This week’s Rookie Report has a significant focus on defense, with seven of the eight players profiled playing on that side of the football. Some appear for the second time while others made their first significant impact of the season in Week 15. Chris Tripodi will let you know who in this week’s report.
Jason Pinkston (G-Cle)
The Browns traded up in the fifth round to draft Pinkston and add to their offensive line depth. When starting guard Eric Steinbach was lost for the season in August, Pinkston stepped in to replace him at left guard. A three-year starter as a left tackle at Pittsburgh, the rookie has held his own on the inside of the Cleveland offensive line.
Pinkston struggled against edge rushers in college, so the Browns’ plan was to use him on the right side or at guard thanks to his size (6-3, 317). He’s a solid pass protector with quick feet and good fundamentals and he’s shown that ability this season, allowing just one sack. The Browns have also had more success running behind him in recent weeks than they did earlier in the season.
Despite his size, Pinkston lacks dominant strength and sometimes struggles moving opponents at the point of attack. Despite playing most of his college career at tackle, he moves well and is effective blocking at the second level. Pinkston looks like a great value for the Browns as a fifth-rounder and is looking like a potential starter in 2012.
Corey Liuget (DE-SD)
The Chargers’ first-round pick in April, Liuget has started 11 games for San Diego this season but didn’t record a multiple-tackle game until Week 12 against Buffalo. Including that game, he has three such performances in his past four and has shown consistent improvement, according to head coach Norv Turner.
Liuget also picked up his first career sack in Week 15 against the Ravens and is coming on strong towards the end of the season like the rest of his San Diego teammates. Liuget was highly touted coming out of Illinois after a career year as a junior and is finally starting to show the promise the Chargers expected to see.
At just 6-2, 298 pounds, Liuget is too small to play nose tackle in the Chargers’ 3-4 but fits well as a two-gap end. He struggles at the point at times against the run but has been improving in that aspect all season as seen in his tackle numbers. Liuget has good upside and if he can continue to develop, should cement his place in the San Diego starting lineup.
Allen Bailey (DE-KC)
A third-round pick out of Miami, Bailey has been largely invisible this season as a backup behind former top-five picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. Despite his lack of production this season, Bailey may have come up with one of the biggest plays of Kansas City’s season on Sunday.
The Chiefs handed the Packers their first loss of the 2011 season by a 19-14 score and Bailey recorded his first career sack on third-and-10 with less than 10 minutes to play. A first down would have given Green Bay the ball in Kansas City territory with a chance to take the lead but instead, the Chiefs got the ball back and scored the eventual game-winning touchdown on the following drive.
Bailey was projected as a star during his first few season with the Hurricanes but underwhelmed in his junior and senior seasons. He still has good upside but will need some coaching at the pro level to become a productive NFL starter. Bailey’s versatility and ability to stop the run as well as rush the passer will serve him well if he can develop consistency.
Ryan Kerrigan (LB-Was)
After recording seven sacks in his first 10 pro games, Kerrigan went three games without a sack and seemed to have hit the rookie wall. He picked up his eighth sack of the season against the Giants on Sunday, but has still slowed down significantly since a hot start to the season.
Despite his recent struggles, Kerrigan is still a key part of the Redskins’ defense. Ever since Rex Grossman reclaimed the quarterback job, Washington has been a competitive in most of their games and looks like a much different team than when John Beck was under center. They think they have a team that can compete for the division next season and their defense will be a big part of that.
The early hype surrounding Kerrigan as a Rookie of the Year candidate has subsided, but he has still been one of the most productive defensive rookies of the season. He may lack the upside of other high first-round picks but he’s proven his worth as an NFL-ready player and should only get better with more experience and a full offseason. Kerrigan could record double-digit sacks next season if he doesn’t reach the mark this year.
Aaron Williams (CB-Buf)
Williams stepped into the starting lineup in Week 12 after Terrence McGee was lost for the season but hurt his knee two weeks later, missing Buffalo’s game against San Diego. Williams returned to make six tackles, break up a pass and force a fumble in Sunday’s loss to Miami.
Injuries have been the story of Williams’ rookie season, as he missed six games earlier this season with a shoulder injury before returning in Week 11. He has also been bothered by a calf injury that he played through last week.
If Williams can stay on the field, the second-round pick is a big, physical corner with good footwork that can be effective blitzing out of nickel packages and has the potential to start on the outside. He lacks elite speed (4.55) and might get beat down the field on occasion, but Williams has starting potential if he can develop with experience. He’ll get some valuable playing time in the final two weeks with Buffalo out of contention.
Chris Culliver (CB-SF)
Culliver initially got an opportunity to play due to injuries in the San Francisco secondary but his play this season has earned him a consistent role on one the league’s best defensive units. Culliver has just one interception on the season but has been solid defending the run in the 49ers’ nickel and dime packages.
A third-round pick out of South Carolina, Culliver split time between safety and cornerback in his three years as a starter with the Gamecocks. He plays the run like a safety and has the speed (4.38) to cover at corner and stay with receivers downfield.
Culliver missed the second half of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, which contributed partially to his fall into round three. The talent and versatility he’s shown this season must make San Francisco pretty happy they picked him up, as he’s proven to be well past his injury and has been a key contributor to their defense.
Quinton Carter (S-Den)
Carter has been in and out of the starting lineup all season for Denver, but his recent play has been a big part of Denver’s defensive resurgence. Carter initially filled in for Brian Dawkins in Week 5 but headed back to the bench when Dawkins came out of their Week 6 bye healthy.
Fellow rookie Rahim Moore’s concussion two weeks later opened up a starting spot for Carter once again and the fourth-round pick hasn’t looked back, making nine tackles in that game and continuing to start in place of Moore since. Carter may not have the range of Moore but he’s a sure tackler who has excelled as the last line of defense.
The Broncos have allowed fewer big plays with Carter in the lineup full-time over the past month. He has quickly learned Denver’s defensive scheme and his physicality has helped against the run and defending receivers over the middle. Carter doesn’t look like he wants to give Moore his job back anytime soon.
Rahim Moore (S-Den)
Speaking of Moore, the second-round pick out of UCLA found himself back in the Denver secondary after losing his job, thanks to a neck injury that kept Brian Dawkins out of Sunday’s game against New England. Moore had seven tackles and a pass breakup in the team’s first loss since October.
Profiled back in Week 4, Moore struggled early in the season and lost his job to Quinton Carter a month ago. Moore was the first safety drafted in April but is still a project and has been significantly outplayed by Carter this season and the seemingly playoff-bound Broncos can’t afford to wait on him this season.
Moore has raw talent but doesn’t do the little things well, something Carter has excelled at since taking over the job. Dawkins is old and likely doesn’t have many seasons left in him, meaning Denver will need Moore to step his game up as early as next season to start and produce next to Carter.
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.