In honor of Thanksgiving, Chris Tripodi is back with a “turkey” version of the Rookie Report. With just a couple of uncovered rookies making an impact in Week 11, the rest of this week’s report consists of high draft picks who have done little to justify their first-round status, regardless of the reason. Top-5 pick Justin Blackmon would have certainly made this list if he hadn’t been covered in Week 9 and subsequently exploded with 236 receiving yards on Sunday. Maybe we’ll see a few of the players profiled below follow in Blackmon’s footsteps and break out in the next few weeks.
A.J. Jenkins (WR-SF)
San Francisco’s first-round pick in April has been arguably the biggest first-year disappointment in the NFL, as the rookie wide receiver has yet to see an NFL snap and has been a mainstay on the 49ers’ inactive list every week along with second-round pick LaMichael James. The 49ers have one of the NFL’s deepest backfields which explains James being inactive, but outside of Michael Crabtree their receivers have been nothing to write home about.
Usually a wide receiver taken that early in the draft would have an opportunity to make an impact on the active roster for a team without star wide receivers. Jenkins was a surprise first-round pick to many who projected him as a second- or third-rounder, including us at Draft Insider. While he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the combine he isn’t quite that fast on the field and it’s obvious that he hasn’t shown enough in practice to prove he can bolster the team’s receiving corps.
Jenkins has solid receiver skills but doesn’t excel in any one aspect of the game. He runs solid routes and has good hands but isn’t particularly big at 6-0, 192 pounds and while he improved in his final two seasons at Illinois and is supposedly developing in practice, he’s yet to make any impact at the NFL level. It doesn’t look promising for him to do so for the rest of the season either unless San Francisco clinches a playoff berth early and decides to rest its starters. With his inability to crack an average group of receivers, it’s difficult to see Jenkins developing into an NFL starter and the early signs are pointing directly towards a bust.
Juron Criner (WR-Oak)
After catching just four passes all season, the Raiders’ fifth-round pick out of Arizona had 3 receptions for 23 yards and his first NFL touchdown in Sunday’s loss to the Saints. While the score came from three yards out in a 38-10 blowout, Criner was involved throughout the game with Oakland facing an early double-digit deficit and Carson Palmer being forced to the air.
The former Wildcat was third on the team with six targets on Sunday after being thrown to just nine times all season and while the increasing snaps are nice, the Raiders still have a logjam of receivers behind Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore, including undrafted rookie Rod Streater who made the report in Week 9.
Like Streater, Criner is a tall (6-3, 220) possession receiver who is not your typical speedy Oakland draft pick at a skill position. Criner runs in the mid-4.6 range but his size makes him a difficult cover in the red zone, where he scored 22 touchdowns in his final two years at Arizona playing with Nick Foles. He has good body control in the air, strong hands and focus and the ability to make plays after the catch. Despite his lack of burst, Criner can develop into a decent second receiver in an offense that will utilize his superior size in the red zone.
Riley Reiff (T-Det)
The 23rd overall pick in April’s draft, Reiff has been stuck behind veteran left tackle Jeff Backus on the depth chart for the entire 2012 season. This was actually what the Lions envisioned when they drafted Reiff, allowing him to learn the left tackle position from a 12-year veteran who had made 176 consecutive starts heading into the season.
That streak stood at 186 starts before this week but it ended on Thanksgiving with Backus sitting due to a hamstring injury suffered in Week 11’s game against the Packers. This led to an opportunity for Reiff to step into the starting lineup for Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Texans and their impressive front seven.
The 6-6, 313-pound former Iowa star is a better pass blocker than a run blocker, making him a good fit protecting Matthew Stafford’s blind side on a team that tends to be pass happy at times. Reiff is a fundamentally sound blocker with good footwork and awareness of what’s going on around him along the line. He has room to grow into his frame as well and improve his run blocking strength to become a more complete lineman but will certainly experience his share of ups and downs while Backus remains sidelined.
Shea McClellin (DE-Chi)
The Bears used the 19th overall selection on McClellin in April’s draft and the early returns haven’t quite been worthy of a top-20 draft pick. That assessment may not be totally fair to the Boise State rookie with the success of the Bears’ defense this season and the players ahead of him on the depth chart, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, who have been extremely productive and haven’t allowed for McClellin to see much time on the field.
In his limited snaps this season, McClellin does have 9 tackles and 2.5 sacks in nine games played. He missed Monday night’s game with San Francisco due to a concussion but returned to practice this week and is on track to suit up against Minnesota in Week 12. Even so, he will still be third on the defensive end depth chart and see just a few snaps behind the veterans ahead of him.
It’s difficult to envision a scenario where McClellin cracks the starting lineup this season but Idonije is on a one-year contract, meaning the rookie may have a bigger role in 2013. With a starting job, the former Bronco will certainly have more opportunities to show off his quick first step and ability in pursuit. He performed well at multiple linebacker and end positions in offseason workouts and while the Bears look ready to use the 6-3, 260-pound defender at defensive end, he has the ability to play multiple positions in an NFL front seven.
Kendall Reyes (DT-SD)
With starting defensive ends Corey Liuget and Vaughn Martin playing through injuries, Reyes saw some extra work in the San Diego 3-4 defense this week and took advantage with two fourth-quarter sacks of Peyton Manning and a late tackle with the game essentially out of reach. It’s possible that more strong performances from Reyes could land the second-round pick out of Connecticut a starting job eventually at the expense of Martin.
Reyes’ first sack came on second-and-10 after Denver drove deep into San Diego territory, setting up a third-and-long and making the Broncos settle for a field goal to go up 11. After Philip Rivers threw an interception, Reyes picked up another sack on the next drive to push the Broncos out of field goal range temporarily, but Manning completed a 30-yard pass on third-and-18 to extend the drive and pick up another field goal for his offense.
At 6-4, 300 pounds, the former Huskies’ star tackle has the potential to be a solid run stopper as a 3-4 defensive end opposite Liuget. He had just 4.5 sacks as a senior but was a dominant and disruptive force whose 4.82 speed plays very well for a player of his size. Reyes’ athleticism, strength and explosiveness were on display in the fourth quarter against Denver and if he can continue to impress with limited snaps he may break into the starting lineup at some point this season, especially if San Diego falls further out of the playoff picture.
Melvin Ingram (LB-SD)
The 18th overall pick in this year’s draft, Ingram has struggled to make the big impact many people including us at Draft Insider projected. Through ten NFL games, he has just 22 tackles (13 solo) and a half sack despite expectations that he would at least help pressure the quarterback on passing downs. Ingram started against Denver on Sunday but made just 3 tackles in the Chargers’ 30-23 loss.
The rookie out of Clemson had yet to supplant 10-year veteran Jarret Johnson on the depth chart before the Denver game despite being more talented and it remains to be seen whether he will continue to start over Johnson with San Diego’s season quickly spiraling in the wrong direction. Regardless of his role, it’s obvious Ingram still has a lot of work to do on his overall game and not just his pass rushing.
Coming into the draft, Ingram was rising up draft boards and it was somewhat surprising to see him fall out of the top 15 considering his talent level and production as a senior, when he played at an All-American level with 15 sacks. Ingram is big (6-2, 265) and athletic with 4.7 speed and an explosive first step. He has struggled with his play recognition and getting beyond the point of attack so far in his rookie season and while he may be more of a project than initially thought, there is still a lot of upside in his game.
Whitney Mercilus (LB-Hou)
Stuck behind Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, Houston’s 2009 and 2011 second-round draft picks, the Texans’ first-round pick in 2012 has seen limited action but has been more effective than most of the players on this week’s report. Mercilus has just 13 tackles (11 solo) and 3 sacks on the season, but 7 of those tackles and all 3 sacks have come in the team’s last four games as Mercilus has picked up his play of late.
While his recent stats look nice, all but one of those tackles came in Week 7 and Week 9 when the Texans beat the Ravens and Bills by a combined score of 64-22. In their last two games, both close wins against the Bears and Jaguars, Mercilus has done little to contribute to the victories. Unlike some of the other players on this list however, the 26th overall pick in April was viewed as a project who needed some time to develop and landed in a great situation for that in Houston.
Mercilus wasn’t a highly regarded prospect before his junior season but he exploded onto the NCAA scene in 2011 with 22.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and 9 forced fumbles and earned All-American honors. Those numbers show the upside that Houston is trying to refine working behind Barwin and Reed and at 6-4, 260 pounds with 4.65 speed, Mercilus has the potential to be one of the league’s premier pass rushers and wreak havoc behind the line of scrimmage. He’s shown flashes so far this season and if that continues, he can certainly live up to his draft position down the line.
Dre Kirkpatrick (CB-Cin)
A member of the 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide defense that produced multiple first-round picks in April’s NFL Draft including him with the 17th overall pick, Kirkpatrick missed the entire preseason and the first seven games of the season after suffering a knee injury before training camp. By the time he returned for Week 9, the Bengals’ secondary was already set and he’s seen limited action in nickel and dime packages.
Before his injury, Kirkpatrick was expected to compete for playing time with starter Nate Clements and nickel back Terence Newman, but his injury set him back and may end up costing him his entire rookie season as it seems unlikely the Bengals will put him right into the lineup in the middle of a playoff push. Newman missed the second half of Sunday’s game with a concussion, which allowed Kirkpatrick to see a few extra snaps and make 2 solo tackles in a blowout win of Kansas City.
Newman is expected back this week, which will push Kirkpatrick back to dime and specials teams duty for the time being. At 6-2, 190 pounds with 4.5 speed, the former Alabama star was an aggressive shutdown corner in the SEC and has starting potential at the NFL level. His development has been slowed thanks to his early injury but with a strong showing in the season’s second half, Kirkpatrick could find himself starting opposite Leon Hall for the Bengals in 2013.
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.