Chris Tripodi returns for one last Rookie Report of the 2012 season which has its usual balance, including three players taken in the first two rounds and three that were drafted in the seventh round or not at all. Wide receivers are the focus of this week’s report, including a couple of first-round picks who started the season as disappointments but look to be developing nicely heading into 2013.
Vick Ballard (RB-Ind)
A fifth-round pick from Mississippi State, Ballard has seen far more work this season than the Colts likely wanted him to with Donald Brown and Delone Carter struggling with injuries all season. In Week 17, Ballard had a season-high 27 carries for just 78 yards but did score his third touchdown of the season. After his first career 100-yard game in Week 15 against Houston, Ballard finished the season with just 147 yards on 47 carries in the final two weeks.
With 211 carries for 814 yards on the season, Ballard averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and looked rather ordinary for most of the season. His size (5-10, 218) and patience are his biggest assets in the running game but his speed (4.58) leaves a lot to be desired and limits the big plays the Colts can produce running the football on offense.
As the league’s surprise playoff team, the Colts may not last long in the second season but Ballard will have a chance to carry the load against the Ravens on Sunday. Even if he impresses, it’s difficult to see the Colts not looking to upgrade their running game in the offseason via the draft or free agency. Brown has been a major first-round bust, Carter is nothing more than a goal-line back and Ballard still doesn’t project as a starter down the line.
Justin Blackmon (WR-Jac)
After a Week 9 review in this rookie report that was down on Blackmon, who started the season with just three 40-yard receiving games in the first half, the rookie from Oklahoma State exploded with 7 receptions, 236 yards and a touchdown two weeks later that started a nice run to end the season. In his last seven games of 2012, Blackmon made 38 receptions for 615 yards and 4 of his 5 touchdowns.
The sudden productivity directly coincided with a season-ending injury to underwhelming second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who was replaced by Chad Henne in the first quarter of Blackmon’s 236-yard breakout game. Now that Jacksonville knows what Blackmon can do with a quarterback as average as Henne compared to one who has been below average in Gabbert, it would be surprising if they entered 2013 with the former Missouri star under center.
As excited as Jaguars fans may be to hear that, there are rumors that Tim Tebow will end up in Jacksonville to curb Blackmon’s production just as much as Gabbert did. At 6-1, 210 pounds with 4.5 speed, good football intelligence and the awareness and route-running ability to get open consistently, Blackmon can certainly be the number-one receiver Jacksonville thought they were getting with the 5th overall pick this year if he has a quarterback that can get him the football.
Michael Floyd (WR-Ari)
Floyd headed into Week 17 with less than 400 receiving yards in what can only be considered a disappointing rookie season. The former Notre Dame star receiver finally looked the part of the 13th overall pick in the 2012 draft on Sunday, making 8 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown on 14 targets from new quarterback Brian Hoyer.
It didn’t help Floyd’s cause that Hoyer was the fourth quarterback Arizona has used this season after an injury to Kevin Kolb and ineffectiveness from both John Skelton and Ryan Lindley. If the Cardinals can find some stability at the quarterback position heading into 2013, Floyd will have a better chance to develop into a great complement to Larry Fitzgerald and his eventual successor as Arizona’s top receiver.
After consecutive 5-catch games heading into the Cardinals’ bye, it seemed Floyd was due for a big finish but he didn’t have another game with that many receptions until Week 16. At 6-2, 220 pounds, Floyd is a big receiver who also ran a 4.41 40-yard dash and can give whoever quarterbacks the Cardinals next year two big, athletic targets to throw the ball to. Arizona fans should hope this performance is a sign of things to come in 2013 for Floyd.
T.Y. Hilton (WR-Ind)
At just 5-9, 183 pounds, not much was expected from this third-round pick out of Florida International despite being blessed with sub-4.40 speed. The Colts were deep at receiver heading into the season with Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Donnie Avery ahead of Hilton on the depth chart, but another injury to Collie and average play from Avery opened up an opportunity for Hilton to see some targets with Andrew Luck throwing 40 times per game.
Hilton has not disappointed in his first year with 50 catches, 861 yards and a rookie-high 7 receiving touchdowns. He has been a bit inconsistent with five 100-yard games and seven games with 50 yards or less since Week 2 and while that may define him in the future as a small slot receiver who relies on big plays to make an offensive impact, he has been a great weapon for fellow rookie Andrew Luck and the playoff-bound Colts in 2012.
He may never win many jump balls but Hilton is athletic enough to make plays with the ball in the air and is a game-breaking talent after the catch. He would be best served in the slot and will likely remain there with Collie’s contract expiring after the season. The Colts have a nice young offense developing from their 2012 draft with Luck, Hilton, Ballard and a couple of rookie tight ends and it will be fun to watch this young team develop over the next few seasons. If Hilton can stay healthy after enduring some injury issues in college, he could be in line for a 1,000-yard season out of the slot at some point.
Rueben Randle (WR-NYG)
Since his 6-catch, 82-yard Week 5 performance that earned him a spot on that week’s report, Randle hadn’t topped 2 receptions in a game until last week when Hakeem Nicks barely played due to the knee injury that has been bothering him all season. Randle saw just four targets from Eli Manning but made the most of them, catching all 4 passes for 58 yards and 2 touchdowns.
While his 2012 performance has been inconsistent, that has been a byproduct of a receiver rotation that also included Domenik Hixon with or without Nicks in the lineup. Hixon is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and it seems unlikely the Giants would retain him when Randle can fill in capably as the third receiver. As he showed on Sunday, the second-round LSU product can use his size (6-3, 210) to be an effective target in the red zone.
Despite having just 19 receptions as a rookie Randle did have three touchdowns, a number that should certainly grow as he becomes more familiar with the offense, develops better chemistry with Manning and sees more snaps on the field. Manning already seems comfortable looking Randle’s way, particularly in the red zone, and with the injury-prone Nicks’ contract running out after next season, Randle and Victor Cruz seem likely to be the team’s starting receivers in two years.
Kelvin Beachum (T-Pit)
A seventh-round draft pick for the Steelers back in April, nobody expected Beachum to provide anything more than depth for an offensive line that has struggled with injuries over the past few seasons. A developmental prospect out of SMU that was expected to move inside to guard at the NFL level, Beachum was the third offensive lineman drafted this season by Pittsburgh. When fellow rookie Mike Adams suffered an ankle injury against the Browns in Week 12, he became the final lineman from Pittsburgh’s 2012 draft class to be thrust into the starting lineup.
Despite strength concerns at 6-2 and only 303 pounds, Beachum held his own playing next to first-round rookie David DeCastro against both the Ravens and the Chargers in his first two NFL starts. The rookie made some mistakes and while he got his share of help from backs and tight ends, Beachum was not the liability many would have expected a seventh-round pick from a small school to be and showed well to finish off the season.
It’s unlikely Beachum will enter 2013 with a starting role once the Pittsburgh offensive line gets healthy again but that may work to his advantage, as he would benefit from adding strength in the offseason and next year. His emergence late in the 2012 season will definitely aid the Steelers’ depth along the offensive front and after taking three linemen in last year’s draft, Pittsburgh should be able to address other concerns in 2013 knowing that they have a player like Beachum who can be a reliable fill-in.
Justin Francis (DE-NE)
Undrafted out of Rutgers, Francis has worked his way into the New England defensive line rotation after missing the first few games of the season with a knee injury. The former Scarlet Knight had a great game on Sunday, recording the first 3 sacks of his NFL career in the Patriots’ 28-0 shutout of Miami. This performance could get him more snaps in the playoffs, especially if Rob Ninkovich isn’t 100 percent by New England’s first postseason game.
Ninkovich left in the second quarter with a hip injury, but the early reports say it isn’t serious and he is expected to play when New England takes the field again in less than two weeks. Even if the team’s sack leader misses the game, Francis likely wouldn’t be in line for anything resembling every-down duty even after his breakout game. At just 6-4, 270 pounds, Francis lacks the size to make up for his average speed (4.75) off the edge.
The Patriots had 7 sacks on the day and while Bill Belichick emphasized the team aspect of New England’s quarterback pressure over any one individual’s performance, Francis had to have caught his coach’s eye to get a few extra snaps in the coming weeks. While he doesn’t have the upside of an NFL starter, he’s a highly competitive player who can certainly make an impact on special teams and on passing downs.
Vontaze Burfict (LB-Cin)
What a whirlwind the last 2 years have been for Burfict. Heading into his junior season in 2011, he was expected to cement his first-round draft status after an All-America caliber sophomore season. But an inconsistent junior season where he flashed more immaturity and downside than talent dropped him out of the 2012 draft entirely and Cincinnati was the team that decided to take the low-risk chance on the former star.
With 18 tackles (10 solo) in the Bengals’ season finale, Burfict took over the team lead in tackles with 127 despite not playing much in the first three games and has been a consistent force on their defense since taking over a starting spot in Week 4. That’s a pretty impressive feat considering the baggage he came into 2012 with and that his success has come at weakside linebacker replacing Thomas Howard rather than his natural middle linebacker position.
The former Sun Devil has shaken off a terrible junior season and combine performance to step in and be a key defensive player on a playoff football team, all while flying straight throughout his rookie season. If the Bengals can Burfict grounded and he can continue to develop into the dominant player he was at times in college, there could be a Pro Bowl or two in his future.
Many thanks to Chris for another season of hard work and insight into the NFL rookies!
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.