Week 9 saw multiple opportunities for rookies on the offensive side of the football thanks to injuries, while most of the week’s impact defensive rookies had been profiled in recent weeks. Chris Tripodi breaks down what he saw in this week’s Rookie Report.
Roy Helu (RB-Was)
In his first career start, Helu broke Art Monk’s franchise record for receptions in a game with 14. John Beck was forced to throw 47 times with Washington playing from behind and almost half of his 30 completions were checkdowns to Helu. The fourth-rounder out of Nebraska actually had more catches than carries, as he ran just 10 times for 41 yards.
A week after playing 34 snaps compared to 22 for backfield mate Ryan Torain, Helu played 64 of the Redskins’ 67 snaps on offense. He had just 27 carries in the team’s first seven games and was used primarily on third downs thanks to his exceptional route-running and receiving ability out of the backfield.
Despite playing for Mike Shanahan, who is notorious for playing the hot hand at running back and never revealing his intentions, Helu got a vote of confidence after his big performance on Sunday and seems to have little competition from Torain and recent pickup Tashard Choice, who was inactive against San Francisco. Helu and his 4.42 speed should be on display this week against Miami and for the rest of the season, as Washington seems to be ready to hand the keys to the backfield over to the former Cornhusker in what looks to be another lost season.
Jacquizz Rodgers (RB-Atl)
With the Falcons building an early 21-0 lead against the Colts, Rodgers saw extensive work while starter Michael Turner rested on the bench. The fifth-round pick from Oregon State had just 16 carries all season, but ran 10 times for 44 yards on Sunday and added a 16-yard reception.
Rodgers had at least one touch in each of his first seven NFL games, but never more than seven. At just 5-6, 196 pounds, he projects as nothing more than a situational third-down back, but has shown flashes of what made him such an effective college back in his limited pro action.
The former Beaver is quicker than he is fast, as he ran just a 4.65 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s aggressive hitting the hole and runs north and south rather than east and west, a rarity for a back of his type. His hands and ability to get lost behind his blockers should allow him to always have a niche in the NFL, regardless of his slight build and average speed.
Vincent Brown (WR-SD)
With Malcom Floyd dealing with a nagging hip injury that kept him out in Week 9 against Green Bay, Brown started at receiver for the first time in his career. With the Chargers chasing a big deficit for most of the game, the third-round rookie out of San Diego State had 4 receptions for 79 yards, with much of that yardage coming in the fourth quarter.
Floyd has already been ruled out of Thursday’s game for first place in the AFC West between the Chargers and Raiders and after seeing six targets from Philip Rivers compared to just three for Patrick Crayton, Brown is expected to get his second NFL start in Floyd’s place.
Brown has decent size at 5-11, 184 pounds but timed slowly at the combine (4.68) and lacks the ability to be an effective downfield receiver. He’s a tough receiver with good hands and a great feel for the position as a rookie, but his upside is limited by his lack of speed. Brown will be best suited as an underneath slot receiver during his career and will struggle to replace Floyd’s downfield effectiveness.
Austin Pettis (WR-StL)
Pettis is the second Boise State receiver to make the Rookie Report in the last two weeks, as an injury to fellow first-year receiver Greg Salas late in Sunday’s game thrust the third-rounder into action. Pettis caught 4 passes for 43 yards against the Cardinals, three of which came in the final five minutes after Salas broke his leg.
Salas has already been placed on injured reserve and with Mark Clayton’s status still uncertain, Pettis will likely slide into the slot for the Rams in the upcoming weeks. His reliable hands should give Sam Bradford the same confidence checking down to Pettis as he had to Salas, who had 7 receptions before his injury.
Unlike former teammate Titus Young, Pettis is no speedster (4.56 40-yard dash) but has the size (6-2, 210), strength and toughness to make difficult catches over the middle. He’s almost a clone of Salas and should be a good fit in the slot for the Rams. Pettis will have a chance to stay there for a few games if not the rest of the season with a strong performance this week against the Browns.
Leonard Hankerson (WR-Was)
After Anthony Armstrong flopped in Week 8 replacing the injured Santana Moss in the starting lineup, Hankerson got his opportunity Sunday against the 49ers. The Redskins’ third-round pick out of Miami made 4 receptions for 34 yards and has already earned himself another start in Week 10, according to Mike Shanahan.
Hankerson was inactive for the first five games of the season after struggling with drops during training camp and in the preseason. In the three weeks since he has seen his playing time steadily rise and he played all but one offensive snap on Sunday. Along with Helu, the Redskins seem to be giving their offensive rookies a chance at the midway point of the season.
Hankerson has good size (6-2, 205) and speed (4.41), a smooth style and the ability to break tackles after the catch. Draft Insider had him ranked behind only A.J. Green and Julio Jones among receivers heading into April’s draft and he should continue to get opportunities with Moss still out for multiple weeks and the Redskins quickly falling out of contention.
Colin Cochart (TE-Cin)
An undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State, Cochart was active for just the fourth time this season with Jermaine Gresham sidelined for the second consecutive week. Not only did Cochart make the first 2 receptions of his career, but he caught his first NFL touchdown as well.
Cochart was active as the backup to veteran Donald Lee but Gresham is expected to return this week, pushing Cochart back to third-string duty and potentially the inactive list.
Cochart has decent size (6-4, 255), speed (4.71) and hands and while he’s always been a reliable player on the small school level, his production has been marginal. He’s nothing more than a potential backup at the NFL level, but that’s not bad for an undrafted player out of an FCS school.
Mike Pouncey (C-Mia)
The twin brother of Steelers star center Maurkice Pouncey, Mike was also drafted in the first round out of Florida. Mike played guard during his sophomore and junior seasons with the Gators but when Maurkice left early for the NFL, Mike moved over to take his brother’s spot at center.
Mike Pouncey has arguably been Miami’s best offensive lineman this season, which is as much of an indictment on the Dolphins’ line play and Jake Long’s injury issues as it is a compliment of the rookie’s play. Pouncey has been the anchor along the Dolphins’ line this season and after he left with an injury late in Week 8 against the Giants, New York sacked Matt Moore four times in the fourth quarter and came back to win late and keep the Dolphins winless.
Pouncey lacks the movement ability of his brother but fires off the ball and is strong at the point of the attack. He possesses good footwork and a nasty attitude while his strength in small spaces plays well at the center position. Pouncey can control defenders in the running game, keeps his head on a swivel against the pass and has the potential to be a rock for the Dolphins for years to come.
Kelvin Sheppard (LB-Buf)
A third-round pick out of LSU, Sheppard recently stepped into the starting lineup for the Bills alongside veteran Nick Barnett. The rookie had just 11 tackles in his first seven NFL games, but set a career high with 7 tackles (3 solo) against the Jets on Sunday.
The Bills’ linebackers as a whole were solid against the New York running game but struggled against the pass and Sheppard was no exception. He was an excellent run stopper at LSU and likes to play downhill, but has never been known to be smooth in coverage.
In a weak class of middle linebackers, Sheppard was the top guy on Draft Insider’s board. He has marginal speed (4.81) but flies around the ball and scrapes well laterally. He lacks elite upside but has already found himself in a starting role in Buffalo and projects as a long-term starter who will fit well in either a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment.
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.