With the 2012 season winding down into its final weeks, it’s becoming more difficult to find new rookies enjoying breakout performances. A Washington quarterback not named RGIII did so to make this week’s report, as did a first-year player who hadn’t played an NFL snap since his college graduation in 2009 and a former star receiver from Ohio State. Chris Tripodi is here to break down Week 15’s impact rookies in this week’s Rookie Report.
Kirk Cousins (QB-Was)
Many NFL teams have a hard time finding quality quarterbacks, especially through the draft. The way Cousins played to lead Washington into a tie for first in the NFC East on Sunday, the Redskins might have found two in the same year. Cleveland may not be the toughest opponent but Cousins was impressive nonetheless, completing 26-of-37 passes for 329 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception in his first career start.
Despite the pressure of replacing an electric top-two draft pick in the middle of a playoff race, Cousins looked far more poised and comfortable playing the position than his fourth-round draft stock would indicate. The former Michigan State star showed off his mobility inside the pocket and on bootlegs as well as the ability to throw accurately on the run downfield and work his way through his progressions, completing passes to eight different receivers.
Like Robert Griffin III, Cousins thrived on play-action passes, completing 15-of-19 passes for 229 yards and both of his touchdowns off of play action. His ability to sell ball fakes, quick release and strong arm were on display all day and the Washington offense looks to be in good hands if Griffin remains out next week, although RGIII is expected to play. While the Redskins would certainly love to get their franchise quarterback back on the field, Cousins proved more than capable on Sunday and another strong performance could net Washington a nice draft pick down the line, much like Atlanta got for backup quarterback Matt Schaub.
Ryan Tannehill (QB-Mia)
A former wide receiver at Texas A&M before spending his final year-and-a-half at quarterback, Tannehill is developing nicely as his rookie season comes to an end. After throwing an interception in three of his first four games this season, Tannehill has been intercepted in just three of his last 10 games, including none in the past three weeks. The big plays are still lacking thanks to the Dolphins’ lack of weapons in the passing game though, as the first-year quarterback hasn’t topped 290 yards passing since Week 4.
In Miami’s 24-3 win over Jacksonville on Sunday that kept their slim playoff hopes alive, Tannehill was nearly flawless as a game manager and enjoyed just his second game this season with multiple touchdown passes. Despite missing his most reliable possession receiver in Davone Bess due to a back injury, Tannehill connected with eight different receivers and added 52 yards rushing on 8 carries. While the Jaguars have no pass rush to speak of and a porous secondary, Tannehill’s 22-for-28, 220-yard performance was efficient nonetheless.
With Bess best suited as a slot receiver and Brian Hartline not a true top target, the Dolphins could really help Tannehill by drafting a top receiver next season but it’s shaping up to be an underwhelming draft class on the offensive side of the football. Tannehill’s numbers would likely be much better if they hadn’t traded Brandon Marshall, but the rookie quarterback has still managed to put together a few solid performances. The former Aggie is smart and has all the physical skills to succeed in the NFL, while his rookie performance is even more impressive considering he’s been back under center for just over two years.
Alfred Morris (RB-Was)
A sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic, Morris made the inaugural 2012 Rookie Report with a 28-carry, 96-yard, 2-touchdown debut. Despite his success in Week 1, I wrote things like “Morris’ lack of speed and burst was evident at times” and “nobody would be surprised if this was the best game of Morris’ career.” I will certainly admit to being wrong about Morris’ outlook for his rookie season, as he has done nothing but continue to excel no matter who is under center for the Redskins.
Morris is the major reason Washington leads the league with 1,980 passing yards after play-action fakes, as he has been extremely consistent this season and has been held under 75 rushing yards just twice in 14 games. With 87 yards and 2 touchdowns against Cleveland on Sunday, he broke the Redskins’ rookie record for both rushing yards (1,322) and touchdowns (9) and has the most rushing yards as a rookie since Adrian Peterson’s 1,341 in 2007.
The toughness, vision and patience Morris has displayed has been a perfect fit for Mike Shanahan’s one-cut rushing attack as the rookie is a North/South runner who is rarely caught dancing in the backfield and picks up extra yardage after initial contact. He has six 100-yard rushing games this season and has been a workhorse for the Redskins, carrying at least 20 times in his past five games. Morris should continue to dominate touches in the Washington backfield and has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down. It’s hard not to be a believer at this point, as this has been the perfect match of player and system.
Jorvorskie Lane (RB-Mia)
A 25-year-old rookie, Lane has taken the difficult path to the NFL. Despite scoring 49 touchdowns in his Texas A&M career, Lane went undrafted in the 2009 NFL Draft because no team wanted a 318-pound running back. After being switched from halfback to fullback for his senior season due to an inability to keep his weight down, Lane’s draft stock plummeted and he never got a chance at the professional level.
When Lane’s former head coach Mike Sherman took over as Miami’s offensive coordinator before this season, he was invited to camp and made the roster, signing a three-year deal. Down to 258 pounds, Lane scored his third touchdown of the season on a short pass from Ryan Tannehill on Sunday and while he has just 13 carries for 13 yards and 9 receptions for 65 yards on the season, he has made an impact on the Miami offense.
With Charles Clay going on injured reserve, there should be an even larger role for Lane in the last two games of the season, especially taking over Clay’s pass-catching responsibilities out of the backfield. The size and the natural ability he showed as a runner in college has made him effective around the goalline this season and with Daniel Thomas also being placed on injured reserve, Lane still has a chance to make a play or two in the coming weeks with increased opportunity.
Travis Benjamin (WR-Cle)
Despite having more than one reception in just three games this season and only 11 total, Benjamin scored his third touchdown of the 2012 season on Sunday late in a blowout loss to the Redskins. Benjamin used his 4.32 speed to blow by Washington cornerback Dominique Johnson, who sat on a short route and let Benjamin get behind him into the secondary.
This was the second straight week Benjamin scored after taking a punt 93 yards for a touchdown in Week 14. With special teams standout Josh Cribbs in the final year of his contract, Benjamin could see a full-time return role next season as it seems like Cleveland is starting to faze Cribbs out of their gameplans and look towards the future.
A fourth-round pick out of Miami, Benjamin’s speed makes up for his lack of size (5-10, 172) and he’s a threat to score any time he touches the ball, whether on offense or in the return game. His small stature will always limit him to special teams and slot duty at best on offense, but Benjamin could prove to be a solid mid-round pick that can affect field position in the return game and put occasional points on the board.
DeVier Posey (WR-Hou)
A third-round pick from Ohio State, Posey’s career has gotten off to a slow start. The rookie has just 4 receptions for 65 yards on the season, but three of those came last week against the Colts as the former Buckeye split snaps with veteran Kevin Walter as the team’s second receiver. Houston has been looking to replace Walter in the starting lineup for a while now and Posey could be the beneficiary.
According to head coach Gary Kubiak, Posey has been stepping up in practice and those breakthroughs have earned him more playing time going forward. The rookie’s draft stock slipped slightly in April after he played just three games as a senior due to a suspension stemming from the Ohio State tattoo scandal, but the Texans didn’t hesitate to use the 5th overall pick of the third round to try and solve their issues finding a solid starter opposite Andre Johnson.
At 6-1, 206 pounds with 4.4 speed, Posey has the size and speed to be an NFL starter. He sells his routes well, consistently makes athletic plays and can get vertical to make catches over defenders. Posey can make plays with the ball in his hands as well and while he still needs to develop the nuances of his game, his talent is unquestioned and if he continues to make big strides in practice and on game day, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Posey entered 2013 as Houston’s second receiver.
Jeff Allen (G-KC)
Allen’s rookie season has been very similar to Kansas City’s 2012 results, which isn’t saying much about either’s performance. Beyond the Jovan Belcher mess, the Chiefs are a league-worst 2-12, battling with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the right to the top pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. A season-ending injury to starting left guard Rodney Hudson in September forced Kansas City to move Ryan Lilja to center and start Allen at left guard, an assignment he has proven to be unprepared for.
The plan for the Chiefs was to let their second-round pick from Illinois learn behind the veteran Lilja during his rookie season and take over in 2013, as Lilja is in the final year of his contract. Kansas City recognized then what everybody can now after watching Allen struggle in his first NFL season; he needed a year on the bench to get stronger and learn the guard position after playing tackle in college. Instead, he has been one of the league’s worst left guards since he entered the starting lineup.
Allen was a standout pass protector at Illinois at both left tackle and right tackle with above-average footwork and lateral range. His major weaknesses were blocking in motion and a lack of elite lower body strength, two traits that most good NFL guards possess. It’s possible that Allen is miscast as a guard right now, but it also seems likely that he was pressed into action a year too soon. Regardless, he will probably get a chance to improve with a starting spot heading into the 2013 season, as it’s unlikely the Chiefs will invest another high pick in a lineman when the jury is still out on Allen’s future as an NFL starter.
Mark Barron (S-TB)
Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in the 2012 draft, Barron started the season very well but has since seen his play tail off. After making 42 tackles (34 solo) and breaking up 7 passes in his first six NFL games, Barron has just 37 tackles (29 solo) in his past eight with 2 pass breakups and no interceptions or forced fumbles. He certainly seemed to hit the rookie wall after Week 7, but had his best game in months on Sunday with 10 tackles (8 solo) in a blowout loss to the Saints.
Barron was expected to be an immediate impact player for the Tampa Bay secondary both against the run and the pass and, for almost the entire first half of the season, he was living up to the expectations. Since then, he has fallen on hard times much like his Buccaneer teammates, who have lost four straight games to destroy their playoff hopes after a 6-4 start.
At his best, Barron can impact the game in all facets but has certainly disappeared more often than not since a hot start. Year two will likely be much better for the former Alabama star as he becomes more comfortable with the NFL game and despite the disappointing returns of late, Barron’s upside remains that of one the league’s best two-way safeties in his prime. He just isn’t realizing it quite as quickly as many expected.
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.