With a lack of new rookies bursting onto the Week 12 scene, this week’s Rookie Report focuses mainly on players who were profiled in the early weeks of the season. Some have continued to perform at a high level, while others have been extremely inconsistent during their first year in the NFL.
Cam Newton (QB-Car)
Despite some impressive statistics that include a 61% completion rate, 3,093 passing yards and 22 total touchdowns, Newton has been inconsistent in his rookie campaign. The former Auburn quarterback has looked like a superstar at times, while making his coaches and Panthers fan shake their heads at others. That’s to be expected from any rookie quarterback, even one taken first overall.
Newton has thrown at least three interceptions in three games this season, all losses. The Panthers had the lead in all three of those games and were up double digits in two of them, with Newton’s turnovers helping to fuel comebacks by their opponents. Carolina has already surpassed their win total from last season at 3-8 but that record could be even better if Newton had taken better care of the football in a few games.
The sky is the limit for Newton as a player with his ability to find the endzone through the air and on the ground, but he needs to learn that sometimes the most important trait of a successful NFL quarterback is ball security. His 14 interceptions are tied for third most in the NFL, he has just one passing touchdown in his last three games and he hasn’t thrown for over 300 yards since Week 4 after eclipsing that number three times in his first four NFL games.
It seems Newton has hit the rookie wall as a passer and, if it weren’t for his running skills, the Panthers would be struggling to put points on the board. With four of his remaining five games coming against bottom-five pass defenses, he should have a chance to bounce back and end the year with positive momentum heading into the 2012 season.
A.J. Green (WR-Cin)
While Newton has been inconsistent as a top-five pick, Green has been anything but. The Georgia product has had either 4 receptions, 100 yards or a touchdown in every game this season and set a Bengals rookie record with his third 100-yard game against Cleveland on Sunday. His 51-yard catch in the fourth quarter set up the game-winning field goal that kept the Bengals a game ahead of the pack in the AFC Wild Card race.
Green’s performance hasn’t been lost on Coach Marvin Lewis, who had nothing but praise for the rookie after the game. “He’s the best first-round draft pick I’ve ever been around,” Lewis proclaimed. “He continues to amaze me, every day.” Keep in mind that Lewis was the Ravens defensive coordinator in 1996 when they drafted Ray Lewis late in the first round and all Lewis has done is make 12 Pro Bowls during his storied NFL career.
Green has easily been the best receiver in this year’s draft class and his play-making ability has immediately translated to the NFL level. At 6-4 he can jump for balls with the best receivers in the league, even against a talented young corner like Joe Haden who he faced on Sunday. Green’s consistent play during his rookie season can only mean good things for his future, which should include many Pro Bowl selections.
J.J. Watt (DE-Hou)
When star linebacker Mario Williams went down with a season-ending pectoral injury after Week 5, many thought the early-season defensive resurgence the Texans were enjoying would be short-lived. Watt has done a great job helping to picking up Williams’ slack since the injury and after being drafted in the first round out of Wisconsin, he has been everything Houston expected him to be and more.
Watt’s performance has been steady since Williams was lost for the season. The Texans are 5-1 in the six games since losing Williams and Watt has made at least 3 tackles in every one of those games. His play against the run has been outstanding and he’s also been effective as a rush rusher with 3.5 sacks after getting to the opposing quarterback just once in the first five games.
Young outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed have also played a big role in replacing Williams, but Watt has been the rock Houston has needed on that side of their defense. If it wasn’t for Von Miller, Watt would be getting some serious consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Jabaal Sheard (DE-Cle)
Much like Newton above, Sheard has been a typical rookie. He shows flashes at times, but is also wildly inconsistent. After a big game in Week 2 that led to his initial profile in the Rookie Report, the second-rounder out of Pittsburgh had just 1 tackle against Miami and followed up that performance with 5 stops against Tennessee and 4 tackles and a sack two weeks later in Oakland.
Part of Sheard’s problem is his size. At just 6-2, 255 pounds, he is easily controlled by bigger lineman at times. His advantage has always been his quickness off the edge but it usually takes some time for a speed rusher like Sheard to adjust to the speed of the NFL. With a sack and a forced fumble in two consecutive games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati, maybe Sheard is starting to consistently get it.
Sheard could completely disappear this week against the Ravens and dispel that theory but if he puts together a solid game against big tackle like Michael Oher, it may be time to start buying into Sheard as a breakout player for next season. With the Browns out of playoff contention, Sheard’s continued development is one of the major things the Cleveland coaching staff will be monitoring as the season comes to a close.
Von Miller (LB-Den)
Miller was profiled back in Week 4 after a hot start to the season that saw him record 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. It may have been easy to predict double-digit sacks from Miller at that point but after two straight monster weeks, the second overall pick out of Texas A&M now has 10.5 on the season in just 11 games.
Miller has had just two games this season without a sack, but didn’t make more than 5 tackles in any of his first eight games of the season. In his last three games Miller has been a terror, making 27 tackles (21 solo) with 7.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, a forced fumble and 2 pass breakups. Tim Tebow is getting much of the credit for Denver’s resurgence but Miller’s play has been a huge boon to the Denver defense, which has improved immensely during the Broncos’ four-game winning streak.
Forget about Defensive Rookie of the Year, which should be almost a lock for Miller at this point. If Miller continues at his current torrid pace, he may even make the Pro Bowl. The last two rookie linebackers to record double-digit sacks were Brian Orakpo and Clay Matthews in 2009 and both played in Honolulu. His play against the run and improving pass coverage is being overlooked due to his success rushing the passer, but Miller is a complete player who will only continue to improve.
Mason Foster (LB-TB)
Foster is another first-year player who’s been inconsistent during his rookie season. The third-rounder from Washington led Tampa Bay in tackles early in the season but his production has tailed off in recent weeks with just 27 tackles in his past six games after making 26 in his first four.
Some of Foster’s struggles can be attributed to an ankle injury he suffered before the Bucs’ Week 6 game with the Saints. He played in the game but was ineffective with just 3 tackles (1 solo) and missed much of the following week’s game with the Bears. Foster bounced back after the bye week with 9 tackles (7 solo) but hasn’t had more than five in a game since.
Foster has had a few big games this season but has generally struggled to be a game-changer on the defensive end. He might lack the athleticism and speed to keep a starting position at the NFL level for the long run, but Tampa will continue to give him the opportunity to start and develop as a pro linebacker.
Justin Houston (LB-KC)
A third-round pick out of Georgia, Houston got off to a slow start in training camp after being Kansas City’s final rookie to sign. He picked things up quickly enough on defense to surpass Andy Studebaker on the depth chart and start Week 1 against the Bills. While he was a part of the Chiefs’ base defense, he came off the field in nickel packages despite his reputation as a pass rusher coming out of college.
Houston has been in and out of the starting lineup all season but he’s seen more snaps than Studebaker in recent games and has been on the field in passing situations. He doesn’t have a sack yet but had his best game of the year against Pittsburgh with 4 tackles, including one for a loss, and a pass breakup. Houston has drawn praise from the coaching staff for his development, as he’s been used in coverage on zone blitzes along with rushing off the edge.
A defensive end in college, Houston doesn’t have the size (6-3, 270) to stick there in the NFL but has enough speed (4.62) to be a good 3-4 outside linebacker. The fact that he’s been effective without recording a sack is a testament to his improvement as a player, as teams let him slip into the third round thinking he was one-dimensional and because of questions about his work ethic and a positive test for marijuana at the scouting combine. Houston has come a long way in just a few months and has the potential to be one of the better third-round picks in this year’s draft.
Patrick Peterson (CB-Ari)
Another top-five pick who has been starting all season, Peterson has been a very mixed bag. On one hand, his punt-return touchdown on Sunday gave him four on the season and tied an NFL record. On the other hand, Peterson has been terrible in coverage and ranks as one of the league’s worst starting corners. Opposing offenses have been attacking him without hesitation and he’s been flagged for a penalty in almost every game this season.
When he was first profiled here after Week 2, improvement was expected from an athlete of his caliber as the season went on. But Peterson hasn’t gotten any better and the Cardinals’ secondary has continued to struggle as a result. He’s a physical corner with good size (6-0, 219) and 4.31 speed but he’s struggled to adjust to the NFL.
It seems likely that Peterson’s coverage issues will continue for the rest of the season and maybe with a full offseason of work with the Arizona coaching staff, he will come back next season as a different player. Cornerback is one of the toughest positions in the league for a young player to step into and succeed immediately and despite all of his talents, Peterson has proven that in 2011.
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.