Week 14 was the week of the backup rookie running back in the NFL, with three first-year backs putting together their best performances of the season behind established veteran starters. Three offensive linemen made the report for the first time this season, including an underrated small-school guard who got an opportunity to play last week and looks likely to get his first NFL start this week. Chris Tripodi is back to break down another group of rookies, including the leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
David Wilson (RB-NYG)
After scoring his first career touchdown in Week 5, Wilson totaled just 64 yards from scrimmage in New York’s next seven games as Andre Brown recovered quickly from his concussion to regain the backup role behind Ahmad Bradshaw. With Brown placed on injured reserve before Week 13, many expected Wilson’s workload to increase spelling Bradshaw. After playing just seven snaps against the Redskins, the speedy rookie from Virginia Tech made every touch count against the Saints on Sunday.
After Eli Manning had an interception returned for a touchdown in the first quarter, Wilson responded quickly by taking a kickoff 97 yards to the house to tie the game, 7-7. The first-year back put the Giants up 28-13 early in the third quarter with a six-yard touchdown run and once Bradshaw left the game early in the fourth quarter with a knee injury, Wilson took over the backfield and put a late exclamation point on the Giants 52-27 victory with a 52-yard touchdown, his third of the game. The former Virginia Tech star finished with 100 rushing yards and 227 kickoff return yards, becoming the first player in NFL history with 100 rushing yards and 200 kickoff return yards in a single game.
Wilson’s blazing 4.4 speed and explosiveness were on display all day long as well as his patience and vision. For a smaller back (5-9, 205) Wilson is a tough runner, as evidenced by his 2.8 yards after contact per carry on Sunday. With Bradshaw undergoing a battery of tests and his status for Week 15’s matchup with the Falcons in question, Wilson could be in line for far more than the 21 snaps he saw against New Orleans. That increased usage could lead to even more explosive plays from the rookie, who has shown off his big-play ability in limited playing time this season.
Robert Turbin (RB-Sea)
With the Seahawks running away from the Cardinals early on Sunday, starting running back Marshawn Lynch received most of the second half off with many Seattle starters and Turbin had a chance to get some extra work. The rookie fourth-round pick from Utah State was impressive in his half of duty, rushing for 108 yards on 20 carries after coming into the game with just 45 rushes for 182 yards on the season.
While the Cardinals are far from impressive against the run, Turbin looked good on the field and showed a nice burst through the hole for a big back. His size and speed is impressive at 5-10, 222 pounds with 4.43 speed and had he played at a higher level of competition in college, he may have been an earlier pick in April’s draft. As it is, he was the WAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 with 1,517 rushing yards and 23 total touchdowns after missing all of 2010 with a knee injury.
While Turbin’s 40-yard dash time is impressive, he lacks breakaway speed and acceleration out of his cuts. The former Aggie isn’t a great receiver out of the backfield but he runs hard inside the tackles and picks up good yardage after contact. Turbin may lack elite instincts as a runner staying patient behind his blockers and cutting back against the grain, but he is still a good fit in Seattle’s backfield and would be a solid fill-in if Lynch was to miss any game due to injury.
Bernard Pierce (RB-Bal)
Being stuck behind Ray Rice on the depth chart is rarely a recipe for solid playing time at the NFL level, but Pierce has quietly rushed for 300 yards on just 67 carries in his rookie season with the Ravens. A third-round pick out of Temple, Pierce has impressed John Harbaugh and the Baltimore coaching staff enough that they are willing to spell Rice for entire drives at a time and let Pierce handle the backfield duty.
Pierce rushed for a season-high 53 yards on Sunday and caught 2 passes for 11 yards as his role continues to increase. He has carried the ball at least 8 times in four of the past five games after topping 4 carries just twice in the Ravens’ first seven games. It’s obvious that the team is beginning to trust Pierce more as the season goes on and is willing to use him sporadically to keep Rice rested to close out games.
Like Turbin, Pierce has an impressive combination of size and speed at 6-0, 218 pounds with 4.43 speed. Also similar to Turbin, he doesn’t play to his 40-yard dash time and is more of a one-speed back that runs hard inside, breaks tackles and finishes runs. The major difference between the two is that Pierce has better vision and instincts, works well with his blockers and shows better receiving skills out of the backfield. His playing time should stay steady for the rest of the season and he could be a key role player for the Ravens in the playoffs.
Alshon Jeffery (WR-Chi)
After a solid NFL debut that saw him make 3 receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown against the Colts, Jeffrey caught just 11 passes for 104 yards in his next four games before fracturing his right hand which cost him the next four games. When he returned in Week 11 against the 49ers, he suffered a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery and kept him out another two weeks.
Jeffery made his second return of the 2012 season count by catching a 23-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, beating fellow rookie Josh Robinson who couldn’t jam the 6-3, 215-pound Jeffery at the line. The first-year receiver out of South Carolina also caught a 30-yard pass in the fourth quarter on a drive that eventually stalled deep in Minnesota territory.
After being drafted with the 45th overall pick back in April, Jeffrey’s rookie season has been full of disappointment due to injury and inconsistency when he’s been on the field. He has average speed (4.48) and quickness but his size and ability to get vertical and make tough grabs in traffic fit well with quarterback Jay Cutler’s gunslinger mentality. Jeffrey has strong hands and the ability to block effectively downfield, but his effort and conditioning was questioned at times with Gamecocks. If he can stay in shape and give consistent effort, Jeffrey has as much upside as any receiver in the 2012 draft class.
Jonathan Martin (T-Mia)
A second-round pick out of Stanford, Martin started his first 12 career NFL games at right tackle with former top pick Jake Long entrenched protecting rookie Ryan Tannehill’s blind side. With Long suffering a torn triceps that landed him on injured reserve, Martin moved over to the left side to replace Long against the 49ers on Sunday. He might be wishing Long was still healthy.
Martin has been solid yet unspectacular in his rookie season, but Sunday was not a good day for him. It doesn’t help when you have to block second-year stud Aldon Smith, who entered the game leading the NFL in sacks with 17.5. Smith terrorized Martin the entire game, putting constant pressure on Tannehill with 2 more sacks and proving to be a force against the run as well with 6 tackles. Tannehill said before the game that “you can’t replace a guy like Jake” and he was right.
Long is a free agent at the end of the season and while Martin wasn’t drafted directly to replace Long, a strong audition at left tackle would help make them more comfortable letting Long walk. Martin is a good athlete for a 6-6, 312-pound tackle but is still inconsistent and looks far from ready from shutting down top pass rushers around the league, as he also struggled against Mario Williams earlier this season. Another year or two on the right side may be the best thing for Martin’s development, although if the Dolphins decide to let Long go he will likely have to learn on the job as a left tackle.
David DeCastro (G-Pit)
With left guard Willie Colon aggravating a left knee injury against San Diego that required surgery, opportunity knocks for the Steelers’ first-round pick who has missed most of the season thanks to his own knee surgery in the preseason. DeCastro has played solely on the field goal and extra-point units since returning from injury two games ago and Mike Tomlin’s coaching staff believes he’s now healthy enough to step in at right guard.
That would move Ramon Foster from right to left guard and allow Maurkice Pouncey to stay at his natural center position, a preferred outcome with Cowboys’ nose tackle Jay Ratliff posing a tough matchup in the middle for Pittsburgh. Pouncey shifted to left guard last week with Doug Legursky taking over at center, but it’s impossible to argue that a healthy DeCastro isn’t far more talented than Legursky on top of allowing Pouncey to stay at center.
The former Stanford All-American guard was the top guard on most draft boards in April thanks to his dominant run blocking ability. DeCastro is explosive off the line and plays with a nasty attitude that fits the common perception of a Pittsburgh offensive lineman. He can pull effectively and get to the second level while also showing the footwork and hand punch to effectively handle the interior pass rush. If DeCastro is truly healthy, he should get the chance to show off his immense upside against the Cowboys and might help the Steelers’ running game, which has struggled at times this season.
James Brown (G-Chi)
One of the more highly regarded players who went undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft, Brown looks set to make his first career NFL start on Sunday afternoon in a huge showdown for the Bears against the Packers. Brown replaced Edwin Williams at left guard for most of the second half in Chicago’s loss to Minnesota and besides a holding penalty on his ninth snap that set the offense up with a 1st-and-25, Brown was solid in his debut.
In the last two seasons, the Bears have changed left guards six times and the position has been the epitome of instability. Lovie Smith and the coaching staff are hoping Brown can provide an answer for the team’s woes on their interior offensive line just three weeks after being promoted from the practice squad and a few months after there weren’t enough snaps in practice for him to get work in at the guard position.
Brown was a left tackle at Troy for three seasons after transferring from junior college and was named All-Conference as a junior and a senior. Draft Insider had Brown rated as an underrated 4th or 5th-round pick, so there is great upside here for an undrafted player. Brown is a hard worker who plays smart, nasty football and was a solid pass protector at tackle that shows the ability to block in motion and work with teammates. He has the potential to stick as a starter and can start by making the most of his opportunity this weekend.
Luke Kuechly (LB-Car)
After a monster Week 14 where he made a season-high 16 tackles (11 solo) and helped Carolina upset the 11-1 Falcons, Kuechly moved into the NFL lead in tackles with 130 in 13 games. This feat is even more impressive considering he had just 26 tackles in his first four games. Since Week 4, the former Boston College linebacker has seven double-digit tackles games and hasn’t made less than eight stops in a single game.
Kuechly has been so dominant in the middle of the Panthers’ 4-3 defense that only Thomas Davis is within 50 tackles of him on the Carolina roster and he’s tied for third on the team with 4 pass breakups. Add in 3 fumble recoveries when nobody else on the defense has more than one and it’s easy to see that Kuechly has a nose for the football and has the potential to be an impact defender.
Carolina’s run defense still ranks among the bottom 12 in the NFL but it’s hard to blame their first-year middle linebacker, who has arguably played the position better than Pro Bowler Jon Beason before Beason was hurt after the team’s fourth game. That timing coincides with Kuechly’s explosion onto the scene and when Beason returns next season, he may find himself in the weakside linebacker role that Kuechly started the season in rather than his customary middle linebacker spot. It’s not difficult to envision Kuechly following Beason’s footsteps to the Pro Bowl in the future, maybe even as early as this season.
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.