As is the case in most of this year’s rookie reports, injuries have yet again opened up opportunities for first-year players to start and prove they can make an impact at the NFL level. A few first-round picks that were previously buried on their team’s depth charts got that chance this week and made the most of it, while a few who were profiled earlier in the season return with updated reports. Chris Tripodi will tell you who did what this week.
Blaine Gabbert (QB-Jac)
It was difficult to get a read on Gabbert when he was discussed in the Week 3 Rookie Report after just one start this season. Gabbert’s debut against Carolina was awful, but it came in a torrential downpour and the Jaguars don’t have any good weapons to throw to on the outside. Ten weeks later the Jaguars still lack weapons, but it’s becoming more difficult to defend Gabbert’s struggles.
His stats from Week 13 looks decent, as the Missouri product completed 19-of-33 passes for 195 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception. At a closer look, 16 of those passes went fewer than five yards downfield and his longest completion traveled just seven yards in the air. For a quarterback many thought was the most accurate in this year’s draft class, Gabbert has completed less than 50 percent of his passes this season and looks timid in the face of pressure.
Gabbert came into the NFL with the athleticism and physical ability to be a starter, but his inconsistent technique and footwork have caused major problems for the Jacksonville offense. The Jaguars made a mistake cutting David Garrard before the season started despite his back injury, which would have probably kept him out for just 4-6 weeks. By cutting Garrard, the Jaguars made a commitment to start Gabbert well before he was ready to step onto the field. In an ideal situation, Gabbert would have been able to absorb a year or two of NFL coaching before becoming a starter.
Some quarterbacks are ready to play right away, as we’ve seen with guys like Matt Ryan in 2008, Sam Bradford in 2010 and Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and even Christian Ponder this season. Gabbert doesn’t have anywhere near the pocket presence of those five quarterbacks and, stuck in an environment with little help around him, it’s tough to see him developing as quickly as he needs to in order to keep his job. It’s probably a little too early to completely give up on Gabbert as a future NFL starter , but it’s becoming painfully obvious that the Jacksonville staff did him no favors throwing him to the wolves this season.
T.J. Yates (QB-Hou)
With Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart suffering season-ending injuries, many thought the Texans were done as a playoff contender. While they may not be able to live up to the Super Bowl expectations some were talking about when Schaub was healthy, Yates showed Sunday that this team still has plenty left to make a run with him under center.
A fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, Yates was just 12-of-25 passing but threw for 188 yards and a touchdown with an aggressive gameplan that took shots down the field off play action. The Texans seem to have plenty of confidence in Yates, whose pocket presence was impressive in his first career start. Many experts had him pegged as a late-round quarterback sleeper and through his first two games, Yates sure looks the part.
The rookie was always in control when he was with the Tar Heels and while he lacks a rocket arm, he showed the ability to get the ball downfield accurately on Sunday. Yates started 44 games in a pro-style offense in college and his awareness, polish and confidence was evident. He held his own in leading Houston to a victory against a solid Falcons team and as a good game manager equipped with the league’s best running game and one of its top defenses, Yates and the Texans may be able to surprise some people down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Mark Ingram (RB-NO)
After missing two games earlier this season with a heel injury and proving ineffective in his return against Atlanta, Ingram has come on strong since the Saints’ Week 11 bye week with 29 carries for 134 yards and 2 touchdowns. More importantly, Ingram has led the team in carries in both games and ran it 16 games against Detroit on Sunday night compared to just 6 carries for Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas combined.
With the Saints opening up an early double-digit lead, Ingram saw plenty of work as the Saints controlled the tempo of the game. Sean Payton will continue to use Sproles extensively in passing situations but Thomas seemed to be the odd man out against Detroit with just 4 touches, compared to 16 for Ingram and 9 for Sproles. Ingram is also Payton’s preferred back to use at the goalline and is looking as good as he has all season.
The former Alabama star showed off his powerful running ability by pushing the pile a few times against the Lions, but also showed the speed to turn the corner and hit the hole quickly on his 14-yard touchdown. With just 122 carries in 12 games, Ingram looks fresh for the Saints playoff run and New Orleans will need a viable running game to stay with the Packers offense if they meet in the playoffs. Expect Ingram to be their horse more often than not when they hand it off the rest of the way.
Da’Quan Bowers (DE-TB)
With starter Michael Bennett dealing with a groin injury, Tampa Bay’s second-round pick out of Clemson got an opportunity to start the past two games at left end opposite fellow rookie Adrian Clayborn. Bowers had been seeing more snaps even before Bennett’s injury and after his performance on Sunday against Carolina, that trend should continue even when Bennett gets healthy.
Bowers was a monster against the Panthers recording 8 tackles (7 solo) and 1.5 sacks. He also had 5.5 tackles for loss and lived in the Carolina backfield against the run and the pass. Clayborn, the team’s first-round pick, was projected as the more balanced defender while Bowers was supposed to be the elite pass rusher, but the former Tiger displayed all of those talents on Sunday.
Before questions about his surgically repaired knee caused him to fall just outside the top 50 in April’s draft, Bowers was a top-five prospect who was even rumored to be a potential No. 1 overall pick. His motor was questioned at times in college but after his draft-day slide, he should have plenty of motivation to play hard and prove the NFL teams that passed on him wrong. If Bowers’ knee holds up, he’s an explosive athlete with the skill set to be an All-Pro and one of the biggest steals of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Nick Fairley (DT-Det)
With Ndamukong Suh suspended for two games after his Thanksgiving Day stomp against the Packers, Fairley finally received the opportunity he was waiting for to produce for the Lions. The 13th overall pick out of Auburn, Fairley missed seven of the team’s first eight games with a stress fracture in his left foot and saw limited action upon his return.
If the first quarter of Sunday night’s game against the Saints was any indication, Detroit is going to be ecstatic with their selection of Fairley. On the Saints’ second drive of the game, Fairley stuffed Mark Ingram in the backfield for a loss to set up a third-and-long. On the next New Orleans drive, Fairley sacked Drew Brees but came up hobbling on the play with an injury to his left foot, the same one that caused him to miss time earlier this season.
Fairley was taken to the locker room but returned to the game later with a noticeable limp. He’s had trouble staying on the field this season but he showed tremendous ability in his limited opportunity this weekend. If Fairley stays healthy and motivated, which was a question mark surrounding him entering the draft, he and Suh have the talent to dominate on the inside for years to come.
Aldon Smith (LB-SF)
Smith was profiled earlier this season after his breakout performance against the Eagles in Week 4. Smith had 1.5 sacks against Philadelphia and over his next three games, the rookie from Missouri added five more and looked well on his way to being as important to his team as Denver’s Von Miller. While Miller’s performance remained steady, Smith seemed to hit the rookie wall early with just 1 sack in his next four games.
That changed on Sunday against an inept Rams offense. Smith picked up 2 more sacks to bring his season total to 9.5, good enough for eighth in the league and second behind Miller among rookies. He was also in the backfield to recover an A.J. Feeley fumble on a strip-sack that gave San Francisco the ball at the Ram’s six-yard-line.
Smith has been a great addition to the San Francisco defense this season but with just 23 tackles in 12 games and almost half of those coming on sacks, he may need to bulk up from his current 260-pound frame to have more impact in the running game. But if more muscle would sap any of his speed off the edge, it may not be in the Smith’s best interest as a pass rusher. He still has work to do to become a complete player, but Smith has already proven himself to be one of the league’s most effective edge rushers.
D.J. Smith (LB-GB)
With Desmond Bishop missing Sunday’s game against the Giants, the former Appalachian State star got his first NFL start in his stead. Smith racked up 8 tackles (6 solo) in the Green Bay victory after making 6 tackles (5 solo) after Bishop left early in Week 12 with a calf injury.
Generously listed at 5-11, 239 pounds, Smith’s size was the biggest question mark on him coming out of college and caused him to fall until the end of the sixth round. Despite his lack of bulk, Smith plays an aggressive brand of downhill football and uses his instincts to find the ball. He has been compared to former Mountaineer Dexter Coakley, an undersized linebacker who used his speed and athleticism to make three Pro Bowls with the Cowboys.
While Smith may not have the natural ability of Coakley, who was a third-round pick back in 1997, he can definitely stick as a backup in the NFL with the ability to effectively play both inside and outside and hold his own on special teams. Bishop is expected back soon, but the Packers have been happy with Smith’s performance and seem comfortable starting him rather than rushing Bishop back at less than 100 percent.
Chris Rucker (CB-Ind)
A sixth-round pick out of Michigan State, Rucker hasn’t seen very much playing time this season and had just 6 tackles entering Week 13. But an early injury to top cornerback Jerraud Powers opened up playing time for the rookie, who made 6 tackles (5 solo) and held his own in coverage against New England.
Rucker’s best play came in the second quarter, when he stayed downfield with Deion Branch along the sideline and almost came up with an interception. For a player who came into the league with a reputation for face guarding and being slow to locate the ball, this is a positive development.
Rucker’s size (6-1, 195), speed (4.55) and physicality translate well to the NFL level but he came with some characters questions after a drunken driving arrest last October, which may have also contributed to his draft-day drop. If he can continue to improve his playmaking ability with his back to the ball like we saw on Sunday, Rucker has the potential to start for a Colts team desperate for productive players on the defensive side of the football.
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.