Multiple first-round picks made their NFL debuts in impressive fashion as this week’s Rookie Report focuses mainly on the defensive side of the football, particularly the secondary. Chris Tripodi breaks it down below.
Jake Locker (QB-Ten)
The second quarterback off the board in April at the 8th pick, Locker has watched Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder all receive opportunities to start before him. Veteran Matt Hasselbeck had led Tennessee to a 5-4 start, but left Sunday’s game with Atlanta with an elbow injury late in the third quarter.
At the time of Hasselbeck’s departure, Tennessee was losing 23-3. On his third pass of the game and just his fifth career attempt, Locker completed a 40-yard touchdown to Nate Washington on third-and-two although Washington did most of the work after the catch. Two drives later, the former Washington Huskies star led the Titans down the field and once again found Washington for a touchdown to cut the Atlanta lead to 23-17.
The Titans would end up losing the game, but Locker was impressive with 140 yards and 2 touchdowns despite completing just 9 of his 19 passes. He was inconsistent at times but the athleticism and arm strength that made him a candidate to be the top overall pick in 2010 and one of the most coveted quarterbacks in the 2011 class was on display during the game. Hasselbeck should be healthy enough to play this weekend but Locker’s performance may have the veteran on a shorter leash if he struggles to move the team downfield like he did against Atlanta.
Charles Clay (RB-Mia)
Clay is listed as a running back on the Dolphins’ depth chart, but he has yet to carry the football once this season. A true tweener at 6-3, 245 pounds, Clay lacks the height to play tight end the size to be a lead-blocking fullback. As the Bills found out on Sunday, none of that really seems to matter.
The sixth-round pick out of Tulsa had 4 receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown in Miami’s blowout win on Sunday, as Buffalo simply refused to cover him circling out of the backfield. Clay had just 8 catches for 133 yards in Miami’s first nine games.
Clay does have good hands and the ability to run after the catch, possessing the combination of enough speed (4.71) and strength to be effective in space. Clay may never repeat this performance again, but teams won’t be able to completely ignore him in the future. His upside is nothing more than that of an H-back who will occasionally slip by the defense for a big pass play, though. He’s not much of a blocker.
Thomas Keiser (DE-Car)
Two weeks ago, Keiser was a member of the Panthers’ practice squad. On Sunday, the undrafted free agent out of Stanford recorded his first two career sacks in the second quarter of Carolina’s loss to Detroit. Keiser finished the game with 5 tackles and 2 sacks in just his second NFL game.
The Panthers have struggled rushing the passer this season and have just 19 sacks in 10 games, seven of which belong to Charles Johnson. Keiser’s athleticism and ability to rush the passer gave him the opportunity to join the active roster and, considering he’s already tied for third on the team in sacks, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be returning to the practice squad anytime soon.
Keiser is undersized for a defensive end at 6-3, 265 pounds and lacks the speed (4.83) to be an every-down outside linebacker. Despite his poor combine time, Keiser is fast off the edge and plays with intensity and a non-stop motor that allows him to consistently make plays in the backfield. If he’s given a few years to fill out his frame, Keiser has the potential to develop into an effective situational pass rusher that can be used in a three-point stance or standing up over tackle. He’s already on his way after this week’s performance.
Pernell McPhee (DE-Bal)
McPhee has been the primary backup to Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding this season at defensive end for the Ravens and while he has yet to post any big games in a rotational role, he has held his own when he’s been on the field. The fifth-round pick out of Mississippi State has yet to make more than 2 tackles in a game, but he picked up his fourth sack of the season on Sunday against Cincinnati.
McPhee lacks impressive size (6-2, 278) but he’s athletic and explosive, which he has shown in his limited time along the Baltimore defensive line. It helps when you’re surrounded by attention-grabbing lineman like Ngata and Terrence Cody but McPhee’s hard-nosed style has fit right in with the Ravens’ style of play.
The former Bulldog has shown speed off the edge and good ability shedding blocks with his hands. He has deceptive strength against the run but struggles at times when engaged at the point. McPhee may be limited to situational pass-rushing duty at the pro level, but he’s proven effective in that role so far in 2011.
Prince Amukamara (CB-NYG)
After missing the first nine games of the season with a foot injury, Amukamara made his long-awaited NFL debut in a Giants uniform in Sunday night’s loss against the Eagles. The first-round pick out of Nebraska had a solid but uneven game, finishing with 5 tackles, 2 pass breakups and his first career interception.
Amukamara was torched early by DeSean Jackson on a go route down the sideline and almost fell down, but a severely underthrown ball from Vince Young allowed the rookie to catch up to Jackson and come up with the interception. Amukamara also got beat by Riley Cooper for an 18-yard completion that extended the Eagles’ game-winning drive on third-and-10.
The former Cornhusker timed well at the combine (4.38) but struggled to stay with receivers downfield at times in college. That weakness was exposed on his interception, but Amukamara was also strong in run support. He’s a physical, aggressive corner who tackles well and while he has the potential to be a shut-down corner, Amukamara will likely experience growing pains similar to fellow first-round pick Patrick Peterson in Arizona.
Jimmy Smith (CB-Bal)
A first-round pick out of Colorado, Smith suffered a high ankle sprain on the opening kickoff of Week 1 and missed the Ravens next four games. When he returned from injury in Week 7, Cary Williams’ emergence limited him to mostly special teams duty. Before Sunday’s game, Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said Smith was ready for an increased role and he proved it against the Bengals, making his first career interception along with 3 tackles and a pass breakup.
Smith’s interception was one of the key plays in the Ravens’ victory, coming deep in Cincinnati territory late in the third quarter. Smith returned it 16 yards before fumbling, but fortunately Brandon Ayanbadejo recovered on the Bengals’ two-yard-line. Ray Rice punched in a short touchdown on the following play to give Baltimore a 24-14 lead they wouldn’t give up.
At 6-2, 211 pounds, Smith is an impressive physical specimen with 4.5 speed and solid athleticism. Like Peterson and Amukamara ahead of him, Smith has the upside to be a shut-down corner in the NFL if he improves his fundamentals. He’s a strong bump-and-run corner with good instincts, ball skills and the ability to come up and defend the run. Smith slipped into the back end of the first round due to off-the-field concerns, which included arrests and failed drug tests, but he has top-notch talent and if he continues to produce he could overtake Williams as a starter by season’s end.
Da’Norris Searcy (S-Buf)
With starting strong safety George Wilson dealing with a neck injury, Searcy got the start for the Bills on Sunday against the Dolphins. The fourth-round pick out of North Carolina responded well to the opportunity with 11 tackles (9 solo) in the loss.
Searcy’s opportunities have been limited this season with Wilson playing at a high level, but he has recorded 16 tackles since Wilson went down against the Cowboys. He’s a hard-hitting safety with good size (5-10, 223) that comes up the field quickly against the run.
Despite his good size and aggressive nature, Searcy lacks consistency defending the running game. He also had a tendency to fall asleep in zone coverage at times at North Carolina, but is a solid athlete with good speed (4.55) for the safety position. If he can smooth out some of the rough edges of his game and become a more consistent player, Searcy has the talent to start in the NFL.
Dejon Gomes (S-Was)
With LaRon Landry missing Week 11 with an Achilles injury, Gomes drew the start over veteran Reed Doughty. Mike Shanahan said he wanted to take advantage of Gomes’ speed and it seemed to work for the Redskins defense, which kept Washington in a game they had a chance to win in ovrtime.
Gomes finished with 14 tackles (6 solo) and was flying all over the field, doing his best Landry impression. A nickel corner at Nebraska, Gomes hasn’t seen much time this season but has worked mostly at safety despite a lack of prototypical size for the position (5-11, 208).
A fifth-round pick in April, Gomes is a physical defender against both the pass and the run. He’s too small for safety and isn’t a true cornerback, so his niche in the NFL may be his ability to back up every position in the secondary. Gomes should also be able to excel in nickel and dime packages and his polished skill set should help him stick in the league.
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.