After one week of football, it’s time to take a look at which rookies lived up to the early hype surrounding them. While some of these first-year players were drafted with high expectations, others weren’t drafted at all but manufactured expectations through training camp and preseason performances as well as early opportunities to see the field. Chris Tripodi will let you know which rookies came through for their teams in Week 1 as this year’s initial Rookie Report has an AFC East feel to it, with five of this week’s players residing on teams in the Northeast.
E.J. Manuel (QB-Buf)
A surprise first-round pick by the Bills, Manuel stepped right into the starting quarterback job after a good first preseason start and the ongoing concussion issues of Kevin Kolb. Kolb was expected to start the season and let Manuel learn from the sideline, as everybody except the Bills had the rookie pegged as a high-ceiling project that was not ready for the NFL, which was evident when they took him in the first round. Despite missing the final few weeks of the preseason due to a minor knee cleanup, Manuel made it back in time to lead Buffalo into New England and will be learning on the job this season.
Doug Marrone and the Bills’ coaching staff did a nice job of protecting Manuel and not asking him to do too much against the Patriots and the rookie almost rewarded them with a victory. Manuel threw for just 150 yards and completed 18 of his 27 attempts but he showed the ability Buffalo saw in him to make him a first-rounder on his second touchdown pass. Stevie Johnson got a step behind two New England defenders in the red zone and Manuel led him beautifully, putting just enough loft under his pass to get over the defense and putting the ball where only Johnson could make a play on it. On this play, Manuel showed off the big-play ability he showed at Florida State.
One of the knocks on Manuel were his issues with timing and placement in college and while he was very efficient in his first start, there were a few passes he would want back. One in particular was a third-and-1 midway through the fourth quarter where Manuel found Stevie Johnson crossing over the middle for a first down. Manuel was slightly late with the ball and delivered a low pass that hit Johnson’s hands and should have been caught, but was not thrown as accurately as it could have been. A completion would have kept the drive alive in New England territory and likely led to at least a field goal, which turned out to be the difference in a 23-21 loss.
Overall, there was much more to like about Manuel’s performance than not. He was poised in the pocket all game, didn’t turn the ball over and wasn’t sacked at all. Manuel ran just 3 times for 23 yards, showing good decision-making ability to tuck and run when defenders turned their back in man coverage without bailing out of the pocket at the first sign of trouble. It may not have been the dynamic debut of Robert Griffin III last year but for a player everybody thought needed time to develop, Manuel was poised, confident and showed very good leadership ability. As a result, learning on the job may end up being the best thing for his timing and accuracy issues as practice speed and game speed are worlds apart.
Geno Smith (QB-NYJ)
Smith was expected by most to be the first quarterback taken in this year’s draft but with the Bills taking Manuel and other quarterback-needy teams waiting for the QB class of 2014, the Jets landed Smith, a player who was rumored to be in the mix for the first overall pick early in the draft process, with the 39th overall pick. Smith dealt with a sprained ankle during the preseason and look bad in his lone start against the Giants, throwing three interceptions and running out of his own endzone for a safety. But Mark Sanchez’s shoulder injury made him the starter by default and while Smith had a more uneven debut than Manuel, he led his team to victory and played a pivotal role in a late comeback drive.
After three consecutive three-and-outs to start the game, Smith led the Jets to a field goal before fumbling inside his own 10-yard line on the Jets’ next drive instead of going down and taking a sack. He followed that up with an interception on his next drive and after running backwards and taking an 18-yard sack on the first play of the drive after that, Smith settled down and led the Jets to a touchdown before the half. As poor as his first half play was, Smith bounced back well in the second half to keep the Jets in the game instead of compounding his previous mistakes, something the Jets are used to seeing from Sanchez.
The Jets couldn’t run the ball at all but like Smith did at West Virginia, he was able to use the screen and short passing game to move the ball down the field and keep pressure at bay. Smith showed good poise in the second half and the willingness to run when he had to, although it clear isn’t his first choice. Like Manuel, Smith stayed committed to making plays from the pocket and only used his legs as a last resort, keeping his eyes downfield until he crossed the line of scrimmage and trying to make plays with his arm. When he had time to throw, he showed the ability to stand tall in the pocket and reset his base while progressing through reads. On the final drive of the game, he completed a 25-yard pass to Kellen Winslow and ran for 10 yards on the next play, drawing a late hit penalty on Lavonte David as he went out of bounds to set up the game-winning field goal.
The lack of a running game may prevent the Jets from protecting Smith as well as the Bills can with Manuel, but their defense will give him a chance to win a few games if he can avoid turnovers. Marty Mornhinweg would be smart to continue to use the screen game to keep opposing defenses from blitzing at will but Smith still needs to improve his footwork under pressure, especially up the middle. New England’s defense will be a great test for the rookie on Thursday and while struggles are to be expected from Smith this season considering his subpar supporting cast and underdeveloped footwork, he will have every chance to prove himself as the leader of the Jets this season. He stayed confident last week, kept his team in the game throughout the second half and put them in position to win when it mattered most, something the Jets have been sorely lacking at quarterback for the last two seasons.
Kenbrell Thompkins (WR-NE)
After all the production that left New England for various reasons this offseason, Thompkins was the surprise of Patriots’ training camp. The rookie from Cincinnati went undrafted in April, mostly stemming from a childhood that saw him arrested seven times before he turned 19. He quickly jumped second-round pick Aaron Dobson and fourth-round pick Josh Boyce on the depth chart to replace Brandon Lloyd as New England’s “X” receiver and after an 8-catch performance in the team’s third preseason game, Thompkins had plenty of sleeper appeal heading into the season.
Thompkins’ route-running and play recognition is what separated him from Dobson and Boyce in camp but on Sunday against Buffalo, none of those skills were apparent. Thompkins was targeted 14 times but had just 4 receptions for 42 yards, a terrible catch rate considering Brady completed 25 of his 38 passes to other players. Thompkins had trouble creating separation and looked lost at times on the field, not breaking sharply out of his routes or positioning himself to attack the ball. His major blunder came down 21-17 in the third quarter, as Thompkins stopped his route in the back of the endzone to let Leodis McKelvin run by him while Brady escaped pressure. Instead of starting back in the other direction like Brady expected, Thompkins froze while Brady led him the other way and the pass fell incomplete. Two plays later, Brady fumbled a fourth-down snap and the Patriots were still behind on the scoreboard.
Bill Belichick is not one to keep a player on the field if they aren’t performing up to his standards, as Stevan Ridley’s benching last week proved. Danny Amendola’s latest injury, however, should mean Thompkins will remain highly targeted in the near future despite his Week 1 inefficiency. Julian Edelman was very productive in Week 1 and should be the main beneficiary of Amendola’s absence and Thompkins will need to perform this week to stave off his competition. If he doesn’t bounce back against the Jets on Thursday, I would expect to see the other New England rookie receivers get a chance on the outside even if Amendola stays on the sideline. If Belichick is willing to bench a 1,200-yard rusher, he’s definitely willing to bench an undrafted, unproven rookie.
Marlon Brown (WR-Bal)
After giving Anquan Boldin away to the 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick and losing tight end Dennis Pitta to injury, the Ravens are starving for reliable targets for Joe Flacco in the passing game. They were looking to Jacoby Jones to fill in opposite Torrey Smith while Brandon Stokley worked the slot, but Jones sprained his MCL on Thursday night when his own teammate ran into him on a punt return. Like Kenbrell Thompkins, Brown was an undrafted receiver who opened eyes with his preseason performance. Unlike Thompkins, Brown didn’t disappoint when he got an opportunity.
Brown tore his ACL after playing eight games as a senior, which played a big part in him not being drafted. Tavarres King was Georgia’s more highly regarded receiver and a bigger big-play threat for the Bulldogs, while Brown is more of a possession receiver. The rookie turned 6 targets into 4 receptions for 65 yards last Thursday night including a touchdown, which came in the fourth quarter when the game was out of hand. Regardless of the timing of his score, Brown proved to be as reliable as he was in the preseason and with Jones slated to miss 4-6 weeks of action, he will step into the starting lineup across from Torrey Smith.
At 6-4, Brown has great size and his touchdown came on a corner route in the endzone, which I expect to see more of as the Ravens try to take advantage of his height and Flacco’s arm strength. If Brown can continue to be consistent, he will provide a viable possession complement to the big-play ability of Smith. Jones has always been underwhelming as a receiver so it seems unlikely he gets his job back when he returns from injury unless Brown struggles badly in his new role. With little other competition on the roster, Brown has the ability to run with the starting job on a potential contending team.
Zach Sudfeld (TE-NE)
Another undrafted Patriots’ rookie who made a name for himself in the preseason, Sudfeld was expected to fill the “joker” role played so well by the now-incarcerated Aaron Hernandez. The former Nevada star’s college career was littered with injuries as he missed two full seasons with the Wolfpack and underwent a total of six surgeries in his college career. Finally healthy during his senior season, he broke out with 598 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns to put himself on the NFL radar. New England decided to take a flier on Sudfeld after the draft with Hernandez’s legal issues and Rob Gronkowski recovering from back surgery.
Unfortunately for the Pats, Sudfeld was even worse than Kenbrell Thompkins was in Week 1. He played just 20 snaps including 11 pass plays, ran just 9 routes and was targeted only once. Sudfeld dropped that lone pass and worst of all, it bounced into the hands of Bills’ cornerback Justin Rogers for an interception in New England territory. Buffalo took advantage of the short field, scoring two plays later to cut New England’s lead to 17-14 entering the half. Sudfeld saw very little of the field from that point on.
To add injury to insult, Sudfeld is now dealing with a pulled hamstring that is threatening his availability for Thursday night’s game against the Jets. Regardless of his injury status, the impending return of Rob Gronkowski likely in Week 3 or 4 along with his ineffective Week 1 performance will threaten much of the playing time that would have been available to Sudfeld. Without a draft pick invested in him, the Patriots won’t feel the need to force him back onto the field unless they think he can help their offense. If the Buffalo game was any indication, he may be a long way off from having the impact some expected this season.
Sheldon Richardson (DE-NYJ)
After the Jets traded Darrelle Revis for the 13th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and drafted Dee Milliner with their 9th overall pick, most thought the team would look to improve their offense with a player like tight end Tyler Eifert or their pass rush with linebacker Jarvis Jones. Instead, the Jets threw everybody a curveball and used the pick they got for Revis on Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. A freak athlete who runs a sub-5.00 40-yard dash and checks in at 6-2, 295 pounds, the Jets envision Richardson as a five-technique end that will allow them to move last year’s first-round pick Quinton Coples to outside linebacker, but many questioned Richardson’s fit in the New York defense.
After one week, Richardson looks like the real deal as he was a big part of the Jets’ outstanding performance shutting down Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin, who ran for just 65 yards on 24 carries. Richardson’s early contributions were expected to come from shooting gaps and providing an interior pass rush with his explosive first step, but he was credited with 7 tackles (3 solo) including 4 stops in the running game. He was largely invisible as a pass rusher and his first-step quickness got him in trouble on an early offsides penalty, but it was a great debut overall for Richardson.
Richardson’s only pressure on the quarterback came as an unblocked rusher and he recorded a half-sack on the play, but otherwise he was handled well in the passing game by Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn. Richardson will be lined up against Nate Solder on Thursday night and if he can find a way to put some heat on Tom Brady a few times and stuff the run as well as he did in Week 1, there won’t be many people questioning whether he was the right pick for the Jets. Considering he was taken with the draft pick New York got for one of the best players they’ve ever had, expectations are high but Richardson has done nothing but perform so far in his NFL career.
Tyrann Mathieu (CB-Ari)
The player formerly known as the “Honey Badger,” Mathieu was an electric All-American cornerback and returner at LSU before being dismissed from the team the summer before his sophomore year for breaking team rules. Mathieu also had issues with marijuana and reportedly admitted to an NFL team that he failed more than 10 drug tests at LSU. He later refuted that report but the damage was already done and despite his precocious talent, Mathieu fell into round three due to character concerns and questions about whether his size (5-9, 186) would limit him in the NFL.
Reunited with former Tigers teammate and close friend Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals felt comfortable taking a chance on the reportedly cleaned-up Mathieu and after their first game against the Rams, it looks like their risk may just be rewarded. Mathieu made 7 tackles on the game and missed just one while making one of the highlight plays of Week 1. Jared Cook broke open for a long pass up the seam and was on his way to the endzone when Mathieu chased him down from behind and poked the ball out of Cook’s left hand and into the endzone, where the Cardinals recovered for a touchback. It wasn’t all good for Mathieu as he did have a 38-yard pass interference called on him but while he allowed Tavon Austin to make 6 receptions, they went for just 41 yards.
Mathieu is best suited for a nickel role and that’s exactly what Arizona will be expecting from him this season. He will also see time as a safety in sub packages as the Cardinals attempt to get his playmaking ability on the field as often as possible. He played 42 of 71 snaps in their opener and with the NFL trending towards more three-wide sets, Mathieu will have plenty of opportunities on the field to prove his doubters wrong as long as he can stay clean off the field. So far, he’s shown every indication of being a changed man and if that continues, opponents will want to make sure they protect the ball when they play the Cardinals.
David Amerson (CB-Was)
Heading into the 2012 season, Amerson was coming off an All-American performance that saw him intercept 13 passes his sophomore year. He struggled to duplicate that performance as a junior before entering the draft and fell into round two as a result. Desperate for help in the secondary, the Redskins took Amerson 51st overall in April and while I was down on the pick with Amerson rated as a third-rounder on our board, the early returns say that I may have been wrong to doubt Washington’s belief that Amerson was the player he showed as a sophomore, not as a junior.
The statistics don’t jump at the page from his Week 1 debut with just 4 tackles (2 solo) but Amerson was targeted only 4 times even though the Eagles ran 83 plays (34 passes) in Chip Kelly’s first game as head coach. Of those 4 targets, Amerson allowed just one completion for 8 yards and broke up a deep third-down pass to Riley Cooper near the end of the first quarter to force Philadelphia to punt from the Redskins’ 40-yard line. Amerson was on the field for 78 of those 83 plays since the Redskins were in the nickel for the majority of the night, as the Eagles used three-receiver sets to attack what they perceived to be a weakness in Washington’s secondary.
While the Monday night struggles of the aging DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson won’t deter teams from copying the Eagles’ receiver-heavy blueprint, Amerson should quickly find his way into base packages if he continues to play the way he did in Week 1. He’s already put his ball skills on display and if he can translate his 4.4 speed to deep coverage and show the fluidity to stay with receivers down the field, he could prove to be a very nice pick for the Redskins despite my initial reservations.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and interviewing NFL prospects. He also writes for Optimum Scouting, Yahoo! and Jets 101 and has previously worked at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.