After last week’s report included no players drafted outside the first four rounds in April, Week 7 provides us with three first-year players who were drafted in the fifth round or later or not at all. More than half of the rookies profiled this week are getting their opportunity thanks to veterans ahead of them getting hurt and, while some of those players should return to the field soon, they may find themselves ceding snaps to some of this week’s impact rookies. Chris Tripodi will break down what he saw from the first-year crowd on Sunday.
Vick Ballard (RB-Ind)
After an unimpressive 8-carry, 25-yard debut as a starter in Week 6 against the Jets, Ballard found much more success against the Browns on Sunday. The rookie fifth-round pick from Mississippi State ran for 84 yards on 20 carries including a 26-yard fourth-quarter run to seal the Colts’ 17-13 win and caught the only pass thrown his way for 19 yards, putting him over 100 total yards for the first time in his career.
With Donald Brown missing the past two weeks, Ballard has stepped in as Indianapolis’ starting running back and the returns have been mixed. The former Bulldog was indecisive and slow to the few holes that were opened for him against the Jets but he bounced back last week, although without that late long run he had just 58 yards on 19 carries.
Despite his success against Cleveland, Ballard is still a plodder (4.58 40-yard dash) who struggles to make defenders miss in the open field or inside the hole. He has good size (5-10, 218) and the vision and patience to be an effective situational inside runner and goalline back. Brown will miss at least one more game which means Ballard should get most of the work against Tennessee next week, but he will likely return to a reserve role when the veteran returns down the line.
Chris Rainey (RB-Pit)
Despite Jonathan Dwyer drawing the start with Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman sitting out due to injuries, Rainey was the Pittsburgh running back who found the endzone in the fourth quarter on Sunday. The former Florida star has been used for his speed and on gadget plays so far this season but his score came on a traditional 11-yard touchdown run up the middle, as Rainey busted right through an open hole and into the endzone.
Drafted in the fifth round after spending four years at Florida, Rainey lacks size (5-8, 180) but his explosive 4.38 speed makes him a valuable weapon on outside runs, catching passes out of the backfield or in the slot and in the return game. He can cut on a dime, accelerate quickly and is virtually impossible to square up in the open field.
With Mendenhall and Redman questionable for Week 8 as well, Rainey could see 5-10 touches again this Sunday against Washington. His diminutive stature and lack of strength and tackle-breaking ability will prevent him from ever being a feature back in the NFL, but he has the potential to be to the Steelers what Darren Sproles is to the Saints. Anything near that kind of production would certainly make him a steal late in the 2012 draft.
Ryan Broyles (WR-Det)
Nate Burleson’s season-ending leg injury couldn’t have come at a better time for Broyles, who finally looks like he’s fully recovered from his ACL injury last November. Division I’s all-time leader in receptions, Broyles slipped to the second round after his injury but should step into a slot role with the Lions behind Calvin Johnson and Titus Young.
In less than a half of action on Monday night, Broyles turned 4 targets from Matthew Stafford into 3 receptions for 51 yards and his first career touchdown. He looked better than Young and could conceivably steal looks and even the number-two receiver job from the underachieving Young, who many expected to overtake Burleson early this season. Either way, Broyles now has an opportunity to show why the Lions surprised many by drafting the former Sooners star in round two when they had more glaring needs on the defensive side of the ball.
Broyles may not have great size (5-10, 190) or speed (4.5) but he’s a reliable route-runner with good hands that quarterbacks love to throw to. He’s also an excellent punt returner who displays good run-after-catch ability. Broyles doesn’t have the upside of Young but may be the better receiver at this point in their careers, meaning he has a legitimate chance to end up starting by season’s end.
Josh Cooper (WR-Cle)
After debuting in Week 6 due to a slew of injuries to Cleveland’s wide receivers, Cooper increased his role in Week 7 even with Travis Benjamin returning from a hamstring injury. An undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State, Cooper worked mostly in the slot while second-year receiver Greg Little and fellow rookie Josh Gordon saw most of the snaps on the outside.
After 2 catches for 39 yards in his first week on the field, Cooper caught 4 passes for 53 yards on 8 targets from quarterback Brandon Weeden and looks to be carving out a nice role in the Cleveland offense, at least until Mohamed Massaquoi returns from his own injury. Even then, Massaquoi has been a disappointment since entering the NFL and if Cooper can continue to catch passes and build chemistry with Weeden, he may stick in the slot.
Cooper has decent size at 5-10, 190 pounds but his 4.58 speed will likely prevent him from ever making an NFL starting lineup. His toughness, intelligence and solid route-running makes him a potential third or fourth receiver and he could turn into a solid role player in the future. Cooper is also an experienced returner who can play all over the field on special teams, which will only further solidify his NFL roster spot.
Michael Brockers (DT-StL)
After leading all Rams’ defensive tackles with 31 snaps in Week 6, Brockers tripled his tackle total for the season on Sunday, making three for a loss and also picking up his first career sack in a 30-20 loss to the Packers. A first-round pick out of LSU, Brockers was a dominant interior force and a big reason why Green Bay ran for just 70 yards in the game.
The Rams have been rotating their defensive tackles all year inside of Robert Quinn and Chris Long at defensive end but Brockers is by far the most talented of the bunch and looks to be coming into his own halfway through his rookie season. Many thought his size (6-5, 322) and lack of speed and burst (5.25 40-yard dash) would make him a better fit as a 3-4 nose tackle, but Brockers seems to be adjusting just fine to playing in the middle of a 4-3 alignment.
Brockers came into the draft as a raw prospect with great upside and his season so far has proven that, as he had just 2 assisted tackles in his first six games before breaking out in a big way in Week 7. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the former LSU star come back down to earth next week but he has great potential as an inside run stopper and if Sunday was any indication, he’s well on his way to meeting that upside.
Dont’a Hightower (LB-NE)
Returning from a hamstring injury that cost him New England’s previous two games, Hightower registered a career-high 7 solo tackles (1 for loss) and his second sack of the season in the Patriots’ 29-26 overtime victory against the Jets. The sack came on a key third down late in the game that forced the Jets into a field goal that put them up just three with over a minute and a half left, giving Tom Brady plenty of time to drive down the field to tie the game and force overtime.
A first-round pick out of Alabama, Hightower has teamed up with fellow rookie first-rounder Chandler Jones to make a big difference in New England’s front seven so far in 2012. He was able to produce a very good game despite playing just 36 of the team’s 84 defensive snaps as New England decided to ease their young star back into the lineup and while the team will likely still hold Hightower back from a full workload next week against the Rams, he could return to every-down duty after the team’s Week 9 bye.
Hightower has excelled playing on the strong side of New England’s 4-3 after moving from his more natural middle linebacker position. He’s a big hitter with great tackling ability who brings ballcarriers down in the open field with ease. Hightower was arguably a top 10-15 talent but a lack of effort at times in college along with playing on a stacked defense made teams slightly wary of spending a high pick on him. As usual, the Patriots took the risk on a talented player and so far, it’s worked out extremely well for them.
Demario Davis (LB-NYJ)
Bart Scott’s toe injury prevented him from playing in nickel packages on Sunday against New England, creating an opportunity for Davis to see extended snaps for the first time this year. The third-round pick from Arkansas State came up with 7 tackles (6 solo) in his first significant action this season and brought a missing element of speed to the New York defense.
An outside linebacker in college, Davis has moved to middle linebacker with the Jets despite being small (6-2, 235) for the position. He struggled at times handling blocks in college and is a developmental prospect that could also fit well on the weak side of a 4-3. Davis has 4.49 speed that allows him to cover a lot of area no matter where he lines up on the field and his great acceleration and change of direction ability guarantees a role as a nickel linebacker at the least.
As a raw prospect with upside, Davis landed in a great situation with the Jets behind veteran David Harris and the aging Scott. He could continue to see action on passing downs in place of Scott and inject some much needed speed to the Jets defense. The possibility even exists that he could take Scott’s job by the end of the year if he can continue to make plays like he did against the Patriots.
Harrison Smith (S-Min)
The second-rated safety coming out of college last year, Smith was drafted at the end of the first round after Minnesota traded up six spots to get him. The former Notre Dame star has been starting since Week 1 and while he’s had a few solid games so far this season, Week 7 was by far his best performance.
Smith set a career high with 4 solo tackles (5 total) and broke up a pass for the sixth time in seven games, but his biggest play came less than a minute into the second half with Minnesota up 14-7. Smith made his first career interception on a short pass over the middle and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown, opening up a 21-7 lead for the Vikings in a game they would eventually win by a touchdown.
Coming out of Notre Dame, Smith was known as a physical, hard-hitting safety at his best playing in the box to stop the run. Smith has shown solid ball skills and zone coverage ability halfway through his rookie season and while he lacks the speed to get out to the flanks, his size (6-2, 213) makes him an imposing strong safety between the numbers. His awareness and athleticism should allow him to continue making big plays in the middle of the field as well, meaning Smith is certainly a player to watch going forward.
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.