This week’s Rookie Report features a few extra players on the defensive side of the ball, where many high picks have made an early impact with their new teams. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few rookies to make an impact on offense as well. Chris Tripodi returns to break down the impressive first-year performances from Week 4.
Stevan Ridley (RB-NE)
When New England spent their second and third-round picks on running backs in April’s draft, the writing was on the wall for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead in the New England backfield. While both were expected to see time early in the season, it was only going to be a matter of time before one of the Patriots’ talented rookies burst into the spotlight.
Over the past two weeks, that player has been Ridley. While Shane Vereen, the first of the two backs drafted, has yet to see an offensive touch, the former LSU bruiser has gradually found himself more involved in the gameplan. After an impressive 6-carry, 42-yard performance in Week 3 against Buffalo, Ridley built on that momentum with a 10-carry, 97-yard game in Week 4 against the Raiders along with the first touchdown of his career.
Ridley is an excellent inside runner who breaks arm tackles with ease and punishes defenders who try to tackle him. He has looked quicker and more explosive than advertised and while he’s no burner (4.66 40-yard dash), he has enough ability to be effective over 10-15 carries per game at this point in his career.
Ridley’s lack of elite pass-catching skills (2 catches for 11 yards) and inexperience in the New England blocking schemes may limit his playing time, especially with the Patriots’ pass-heavy offensive philosophy and their stable of capable running backs. But it’s already obvious that the 5-11, 225-pound Ridley is the most talented runner New England has, which means he should see plenty of carries for the remainder of the season.
Julio Jones (WR-Atl)
Atlanta traded a lot to move into the top six to select Jones and while the Falcons have underwhelmed so far this season, that has a lot more to do with the amount of picks they gave up than Jones’ performance.
The Falcons gave up their 2011 and 2012 first and fourth-round picks along with their 2011 second rounder for the rights to move up 21 spots to take Jones. The former Alabama star had 13 receptions for 215 yards in his first three NFL games but broke out in a big way against Seattle on Sunday, catching 11 passes from Matt Ryan for 127 yards.
With Roddy White drawing consistent double teams, Jones was targeted 17 times and made the most of his opportunities. He has yet to find the endzone this season but flashed his elite potential and showed opposing defenses what will happen if they focus too much on White. While he’s just a raw rookie, Jones has the ability to control a game as his team’s go-to receiver with his size (6-2, 220) and blazing 4.34 speed.
Jones won’t explode like this every week with White in the mix and is just as likely to go without a catch next week as he is to repeat this performance. His inconsistency and occasional lapses in concentration with the Crimson Tide were the only things that ever held him back, as most defenses cannot. If Jones can stay focused on the field, his upside is limitless and he has the talent to challenge White as Matt Ryan’s top target, giving the Falcons a potentially deadly aerial attack.
Doug Baldwin (WR-Sea)
An undrafted rookie out of Stanford, Baldwin wasn’t even listed on Draft Insider among the top 109 receivers entering April’s draft. To say that he has come out of nowhere to produce for the Seahawks would be an understatement.
For a player whose claim to fame entering the season was catching passes from future No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, Baldwin has carved a nice little niche for himself in the Seattle offense. After 4 catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in Week 1, Baldwin followed that performance with 3 catches for 27 yards in his next two games. Just when many thought he had seen his finest NFL moment, he had 5 receptions for 84 yards on 6 targets in the Seahawks’ Week 4 loss to Atlanta.
At just 5-10, 189 pounds with 4.48 speed, Baldwin lacks elite size and speed but has shown the ability to get open in the slot and leads the team with 12 catches for 194 yards through four games. Considering Seattle’s issues along the offensive line and Tarvaris Jackson’s incompetence getting the ball to his receivers on the outside, Baldwin could continue his surprising emergence as the season moves along.
Marcell Dareus (DE-Buf)
The Bills took Dareus with the third overall pick in April’s draft and plugged him right into their starting lineup in Week 1. He recorded 6 tackles in the first two weeks of the season and showed some ability in the running game.
The Alabama product’s stat line from Buffalo’s Week 3 game against New England may not jump out at you, as he had just one assisted tackle and a pass breakup. But that pass breakup may have been the biggest play of the game for the Bills.
After a Fred Jackson touchdown tied the game early in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady was intercepted on the ensuing possession by Drayton Florence, who returned the pick 27 yards for a touchdown. Brady tried to throw a quick drag on the play, but his line-drive pass hit an engaged Buffalo lineman in the head. That lineman was Dareus and despite being blocked at the point, he had the presence of mind to throw his head at the football as it went by, popping it up in the air for Florence to intercept.
That play helped Buffalo end an eight-year losing streak to the Patriots and Dareus built on that momentum last week against Cincinnati. He registered his first career sack on fellow rookie Andy Dalton and added 4 tackles (2 solo).
Despite a lack of statistical evidence, which is not uncommon for 3-4 defensive ends who are usually asked to occupy blockers while the linebackers come up to make tackles, Dareus has been able to make an impact along the Buffalo defensive line so far in 2011. The Bills may be struggling defensively against the run, but that’s to be expected from a unit that didn’t do much to improve in the offseason outside of drafting him.
Even if Dareus’ role at this point is just to clog the running lanes, his 6-3, 320-pound frame is well-suited for that kind of play. He’s a great athlete with solid instincts (just ask Brady) who can play any position along a 3-4 defensive line or a 4-3 as well. Once he gets used to the NFL game, I expect Dareus to consistent cause headaches in opposing backfields even if he isn’t racking up big sack numbers.
Von Miller (LB-Den)
As the second overall pick in this year’s draft, expectations were high for Miller. Like Cam Newton before him, Miller has been as good as advertised if not better.
Most rookies, even ones drafted in the top five, tend to be inconsistent. Even Newton struggled against the Jaguars in Week 3. But Miller has made at least one impact play in every game so far this season. He didn’t record a sack in Week 1 against the Raiders, but forced a fumble on Oakland receiver Jacoby Ford. In the three games since, Miller has 4 sacks, including two of Aaron Rodgers this week, another forced fumble, two pass breakups and 11 tackles (10 solo).
It’s safe to say that Miller has done a nice job of filling the stat sheet so far this season, whether it shows in Denver’s record or not. His explosiveness around the edge has been on consistent display and while he lacks the bulk to take on lineman every play, he has held his own in the running game as well. Miller has also done a nice job in coverage and has proven himself as a legitimate three-down linebacker just a month into his NFL career.
The former Texas A&M Aggie has a very bright future ahead of him and, with 4 sacks already on the young season, shouldn’t have much of a problem cracking double-digits as a rookie. That puts him in good company, as the last rookie linebackers to break the double-digit barrier in sacks were Brian Orakpo and Clay Matthews in 2009. Both have already made appearance in the Pro Bowl.
Aldon Smith (LB-SF)
Unlike Von Miller, Smith was anything but consistent for the season’s first three weeks. His snaps were sporadic and when he was on the field, he did very little to show why San Francisco made him the 7th overall pick in the draft.
Week 4, however, was a different story. Smith burst onto the scene with his first 5 career tackles (4 solo) and his first 1.5 sacks while playing over half the snaps on defense, his most to date. Part of his resurgence in playing time was due to the 49ers’ increased use of their nickel package to slow down the Eagles’ passing offense. Smith had been playing on pass-rush downs over the first three weeks, but this was his first extensive action and his first chance to get into a real rhythm on the field.
Not only do his stats look good, but Smith was also able to consistently put pressure on Michael Vick, which doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. His great speed off the edge and explosive pass-rush ability was on display, but it’s also evident that he needs to work on using his hands and improving his rush moves if he wants to succeed against better linemen.
I’m curious how San Francisco plans to use Smith from here on out, especially against less pass-happy teams. The 49ers play Tampa Bay this week, so we should find out what Smith’s strong Week 4 does for his playing time going forward.
Marcus Gilchrist (CB-SD)
A second-round pick out of Clemson, Gilchrist was thrust into a starting role in Week 4 as a result of Quentin Jammer’s hamstring injury. The former Tiger put together an impressive performance in his first NFL start with 6 solo tackles, his first career interception and 2 pass breakups.
A safety during his junior year at Clemson, Gilchrist shifted to cornerback as a senior and struggled with the transition. But San Diego was willing to take a chance on Gilchrist’s talent as a corner in the second round and through four weeks, that move has paid off for the Chargers.
At 5-10, 195 pounds with 4.46 speed, Gilchrist has good size and speed for an NFL corner. He’s a well-rounded, athletic defensive back who has shown the ability to play both corner and safety, defend the run and play a sideline-to-sideline centerfield. His struggles have come in man-to-man coverage where he has a tendency to trail receivers, but Matt Moore was unable to exploit that after replacing an injured Chad Henne on Sunday.
Jammer is questionable for next week’s game in Denver and the Chargers were impressed enough with Gilchrist’s performance on Sunday that they won’t hesitate to start him in Jammer’s stead. It will be interesting to watch Gilchrist this week to see if he can build on created last week and carve out a larger role for himself as the season goes on.
Rahim Moore (S-Den)
The first safety drafted in April, Moore fell to the middle of the second round in what was widely considered a weak safety draft at the top. While the former UCLA Bruin is starting in Denver, he hasn’t had much positive impact in the season’s first month.
Moore has just 13 tackles (12 solo) through the quarter point of the season. He recovered a fumble in Week 1 and intercepted a pass against Green Bay on Sunday, but it came with backup quarterback Matt Flynn in the game and under three minutes to play in a blowout. So while Sunday’s final line for Smith looks decent, the numbers are misleading.
Denver ranks in the bottom 10 in pass defense so far in 2011 as their secondary and defense as a whole has struggled, Moore included. One of the knocks on Moore out of college was his inefficiency and hesitance in coverage. He has sideline-to-sideline range and solid hands to create turnovers, but takes bad angles and is prone to getting beat deep.
Moore is still a work in progress and there’s a reason he wasn’t taken in the top 40 back in April. He seems likely to take his lumps and learn on the job, as the Broncos are going nowhere this season and lack a viable replacement. His game needs refinement and he’s more of a project at this point than a polished NFL starter, but he will have every opportunity to see the reps he needs to develop.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, compiling Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and interviewing 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 (@christripodi) and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.