With no first-round picks profiled this week, it’s the second-round picks dominating the Rookie Report. Some of this week’s rookies have been steady under-the-radar performers all season, while others followed the general theme of seeing action thanks to injuries to players ahead of them on the depth chart. Chris Tripodi is here to tell you about the impact first-year players from the NFL’s Week 10.
Kendall Hunter (RB-SF)
With workhorse running back Frank Gore missing the entire second half against the Giants on Sunday with a knee injury, it was Hunter along with quarterback Alex Smith who picked up the slack to lead the 49ers to victory. The rookie out of Oklahoma State had just 6 carries but ran for 40 yards, including a key 17-yard touchdown that gave San Francisco a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.
Hunter has seen a decent amount of work this season as the primary backup to Gore, who has struggled to stay consistently healthy during his career. Through nine NFL games, Hunter has 54 carries for 257 yards and 2 touchdowns along with 5 receptions for 78 yards. His shifty and elusive running style is an excellent complement to the inside power of Gore.
The only real knock on Hunter is his size (5-7, 199) because he is a very good running back. He has great vision, instincts and patience and possesses the speed and agility to turn the corner. Hunter runs with a compact style, sets defenders up and makes them miss with quick moves. His receiving skills will also suit him well as a third-down back. Hunter’s size may prevent him from ever being a featured back at the NFL level, but he’s a player who can have an impact every week with 10-15 offensive touches in the right system.
Randall Cobb (WR-GB)
Cobb made a name for himself very quickly in the NFL, returning a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown on opening night against the Saints and catching a 32-yard touchdown where he showed some nifty moves. The final pick in April’s second round, the former Kentucky receiver hadn’t caught more than two passes in a game until Monday night’s game against the Vikings, when he had 3 receptions for 36 yards.
Along with a career high in receptions, Cobb returned a punt 80 yards after the Vikings opening drive stalled to give the Packers a quick 7-0 lead they wouldn’t give up. Cobb may be behind Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones on the depth chart in Green Bay, but his impact in the return game has given the Packers yet another explosive dimension.
Cobb is dangerous with the ball in his hands and has terrific speed (4.46), quickness and explosiveness. He is already one of the NFL’s most dangerous returners, but Cobb also has the potential to be a starting receiver with good hands, awareness and the ability to create yardage after the catch. He may never have that starting opportunity in Green Bay, but he’s shown he can alter games as a kick returner whether or not he sees consistent action on offense.
Andrew Hawkins (WR-Cin)
Undrafted out of the Toledo, Hawkins is extremely undersized at 5-7, 175 pounds. Lack of size doesn’t trump opportunity, however, and once A.J. Green left Sunday’s game early with a hyperextended knee, Hawkins got an opportunity to play.
The first-year former Rocket made the most of his increased snaps, making 5 receptions for 56 yards on just six targets while the receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, combined for just 3 catches and 25 yards. Hawkins’ production matched his season numbers, as he had 5 catches for 56 yards in Cincinnati’s first eight games.
The Bengals don’t think Green’s injury is serious, but his status for this weekend is uncertain. After Sunday’s performance the unheralded Hawkins will certainly get another opportunity as Cincinnati’s third receiver, but it would be foolish to expect similar production against the Ravens. He won’t be able to fly under the radar this week against one of the league’s top defenses.
Kyle Rudolph (TE-Min)
Rudolph matched his career high in catches on Monday night with 3 receptions for 37 yards, while starting tight end Visanthe Shiancoe had just 1 catch for 33 yards. Two of Rudolph’s catches resulted in first downs on consecutive plays during Minnesota’s final drive of the game, when the game was already out of hand and Shiancoe was sitting on the bench with most of the Vikings’ starters.
A second-round pick out of Notre Dame, Rudolph was not expected to take Shiancoe’s starting job this season and he hasn’t. Next season will be a different story, as Shiancoe is in the final year of his contract and Minnesota is obviously a rebuilding football team. Rudolph has just 14 catches for 170 yards this season, but those numbers should improve in 2012 when Shiancoe moves on.
Rudolph is a very well-rounded tight end that can block and make plays in the passing game. He lacks the speed (4.75) to stretch the field but has good hands and is fearless going over the middle. As a result of his lack of speed, Rudolph will need to improve his route-running to be a consistent threat for Christian Ponder in the future. If he does, he could become one of the NFL’s better dual-threat tight ends, as blocking ability from the position seems to be taking a backseat to big-play threats.
Akeem Ayers (LB-Ten)
Ayers was rated as a first-rounder by many scouting sites, including Draft Insider, so when he fell to the Titans with the seventh pick in round two, many said it was a steal for Tennessee. Ayers has been starting since Week 1, but it took him until Week 10 to have a true breakout game. The UCLA product had 6 solo tackles and his second career sack against the Panthers, while also recovering a fumble and breaking up a pass.
In his first eight career games, Ayers had 31 tackles (16 solo) and one sack. He has been a solid contributor to the Tennessee defense during the 2011 season, but Sunday was by far his most impactful performance. Ayers definitely caught the attention of head coach Mike Munchak, who said, “He did a lot of things, and was put in some good situations.”
The major knock on Ayers leaving the Bruins was his speed, as he timed poorly at the combine (4.69) and has just marginal burst. Otherwise, he is a complete three-down linebacker who holds his ground in the running game, shows speed and quickness rushing the passer off the edge and moves well in reverse with the ability to play over slot receivers. Ayers’ complete skill set and athleticism was on display against Carolina this weekend and could be the first step to a breakout second half.
Colin McCarthy (LB-Ten)
A groin injury to veteran Barrett Ruud gave the fourth-rounder out of Miami a chance to start for the first time in his NFL career and McCarthy didn’t disappoint. He led the Titans with 8 tackles (5 solo) and earned high praise from defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, who said McCarthy was all over the field and played like he belonged rather than like a rookie.
McCarthy played well enough that coach Mike Munchak was asked whether he could overtake Ruud as the team’s starter when Ruud returns, but Munchak confirmed McCarthy would go back to the bench when Ruud is healthy. His performance on Sunday gives the Titans confidence he can step in effectively and should allow them to be patient with Ruud’s injury.
McCarthy was a great college linebacker at Miami, but may have a few limitations at the NFL level. He has good sped (4.59) but isn’t great in pursuit, while he gets engulfed by blocks due to his lack of size (6-1, 238). He lacks the athleticism to be an effective cover linebacker but his aggressive nature, good tackling ability, discipline and awareness allow him to get the most out of his physical ability. He could be a starter in the right system, but his weaknesses could also be exposed over the long haul. If Ruud stays on the sideline for a few more games, we should find out more about McCarthy.
Malcolm Smith (LB-Sea)
One of the final picks 15 picks in April’s seventh round, Smith had made a minimal impact this season for the Seahawks. The seventh-rounder out of USC has been inactive twice and made just 6 tackles in the first eight games of the season, but Smith was one of the key contributors in Seattle’s 22-17 win against Baltimore on Sunday.
Smith made an early impact on special teams, forcing a fumble on a punt return with just under two minutes to play in the first half. The recovery set Seattle up deep in Ravens territory and although they settled for a field goal, they took an extra minute off the clock and forced a long 52-yard field goal attempt by Billy Cundiff on the next drive, which he missed. On the Ravens final drive of the game, Smith came up with his first career sack to force a third-and-18. He allowed a 13-yard pass to Ed Dickson on the next play but brought him down short of the first-down marker, although Baltimore converted the ensuing fourth-and-five.
Smith is an athletic linebacker who can make plays in space, as he showed at times on Sunday. His lack of size (6-0, 225) leads to struggles getting off blocks once engaged and will likely prevent him from becoming a starter at the NFL level. However, Smith proved on Sunday that he doesn’t have to be a starter to impact the game for his team and can be a consistent special teams performer for at least a few seasons.
Jaiquawn Jarrett (S-Phi)
A second-round pick out of Temple, Jarrett has been slow to pick up defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s scheme. A concussion suffered by free safety Nate Allen against the Bears opened the door for Jarrett to start his first NFL game after he had been passed over three times already this season for potential starting assignments. Jarrett was solid replacing Allen against Chicago, making 3 solo tackles and keeping plays in front of him, which likely earned him the start against Arizona.
While the Eagles dropped their sixth game of the season and likely destroyed their playoff hopes in the process, Jarrett was solid once again with 7 tackles (6 solo) despite a few tough plays in coverage against Larry Fitzgerald. Jarrett deflected one pass intended for Fitzgerald, but the Cardinals star receiver caught it anyway for a 29-yard gain. On the final drive for the Cardinals, Asante Samuel passed Fitzgerald off to Jarrett on third-and-10 and the rookie stood little chance to keep up and stop one of the week’s better catches that set up the Cardinals’ game-winning touchdown.
Despite lacking classic size (6-0, 198) and speed (4.62) for an NFL free safety, Jarrett is physical and aggressive in the running game, has enough speed to protect the flanks and flashes the ball skills to play an effective center field. He struggles at times in man coverage as we saw on Sunday, but it’s unfair to judge a rookie based on one rough play against one of the league’s veteran superstars. Jarrett was expected to be ready to start the season for the Eagles and while his chance didn’t come until Week 10, he may have earned himself at least another start while Allen continues to recover from his concussion.
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.