With another week of the NFL season in the books, it’s time to take a look at some rookies who waited until Week 2 to shine. As usual, there are multiple players who have already taken advantage of their opportunities despite being drafted in the sixth round or later while others were drafted high and have provided a good early return so far. Chris Tripodi will let you know which rookies stood out to him in Week 2.
Giovani Bernard (RB-Cin)
Cincinnati’s goal this offseason was to add explosive playmakers to an offense that lacked firepower beyond star receiver A.J. Green. Andy Dalton’s performance through his first two seasons has been one of a game manager rather than a dynamic quarterback and the Bengals wanted to surround him with players who can make plays with the ball in their hands. They made Bernard the first running back off the board early in the second round and after accounting for both of the Bengals’ Week 2 touchdowns, he has already arrived as their second-best playmaker.
After a 61-yard pass to fellow rookie Tyler Eifert set Cincinnati up deep in Pittsburgh territory, Bernard scored on a 7-yard run up the middle that showed he is more than a third-down back. The former Tar Heel showed off his patience and vision to wait for the hole to develop, displayed the burst to beat a closing defensive back through the crease and turned his built up speed into enough power to push into the endzone after getting hit at the 2-yard line. Bernard showed off elite speed on his second touchdown, taking a short pass over the middle and beating two defenders to the sideline for a 27-yard touchdown.
Despite playing just 29 snaps to BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ 50, Bernard’s explosiveness guarantees him a big role in the Bengals offense. His opportunities should only grow as the season wears on, especially if he can continue to prove himself in pass protection like he did on Monday night, even though he stayed in to block on just four plays. Green-Ellis’ contract runs out after the 2014 season but the writing is on the wall and Bernard will likely have already earned a greater share of the workload by then. Until that point, the two should be a great complement to each other’s styles.
Andre Ellington (RB-Ari)
Ellington slipped all the way into the sixth round after a poor 40-yard dash time (4.61) at the NFL combine due to a hamstring injury, but we had him rated as a fourth-rounder. After playing just 8 snaps in Week 1 compared to 27 from backup Alfonso Smith, Ellington’s playing time increased in Week 2, seeing 21 snaps compared to 18 for Smith. It’s obvious that the Arizona coaching staff doesn’t trust Rashard Mendenhall to stay healthy playing more than 40 snaps per game, which makes sense considering his injury history and Bruce Arians’ pass-happy offense. After a strong Week 2 performance from Ellington in a Cardinals’ win, his snap count could continue to rise.
Ellington scored Arizona’s first touchdown of the game in the second quarter, using his speed to get behind the Lions’ defense on a wheel route out of the backfield. Carson Palmer hit Ellington right in stride and he cruised into the ednzone for a 36-yard score. This play got Ellington more snaps in the second half and he added two runs of at least 10 yards. Both were bounced outside where Ellington could showcase his speed and he made a few defenders miss in the open field with quick stops and cuts. Ellington accelerates well and loses little momentum when he changes direction. He’s also deceptively strong at 5-9, 200 pounds and falls forward when he keeps his feet moving on contact.
Mendenhall will likely remain the starter for the Cardinals thanks to his familiarity with Arians from their time together in Pittsburgh, but Ellington led the running backs in pass routes run with 12. Considering Arizona threw on 44 of their 75 plays in a tight game with Detroit and Ellington already looks like their most dynamic back, his role in the offense may continue to trend upwards at the expense of Smith and potentially Mendenhall as well. It helps that the Arizona staff views him as more than just a third-down back, which will make him a huge steal with the 187th pick of the draft if he continues to develop.
DeAndre Hopkins (WR-Hou)
Billed as the most NFL-ready of the rookie receivers in the 2013 draft, Hopkins has been as advertised through his first two games as a Houston Texan. The team has had a gaping hole at receiver behind Andre Johnson for a few seasons now and the Texans finally decided to fill it by making Hopkins the 27th pick in April’s draft. Johnson isn’t getting any younger but when he moves on, Hopkins has shown the ability to replace him as the team’s top wideout.
The former Clemson star had a great debut, catching 5 of his 6 targets for 66 yards in Week 1, with the lone miss coming on a shot in the endzone by Matt Schaub. His encore performance was even better, as Hopkins saw 13 targets in an overtime win over the Texans which led to 7 receptions for 117 yards and the game-winning touchdown. He caught three straight passes for 64 yards on the late drive that forced OT for Houston, showing off his ball skills in the air on two of those catches, the second of which was a tough grab through contact on the sideline. The game-winner was a 3-yard sideline fade where Hopkins attacked the ball at its highest point and showed the strong hands to maintain control while getting his feet down in bounds for the score.
Hopkins had just two catches in the game’s first 57 minutes but showed off every trait that scouts loved about him at the end of the fourth quarter and overtime, especially after Johnson went out with a concussion right before Houston tied the game. He broke through press coverage at the line, used his 6-1 frame to shield defenders from the ball and displayed toughness, the ability to high point the football in the air in tight coverage and strong hands to come down with the catch. Hopkins was the best player on the field when the Texans needed to make plays and looks like a difference maker for Houston. He said after the game that he thought he could be better than Johnson and whether or not that happens, Hopkins showed the potential to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL. With his red zone skills, he will be a perfect complement to Johnson’ deep threat for the next few seasons in Houston.
Tavon Austin (WR-StL)
With an unimpressive group of wide receivers heading into the 2013 season and the need to give Sam Bradford more talent to throw to, the Rams signed tight end Jared Cook to a 5-year deal in March and drafted Austin a month later. Cook was the star of St. Louis’ Week 1 win with 141 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. Week 2 was Austin’s turn to shine with 2 touchdowns of his own, this time in a losing effort for the Rams.
Taking away the touchdowns, Austin’s receiving line (6 catches, 47 yards, 12 targets on Sunday) was actually better in Week 1, when he caught 6 of the 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. This week, his second catch of the game went for a 6-yard touchdown late in the third quarter with the Rams down 24-3. Sam Bradford escaped the pocket to the right and Austin broke his curl route to the pylon. Bradford’s throw was wide, but Austin showed good body control to reach for the pass with both feet down in bounds and soft hands to make the catch. The rookie from West Virginia caught four more passes on the next two drives with the Rams in comeback mode, the second of which gave him another score. Austin found a soft spot in zone coverage on another curl and did a nice job not coming back to the ball on third-and-goal and staying in the endzone while going to the ground to secure the touchdown grab.
With his longest catch of the season going for just 14 yards, Austin has been solely an underneath option for Bradford in his first two career games. His lack of size (5-8, 174) has made it difficult for him to be a deep threat early despite sub-4.3 speed, but the presence of the speedy Chris Givens running long routes could also be a factor. Austin’s quickness, elusiveness and natural skills as a receiver and a route runner should allow him continued success working underneath and with his talent, he should be able to break a big play after the catch soon.
Kiko Alonso (LB-Buf)
With incoming defensive coordinator Mike Pettine running an aggressive style of defense, the Bills looked to improve one of the league’s worst set of linebackers last season this offseason. Drafting Alonso in the second round gave Pettine a great athlete in the middle of his 3-4 defense. While he is just 6-3, 240 pounds, Alonso makes up for that lack of size with his athletic ability, top-notch instincts and the cover skills that let him stay on the field on third down.
Despite a solid stat line in Week 1 against New England with 9 tackles (5 solo), a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, Alonso struggled in pass coverage as Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman worked well over the middle of the field. The former Oregon star bounced back against the pass in Week 2 against a lesser passing game, intercepting Cam Newton after the Panthers moved the ball inside the Buffalo 30-yard line on their first drive of the game. Alonso recognized Brandon LaFell’s curl route from the slot and read Newton’s eyes to jump the route. He also added two quarterback hurries and a sack on the last play of the game, a potential Hail Mary from the Carolina 40-yard line. The Buffalo run defense was poor overall and while Alonso contributed to that with a missed tackle and some poor pursuit angles, which was one of the knocks on him coming out of Oregon, he still managed 10 tackles (9 solo) even though just five of them were within three yards of the line of scrimmage.
Alonso has shown flashes of being a complete linebacker through 2 weeks despite his uneven play. He is locked in as a starter in the middle of the Buffalo defense and should adapt to the speed of the NFL game as the season goes on. Once he does, he has the potential to put up big tackle numbers with a nasty attitude and non-stop motor that should endear him to Bills fans.
Alec Ogletree (LB-StL)
With a big hole at linebacker next to James Laurinaitis and the later-released Jo-Lonn Dunbar, St. Louis used the 30th overall pick in April’s draft on the talented but troubled Ogletree. He was slated to move Dunbar from the weak side to the strong side to give the Rams a talented group of linebackers but the Rams got rid of Dunbar after he was suspended four games for using performance-enhancing drugs, instead signing Will Witherspoon to start on the other side of Ogletree.
Much like Alonso, Ogletree struggled in his Week 1 debut, mostly in run defense. He didn’t miss any tackles but only made one stop for less than 4 yards and although he ended up with 8 solo tackles, most of them were far from the line. Ogletree had the same number of tackles in Week 2 including a miss but was far more impactful overall, making 3 stops close to the line of scrimmage including one for a 4-yard loss on Jacquizz Rodgers. Rodgers was forced to bounce the run outside but Ogletree came up quickly to shut down the edge. He broke up multiple passes as well, swiping at the ball to knock it out of Steven Jackson’s hands early and showing the awareness to get his hands up on a blitz to knock away a screen pass to Julio Jones.
Ogletree was at the top of our inside linebacker board and has the versatility to play both the run and the pass well, which is a good sign for his playing time since the Rams have been in the nickel over 70 percent of the time this season. That has a lot to do with playing the Cardinals and the Falcons but the Rams are already trusting Ogletree to play a lot against pass-happy teams. Once discussed as a top-10 talent, Ogletree has the pursuit ability, explosiveness and coverage skills to be an important player to the St. Louis defense if he can stay out of trouble off the field.
Joplo Bartu (LB-Atl)
An undrafted rookie from Texas State, Bartu was nowhere near our draft board heading into the 2013 draft. He wasn’t very highly sought after by NFL scouts either and ended up undrafted, but Atlanta saw enough ability to give him a shot in training camp despite the small-school tag. Bartu impressed their staff in training camp and his strong play carried over into the preseason, particularly in pass coverage. Bartu was used on passing downs with the first-team defense in the third preseason game as a result, but didn’t play a snap in Week 1.
Week 2 was a different story for Bartu, as he started and played more snaps (63) than any other Falcons linebacker. Veteran Stephen Nicholas saw the field on just four plays and while some of that could be because the Falcons were up 14-0 by the end of the first quarter, Bartu actually played better against the run (+1.1) than the pass (+0.6) according to Pro Football Focus. He made an immediate impact on Atlanta’s first defensive play of the game, reading Daryl Richardson’s swing route out of the backfield and closing quickly for a loss of 3 yards. Bartu had another tackle for loss in the third quarter, quickly shedding a Jared Cook block attempt to penetrate the backfield and quickly take down Richardson.
While Bartu’s emergence in training camp was overshadowed by Brian Banks’ story, the former Texas State star ultimately made the team and excelled in his first action this week. He doesn’t come with the hype that Alonso and Ogletree do but at least through one game, he looks like a player who can impact the game against both the run and the pass. At just 230 pounds, he will need to prove his ability to take on blocks over the long haul but Bartu showed a nose for the football in his 6-tackle debut. The Falcons will likely reward him with another opportunity in Week 3, especially after Sean Weatherspoon was placed on IR-designated to return. If he continues to impress, nobody will care that he wasn’t drafted.
Baccari Rambo (S-Was)
It’s not often teams are forced to rely on sixth-round picks to start their first game of the season but with the struggles of the Redskins’ secondary last season and a lack of high draft picks from the Robert Griffin III trade, Rambo has found himself in the starting lineup. Washington’s defense has been no better this season, allowing 402 rushing yards through two games thanks to 30 missed tackles, almost twice as many as the next highest team in the league.
Rambo has been a big part of the Redskins’ issues against the run, missing 4 tackles so far this season despite making 18 (13 solo). We had Rambo rated as a fourth-round prospect but he fell further than that due to the issues that plagued him at Georgia. His major weaknesses on Draft Insider’s scouting report were inefficient angles to the ball, marginal instincts and poor wrap-up tackling ability which have been magnified at the NFL level, especially playing on the back line of a defense with a struggling front seven.
Pro Football Focus has Rambo graded as the worst safety out of 79 so far this season and it’s hard to argue considering his poor play. Rambo is a hard hitter and a great athlete but the mental side of the game has proven difficult for him to grasp, even at the college level. Teams will continue to exploit his overaggressive nature and inefficient play until he improves, which will be difficult to do considering the current state of the Redskins’ defense. Washington doesn’t have many options to replace him either.
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.