chris Tripodi has the story from Week 3 around the NFL.
Blaine Gabbert (QB-Jac)
After receiving garbage-time reps against the Jets to clean up the mess Luke McCown got Jacksonville into, the Jaguars’ first-round pick out of Missouri got his first career start on Sunday. Coincidentally, it came against fellow rookie Cam Newton, who had thrown for a total of 856 yards in his first two career games.
The weather conditions were far from ideal for either quarterback, as torrential downpours made their way into the Charlotte area. It was a sloppy game from the start and Gabbert was a victim; he threw the game’s lone interception and fumbled three times, although he didn’t lose any of them.
Overall, Gabbert completed 12-of-21 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, but 36 of those yards and the only touchdown came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half to Mike Thomas, who seems to have a knack for catching long passes at the end of halves. If you take away that play, Gabbert completed just 11-of-20 passes for 103 yards, with only four of those 11 going to wide receivers.
That stat may be misleading, as Jacksonville can rival the Rams for the NFL’s worst receiving group and Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis are inviting targets for any quarterback. It’s also tough to judge Gabbert’s play thanks to the weather conditions, as he was considered by many the most accurate quarterback in this year’s draft class.
I find it difficult to make too much of Gabbert’s debut either way. He’s definitely a work in progress, coming out of a spread system at Missouri and needing improvement on his footwork and more consistency in his throwing mechanics. He should remain the starter in Jacksonville for the remainder of the season and he will definitely find his way onto a report later in the season, when we have multiple game tapes to make an accurate assessment.
Daniel Thomas (RB-Mia)
For all the preseason hoopla over Reggie Bush being the Dolphins’ featured back this season, that lasted just a week. And that was Week 1, when Thomas didn’t play due to a hamstring injury.
Over the past two weeks, a healthy Thomas has 41 carries for 202 yards and 4 receptions for 37 yards, compared to 16 carries for 31 yards and 2 receptions for 15 yards for Bush. I think it’s safe to say that Thomas is the lead back this offense needs after letting both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams leave via free agency in the offseason.
At 6-0, 230 pounds, Thomas is a bruising downhill runner who does his best work between the tackles. A late second-round pick out of Kansas State, he combines good vision with the consistent ability to drive his shoulder into tacklers and fall forward for extra yards after initial contact. Thomas timed out at just a 4.55 40-yard dash at the combine, but has the shown the ability to get off tackle as well, where he is a load for opposing corners to bring down.
Thomas is no game-breaker and runs very upright, which has led to durability issues in the past. His early injury issues were worrisome, as he had similar issues with his hamstring in the offseason. But if Thomas can remain healthy, he could average close to 20 carries a game this season and lead all rookies in rushing.
Torrey Smith (WR-Bal)
An injury to Lee Evans opened up a starting spot for Smith opposite Anquan Boldin and the speedy second-round rookie out of Maryland made the most of it. In the first quarter against the Rams, Smith caught his first three career passes. They all went for touchdowns.
On his first two receptions, Smith burned the Rams secondary on deep routes for 74 yards and 41 yards, showing off his 4.4 speed and game-breaking ability. His third touchdown showed off other talents, as Smith beat his man off the line and skied to grab an 18-yard fade from Joe Flacco, showing great body control on the play. He caught just two passes the rest of the game, but still put up a monster 5-reception, 152-yard, 3-touchdown day.
At 6-1, 204 pounds, Smith can be so much more than just a true burner. He has the height and vertical leaping ability to be a factor in the red zone, which gives him the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Combine his skill set with the strong-armed Flacco and you have the match made in heaven that many expected Lee Evans to be when he was traded from the Bills.
This performance came out of nowhere for most observers, but Jim Harbaugh said Smith was catching everything thrown his way in practice and had already developed the trust of Flacco. Lee Evans may not get his starting job back when he returns from his ankle injury.
Smith’s route-running is still a work in progress and he will have the occasional concentration lapse in his first season, but he has the talent to be a game-breaker in the mold of DeSean Jackson and Mike Wallace. Flacco-to-Smith might become a household connection in the very near future.
Dane Sanzenbacher (WR-Chi)
Undrafted out of Ohio State, Sanzenbacher has found his niche as a slot receiver in Mike Martz’s offense. Earl Bennett’s injury issues have opened the door for Sanzenbacher to play a majority of the team’s offensive snaps over the past two weeks and the rookie has responded, catching 8 passes for 60 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The former Buckeye seems to have the trust of Jay Cutler, but that could also be a product of Chicago’s inability to protect their quarterback long enough for him to look downfield to his speedy receivers. Sanzenbacher was targeted 14 times in the past two games and while he had a couple of drops in Week 2, he bounced back against Green Bay to catch five of the seven passes thrown his way.
At 5-11, 182 pounds, Sanzenbacher has just average size and average speed (4.53 40-yard dash) which prevents him from successfully stretching the field. Despite his physical limitations, Sanzenbacher is an intelligent and dependable underneath target that runs crisp routes, separates well from defenders and shows an ability to find open areas against zone coverage.
He may have limited upside but if Sanzenbacher can continue to produce on the field, he could overtake Bennett as the team’s main option in the slot. Along with running back Matt Forte, he can provide the underneath safety valve that Cutler will desperately need if the team’s offensive line struggles continue.
J.J. Watt (DE-Hou)
Looking to bolster their pass rush, which ranked tied for 23rd in the league last season with just 30 sacks, the Texans spent their first-round pick in April on the former Wisconsin standout. Watt has not disappointed through three games and is quickly becoming a fixture along the Houston defensive line.
After totaling 9 tackles (8 solo) and recovering a fumble in his first two career games, Watt broke through against Drew Brees and the Saints with his first career sack along with 4 solo tackles, including 2 for loss. He has been a dominant force on the defensive front for Houston and is currently tied for third on the team with his 13 tackles.
While many of this year’s top defensive end prospects were pass-rush specialists, Watt brings a very balanced skill set to the table. His explosive athleticism off the edge will help him get to the passer consistently at the NFL level, but he needs to work on a more varied array of pass-rush moves.
Watt is also powerful enough to push tackles off the ball and hold his ground in the running game, which makes him a valuable commodity even when he’s not pressuring opposing quarterbacks. He possesses a high football IQ and a relentless motor and Watt’s immediate impact makes it very difficult to find obvious flaws in his game. Offensive coordinators will have nightmares for years to come with Watt and Mario Williams manning the right edge of Houston’s 3-4 defense.
Phil Taylor (DT-Cle)
I wrote about Cleveland second-round defensive end Jabaal Sheard last week and made it a point to mention Taylor, who could combine with Sheard to help the Browns’ defensive line make huge strides this season. Just a week later, the first-round pick out of Baylor didn’t disappoint.
Taylor racked up 11 tackles (7 solo) in his first two games as a pro, an impressive feat for a rookie defensive tackle. He followed up those impressive performances with his best effort in Week 3, making 7 tackles (4 solo) and notching his first career sack on Miami’s Chad Henne. At 6-3, 335 pounds, Taylor has been a disruptive force clogging the middle of the Browns defense alongside fellow 330-pounder Ahtyba Rubin.
Taylor’s unique combination of size, strength and athleticism made him one of the highest-upside prospects in this year’s draft but he fell to 21st overall thanks to character concerns and weight issues stemming from his days at Penn State, which forced him to transfer to Baylor after being kicked off the Nittany Lions squad. As tends to be the case with players who drop thanks to character red flags (see: Dez Bryant and Mike Williams in 2010), Taylor’s talent has taken over and he already has the look of an impact lineman in Cleveland and a steal outside the top 20.
Cleveland’s rush defense may still leave something to be desired, as they have allowed the fourth-most yards on the ground through three games. But with talents like Taylor, Sheard and Rubin developing along the defensive front, the Browns should be able to turn that stat around sooner rather than later. This team made it a point to address their issues up front with their high draft picks and the early returns look great.
Jacquian Williams (LB-NYG)
Drafted with the second-to-last pick in the sixth round, few draft experts projected much if any immediate impact for the former South Florida star. He was viewed as nothing more than a project, a player the Giants could stash away on special teams or the practice squad in the hopes he could develop into a starter.
Just three weeks into his rookie season, Williams has already surpassed everybody’s expectations and has forced his way onto the field for the Giants. Thanks to the rash of injuries that has hit the New York defense, Williams played 16 defensive snaps in his Week 1 debut in addition to his special teams work. A solid performance landed him almost twice as many snaps in Week 2 alongside Michael Boley in nickel packages and Williams again responded with 7 tackles (5 solo).
But Williams’ true breakout came against the Eagles on Sunday. His snaps increased once again at the expense of fellow sixth-round rookie Greg Jones and because the Giants relied heavily on their nickel package to contain Michael Vick and the Philadelphia passing attack. Williams led the team with 10 solo tackles and his impressive instincts and athleticism were on display the entire game.
One knock on Williams entering April’s draft was his lack of size at just 6-3, 223 pounds. While he may lack the bulk to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL, he has already proven he can impact a game without playing every down. Whether he’s flying around on special teams or stepping into the rotation at linebacker, Williams has shown he has the ability to stick in the league. And he’s done it much sooner than anybody could have realistically expected.
Dan Bailey (K-Dal)
There was only one kicker drafted this April and his name was not Dan Bailey. Nebraska’s Alex Henery was taken by the Eagles in Round 4 and while the strong-legged Henery has been solid for Philadelphia in the first three weeks, Bailey was the kicker grabbing headlines after a record Week 3 performance.
Bailey’s six field goals on Monday night tied an NFL record and bailed out the Cowboys struggling red-zone offense in their 18-16 win over the Redskins. His 40-yarder with just under two minutes to play was his third make of at least 40 yards on the day and in 10 attempts so far this season, he has missed just one kick, a routine 21-yarder against San Francisco in Week 2 that can be considered a fluke.
That miss didn’t seem to faze him at all either, as he confidently booted a 48-yarder on his next attempt with no time left on the clock to send the game into overtime. Bailey then atoned for his earlier short miss with a 19-yarder in overtime to win it for Dallas.
Bailey won the Lou Groza Award last season as college football’s top kicker and despite lacking a powerful leg – the Cowboys kept David Buehler as a kickoff specialist because Bailey struggled to reach the endzone in camp, even from the 35 – seems to be confident in his ability to hit field goals from reasonable distances in any game situation.
It’s rare to see a kicker garner headlines in a prime-time game, but Bailey’s consistency and accuracy on Monday night did just that. As long as he’s not being asked to kick many beyond 50 yards, Bailey should be a key player for the Cowboys this season if they continue to struggle to convert long drives and red-zone opportunities into touchdowns.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, compiling Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and conducting draft interviews with NFL prospects. He has been a sportswriter for multiple newspapers and has previously worked at ESPN and with the Rochester Red Wings, the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.