Defense rules this week’s Rookie Report, as do second-day draft picks. Just one offensive player found his way onto the list this week, but that’s only because I can’t write about Robert Griffin III every time. Only two of the following eight players were taken outside of the 2nd or 3rd round and Chris Tripodi will let you know which first-year players are starting to hit their stride in the NFL.
Chris Givens (WR-StL)
Equipped with 4.36 speed, Givens hasn’t disappointed as a big-play threat in his first six NFL games. While he has just one touchdown so far this season, the speedy rookie fourth-rounder from Wake Forest has a reception of 50 yards or longer in three straight games and has seen more playing time in the wake of Danny Amendola’s separated shoulder.
Givens’ 3 receptions and 85 yards against Miami on Sunday both represented career bests, as did his 65-yard catch in the first quarter. He was targeted 7 times and while he caught less than half of those passes and is still very raw, he looks to be gaining the trust of the St. Louis coaching staff and some confidence on the field as well.
With Amendola remaining out for the foreseeable future, Givens should continue to get looks as the Rams’ second option and is a far more exciting player than top option Brandon Gibson. If he keeps progressing, his good hands and ability to stretch the field should help Sam Bradford and the St. Louis offense become more productive as the season goes on. Givens doesn’t have the potential to be a true top option, but he can certainly develop into a productive second receiver in the NFL.
Jerel Worthy (DE-GB)
With starting nose tackle B.J. Raji sitting out Week 6’s game due to an ankle injury, Worthy started at nose tackle in Green Bay’s blowout road win over the Texans. Worthy showed he was ready for the starting assignment by making 3 tackles (2 for loss) with his second career sack as well as playing a key role in Houston running back Arian Foster’s pedestrian 29-yard day on the ground.
Worthy lacks the size (6-2, 304) to be a prototypical nose tackle like the 337-pound Raji but he proved Sunday that he has the ability to clog the middle like a lineman 20 pounds heavier, collapsing the pocket and drawing double teams that freed up the rest of the Green Bay defense to swarm to Foster. Raji may not be cleared to play in Week 7 either and with Worthy’s strong play Sunday, the Packers might be wise to hold the veteran out another week if he isn’t 100 percent.
A second-round pick out of Michigan State, Worthy had a reputation for lazy play and breaking down on his fundamentals at Michigan State but if the Packers’ coaching staff can fix that, Worthy has very good upside and the versatility to play any position on Green Bay’s defensive line. His combination of power and interior quickness was on display this week and he looks to have improved his pass rushing skills as well, making him that much more of a dynamic option for the Packers’ defense.
Olivier Vernon (DE-Mia)
A third-round pick out of Miami, Vernon has been seeing rotational snaps behind Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick along Miami’s 4-3 defensive front. Before leaving with an ankle injury against the Rams in Week 6 that cost him most of the second half, Vernon already had 2 sacks on Sam Bradford and was showing the pass-rushing potential that made him a top-75 pick.
One of those sacks made a big difference in the Dolphins’ win despite coming early in the second quarter. Vernon sacked Sam Bradford on third-and-6 to push the Rams’ back to Miami’s 34-yard-line, which led to a Greg Zuerlein missed field goal and a short field for the Dolphins, who capitalized with a touchdown to go up 7-6. Vernon’s second sack came late to push the Rams farther back as well, turning a 63-yard game-tying field goal attempt into a 66-yarder.
The major knock on Vernon is his size (6-2, 261) but he is a great athlete with 4.76 speed who knows how to get to the quarterback. His production with the Hurricanes never matched his skill level with just 7.5 sacks as a sophomore and junior combined but he can definitely be an effective situational pass rusher or a 3-4 outside linebacker. Vernon is still raw and will need time to develop, which his current backup role in Miami should allow him to do.
Quinton Coples (DE-NYJ)
Coples had struggled with the transition from college to the NFL through his first five career games but with an opportunity to start in Week 6, the rookie from North Carolina took advantage. Replacing Mike DeVito at defensive end while DeVito filled in at nose tackle for Sione Pouha, Coples registered 4 tackles (2 solo, 2.5 for loss) including 1.5 sacks.
His first career sack was actually a negative play for the Jets, as a face mask penalty gave the Colts an automatic first down to negate a 14-yard loss on 2nd-and-5. After a breakout junior year that saw him record 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, Coples’ play leveled off as a senior as questions surrounded his effort and work ethic. His performance Sunday, despite the upside it displayed, also showed the inconsistency that plagued Coples during his senior season in Chapel Hill and makes him a work in progress.
The Jets were still willing to take a chance on him with the 16th pick in the first round and they finally saw it pay some dividends in a big win Sunday against the Colts. Coples’ playing time had been steadily decreasing over the previous two weeks so it was nice to see him involved in the defense and around the football, but he still has some work to do to become a consistent force at defensive end. Quicker development from him would certainly help New York’s anemic pass rush.
Courtney Upshaw (LB-Bal)
It surprised many when Upshaw fell out of the first round of April’s draft, considering his key role on the nation’s best defense last season. The Ravens didn’t let him last long in round two, however, drafting the former Alabama star with the round’s third pick. That pick turned out to be very fortuitous for Baltimore as not only did they pick up an excellent football player but he ended up filling a need as well once Terrell Suggs went down with an Achilles injury.
That need hasn’t translated into immediate big production from Upshaw as the Ravens have used him, Alfred McClellan and Paul Kruger at the outside linebacker position so far this season. Upshaw had his best game of the season with 6 tackles (5 solo, 1 for loss) starting in place of Kruger in Week 2 and matched that total in last week’s win against the Cowboys.
While Upshaw still isn’t seeing the lion’s share of the snaps on Baltimore’s defense, Ray Lewis’ injury only opens up more potential playing time for Upshaw in the Ravens’ linebacker rotation. Despite having just a half-sack so far this season, Upshaw is an explosive pass rusher who relies more on strength and agility than pure speed and quickness. He still struggles in coverage at times but his ability to get to the passer and stop the run should be on display as the season progresses, possibly even when Suggs returns from injury.
Mychal Kendricks (LB-Phi)
Despite being listed at just 5-11, 239 pounds, the Eagles liked Kendricks’ explosive pass-rushing ability enough to use a second-round pick on him in April’s draft. The former Cal linebacker has yet to stand out this year with a season-high of 6 tackles coming in Week 3, but he has made at least 4 tackles in five of his first six career games and has played an important role in Philadelphia’s defense so far this season.
Kendricks had just 4 solo tackles against Detroit on Sunday and while he wasn’t known as a strong tackler coming out of college, he certainly has held his own early in his NFL career. This rookie is a tough, smart player who gets the most out of his body and uses his 4.45 speed to cover a lot of ground on the defensive end although he’s slightly misfit in the Eagles’ defensive system.
As a 4-3 outside linebacker, Kendricks may struggle once teams consistently send blockers his way or use tight ends in the passing game to exploit his lack of height. If his responsibilities remain making plays up the field, scraping to the sidelines and dropping back into zone coverage he should be able to stick as a starter, but he also has some limiting factors to his NFL potential if he isn’t rushing the passer in a 3-4 defense. The Eagles had a similarly undersized starting linebacker last season in Brian Rolle, who was recently cut after struggling through training camp and the regular season.
Casey Hayward (CB-GB)
With Sam Shields hurting his shin against the Texans on Sunday night, Heyward received some extra playing time late and took advantage by breaking up 3 passes and intercepting 2 in Green Bay’s big win against Houston. Shields is questionable at this point heading into Week 7, which would put Hayward in line to start if he sits out.
Hayward’s first interception came in the endzone and stopped a Houston drive deep in Green Bay territory, officially ending any slim chance of a Houston comeback with Green Bay up 25 points with just over seven minutes to play. T.J. Yates spelled Matt Schaub on the next Texans’ drive with the game out of reach which also ended in a Hayward interception, his third in the past two weeks.
A second-round pick out of Vanderbilt, Hayward’s ball skills were his biggest strength after intercepting 13 passes in his final two years with the Commodores. That ability has translated immediately to the NFL for Hayward and while he has just 14 tackles (9 solo) in six games so far, he does well coming up the field to stop the run. While he still struggles in man-to-man coverage and isn’t a burner, Hayward is great facing the action and could make a few more big plays if he starts next week.
Jamell Fleming (CB-Ari)
After losing snaps to Greg Toler in Weeks 4 and 5 as the Cardinals’ nickel back, Fleming stepped back into that role with Toler inactive on Sunday due to a hamstring injury. The third-round pick out of Oklahoma responded with a career-high 6 solo tackles even though Arizona lost their second straight game following a 4-0 start.
An all-conference cornerback as a senior with the Sooners, Fleming has solid size (5-11, 206) and speed (4.44) and has seen his game improve since entering the starting lineup as a junior. He’s well-suited as a nickel or dime back at this point in his career however, as he struggles in man coverage and has a tendency to trail behind opposing receivers but tackles well enough to be effective in the middle of the field.
If he can continue to improve with professional-level coaching, Fleming has the ability to be a starter in the NFL. For now he will settle in behind Patrick Peterson, William Gay and maybe even a healthy Toler but could be a player the Cardinals are looking at opposite Person in a season or two, as Gay only signed a two-year deal in the offseason.
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 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.