While my first three reports were littered with high draft picks making instant impacts, Week 5 was much different around the NFL. The established rookie stars have already made their mark, leaving openings for mid-to-late round picks to garner more attention. A rash of injuries and underachieving starters have paved the way for many unheralded players to make their mark in starting lineups around the league, as just one of the eight players profiled below was drafted in the first two rounds.
Mark Ingram (RB-NO)
The 2009 Heisman trophy winner had to wait 28 picks to hear his name called as the first running back drafted back in April and he’s had to wait five weeks to make his first Rookie Report. That has very little to do with his talent level and everything to do with his usage through his first five NFL games.
Battling for touches in the New Orleans backfield with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles and dealing with head coach Sean Payton, who is notorious for employing committees and riding the hot hand, Ingram has just 62 carries for 216 yards and 6 receptions for 17 yards. He has only one game where he’s averaged over 4 yards per carry, but has assumed the short-yardage and goal-line role in the Saints’ offense. Ingram has two touchdowns this season, including one in Sunday’s win over Carolina, but has also seen fullback Jed Collins poach two scores from the one-yard-line in the past two weeks.
Ingram was favorably compared to Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith in the months leading up to the draft as short, stocky running backs with average speed who fell out of the top half of the first round despite great collegiate success. Even with their deficiencies, both backs possess great vision, instincts and the punishing running style to succeed as feature backs, so the comparisons are legitimate.
With the Saints’ depth in the backfield and Sproles’ emergence, Ingram has seen more than 15 carries in a game just once this season. He’s looked good at times, but at others he seems unable to get into much of a rhythm. New Orleans’ pass-first attack plays more into the hands of Sproles and Thomas, but Ingram will still get his share of the work this season. His first-year numbers may not impress by year’s end, but he’s the Saints’ most talented running back and a big part of their future. I don’t think they’ll let his talents go to waste.
Jeremy Kerley (WR-NYJ)
Kerley got an opportunity to play in Week 5 at the expense of veteran Derrick Mason. Coach Rex Ryan said Mason was benched so the team could get a look at Kerley, but the first-year Jet was publicly critical of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offensive gameplan after the team’s Week 4 loss in Baltimore and that definitely played a part in his benching.
Whatever the real reason was for Mason’s benching matters little compared to what Kerley was able to do with his opportunity. Working mostly out of the slot, Kerley caught all 3 of the passes thrown his way for 35 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown early in the third quarter that helped keep the Jets in the game after a quick New England touchdown.
Despite a lack of size at 5-9, 195 pounds, Kerley is a polished route-runner with good hands and natural receiving skills. The fifth-round pick out of TCU lacks blazing speed (4.56) and the ability to take over a game, but he has done a nice job returning punts for New York and now has shown he can make an impact as the team’s third receiver. He’s no game-breaker on special teams either, but he consistently picks up positive yardage on returns without dancing and that shows in his 11.4-yard average on punt returns.
Mason’s underwhelming numbers and outspoken comments could lead to more reps for Kerley as the season goes on, particularly if the Jets fall further behind New England and Buffalo and decide to give their young talent opportunities to shine. Kerley is looking like a nice value pick in the late fifth round.
Robert Housler (TE-Ari)
A third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, Housler saw significant time on Sunday in the absence of Arizona’s Todd Heap, who was inactive with a hamstring injury. It doesn’t seem to matter who’s playing tight end for Kevin Kolb, as Housler saw the targets Heap was receiving (16 in the past two weeks) with eight, but caught just 3 passes for 25 yards.
A raw rookie from a small school, Housler has the size (6-5, 248) and speed (4.51) to make it as a receiving tight end in the NFL. He shows the ability to get into the secondary, knows how to use his frame, releases well of the line of scrimmage and is a solid route-runner. He and Kolb struggled to get on the same page at times, however, as Housler pulled in less than half of the passes thrown his way.
Housler needs to improve his strength and balance and while the underlying skill set is there for him to make an impact down the line, he’s definitely not a finished product a month into his rookie season. He should go back to the bench when Heap returns after Arizona’s bye, but he remains a prospect to watch down the line.
Jurrell Casey (DT-Ten)
Another third-round prospect, the former USC standout has stepped right into the Tennessee lineup and made a difference along their defensive line. With 16 tackles (12 solo) on the season and his first career sack Sunday against Ben Roethlisberger, Casey has already paid early dividends as a mid-round pick.
Casey fell out of the first two rounds despite a productive career with the Trojans. As a player who is neither exceptionally strong at 6-0, 300 pounds or particularly quick (5.04 speed), his upside is limited and he’s unlikely to turn into a star. But Casey has quickly proven that he’s ready to play in the NFL right now and for a third-rounder, that counts for something.
Casey plays with good lean and leverage, uses his hands well and fires off the snap with a enough burst to make plays in the backfield. His athletic limitations are masked by a constant motor and solid fundamentals and he has been a good fit on the inside of the Titans’ defensive line alongside 325-pound Shaun Smith.
Despite the unimpressive measurables, his instant success at the pro level bodes well for his future. There are plenty of players that make it in the league through toughness and hard work rather than talent and athleticism and while there may not be that much growth in Casey’s game, it’s difficult to completely write him off as a potential difference maker if he can add strength and continue to work at his game.
Brian Rolle (LB-Phi)
The Eagles have had serious issues with their linebackers early in the 2011 season and opposing teams have taken advantage by running all over them. Rookie Casey Matthews initially started in the middle of their 4-3, but was moved to the weak side after Week 2 in favor of Jamar Chaney, who thrived in that role towards the end of last season.
A week later, Matthews lost his starting job altogether as Rolle, a sixth-round pick from Ohio State, was moved into the starting lineup at weakside linebacker after impressing in Philadelphia’s nickel packages. With 14 tackles (10 solo) and a pass breakup in his first two starts, Rolle doesn’t seem like he wants to give up his starting spot anytime soon.
At 5-10 and just 230 pounds, Rolle was an undersized middle linebacker with the Buckeyes. His fearless nature and impressive 4.53 speed are his major assets and while he struggles to shed blocks and tends to drag ball carriers down rather than stopping them dead in the tracks, he has held his own through two starts.
Rolle’s presence isn’t going to turn the Eagles run defense into a competent unit and his future may be on special teams or at strong safety, but he knows how to play the game. His awareness, range and pursuit ability are all strengths and he gets good depth on his pass drops. He’s much better suited on the weak side than the strong side and while that may not be his permanent home, Rolle has proven his worth as a pro quickly for a late-round pick. He should be able to stick in the league for at least a few seasons.
Chris Culliver (CB-SF)
The 49ers’ third-round pick out of South Carolina, Culliver has seen his reps increase over the past few weeks with injuries to the San Francisco secondary. The former Gamecock held his own in Week 4 covering Jeremy Maclin and recorded his first career interception on Josh Freeman in Week 5, cutting underneath Michael Spurlock and making a nice play on the ball.
Culliver also broke up 3 passes on Sunday and while he made just one tackle, that was a product of lack of opportunity and not allowing his receiver to make many catches. The whole San Francisco secondary performed admirably and Culliver has done well not to allow a big play in his limited reps so far this season.
At 6-0, 200 pounds with 4.38 speed, Culliver has the size and speed to be a starting cornerback in the NFL. He also played safety in college before last season and his versatility will be an asset for him throughout his career. As he continues to improve his cornerback instincts and reaction time, he has the talent to become an impact player in the 49ers secondary.
Quinton Carter (S-Den)
In consecutive weeks, two Denver rookie safeties have made the Rookie Report. While Brian Dawkins was active against San Diego despite an ankle injury, it was Carter who saw the majority of snaps at strong safety. After making 5 solo tackles and showing ability against the run, Carter may have played himself into a larger role with the Broncos struggling to compete in the AFC and in obvious rebuilding mode with Tim Tebow now starting at quarterback.
Unlike Rahim Moore, a coverage free safety who was profiled here last week, Carter is a prototypical strong safety. He’s physical and aggressive and loves to play in the box and lay down hard hits. His lack of speed (4.57) limits his effectiveness outside the numbers and his ball skills leave a lot to be desired, but he could prove to be an excellent complement to Moore in the long run as his limitations play to Moore’s strengths.
If Denver limits his deep coverage responsibilities and allows him to be the eighth man in the box more often than not, Carter’s talents will be maximized. He’s a capable zone defender when necessary, but has a tendency to get caught out of position and lacks good coverage instincts. Dawkins’ presence as a mentor should help him to improve the nuances of his game as well, regardless of whether he continues to see heavy action or not.
Alex Henery (K-Phi)
The Eagles drafted Henry, who also punted for Nebraska his junior and senior seasons, in the fourth round back in April. The team hoped he could fill the shoes of long-time kicker David Akers and while the early returns have been shaky, the coaching staff has yet to lose confidence in the first-year Nebraska product.
Henery made all three of his extra-point attempts and a 35-yard field goal against Buffalo this week, just a week after he missed two of his five attempts in a one-point loss to the 49ers. On the season, he is 9-for-12 with a long of 38 yards and has missed his two longest kicks, from 63 yards and 39 yards away.
Henery has a strong leg, as his career-long with the Cornhuskers was 57 yards. The Eagles believe in his leg too, otherwise they would have never tried the 63-yarder he missed in Week 2. He was extremely consistent in college, missing just eights kicks in his four seasons with most of them coming from beyond 50 yards.
The NFL kicking life has been tougher for Henery than it ever was in college, but improvement is to be expected from the youngster. There aren’t too many kickers drafted as early as he was and there’s a good reason for that. The talent is there but with the Eagles struggling early, he can’t afford any more bad games or fans will be calling for a change.
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.