This week’s Rookie Report features a focus on defense, particularly in the front seven, while a couple of early-round draft picks busted onto the NFL scene in a big way. Chris Tripodi breaks down Week 8’s impact rookies below.
Jon Baldwin (WR-KC)
After being targeted five times in his first action of the season in Week 7 against Oakland, Baldwin was slated to see more action out of the slot against San Diego. Not only did he see more action, the first-round pick led the Chiefs in receiving with 5 receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown and received the second-most targets on the team behind only Dwayne Bowe.
Four of Baldwin’s catches came on short out routes, while his fifth was a beautiful 39-yard leaping grab in the end zone where he used his impressive size (6-4, 230) to make a big play. The former Pittsburgh star missed the first five games of the season with a wrist injury after fighting Thomas Jones in the preseason but coach Todd Haley has been pleased with his progress in recent weeks, which should lead to continued opportunities for the rookie receiver.
Baldwin showed flashes of dominance at times in college and while he comes with baggage, as seen by the preseason antics that cost him the first third of the season, his talent is unmistakable. He’s a big target in the red zone for Matt Cassel and if Baldwin can keep his head on straight he has huge upside, especially paired with Bowe on the other side of the Kansas City offense.
Titus Young (WR-Det)
After a breakout Week 2 against Kansas City where he had 5 receptions for 89 yards, Young looked like he was slowly hitting the rookie wall. His catches and yards dropped steadily each week, finally culminating in a zero-catch performance against Atlanta in Week 7.
A date with the Denver secondary will cure what ails any wide receiver and Detroit’s second-round pick was no different. Young busted through that supposed rookie wall with 4 receptions for 66 yards and a 41-yard touchdown, which came on a busted coverage in the first quarter when no Bronco defender was within 20 yards of the former Boise State star.
While the touchdown may have been fluky, Young will head into the Lions’ bye week with extra confidence that he has returned to a relevant role in the offense. His 4.43 speed will always play with Matthew Stafford throwing the deep ball and while his size (5-11, 175) and potential struggles against bump-and-run coverage may limit him to slot duty, Young’s sharp route-running ability and strong hands could make him one of the most effective third receivers in the NFL in time.
Robert Quinn (DE-StL)
A top-15 pick in April’s draft out of North Carolina, Quinn’s missed his entire junior season due to a violation of NCAA rules and, not surprisingly, his NFL career has gotten off to a very slow start. Buried on the depth chart for much of the year, Quinn had just 4 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble through his first five games but made the most of his opportunities against New Orleans on Sunday.
The former Tar Heel had a huge second quarter for the Rams. With the Saints driving into St. Louis territory, Quinn sacked Drew Brees on third-and-four to force a punt. On the Saints next drive, Quinn blocked a punt that set the Rams up at New Orleans’ 15-yard-line, leading to their first touchdown of the game and a 10-0 lead. Down 10 points instead of three, the Saints tried to go downfield on the ensuing drive and Brees’ first-down pass was intercepted, which led to another Rams touchdown and a 17-0 halftime lead. St. Louis never looked back on the way to their first win of the season and much of the credit for their second-quarter surge has to go to Quinn.
His performance was one of the keys to the Rams’ victory and might lead to more playing time with the team pretty much eliminated from playoff contention. Quinn is fast in every direction and has Pro Bowl talent as a pass rusher. At just 6-4, 265 pounds he lacks the bulk and base to be an intimidator against the run, but his pass-rushing potential is through the roof thanks to his freakish athletic ability. St. Louis would be smart to let him develop in an increased role during the second half.
Terrell McClain (DT-Car)
Carolina has been starting two rookies in the middle of their defensive line since Week 1 with McClain and fellow first-year tackle Sione Fua seeing lots of action for the rebuilding squad. McClain has been relatively quiet statistically so far this season with just 6 tackles but had a breakout game against Minnesota, racking up 4 tackles (3 solo) and his first career sack.
The Panthers have struggled against the run this season as one of just four NFL teams to have already allowed over 1,000 yards on the ground. Part of that can definitely be attributed to their extremely young defensive line, as only fifth-year defensive end Charles Johnson has more than one season of experience in the NFL and both McClain and Fua have been inconsistent, along with second-year end Greg Hardy.
Drafted with the first pick in the third round out of South Florida, McClain is a solid yet unspectacular prospect. He has a good first step and is tough to move off the point, but doesn’t possess a dominant base or the powerful bull rush to be anything more than a marginal pass rusher. McClain can shoot the gap well in Carolina’s one-gap system, but will need to expand his game to remain an NFL starter.
Karl Klug (DT-Ten)
A fifth-round pick out of Iowa, Klug has been part of Tennessee’s defensive line rotation all season backing up fellow rookie Jurell Casey and veteran Shaun Smith. The former Hawkeye has made an impact in a limited role and came into Sunday’s game against the Colts with 10 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in his first six career games.
Klug may have enjoyed his best game of the season on Sunday thanks to one huge play. His third-down sack on Curtis Painter in the second quarter forced the Colts to punt from their own seven-yard line, a kick that was blocked and recovered by Jason McCourty in the endzone to give Tennessee a 10-0 lead despite their offense going three-and-out on three of its first four drives.
The Titans went on to score on two of their next three possessions to open up a 20-0 lead at halftime. Krug is undersized at 6-3, 275 pounds and lacks the ability and upside to be a starter, but he’s a hard worker with good awareness and a warrior mentality that has already found a niche at the NFL level.
Greg Jones (LB-NYG)
Despite a third-round grade from Draft Insider, Jones fell into the latter half of the sixth round in April’s draft before the Giants scooped him up. When Jonathan Goff went down with a season-ending knee injury before the team’s Week 1 opener, Jones stepped into the starting lineup at middle linebacker and has held that position all season.
The Giants have struggled against the run this season with multiple injuries along their front line, but Jones seems to be getting more comfortable in the middle of the New York 4-3. He started slow with just 7 tackles in his first three games but has 14 in his last four, including 5 in Week 8 against Miami.
Jones was a monster in the middle at Michigan State, totaling over 100 tackles every season since he was a sophomore including 154 as a junior. At 6-0, 240 pounds, he’s undersized but is a solid tackler with excellent instincts and awareness. Jones is a hard worker with a great motor and has been a good fit in the middle of a very talented Giants’ front seven, where he’s been able to blend in rather than having to stand out.
Richard Sherman (CB-Sea)
With Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond hitting the injured reserve list, Sherman was thrust into a starting role for the first time in his career on Sunday against Cincinnati. A fifth-round pick out of Stanford, Sherman also drew the daunting task of covering rookie standout A.J. Green.
While Green caught 4 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown in the Bengals blowout victory, Sherman held his own in the matchup. He intercepted a pass intended for Green and deflected 3 more, including one into the hands of safety Kam Chancellor for another turnover. Sherman also added 5 tackles (4 solo) and a post-game criticism of Green, calling him “one of the most overrated receivers out there” and saying he was “just a lot of noise talking and bad routes.”
A wide receiver during his first two seasons with the Cardinal, Sherman moved to cornerback and started there his junior and senior seasons. At 6-2, 195 pounds with 4.47 speed, he has good size and speed and stays aggressive both against the run and with receivers throughout their routes. His experience playing on the other side of the ball helps him diagnose plays quicker than many young corners and while he is still learning the position, he possesses the physical talent (and apparently the confidence) of an NFL starter.
Chris Harris (CB-Den)
An undrafted rookie out of Kansas, Harris has moved ahead of Jonathan Wilhite and Cassius Vaughn on the depth chart as Denver’s third cornerback. Along with safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter, the Broncos now have three rookies on the field when they go to their nickel package.
John Fox noted that Harris’ work ethic and competitive nature led to his promotion and while the entire Broncos secondary continued its struggles against the Lions, Harris did show off his aggressive nature with 9 tackles (6 solo) in the game.
Harris has decent size (5-10, 190) but lacks the top-end speed (4.55) or the athleticism to be a starter. His hard-nosed special teams mentality will keep him on an NFL roster, but he’s nothing more than a nickel back even in Denver’s porous secondary. On most NFL teams, he’d likely be a fourth corner at best.
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.