A defensive focus hits the Rookie Report coming out of the holidays and with just two weeks left in the season, many of the players listed below have seen their names here before. Some have continued their strong play throughout the season while others are just starting to find their way in the NFL as their rookie year comes to a close. Chris Tripodi is back with another edition of the Rookie Report.
Robert Griffin III (QB-Was)
RGIII highlighted the first rookie report of the 2012 season with a 320-yard passing performance and it was apparent from the moment he stepped onto an NFL field that he was more than just a running quarterback. While he has rushed for 763 yards and 6 touchdowns this season, he also has topped 3,000 yards passing with 20 passing touchdowns, just 5 interceptions and an average of over eight yards per pass attempt.
After missing Week 15 against the Browns and allowing first-year backup Kirk Cousins to show off his talents, Griffin returned to lead the Redskins to victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia. Coach Mike Shanahan said his star rookie was not limited at all by his knee injury that required a brace, but Griffin rushed for a season-low 4 yards on just 2 attempts and said Wednesday that he will be able to do more in Week 17. While the former Baylor star didn’t put on a show Sunday, he did complete 16-of-24 passes and throw 2 touchdowns with an interception.
If Sunday’s performance represented a hobbled Griffin, he looked better injured than half of the quarterbacks in the NFL at full strength. NFL scouts recognized that Griffin was an accurate passer coming out of college but nobody expected him to complete 67 percent of his passes as a rookie. While he has thrived in the short passing game, he does have a 46.7 percent completion rate and 7 touchdowns on passes over 20 yards downfield. Outside of the potential risk for injury if he doesn’t learn to slide more often or get out of bounds, Griffin has shown little downside in his game and should continue to blossom into a superstar.
Marvin Jones (WR-Cin)
Cincinnati has been trying to fill their void at wide receiver on the other side of A.J. Green all season and when Mohamed Sanu broke out with multi-touchdown games a few weeks back, it seemed the Bengals had found their answer. But as quickly as Sanu broke out, he went down with a season-ending stress fracture that opened the door for Jones, a fifth-round pick from California, to start for Cincinnati.
Jones has done little with his opportunity, catching just 10 passes for 130 yards on 18 targets in his four starts including none against the Eagles in Week 15. He had his best statistical game of the season on Sunday, catching 5 passes for 65 yards, but that volume was mainly due to the Steelers constantly double-teaming Green and forcing Andy Dalton to spread the ball around. Jones dropped an easy touchdown in the second quarter that would have provided a huge boost to the Bengals in a game they won 13-10 without scoring an offensive touchdown.
At 6-2, 195 pounds, Jones is tall but certainly isn’t a physical specimen. While his height allows him to get vertical and make some nice catches, he will need to improve his playing strength to have a chance to stay in a starting lineup at the NFL level. If he can do that and eliminate the rookie mistakes he’s been making on a weekly basis, he does have the speed (4.47), hands and route-running ability to be effective behind Green and Sanu in the slot in 2013. The Bengals need him to be more this season but unless the light goes on quickly for Jones, they may not get what they’re looking for.
Quinton Coples (DE-NYJ)
After recording just two sacks in his first 12 NFL games, both of which came in Week 6 against the Colts and one of which resulting in a face mask penalty, Coples has turned it on in the past three weeks in the midst of the Jets’ unraveling season. After a rough start to the season that saw the raw rookie from North Carolina struggle mightily at times, Coples has 3.5 sacks in his past three games and is up to 5.5 on the season.
Coach Rex Ryan was quoted as saying that Coples was, “kind of hitting his stride a little bit,” leading up to the San Diego game, a game which saw the former Tar Heel pick up another 1.5 sacks as he looks to finish the season strong. Coples has certainly looked as raw as most scouts thought he was entering the 2012 draft but his recent play has been encouraging enough that it’s hard to consider his rookie season an absolute bust.
The Jets were likely expecting 6-8 sacks from Coples as a rookie and while he can still reach that plateau, his production has been too little, too late for a team that has been desperate all season for an elite-level pass rusher. At 6-6, 290 pounds with 4.7 speed, he has the ability to be that player for the Jets if he can continue to display the consistency he has shown by sacking the quarterback in three consecutive games. It may have taken an entire season, but New York is finally seeing results from their 2012 first-round pick.
Zach Brown (LB-Ten)
Since stepping into the starting lineup for Tennessee in Week 2, Brown has experienced the highs and lows of rookie life in the NFL. After a 10-tackle debut where Brown sacked Philip Rivers and forced a fumble, the rookie out of North Carolina had more than six tackles just twice in the following six weeks. Since then, Brown has made more than 7 tackles in four of seven games including 9 (8 solo) on Sunday and has 3.5 sacks over his past five games.
Along with fellow youngster Akeem Ayers in the Titans’ linebacking corps, Brown has improved his ability on the blitz in recent weeks and has been lauded by coach Mike Munchak for disguising his blitzes better, allowing him to use his 4.5 speed to get to quarterbacks before they can react. One of the knocks on Brown entering the draft was his lack of forceful blitzing despite his speed, something he has definitely worked to improve during his first NFL season.
Like Janoris Jenkins below, Brown has first-round ability and can be one of the best second-round picks of the 2012 draft if he continues to develop in his first few seasons in the league. He has become a mainstay in the Tennessee lineup as Colin McCarthy has struggled with injuries and after watching him improve steadily throughout the year, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Brown doesn’t start next season.
Janoris Jenkins (CB-StL)
Like Robert Griffin III earlier in the report, Jenkins has been making impact plays all season long in the St. Louis secondary. He started off his career with an interception in Week 1 against Matthew Stafford but he’s been at his best over the last five weeks with three interceptions, a fumble recovery and four pass breakups. The most impressive stat over that span, however, is that Jenkins scored a touchdown on each of those turnovers.
The former Florida and North Alabama star followed up a two-touchdown Week 12 against Arizona by taking a fumble recovery to the house the following week and, on Sunday, Jenkins intercepted Josh Freeman early in the game and took it in for a score as well. The first-year cornerback has been a big-time playmaker for the Rams in his rookie season and may have worked his way into talks for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, something few would have expected after being dismissed from the Gators program just a year ago.
Jenkins’ may not score four times every five games over his career, but 4.42 speed, explosiveness and burst to the ball give him the potential to cause turnovers and take them to the house. Despite being drafted over a round after the player below him on this list, Jenkins has had a far better rookie season and it’s not farfetched to say he has a chance to be the best cornerback in the 2012 draft class.
Morris Claiborne (CB-Dal)
Unlike Jenkins, who has flourished early in his NFL career, the rookie from LSU has hit his share of road bumps along the way. After a few solid games in the middle of the season where Claiborne was consistently around the football, the former Tiger has struggled to make plays in the passing game and against the run. Before Sunday’s game, he hadn’t topped 5 tackles in a game and had just 1 interception and 5 pass breakups.
Claiborne made a career-high 10 tackles (9 solo) and although most of those came after Drew Brees completions, only one of those went for over 15 yards and just two over 10. Claiborne also made a nice play to break up a pass intended for Marques Colston in the endzone to keep New Orleans from scoring at the end of the first half, one of two pass breakups in the game for the rookie.
The former Tiger made what could have been a huge play for Dallas in overtime, forcing a Colston fumble deep in the Cowboys territory after a quick slant. Unfortunately for Claiborne, the ball bounced 20 yards upfield and was recovered by the Saints’ Jimmy Graham to set up an easy field goal and put Dallas in a must-win situation on Sunday to make the playoffs.
Claiborne’s performance against the pass-happy Saints should give hope to a Dallas pass defense that has struggled lately after a good start to the season. Not all rookie cornerbacks hit the ground running like Janoris Jenkins and Claiborne is an example of a player that needs to go through some growing pains before hitting his full potential. He showed off a complete and physical game on Sunday and the Cowboys will need Claiborne to build off of this game to help get them to the playoffs this week.
Jayron Hosley (CB-NYG)
Hosley has been a decent producer for the Giants in their nickel package this season and made a season-high 6 solo tackles against Baltimore on Sunday, three of which came after first-down completions and another three in the running game. While the Giants season has gone downhill in the past two weeks, the rookie third-round pick from Virginia Tech has been a solid find for New York.
At just 5-10, 178 pounds, Hosley’s size is the biggest knock on his NFL potential. Despite having just 1 interception on the season, he entered the NFL with excellent ball skills and has 5 pass breakups on the season, a solid number for a nickel back. His 4.41 speed allows him to stay with receivers down the field and recover when he’s beat with a great closing burst and recovery speed.
Hosley can play in both man-to-man and zone coverage and works hard to stop the run, as seen on Sunday. The former Hokie has good skills but won’t be able to cover bigger NFL receivers, which will likely prevent him from ever being a starter. He can certainly find a home in the nickel though as he already has with the Giants behind Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara.
Harrison Smith (S-Min)
The 29th overall pick out of Notre Dame, Smith started slowly this season and had no more than 3 solo tackles in any of his first six games. In the nine games since, the former Fighting Irish star hasn’t made less than 4 solo tackles in a single game and has put together three double-digit tackling performances along with 3 interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and 2 touchdowns on interception returns.
Smith has been even better over his last five games, totaling 42 tackles (36 solo) as Minnesota has made a push towards a playoff spot in the NFC. So far in his rookie season, Smith has lived up to his reputation as a hard-hitting downhill safety and while he wasn’t known as a ballhawk in college, Smith has shown the ability to play the ball in the air and stay with opponents in coverage.
At 6-2, 213 pounds, Smith has prototypical size for an NFL strong safety and has done nothing but improve so far in his first NFL season. He was the second safety taken in April and while the first (Tampa Bay’s Mark Barron) started the season playing better football, it’s Smith who is closing the season on a high note on a team with playoff aspirations. If he continues to find himself around the ball consistently, the future is very bright for the Vikings young strong safety.
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.