For the second week in a row, just one offensive player appears on the rookie report along with multiple defensive players making their second appearance of the season. Chris Tripodi breaks down the first-year impact from the second-to-last week of the NFL season below.
Evan Royster (RB-Was)
This year has been a typical one for a Mike Shanahan backfield. Tim Hightower began the year as the team’s starting running back ended up on injured reserve, giving Ryan Torain a chance to claim the job. After Torain failed, rookie Roy Helu took over and became Washington’s workhorse, touching the ball 20 or more times in four straight weeks. Knee and toe injuries kept Helu down against the Vikings on Saturday and Royster took advantage, becoming the fourth Washington running back this season to go over 100 yards from scrimmage.
A sixth-round pick out of Penn State, Royster totaled 147 yards on 19 carries and two receptions against a solid Vikings run defense this week. Royster lacks the speed and quickness of Helu but has the size (6-0, 212) and aggressive running style to be an effective interior runner. He also has good hands out of the backfield and can be a threat in the passing game.
Royster was promoted from the practice squad in late November when the Redskins cut Tashard Choice and found himself starting just a month later. The former Nittany Lion doesn’t have the speed to be a feature back in the NFL but his ability to run between the tackles will serve him well as a backup and rotational runner in the future. Washington looks like they will have good depth at running back heading into next season.
Muhammad Wilkerson (DE-NYJ)
Wilkerson is coming on late in the season for the Jets and although it may be too little, too late for his team’s playoff chances, his production over the past two games gives the team hope that he can continue to grow and stabilize a defensive line that has struggled defending edge runs and rushing the passer this season.
New York’s first-round pick out of Temple, Wilkerson has put together arguably his two best games in the last two weeks. The former Owl has recorded a sack in each game to bring his season total to three while making 11 tackles and forcing a fumble as well. Wilkerson has the upside to be a productive two-gap end in the Jets’ 3-4 alignment if he can continue to develop.
Wilkerson left after his junior season at Temple and is just now starting to show the promise the Jets saw in him coming out of college. New York would be well served to replace fellow defensive end Mike DeVito in the upcoming draft but if Wilkerson can have a strong offseason, something no rookies were afforded after the lockout, the Jets may be expecting a breakout season and be comfortable with Wilkerson and DeVito as their defensive ends next season.
Jacquian Williams (LB-NYG)
Williams was first profiled here after a 10-tackle performance in Week 3 against the Eagles. While that is his best game of the season to this point, Williams has continued to outperform fellow sixth-round pick Greg Jones, who projected as a second or third-rounder and was taken 17 spots ahead of Williams in April’s draft.
The Giants have had injury issues at linebacker this season and even with the re-signing of Chase Blackburn to man the middle once he returned to full health, Williams has still seen plenty of snaps for New York. After a four-game stretch in the middle of the season where he had just seven tackles, the rookie out of South Florida has recorded at least four tackles in five of the past six games.
Williams is a great athlete who fell late in the draft thanks to his lack of size at 6-3, 223 pounds. He also had the small-school tag working against him, as most experts thought he would be a project even as a rotational player. Draft Insider didn’t rank him among our top 78 outside linebacker prospects. But Williams has proven his worth to the Giants this season and should continue to see snaps as a backup and on special teams.
Richard Sherman (CB-Sea)
Sherman has been a solid contributor in the Seahawks secondary in the second half of the season after Seattle’s top two corners went down with season-ending injuries. He has broken up at least one pass in each of his last nine games and has at least four tackles in eight of his last 10. Throw in three interceptions and it’s obvious that Sherman has outplayed his fifth-round draft status.
A former wide receiver at Stanford, where he led the Cardinal in receiving as a sophomore, Sherman switched to corner when Stanford needed help in the secondary. Sherman’s size (6-3, 195) and 4.47 speed combined with his physicality means there is a lot of growth potential in his game.
In just his third season playing the position, Sherman has held his own in coverage and in run support. He plays the ball in the air like a receiver, which gives him an advantage down the field as long as he stays in position. Sherman is still a work in progress and considering his success so far in 2011, that says good things about his future in the NFL.
Chris Harris (CB-Den)
Harris was the Broncos’ fifth corner when training camp broke in August, but he worked his way into Denver’s nickel package by Week 8. His biggest asset this season has been his aggressive play, as he’s recorded at least eight tackles in five of the nine games he’s played since taking over as the third corner.
An undrafted free agent out of Kansas, Harris has just three pass breakups and one interception this season. At 5-10, 190 pounds he has decent size and 4.55 speed but his cover skills leave something to be desired, as many of his tackles have come after allowing a short reception.
That’s not to say that Harris hasn’t had a positive impact on the Denver defense but he went undrafted for a reason: His physical abilities are limited. Harris has already made an impression on the Denver coaching staff with his hard work and improvement, however, and if he can continue to play at this level the Broncos may look to him to start once Champ Bailey moves on if they don’t add another corner through the draft or free agency.
Justin Rogers (CB-Buf)
With Buffalo hurting at cornerback thanks to injuries, Rogers has seen increased playing time of late and is making the most of it. The rookie seventh-round pick made his first career interception on Saturday, picking off the first of Tim Tebow’s four second-half interceptions and returning it into field-goal range for the Bills.
Rogers also had three tackles and two pass breakups on the game, seeing time in Denver’s nickel and dime packages. Rogers’ combination of size (5-11, 180) and speed (4.45) is ideal for an NFL cornerback but coming out of Richmond, he’s a very raw talent that will need time to develop at the next level.
For now, Rogers’ athleticism will allow him to enjoy modest success but if he works on his fundamentals and improves his instincts, his upside is enticing. Draft Insider had him rated as a fourth or fifth-round prospect before April’s draft and if the Bills can develop his abilities, he could be a seventh-round steal that turns into an NFL starter.
Jonathan Nelson (S-Car)
With cornerback Captain Munnerlyn being placed on injured reserve last week, the Panthers promoted Nelson from their practice squad. When starting free safety Jordan Pugh was scratched after experiencing headaches in pregame warm-ups, Nelson went from practice-squad player to starting safety in less than a week.
A seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma, Nelson played well in his debut against Tampa Bay. He made seven tackles with a pass breakup and his first career interception. Overall, it was a solid debut for a player who started just one season with the Sooners and wasn’t even on the active roster for the season’s first 15 weeks.
Nelson played both cornerback and safety in college and that versatility could help him stick on an NFL roster. At 5-11, 180 with 4.53 speed, he doesn’t have the size to start at safety or the recovery speed and ball skills to start at corner. His solid tackling ability makes him a special teams asset and a potentially solid backup at all secondary positions.
Mistral Raymond (S-Min)
Making his second start of the season on Saturday, Raymond did something no Viking had done in the team’s previous 10 games: Intercept a pass. A play after a Brandon Banks touchdown on an end around was called back due to holding, Raymond picked off a Rex Grossman pass intended for Santana Moss and returned it 31 yards into field-goal range, allowing Minnesota to open up a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
The sixth-round pick out of South Florida put together his best game of the 2011 season, also adding six tackles and two pass breakups on the day. One of the those breakups came on the game’s final play, when he smartly batted Grossman’s Hail Mary pass straight into the ground.
Raymond was known as a hard-hitter with the Bulls but his lack of great speed (4.67) and ball skills means the starts he gets this season due to injury may be his last in the NFL. Raymond does have the size (6-1, 202) and athletic ability to stick as a backup safety and special teams player, but his upside is limited.
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.