Chris Tripodi is back again with eight more impact rookies around the NFL. Week 8 provided an interesting mix of players drafted all over the board, from two first-round picks to a sixth and seventh-rounder and an undrafted free agent. As is usually the case as the season rolls on, injuries and continued development are allowing more first-years players to make contributions on the field.
Ronnie Hillman (RB-Den)
As a short, elusive running back prospect coming out of San Diego State, the Marshall Faulk comparisons were to be expected for Hillman even as a third-round pick. Although those comparisons are pretty unfair to Faulk, who was a first-round pick, ran a 4.28 40-yard dash compared to Hillman’s 4.42 time and is enshrined in Canton, Hillman certainly has talent that was on display towards the end of Sunday night’s blowout of the Saints.
It would be wise to take Hillman’s 14-carry, 86-yard performance in garbage time with a grain of salt considering New Orleans struggles to stop anybody defensively, but it’s not wise to doubt his ability with the ball in his hands. The former Aztec is a creative ballcarrier with great patience and vision that allows him to be as effective running inside as he is outside despite his slight stature (5-9, 200). Hillman won’t drag any defenders with him, but he makes it difficult for tacklers to square him up and get a clean shot on him due to his quickness and acceleration.
While the comparisons to Faulk are unwarranted, any comparison to Darren Sproles like the one Denver executive vice president John Elway made after the draft can be considered legitimate. Hillman is an effective receiver as well which could get him more work behind Willis McGahee and also could signal the beginning of the end of disappointing 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno’s tenure with the team.
Drew Davis (WR-Atl)
With third receiver Harry Douglas missing Sunday’s game due to injuries to both his knee and ankle, Davis stepped up in his stead for the Falcons and helped stake them out to an early 7-0 lead. The undrafted rookie receiver from Oregon caught a 15-yard pass on third down to extend Atlanta’s first drive and capped that same drive with a 15-yard touchdown grab after beating the Eagles’ secondary to the corner of the endzone.
Although those were his only two targets of the game, Davis certainly made an impact recording his first career reception and touchdown to help keep Atlanta undefeated in 2012. After the game, quarterback Matt Ryan praised Davis’ work ethic and focus on improving every week and it was obvious that the early favorite for NFL MVP trusts Davis to make plays when the opportunity arises.
At 6-1, 205 pounds with 4.55 speed, Davis has the size and speed to be a solid third or fourth receiver at the NFL level. Douglas is questionable to return in Week 9 at this point and with Davis’ solid performance last week the Falcons have no reason to rush their slot receiver back, especially considering the way Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez dominate targets from Ryan. If Douglas sits again, Davis should have another chance to see significant snaps for the Falcons.
Andre Branch (DE-Jac)
For an early second-round pick, Branch has been very quiet this season playing behind Jeremy Mincey and Austen Lane and his development has come along slowly at the NFL level. As a whole, Week 8 was no different but Branch did make one outstanding play that helped keep the Jaguars in the game.
With Green Bay up 14-6 and starting a late second quarter drive deep in their own territory, Branch sacked Aaron Rodgers and forced a fumble, which he also recovered at the Green Bay 13-yard line. The Jags scored a few plays later and went into halftime down just two points rather than eight or more. In typical Branch fashion he did absolutely nothing for the rest of the game, but the one play he did make was impressive nonetheless.
The knock on Branch coming out of Clemson was a lack of focus and urgency on the field, especially when the play was going away from him. It seems that weakness is still an issue for Branch as he has yet to beat out the average players ahead of him on the depth chart. If the former Tiger can stay focused and learn to play full throttle, he has the athletic ability at 6-5, 265 pounds to be an impact pass rusher like he showed on Sunday.
Fletcher Cox (DT-Phi)
After six games of being listed behind Derek Landri on the Philadelphia depth chart, the Eagles’ first-round pick out of Mississippi State finally stepped into a starting role in Week 8 and turned in his best performance of the season with 5 tackles (2 for loss) and an early pass breakup in a 30-17 loss to the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Cox had been seeing more snaps than Landri for most of the season, so the move into the starting lineup comes as no surprise.
The rookie defensive tackle has been the most effective run stopper on Philadelphia’s interior line while Landri has been more effective rushing the passer, making the switch here to elevate Cox on the depth chart for early-down work an easy one for the Eagles’ coaching staff. Philadelphia will still likely continue rotating their interior lineman on a regular basis, but Cox should see the most snaps of any Eagles’ defensive tackles.
At 6-4, 298 pounds with 4.79 speed and an explosive first step, Cox is a physical specimen who can play every position along the defensive line. He needs to add bulk to his frame but that should come in time with an NFL training regimen and once his physical maturation is complete, Cox can certainly be one of the 2012 draft’s best defensive players. He has the upside to prove himself well worthy of the 12th overall pick the Eagles spent on him.
James-Michael Johnson (LB-Cle)
Not much was expected from Johnson this week in his third NFL start after recording just 4 tackles (2 solo) in his first two starts. The fourth-round pick from Nevada had struggled to make an impact after replacing the injured Scott Fujita but Week 8 saw him break out in a big way in a 7-6 win against San Diego.
Johnson had a huge first quarter with 5 tackles (4 solo) and a forced fumble on Ryan Mathews that set the Browns up with great field position at the San Diego 46-yard line, but a fumbled handoff on second down stalled that drive. The former Wolfpack star finished the game with 10 total tackles (5 solo, 1 for loss) as well as that forced fumble in by far the best game of his young career.
His early struggles notwithstanding, Johnson is an athletic prospect who quickly beats blocks to the action and makes plays sideline to sideline. He has the coverage skills to stick on the strong side but must improve his overall instincts to continue playing at the level he did on Sunday. If he can, the upside is certainly there for Johnson to have a solid NFL career.
Morris Claiborne (CB-Dal)
It hasn’t been easy for the 6th overall pick in April’s draft seven games into his NFL career, but the progress Claiborne has made on the field has impressed the Cowboys enough that they were comfortable making Mike Jenkins available in trade talks before the trade deadline. The rookie from LSU had his best statistical game of the season on Sunday against the Giants with 5 tackles (3 solo), a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.
A week after intercepting his first career pass against the Panthers, Claiborne found himself around the ball consistently in Week 8. He set a season high in tackles, broke up a third down pass on the Giants’ opening drive and recovered an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble at midfield early in the second quarter. Claiborne looks to be becoming more comfortable in the Dallas defense with every passing week and it looks like just a matter of time before he breaks out in a big way.
The top rated cornerback on everybody’s board heading into the draft, Claiborne has good size (5-11, 185) and speed (4.5) but where he really stands out is in his physical play. The transition from college to the NFL is more difficult for a corner that relies on physicality, even coming out of the SEC, and Claiborne will face a stiff challenge against Roddy White and Julio Jones in Week 9. Regardless of how he performs against Atlanta’s top tandem, the future is bright for Claiborne and he should be the Cowboys’ top cornerback for years to come.
Alfonzo Dennard (CB-NE)
Once considered a first or second-round talent, Dennard struggled at the Senior Bowl and watched his draft stock slide. That stock continued to fall after he was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer just five days before April’s NFL Draft. This arrest also came just a few months after Dennard was ejected from the Capital One Bowl for fighting Alshon Jeffery, a trend that NFL general managers obviously did not take well to.
As a result of his transgressions, Dennard fell all the way to the middle of round seven before New England scooped him up at a no-risk price. With injuries hurting the New England secondary enough to move cornerback Devin McCourty to safety, Dennard has filled in admirably and has an interception in two straight games, along with 7 solo tackles and 2 pass breakups.
Dennard was a physical shutdown corner in college and isn’t afraid to mix it up with opposing receivers, sometimes to a fault as seen in the Cornhuskers’ bowl game. NCAA opponents purposely avoided Dennard due to his coverage ability and ball skills and he has translated his physical mentality in coverage to the running game as well. Like Vontaze Burfict, Dennard has the talent to be one of the biggest steals of the 2012 draft if he stays out of trouble.
Mike Harris (CB-Jac)
A sixth-round pick from Florida State, Harris saw extra time in the Jacksonville nickel and dime packages against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ pass-heavy offense on Sunday. Although he set a season-high with 6 tackles, all of them came either on special teams or after completions by Rodgers in the Jaguars’ 24-15 loss to Green Bay.
In addition to only making tackles after getting beat for completions, Harris was also called for defensive holding on third-and-5 to extend a second-quarter drive for Green Bay near midfield, but the Packers couldn’t capitalize with points on the drive. Although the tackles look nice for Harris on paper, he didn’t break up a pass or stop a Packers’ runner or receiver for less than 6 yards all game.
At 5-10, 188 pounds with 4.52 speed, Harris has the size and speed to be an effective NFL corner but isn’t the best in man coverage and can usually be found chasing receivers rather than covering them. His upside is capped as a nickel or dime back that can use his talent to make plays when the action is front of him and step up to make tackles when necessary rather than as a starting corner who can stick with opposing receivers in man coverage.
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.