As the NFL regular season winds down into its final weeks, most of the league’s impact rookies have already been profiled. With the exception of one skill player and two offensive linemen this week, the Rookie Report will once again be rehashing some of the notable first-year performances from players who have consistently (or inconsistently) produced in 2011. Chris Tripodi has more.
Julio Jones (WR-Atl)
Jones was profiled after his monster performance in Week 4, where he caught 11 passes for 127 yards. I also warned fans about the inconsistency that has plagued Jones since his Alabama days and said he was “just as likely to go without a catch next week as he is to repeat this performance.” Lo and behold, Jones had just one reception for 16 yards the following week against the Packers and missed the team’s next two games with a hamstring injury.
Jones returned after Atlanta’s bye and torched the Colts in Week 9, with 3 catches for 131 yards and 2 touchdowns. Then he caught just 2 passes for 9 yards, missed the following game with the same recurring hamstring issue and was shut out the week after in his return. On Sunday against Carolina, Jones once again flashed his elite potential with a 3-catch, 104-yard, 2-touchdown performance.
Despite playing in just 10 games this season, Jones leads all rookies with four 100-yard games and has become just the second receiver in Falcons history with two touchdowns of 75-plus yards. Hampered by inconsistency and injury issues, he also has four games with less than 30 receiving yards this season. Jones has the size (6-2, 220) and speed (4.34) to be a game-changing wide receiver, but he will need to stay on the field and play focused football if he expects to tap into his vast physical abilities.
Doug Baldwin (WR-Sea)
With Sidney Rice being placed on injured reserve and Mike Williams and Golden Tate struggling to find their roles in the offense, Baldwin is once again looking like Tarvaris Jackson’s top target in the Seattle passing game. After an impressive start to the season where Baldwin caught 20 passes for 330 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first five games, the undrafted free agent out of Stanford had just 18 receptions for 295 yards and no touchdowns in his next seven games.
After seemingly hitting the rookie wall, Baldwin busted out in Week 14 with his second highest reception and yardage totals of the season, catching 7 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown on eight targets against St. Louis. Jackson looked his way early and often, as Baldwin was the only Seahawks receiver with more than three receptions or 39 yards.
Baldwin went undrafted due to a lack of great size (5-10, 189) or speed (4.48) but as I said when he was profiled 10 weeks ago, he just seems to have a knack for getting open. Many receivers get open against the Rams defense though, so I’d like to see what Baldwin can do for an encore against a Bears secondary that will likely be focused on shutting him down before believing in his late-season resurgence.
Torrey Smith (WR-Bal)
After Smith’s breakout Week 3 (5 reception, 152 yards, 3 touchdowns), I said in this space that Lee Evans may not get his starting job back when he returned healthy. Smith replaced an injured Evans that week and, despite a healthy return in Week 11, Evans has caught just two passes in the four games since he was activated. Not only has Smith taken Evans’ job, he’s becoming one of Joe Flacco’s most trusted weapons.
For the first time all season, Smith led the Ravens with nine targets on Sunday against the Colts, making 5 receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown. Baltimore didn’t throw much in the second half, meaning Smith’s numbers could have been even better. The rookie out of Maryland had just 10 catches in the four games after he burst onto the scene earlier this season, but has at least five receptions and a touchdown in three of his past six games.
Smith is also starting to prove he’s more than just a 4.4 speedster. His route running has improved immensely and he’s learned to effectively use his reputation as a deep threat to get open on shorter routes. Smith was just the fifth receiver taken late in the second round in April but after A.J. Green, he’s arguably been the second-best rookie at his position in 2011.
Nate Solder (T-NE)
With starting tackle Sebastian Vollmer struggling all season with injuries, Solder has seen extensive playing time on the right side of the Patriots’ offensive line this season. The first-round pick out of Colorado has started nine games this season in place of Vollmer.
Solder has held his own in the veteran’s stead but even when Vollmer has been healthy, New England has done whatever they could to get the rookie in the lineup. A former tight end with the Buffaloes, Solder has lined up there in many formations as an extra blocker for the Pats. As a raw prospect entering the league after just two seasons at tackle in college, his development during his first NFL season has been impressive.
Solder is athletic enough to eventually move over to the blind side and replace Matt Light, but New England has to love his size (6-8, 320) on the right side as well. Solder has proven he can start at the NFL level in just his first season and his upside is immense. With more seasoning and continued improvement, he could overtake Vollmer as early as next season and become a fixture along the Patriots’ offensive line.
Stefan Wisniewski (G-Oak)
Wisniewski first garnered national attention after Oakland’s Week 3 win against the Jets, as the Raiders ran for 234 yards and allowed just one sack. The second-round pick from Penn State was voted Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week for his performance, which included a key lead block early in the fourth quarter that led to a touchdown and a two-score lead for the Raiders.
Oakland has been one of the league’s top rushing offenses the past two seasons but this year, they have done it largely without the services of Darren McFadden, who has been out since Week 7 with a foot injury. Michael Bush is an excellent backup, but it has certainly helped his cause that Wisniewski and the Oakland offensive line continue to open big holes up front.
Wisniewski is a strong run blocker, flashing the ability to get leverage on opponents and the vision and quickness to be effective at the second level. He’s a versatile lineman who started at both guard and center with the Nittany Lions, but his skills in motion have helped him excel right away as an NFL guard. Wisniewski was just the ninth offensive lineman drafted after seven went in the first round but he has proven to be one of the best of this year’s rookie crop.
Marcell Dareus (DE-Buf)
I discussed Dareus earlier in the season after he recorded his first career sack against the Bengals in Week 4. With Kyle Williams already on the Buffalo roster as their 3-4 nose tackle, Dareus started at defensive end in his first six NFL games. When Williams was placed on injured reserve, Chan Gailey decided to move Dareus inside to his more natural nose tackle position before the Bills’ Week 8 game with the Redskins.
Dareus responded in a big way with 2.5 sacks, leading a revamped Bills pass rush that sacked John Beck nine times after recording just four sacks in the team’s first six games. Despite Buffalo’s struggles during their six-game losing streak, their rush defense has been slightly better with Dareus in the middle (126.4 yards allowed per game) than when Williams was healthy (135.7) but their pass rush has just six sacks in the six games since their win against Washington.
It will be interesting to see what the Bills decide to do with Dareus when Williams returns next season. Both have the ability to play the two-gap end in Buffalo’s 3-4 scheme, while Dareus outweighs Williams by 40 pounds and has arguably been more effective at drawing double teams and playing the run. Either way, Dareus has been one of the better players on a bad Bills defense this season and he should only continue to develop as he gains NFL experience. He certainly looks worth a top-three pick so far.
Brian Rolle (LB-Phi)
Rolle has held down his starting spot at weakside linebacker since taking over for Casey Matthews in Week 4 and, while he’s had his share of ups and downs, the sixth-rounder out of Ohio State has been one of the late-round surprises of the 2011 draft.
His increased playing time is more of a result of Philadelphia’s lack of talent at the linebacker position than his future as an NFL starter, but Rolle has taken his opportunity and hasn’t looked back. He recorded his first sack of the season Sunday against Miami and has a tackle for loss in each of his past four games.
Rolle is a smart, speedy linebacker who uses those abilities to make up for his lack of size at 5-10, 230-pounds. If he continues to make his mark in the Eagles’ starting lineup, he can definitely become a consistent special teams and rotational player in the future with the ability to play every linebacker spot and even strong safety. Rolle’s toughness should suit him well wherever he ends up.
Joe Lefeged (S-Ind)
An undrafted rookie out of Rutgers that Draft Insider had rated as a fourth-round prospect, Lefeged was one of the few bright spots in the Colts’ 24-10 loss to Baltimore Sunday that has them just three games away from an 0-16 season.
Despite boasting the league’s lowest kick-return average out of 25 qualifying players (and the only one under 20 yards per return) at 19.7, Lefeged’s 51-yard return on Sunday led to Indianapolis’ first points of the game. He also made a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone to stall a late Ravens drive.
Lefeged’s impact this season may be small but he does have two of the team’s NFL-low six interceptions, while the other three players who have picked off a pass for the Colts are all on injured reserve. He has also been a steady contributor in the secondary of late with 11 tackles in the past three weeks.
At 6-0, 205 pounds with 4.42 speed, Lefeged certainly has the athletic ability to stick in the NFL. His marginal instincts and inconsistency in college led to him not being drafted at all and his struggles tackling and covering bigger opponents will likely prevent him from ever starting in the pros. His meal ticket will come as a returner and backup in the secondary with the upside to make occasional big plays for his team.
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.