The final week of the 2011 NFL season provided opportunities for multiple rookies to see an increase in playing time while others profiled earlier this season have continued their strong play and will look to build on their Week 17 performances throughout the offseason and into next year. Chris Tripodi breaks down the last group of impact first-year players of the season, which includes three rookies who went undrafted.
Denarius Moore (WR-Oak)
It’s impossible to find a Raiders receiver that was able to stay healthy for 16 games this season and Moore is no exception. A fifth-round pick out of Tennessee, Moore wasn’t expected to contribute much right away as a raw speedster but he was Oakland’s best receiver in training camp which earned him playing time early as a result of injuries to his teammates.
More caught three passes for 101 yards in Week 17 against the Chargers, his third 100-yard game of the season. Like any rookie, Moore’s problem has come with consistency. In eight of his 13 games this season he had 34 or fewer yards, whether it was due to his own struggles finding holes in the defense or it was one of the few games where the Raiders had a full stable of receivers.
Outside of Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was one of the league’s most improved receivers this season, Moore was the Raiders’ best option in the passing game and with an offseason to work with new quarterback Carson Palmer, could have a nice season next year if he beats out fellow speedster Jacoby Ford for the starting spot opposite Heyward-Bey. Even if he doesn’t, he should see plenty of snaps when Oakland tries to stretch the field
With 33 receptions for 618 yards and five touchdowns, his rookie numbers closely resemble the Steelers’ Mike Wallace, who had 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns in three more games games. Wallace had 60 catches for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns in his second season and while expecting growth like that from Moore would be foolish considering Oakland’s depth at receiver, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him push for close to 1,000 yards if he can stay healthy.
Titus Young (WR-Det)
Young has gone through the typical ups and downs for a rookie wide receiver this season as well and, after a three-game span from Week 11 to Week 13 where he had a combined five receptions, has had at least four catches in his past four games to close out the season.
Young also scored four of his six touchdowns this season in those games and finished the year with 48 receptions for 607 yards. His yards per reception have dropped significantly however, as he’s averaging just over six yards per catch since Week 13 after averaging close to 15 through the first 12 games of the 2011 season.
A second-round pick out of Boise State, Young’s ability to stretch the field certainly helped Matthew Stafford eclipse the 5,000-yard mark this season. His size (5-11, 175) is a limiting factor but Young has a chance to start over Nate Burleson next season if he takes advantage of his first career NFL offseason and develops more chemistry with the blossoming Stafford.
Ricardo Lockette (WR-Sea)
Lockette is the first of three undrafted rookies in this report coming out of Division-II Fort Valley State. Lockette was the national champion in the 200 meters in college but is looking to translate his 4.34 speed into a career as an NFL receiver.
The former sprint star had just two catches this season for 105 yards, one of them being a 61-yard touchdown grab in Week 17 after a 44-yard reception the week before. Lockette streaked down the left sideline and made a juggling grab in single coverage on his way into the endzone.
At 6-1, 211 pounds, Lockette has the size and athleticism to make big plays with the ball in the air and is already one of the league’s fastest receivers. If he can work on route-running and tracking the ball in the air, he has upside as a deep threat and may be a player worth watching down the line.
Cameron Jordan (DE-NO)
The lone first-round pick profiled in this week’s report, Jordan has had a quiet statistical season for the Saints starting at defensive end opposite Will Smith. The rookie from Cal didn’t record his first sack until last week’s regular-season finale against Carolina and has 31 tackles (18 solo) on the season.
His lack of impressive statistics isn’t to say that he isn’t helped the Saints defense, as there are plenty of NFL defensive lineman who have a positive impact without showing up often on the stat sheet. Jordan isn’t a big-time pass rusher and while the Saints have allowed five yards per carry in the running game, they lack depth behind Smith and Jordan on the edges.
Jordan is a three-down lineman who can affect a game both against the run and the pass. He may have gotten the Jason Pierre-Paul treatment on a team with a better defensive line but the Saints needed him to fill a role this season and he has. With the added experience of playing in the playoffs and the advantage of an offseason heading into 2012, expect improvement from Jordan heading into year two, especially on the stat sheet.
Jurrell Casey (DT-Ten)
Coming into Tennessee’s final game of the season, Casey had put up impressive numbers after taking over as a starter just one week into the season. He finished the season with 53 tackles, a high number for a defensive tackle, but had just five tackles for loss and one sack heading into the Titans’ final game of the 2011 season.
Casey had his best game of the year in the team’s season-ending loss to the Texans, with six tackles including three for loss and 1.5 sacks. A third-round pick out of USC, Casey has surpassed expectations in Tennessee this season and looks primed for a successful sophomore season.
A limited athlete, Casey was an NFL-ready rookie with a non-stop motor. He’s solid fundamentally and while his ceiling may not be that of an All-Pro, there’s no reason Casey can’t use the upcoming offseason to cement his status as a starter and continue to be a productive run stopper in that role.
Sam Acho (LB-Ari)
The rookie out of Texas was barely seen on the field for Arizona until Week 7, recording just one tackle in the team’s first five games. In the 11 games since displacing Joey Porter in the lineup, Acho has impressed with 40 tackles, seven sacks and three forced fumbles.
A fourth-round pick in April’s draft, Acho has the speed and first-step quickness to continue to be an effective NFL pass rusher. With Porter’s Arizona career likely over and possibly his NFL career, Acho should enter training camp as the Cardinals’ starting weak side linebacker.
O’Brien Schofield, Arizona’s 2010 fourth rounder, might compete for that spot with Acho but the former Longhorn should have the inside track to every-down duties for a Cardinals team looking to build on a surprising 8-8 season. With an offseason of work and more time on the field, Acho could post double-digit sacks in 2012.
Kevin Rutland (CB-Jac)
With the Jacksonville secondary ravaged by injuries, the undrafted Rutland started four of the Jaguars’ final five games of the season. With Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox and William Middleton all on injured reserve, the former Missouri cornerback got a shot to play.
Rutland didn’t do much in his first three starts, recording eight tackles with an interception and a pass defended. A physical corner that plays well in run support, Rutland made nine tackles in Week 17 against the Colts, all coming on Indianapolis completions of 11 yards or less.
At 6-0, 190 pounds, Rutland uses his size to his advantage and plays a physical game. His 4.58 speed is limiting and while Draft Insider had him projected as a fifth or sixth-round pick, no team took a shot on him in April. Once the Jaguars’ corners return healthy next season it’s likely that Rutland has seen his last action as an NFL starter but he could stay with Jacksonville as a dime back.
Sterling Moore (S-NE)
An undrafted rookie out of SMU, Moore has spent the 2011 season bouncing back and forth between the Patriots’ active roster and their practice squad. He saw time as a backup against Dallas in Week 6 but was dropped back down to the practice squad until being needed to start a month later in place of Patrick Chung against the Jets.
Four weeks and six tackles later, Moore found himself back on the practice squad until being called up once again before Week 16. After New England fell behind 21-0 last weekend against Buffalo Moore saw extensive playing time in the second half in place of Kyle Arrington at cornerback, intercepting two Ryan Fitzpatrick passes and defending two others.
Moore has average size (5-10, 192) and speed (4.56) but has seen action at both safety and corner this season in the Pats’ injury-riddled secondary. New England has one of the league’s worst pass defenses so it remains to be seen whether Moore’s opportunity has been a product of that or whether he can stick in the NFL, but his versatility could help him maintain a backup role.
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 Web sites, 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.