The top impact rookies from Week 1 of the 2012 NFL season were names you would have expected, including a top-2 pick, two other first-rounders and three second-rounders. The only outliers were a sixth-round running back from Florida Atlantic who nobody even knew was starting until minutes before game time and a fourth-round linebacker out of the Mountain West. Check out Chris Tripodi’s first installment of the Rookie Report to find out which first-year players played important roles for their team in Week 1.
Robert Griffin III (QB-Was)
Most draft analysts acknowledged that there was some debate between Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III as to who should have gone first overall in April’s draft, but those same analysts generally sided with Luck. There was no debate about who the better quarterback was on Sunday, as Griffin became the first player in NFL history with 300 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in his NFL debut, a 40-32 victory over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints
Griffin finished the game 19-of-26 passing for 320 yards, second-most in a debut behind only Cam Newton, who topped 400 yards in Week 1 last season. Most impressively, Griffin completed 8-of-9 passes for 188 of those yards when the Saints rushed five or more defenders, proving to be a more lethal weapon against the blitz than the New Orleans’ base defense. He also had 10 rushes for 42 yards, eight of which came on designed runs, proving once again that Griffin is more polisher passer than frantic runner even at this early stage of his career.
The much-hyped rookie from Baylor showed the poise and athleticism that led the Redskins to trade three first-round picks and a second-rounder to move up to the second overall pick in April to draft him. Griffin certainly made Washington look smart after his Week 1 performance and his arm strength, mobility and leadership should be on display all season in the nation’s capital.
Doug Martin (RB-TB)
Tampa Bay’s first-round pick out of Boise State, Martin ran Sunday like he didn’t miss the blue turf at all. The former Bronco carried the load in the Bucs’ win over the Panthers, toting the rock 24 times for 95 yards and adding 23 yards on 4 receptions out of the backfield. After rumors of a timeshare with LeGarrette Blount earlier in the summer, this is clearly Martin’s backfield to start the season as Blount carried just 3 times before leaving with a leg injury.
While Blount is a plodder with limited upside, Martin is a well-rounded overall runner who does the little things well. The rookie may not excel in any one thing but has good size at 5-9, 223 pounds and enough speed (4.5) to be an effective NFL starter. He has even drawn comparisons to another Martin, recently enshrined former Jet Curtis Martin, who wasn’t the biggest or the fastest running back but possessed the vision, patience and pure running ability to make the most of his abilities.
Like Curtis Martin, Doug Martin is a complete, polished back who understands blocking schemes and has the burst to hit the hole quickly before it closes. He’s a hard runner with quick feet and the ability to make defenders miss in space and, despite his lack of breakaway speed, is also a dynamic receiver and return man. Martin should see as much work as he can handle as a rookie with Blount already falling into the doghouse and should be Tampa’s every-down back this season.
Alfred Morris (RB-Was)
With Evan Royster listed atop the team’s depth chart and Roy Helu possessing the most dynamic skill set of the Redskins’ running backs, it was certainly a surprise to learn that Morris was receiving the Week 1 start just a few hours before kickoff. It was even more of a surprise that Morris received 28 carries compared to just 4 for Royster and Helu combined, and possibly even more surprising that he turned that extra work into 96 yards and 2 touchdowns. Regardless, the sixth-round rookie made an instant impact on Washington’s offense along with fellow rookie Robert Griffin III.
Nobody will confuse Morris’ potential with Griffin’s, however, as he is a 5-10, 220-pound back who ran a 4.6 40-yard dash. Morris’ lack of speed and burst was evident at times, but he ran hard on the inside and seemed to thrive in the one-cut, zone-blocking scheme that has made runners like Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson look like stars under Mike Shanahan in the past.
Nobody would be surprised if this proves to be the best game of Morris’ career, especially considering Shanahan’s history of playing musical running backs and the depth the Redskins possess behind him. But on Sunday, the former Owl certainly outshined his more talented teammates in the backfield and will get every opportunity to keep the job if he stays productive and the team continues to win. Just don’t expect another 28 carries especially if the Redskins fall behind, as both Helu and Royster should receive most of the work on passing downs.
Stephen Hill (WR-NYJ)
Coming out of Georgia Tech’s triple option offense, not much was expected from Hill out of the gate as he adjusted to an NFL system and was playing with a still unproven quarterback in Mark Sanchez. The second-round rookie’s Week 1 performance defied even the loftiest expectations that could have been placed on him, as Hill had 5 receptions for 89 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Jets blew out the Bills, 48-28.
Hill dominated his matchup with Buffalo’s first-round pick, cornerback Stephen Gilmore, beating him consistently and catching everything thrown his way, something he didn’t do in college or the preseason. When a 6-foot-4 receiver has 4.3 speed people tend to notice, but Hill came into the NFL as an unfinished product, albeit one with tons of raw potential, and his upside was certainly on display Sunday.
It will be difficult to expect this kind of performance from Hill every week with the Jets employing a run-heavy offense, but it was obvious on Sunday that new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano plans to take far more shots down the field than his predecessor Brian Schottenheimer. As the Jets fastest receiver on the outside and their tallest target in the red zone, Hill should be the beneficiary of the Jets new-look passing attack. Growing pains should still be expected, however, as this performance should draw the attention of opposing defense and Hill’s route running and hands still need polish.
Coby Fleener (TE-Ind)
Despite a slow start on Sunday, the Stanford rookie best known for being Andrew Luck’s teammate with the Cardinal posted respectable stats in his NFL debut. The first pick of the 2012 second round, Fleener caught his first three NFL passes for 51 yards on the Colts’ final drive of the second quarter, helping Andrew Luck and company get into field goal range before halftime.
Fleener finished with a total of 6 catches for 82 yards and was targeted 10 times by his former teammate, a trend that should continue throughout the season. With Austin Collie out due to a concussion Luck had few options beyond Fleener and Reggie Wayne, who had a whopping 18 targets on the day.
Fleener’s size (6-6, 247) and 4.5 speed make him an attractive option in the passing game for any quarterback, let alone one he already has years of chemistry with. The rookie tight end can create mismatches down the field for any secondary but also has the size and awareness to be effective underneath, which should help both he and Luck develop quickly in the NFL. The Colts should be excited about the future these former Cardinal teammates can have together.
Chandler Jones (DE-NE)
A first-round pick from Syracuse, Jones made his way into the Patriots’ starting lineup and paid immediate dividends for his team, forcing a Jake Locker fumble deep in Titans’ territory early in the second quarter on Sunday. The fumble was recovered by fellow rookie first-round pick Dont’a Hightower and returned for a touchdown that gave New England an early double-digit lead they would never relinquish.
Jones finished the game with 5 tackles (3 solo, 2 for loss), a sack and the aforementioned forced fumble while playing almost 60 snaps. He looked exactly like the instinctive, explosive pass rusher the Patriots thought they were getting 21st overall in April. The former Orange star will experience his share of struggles in the running game at 6-5 and just 265 pounds but he already looks like a threat to reach double-digit sacks in his rookie season.
It’s difficult to picture a better situation for a player with Jones’ skill set than the one the Patriots present. New England is likely to have opponents playing from behind often, which will allow Jones to pin his ears back and wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks rather than worrying about playing the run. Just ask Dwight Freeney, another former Syracuse star pass rusher, how it feels to play with the lead most of the time and attack the quarterback.
Miles Burris (LB-Oak)
A fourth-round pick from San Diego State, Burris earned one of the starting outside linebacker roles for Oakland when Aaron Curry went down with injury and enjoyed an impressive debut. The rookie had 9 tackles including 7 solo and one for a loss and looked extremely comfortable in his first NFL action.
Burris’ fearless, blue-collar attitude was certainly on display with some solid hits in the running game as he acclimated himself well after a strong performance in preseason play. He showed solid play recognition ability, scraped well down the line and aggressively attacked the running lanes all day as he helped the Raiders limit the Chargers to just 45 yards rushing on 20 carries without Ryan Mathews.
Burris was drafted to solidify one of the Raiders’ biggest weaknesses from 2011, their run defense. As a player who doesn’t rely on blazing speed to make an impact, he is the opposite of the Raiders’ prototypical draft pick but is still a good athlete who uses his intelligence and toughness to diagnose the situation and make plays. Curry may never get his job back if Burris can continue his strong play, and the Raiders may have found themselves a full-time starter late in the fourth round.
Janoris Jenkins (CB-StL)
Jenkins came into this year’s NFL Draft with a great deal of baggage from his college days. The talented cornerback was arrested in 2011 on misdemeanor marijuana charges and subsequently dismissed from Florida’s football team. Jenkins played his senior year at North Alabama and despite being a first-round talent, slipped into the second round where the Rams decided his upside outweighed his downside.
After a strong preseason and just one week of the regular season, that decision looks like the right one. On the opening drive of the team’s season, Matthew Stafford drove the Lions all the way down to St. Louis’ three-yard line before getting intercepted at the goalline by Jenkins, who returned the interception out past his own 30-yard line.
On the interception, Jenkins jammed tight end Tony Scheffler at the line of scrimmage and immediately picked his head up to read Stafford’s eyes, which were looking directly at Scheffler. Jenkins stopped in his tracks for the easy interception, which kept Detroit off the scoreboard and led to a Rams field goal in a game they almost won. Jenkins’ past troubles could always rear their ugly head at any time but if he can fly straight, he should prove to be one of the second-round steals of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, compiling Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and conducting draft interviews with 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 at @christripodi and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.