Only two first-round picks made this week’s Rookie Report, which is the same number of undrafted free agents profiled as well. It’s about that time a few weeks into the season when players drafted in the later rounds (or not at all) get an opportunity to make an impact whether as a result of injuries, blowouts or improved performance in practice. Chris Tripodi returns this week to tell you which rookies played their way into Week 4’s report.
Ryan Tannehill (QB-Mia)
After averaging just 205 passing yards per game in his first three career starts, Tannehill more than doubled that average on Sunday and nearly broke Cam Newton’s one-year-old rookie passing record. The 8th overall pick out of Texas A&M completed 26-of-41 passes for 431 yards, just one yard shy of Newton’s debut last season.
Despite the gaudy yardage totals, Tannehill threw just 1 touchdown against 2 interceptions and has 7 turnovers this season compared to just 2 touchdowns. He has completed 57 percent of his passes so far and head coach Joe Philbin has pinpointed the rookie’s accuracy as his biggest area of improvement. He was able to move the ball consistently against a solid Arizona defense even though he still lacks a true number-one receiver, despite Brian Hartline’s big game.
Tannehill was drafted with just a year and a half of college experience at the quarterback position after moving from wide receiver as a junior and was not expected to start immediately. A pre-season injury to David Garrard and a poor showing from Matt Moore accelerated his timetable and rather than sitting behind a veteran for half of 2012, Tannehill was given a chance to start immediately.
His above-average arm strength and athleticism make him a very intriguing prospect and if his accuracy is improving as much as Philbin believes, Tannehill has the chance to be a very solid NFL quarterback. It definitely helps his case that he knows coach Mike Sherman’s playbook in and out from their time together with the Aggies, but Tannehill’s inexperience still shows in his footwork and he will need to work on reading coverages and looking off safeties to continue growing as a passer.
Brandon Bolden (RB-NE)
Looking at Brandon Bolden on paper, you would think it more likely that he was a first or second-round pick rather than an undrafted free agent. At 5-11, 220 pounds with 4.51 speed, the rookie from Mississippi has the prototypical size/speed combination NFL teams look for in a running back.
Inconsistency plagued Bolden with the Rebels and for a 220-pound runner, he never broke many tackles. The rookie is certainly explosive and elusive though, as he showed in Week 4 when he rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in a blowout victory over the Bills. That performance should help him continue to fight off second-year back Shane Vereen for touches behind Stevan Ridley.
Bolden is the type of player that could be a steal if he ever puts it all together. It wouldn’t be surprising if he pulled a Stephen Hill next week and was shut out after busting on the scene, especially considering his backup role on a pass-first team and past inconsistencies. If the New England coaching staff is able to buck that trend and get the most out of Bolden’s abilities, they might have found themselves a nice one-two punch with him and Ridley.
Kendall Wright (WR-Ten)
Wright was a player who shot up draft boards throughout the 2011 season thanks to the resurgence of teammate Robert Griffin III at Baylor, but much of his rise was also due to his own talents. The20th overall pick out of Baylor has seen steady playing time in his first 4 NFL games thanks to Kenny Britt’s suspension and injury issues.
The former Bear hasn’t stood out with his increased playing time however, despite 18 receptions and 2 touchdowns. Those 18 catches have come on 33 targets and Wright has just 148 yards on the season. His Week 4 line of 4 receptions, 46 yards and a touchdown looks decent but was fueled by garbage time stats, as Wright had more drops (2) in the first half than receptions (0).
Wright did show off his talents with the ball in his hands on a late screen pass and his playmaking ability along with 4.43 speed and decent size (5-10, 196) give him a nice upside. He’s a smooth receiver who is quick out of his breaks and runs sharp routes while making tough catches and showing the ability to make plays vertically. Wright definitely isn’t there yet, but can develop into a lead receiver in the NFL.
Billy Winn (DT-Cle)
After a sophomore season that saw him amass 44 tackles (12.5 for loss) and 6 sacks at Boise State, many thought Winn was on his way to being an early-round pick in the NFL Draft. One year and just 3 sacks later, Winn found himself in a freefall that finally ended with pick 35 of the 6th round when the Browns decided to take a chance on a player the scouting community was high on just a year earlier.
Winn was very consistent as a junior with the Broncos and his passion and work ethic both came into question. At 6-4, 295 pounds with 4.8 speed, the rookie defensive tackle is an athletic specimen who could become a difference maker if he gives everything he has at all times. Winn had 5 tackles (1 for loss) against Baltimore last Thursday night but will need more performances like that to stay in the Browns’ defensive line rotation when Phil Taylor is ready to return for the PUP list.
Currently, Winn is behind Ahtyba Rubin and fellow rookie John Hughes on the depth chart but Hughes has done virtually nothing since a 6-tackle performance in Week 2 and continued strong play from Winn, undoubtedly the more physically gifted player, may leave him with a role even when Taylor returns. His versatility allows him to play some defensive end as well which will help him keep playing time, but he will need to keep his motor running to make any serious impact at the NFL level.
Lavonte David (LB-TB)
Through three weeks, David had been a solid producer on the weak side for Tampa Bay. In Week 4, the second-round pick out of Nebraska exploded onto the NFL scene with 14 tackles (12 solo), three of which took down Redskins ball carriers in the backfield. David’s Week 4 performance left him just 3 tackles shy of Mason Foster’s team-leading 36.
What David lacks in size at 6-1, 233 pounds, he more than makes up for with toughness and instincts. The rookie has the speed (4.58) to make plays out to the flanks and run down the field with tight ends. He has a great first step, uses his hands well to fight off blockers and closes quickly to wrap up opponents. He hasn’t made any big plays just yet this season as evidenced by his zero combined sacks, fumbles forced and pass breakups but those should come in time.
While David’s size may limit him slightly down the road, he has proven to be a solid every-down outside linebacker through his first 4 NFL games. As long as he continues to use his natural instincts and awareness to make plays around the line of scrimmage and avoid getting stuck inside, there’s no reason a football player like David can’t continue to thrive as an NFL starter.
Vontaze Burfict (LB-Cin)
After losing outside linebacker Thomas Howard for the season to a knee injury heading into Week 2, the Bengals expected Burfict to come in and start in his place. Instead, Burfict saw just 22 snaps that game and it seemed he wouldn’t get the opportunity he initially thought. Fast forward two weeks later and Burfict has shown himself to be a potential impact player for the Cincinnati defense.
The rookie from Arizona State had 9 tackles (8 solo, 1 for loss) and his first career sack against the Jaguars on Sunday. He should continue to see consistent playing time for the Bengals and could thrive, since he was once considered a potential first-round pick before off-field issues and questions surrounding his work ethic came to light.
Burfict was a stud with the Sun Devils as a freshman and sophomore but regressed significantly his junior year, disappearing for long stretches and drawing ill-timed penalties that overshadowed his big-play ability on defense. It’s rare to find a Pro Bowl-type talent on waivers after the NFL Draft but Burfict’s baggage has overshadowed his upside to this point in his career. If he can keep his head on straight and play disciplined football, the sky is the limit for a playmaker like him.
For as much upside as Burfict has, he could also find himself out of the league before he knows it if he doesn’t take to NFL coaching and clean up his act both off and on the field. He represents the classic boom-bust prospect but for the low price the Bengals had to pay to acquire his services, the upside is well worth the risk.
Josh Robinson (CB-Min)
A third-round pick out of Central Florida, Robinson has stepped into the Vikings’ nickel back role and acquitted himself quite well against NFL competition. With Minnesota beating up on Detroit on Sunday and forcing the Lions to throw 51 times, the rookie cornerback saw extensive playing time in Week 4 and made the most of it.
A 5-10, 199-pound speedster who runs a 4.3 40-yard dash, Robinson made a career-high 7 tackles with a pass breakup to help the Vikings move to 3-1 on the young season. This performance came on the heels of Robinson’s first career interception in Week 3 and he has been a solid third-round find for Minnesota so far this year.
Robinson showed toughness making some big tackles and despite his reputation as a burner, does play a physical brand of football when covering receivers as well as helping in run support. He’s a little slow off the line in man coverage and his height costs him some jump balls, but the former Knight has already proven himself to be a solid nickel corner and has the big-play ability to be a starter if he can improve covering one-on-one or stick in a zone system.
Tavon Wilson (S-NE)
It didn’t take long for Wilson to make an impact at the NFL level, as he intercepted a Jake Locker pass early in the second quarter of New England’s opening weekend win over Tennessee. He hasn’t really done much since as he’s playing behind Steve Gregory at strong safety, but Wilson did come up with a late interception on Sunday when the Pats had the game in hand against the Bills.
A surprise second-round pick out of Illinois, we had Wilson rated as an undrafted free agent heading into the draft. He was a solid college safety with decent size (6-0, 210) and speed (4.55) but doesn’t really stand out on defense. Wilson struggles in man coverage and isn’t very fluid in his moments on the field, which may limit him to a rotational safety and special teams stalwart.
Those kinds of players are certainly useful, but more is usually expected of a second-round pick. Wilson does have 2 interceptions so far in his young career and maybe the Patriots saw something in him that the scouting community didn’t to use a second-round pick on him. He can be used as a blitzer off the edge and may find a niche in the NFL even if he doesn’t end up as a starter, but it’s still hard to justify an early pick on a role player no matter how effective he may prove to be.
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.