This week’s Rookie Report is dominated by Colts, Seahawks and Panthers. In fact, all eight of the first-year players profiled below all hail from those three teams I just mentioned. Chris Tripodi is here to tell you about their performances.
Andrew Luck (QB-Ind)
It took three weeks, but April’s top overall pick finally made the Rookie Report. After a rough debut against the Bears that saw Luck throw three interceptions and complete barely half of his passes, the rookie signal caller out of Stanford has bounced back with two straight 2-touchdown performances and just one interception over those two games.
Luck’s offensive line hasn’t done a great job protecting him, especially on Sunday, but the heir to Peyton Manning was able to scramble out of the pocket for 50 yards on 4 carries along with topping 300 passing yards for the second time this season. He was just 22-for-46 passing and has completed just 53 percent of his passes so far this season, numbers that should certainly improve as the year goes on. His 846 passing yards through three games are impressive, but he’s thrown over 40 times per game to get there.
So far in 2012, Luck has shown all the talents that made him the highest-rated college prospect since Manning in the late 1990’s. His long touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton against Jacksonville on Sunday was an example of his great anticipation, arm strength and downfield accuracy and while his supporting cast leaves a lot to be desired, especially with Austin Collie now out for the season, Luck should continue to hold his own at the NFL level and grow into a star with every passing week.
Russell Wilson (QB-Sea)
After a great preseason, Wilson earned the starting quarterback job in Seattle while free agent prize Matt Flynn spent most of the fake games on the sideline with an injury. At just 5-11, Wilson has an uphill battle to climb to be a successful short NFL quarterback but the Seahawks believed enough to spend a mid-third round pick on him. With Wilson’s talent level, he could have been a top-ten pick if he was even three inches taller.
Wilson is also a great baseball player, being drafted in 2010 by the Colorado Rockies out of North Carolina State before returning to school to play football at Wisconsin. He has 4.55 speed and the ability to break contain, move outside the pocket and make all the necessary throws while on the move. He’s been protected early in his career, throwing just 41 passes in his last two games, but has 4 touchdowns and just 1 interception on the season and is completing over 57 percent of his passes.
The former Wolfpack and Badgers’ quarterback has also faced three of the NFL’s best pass defenses so far this season, which makes his solid numbers even more impressive. He’ll get a reprieve from top defenses when he faces the Rams this week and could enjoy a true breakout game if Seattle removes the reigns and lets him make some plays rather than relying on Marshawn Lynch to continue carrying the load. Wilson may be facing long odds as a quarterback under six feet tall, but he certainly has the ability to be the player who breaks that mold.
T.Y. Hilton (WR-Ind)
Hilton burst onto the scene in a big way on Sunday against Jacksonville, catching his first career touchdown on a 40-yard strike from fellow rookie Andrew Luck. Hilton also added a 33-yard catch later in the game on his way to a 113-yard day on 4 receptions.
Known as a burner, Hilton’s 4.4 speed was on display and he showed chemistry with Luck that was not there in Weeks 1 and 2, when Hilton was targeted just once. Luck looked his way eight times in Week 3 and while he may not see that many targets in a game again this season, another season-ending injury to Austin Collie has moved Hilton up to third on the depth chart behind Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery.
With Avery’s checkered injury history it wouldn’t be that surprising to see Hilton enter the starting lineup at some point, even for just a game or two. At just 5-9 he may never be anything more than a third receiver but if he sticks in Indianapolis, he could end up being one of the league’s better slot receivers. He has had his own injury issues as well thanks to his small frame but if Hilton stays healthy, he has the potential to become a dynamic weapon for Luck and the Colts’ offense.
Bruce Irvin (DE-Sea)
A surprise first-round pick by the Seahawks in April, Irvin was part of a surprising defensive outburst in Seattle’s controversial win over Green Bay on Monday night. The Seahawks defense sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times in first half, including two from Irvin.
While Irvin isn’t starting just yet on a solid Seahawks defense, the rookie from West Virginia helped stymie Rodgers and the Green Bay offense early and prevent them from building any momentum in the first half. With 22.5 sacks in his final two years with the Mountaineers, Irvin came into the NFL as one of the draft’s premier pass rushers and with 2.5 in his first three games, he hasn’t disappointed thus far.
At just 6-3, 250 pounds, Irvin is best suited as a 3-4 rush linebacker but has been used as a backup defensive end in the Seahawks’ 4-3 alignment so far. If he wants to start for Seattle in the future, he will likely need to add some weight to his frame to hold up against the run and prevent himself from being controlled easily at the point. If he can bulk up or find a home as a 3-4 rush linebacker, Irvin’s future will be bright. If not he may end up being a rotational player early in his career, which would be somewhat disappointing for a first-round pick.
Frank Alexander (DE-Car)
A fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma in April’s draft, Alexander has been used in Carolina’s defensive line rotation behind Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. With Hardy feeling under the weather for Week 2’s win over New Orleans and the Panthers falling behind by a big margin in Week 3, Alexander got a few extra snaps towards the end of game and showed some flashes of potential.
A third-quarter sack of Eli Manning that almost pushed the Giants out of field goal range was the highlight of Alexander’s night, which also included 3 solo tackles. He was a productive pass rusher with the Sooners and has the ability to stick on the end of a 4-3 defensive line if things fall into place for him.
His technique and effort were major question marks at Oklahoma but Alexander’s athleticism was never in doubt. He stays low and uses his hands well and can even drop back effectively into space. Alexander has all the underlying skills to be a starter in the NFL, either at end or as a 3-4 rush linebacker, but he will need to take in professional coaching and dispel the notion that he has a tendency to give up on plays before they’re over.
Luke Kuechly (LB-Car)
Kuechly came into the NFL very highly regarded after winning the Lombardi Award for best linebacker and the Bronko Nagurski Award for best defensive player. The expectations out of the gate were certainly high and Kuechly was expected to immediately step into stardom. With just 9 tackles (3 solo) in his first two games, the early returns were slightly underwhelming.
The ninth overall pick in the April’s NFL Draft stepped up in Week 3 and showed everybody why he was so highly regarded coming out of Boston College, racking up 12 tackles (6 solo, 1 for loss) and a pass breakup. Kuechly finally looked 100 percent comfortable on the field and it showed in his instinctual play and nose for the football.
Kuechly is more football player than pure athlete, but he has enough speed (4.58) and quickness to be a stud between the tackles. He may not make as many plays to the sideline or chasing the action as some NFL middle linebackers but he’s as sure a tackler as they come after making 374 tackles in his last two years with the Eagles. More performances like the one from Week 3 should be expected from Kuechly from here on out, rather than the duds he posted in his first two career games.
Bobby Wagner (LB-Sea)
When Seattle traded veteran Barrett Ruud to New Orleans late in the preseason, their confidence in Wagner’s ability to immediately step into the starting lineup was apparent. After starting slow in the first two games by totaling just 8 tackles (5 solo), the rookie second-round pick from Utah State showed why the team was confident in his abilities against Green Bay.
Wagner matched his season total in tackles with 8 in helping the Seattle defense limit Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to just 12 points. This is the type of performance the Seahawks were expecting from Wagner, who had 400 tackles in the last three years with the Aggies. His coverage ability still needs work and while Packers’ tight end Jermichael Finley posted his highest yardage total so far this season, he still managed only 60 yards receiving.
Unlike Bruce Irvin who was mentioned earlier, Wagner fits perfectly in the Seahawks’ 4-3 defense as a prototypical run-stuffing middle linebacker. He scrapes well out to the flanks and while his speed in pursuit and quickness is nothing special, Wagner still has a good opportunity to be a productive NFL middle linebacker.
Josh Norman (CB-Car)
A four-year starter at Coastal Carolina, this fifth-round pick is surprisingly polished for a small-school defender. Norman has improved every week so far in the NFL as well, moving from 4 tackles (3 solo) in Week 1 to 8 tackles (5 solo) in Week 2 and a career-high 11 tackles (8 solo) in Week 3. He also broke up his first career pass.
Norman has good size (6-0, 195) and 4.55 speed, which makes him a solid yet unspectacular prospect at the cornerback position. One of the few weakness exposed in his game at Coastal Carolina was an inability to shed blocks and cover bigger receivers despite his size, but he has shown a nose for the football early in his Carolina career and ranks third on the team with 23 tackles, ahead of star linebacker Jon Beason.
It’s rare for a rookie from a school like Coastal Carolina to make an immediate impact at the NFL level, but Norman has done just that. A shutdown corner in college, Norman still has some work to do to be as effective in coverage as he was against lesser competition but he will be afforded every opportunity to get that work in starting opposite Chris Gamble. It’s still too early to tell whether Norman will end up as a nickel back or a starter in the league down the line, but if he rounds out his game he certainly has a shot.
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.