Three weeks into the season, things are starting to clear up around the NFL. Contenders and pretenders have staked their early-season claims, as have many rookies around the league. This week will be the first Rookie Report of 2013 not to feature an undrafted free agent, with four players drafted in the top 33 including three safeties and four others drafted outside the top 80. Chris Tripodi returns for another week of rookie breakdowns below.
Johnathan Franklin (RB-GB)
Green Bay surprised many by taking Franklin in the fourth round of April’s draft, considering they spent a second-round pick on Alabama running back Eddie Lacy. Considering the top two running backs on their depth chart were DuJuan Harris and James Starks, maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Another element of the pick that was unexpected was Franklin’s availability at the end of the fourth round, considering he was rated as a second-round prospect on the Draft Insider board and the second-ranked running back behind Lacy. Franklin struggled in training camp and the preseason which led to rumors he might even get cut, allowing Lacy to put a stranglehold on the starting job when Harris was placed on injured reserve and justifying his drop out of the top 125 picks to his critics.
After not playing a snap in the first two weeks behind Lacy and Starks, Franklin was slated to backup Starks while Lacy missed Week 3 with a concussion. When the injury-prone Starks left after hurting his knee the backfield belonged to Franklin, who impressed most of the way against a talented Cincinnati front seven. Franklin ripped off a 51-yard run in the third quarter that displayed the skills that made him a highly-ranked prospect. Franklin stayed patient despite his blockers getting pushed into the backfield, waited for the hole to develop and showed great burst to get past the line of scrimmage. He set up the charging safety with a nice inside cut before breaking outside, forcing a missed tackle that sprung him into the secondary where he was finally chased down by Leon Hall just past midfield.
Franklin had a great statistical day despite not touching the ball until the second half. He had 13 carries for 103 yards and caught all three of the passes thrown his way for an additional 23 yards. Unfortunately, Packers fans will only remember his fourth-quarter fumble that was returned for the deciding touchdown. On fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 30-yard line, Franklin left his feet to lunge for the first down but didn’t cover the ball with both hands and had it knocked loose right after he left the ground.
Despite the key fumble, Franklin showed the all-around ability that scouts saw in him at UCLA. He ran the football effectively, made an impact in the passing game and did a good job of protecting Aaron Rodgers when he stayed in to block. Green Bay heads into their bye next week and while Lacy is expected to be ready for Week 5, it’s hard to imagine Franklin being phased completely out of the offense despite his costly mistake. Forget about his preseason struggles; Franklin looked like a player who can contribute on Sundays when the game counted.
Jordan Reed (TE-Was)
With starting tight end Fred Davis out with an ankle injury, Reed saw extensive action against the Lions on Sunday. A third-round pick from Florida, many compared Reed to Aaron Hernandez heading into the draft because Reed is more of an H-back than an inline tight end. While Reed isn’t the playmaker Hernandez was with the ball in his hands, he’s shown ability in the passing game when given a chance this season. Heading into Week 3, Reed had 8 receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown on 9 targets.
Reed’s efficiency in the passing game continued in Week 3, as he caught 5 of the 6 passes thrown his way for 50 yards. Not known as a good run blocker, our scouting report on Reed did say he gives effort blocking despite marginal blocking strength. On Alfred Morris’ 30-yard touchdown run off tackle, Reed smartly used Israel Idonije’s momentum to shield him from the play. Morris started up the middle and when Idonije crashed down to pinch the hole, Morris bounced outside as Reed put his head down and sealed Idonije just long enough to spring Morris. His technique was far from flawless but he fought hard and got the job done.
With Davis falling out of favor in a contract year and Reed surprisingly outplaying him already, it looks to be only a matter of time until Reed is starting over Davis even when the veteran returns to full health, which has consistently escaped him in the past few seasons. Reed is the prototypical move tight end with the athleticism to get into the secondary and make tough catches and if the Redskins use him creatively in the slot and in motion, his skill set complements the ability of Robert Griffin III very well.
Luke Willson (TE-Sea)
With the Seahawks manhandling the Jaguars, Willson got to play most of the second half in place of starting tight end Zach Miller and tripled his season snap total from 18 to 54. The fifth-round pick out of Rice’s athleticism was on display as Seattle’s backups looked like they could have beaten Jacksonville’s starters. Willson made his first career catch in the first quarter and finished with 5 reception for 76 yards, converting all five of his targets into first downs.
Wilson’s biggest play came in the fourth quarter, when he beat Paul Posluszny on a play-action crossing route and broke two tackles before Posluszny caught up to him 35 yards down the field. Willson showed an understanding of down and distance and ran his routes beyond the first-down marker to make sure he gained the yards he needed. He held his own in run blocking as well showing good strength and effort to go along with his athleticism.
Playing behind 49ers’ second-round pick Vance McDonald at Rice, Wilson is a developmental prospect who will take some time to develop. At 6’5, 252 pounds with a 4.52 40-yard dash time, Willson’s athletic upside is far higher than Miller and if the Seahawks remain patient with him, Willson is the type of late-round pick that could become a good player down the line for the Seahawks.
Ezekial “Ziggy” Ansah (DE-Det)
Comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul were common for Ansah during the draft process as a freak athlete coming out of BYU. A 6-5, 271-pound defensive end who ran a 4.64 40-yard dash, Ansah only started playing football in 2010 and had just 4.5 sacks in his entire BYU career. The former Cougar wasn’t even on draft boards heading into his senior season and despite his modest production, his athletic ability shot him up the rankings, culminating in the Lions taking him with the 5th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Ansah showed off his talents immediately in the first preseason game, intercepting a screen pass from the Jets’ Mark Sanchez and returning it for a short touchdown.
After a half-sack in Week 1 and a strong Week 2 performance against both the run and the pass, Ansah was rewarded with a Week 3 start. Although he played fewer snaps (50) than he did the week before (53) Ansah made an impact on the game with 7 tackles (3 solo), 2 sacks and a forced fumble. Late in the first half, Ansah saw Robert Griffin III break contain and disengaged his blocker to force a fumble, which Griffin recovered, to shut down any chance of a last-second field goal to tie the game at 17. His second sack was a drive killer early in the third quarter as he was well-blocked by Logan Paulsen but stuck with the play while Griffin scrambled and eventually got loose to bring the Redskins quarterback down for a 13-yard loss.
While Ansah’s performance looked better on the stat sheet than it did on the game film, he has acclimated quickly to the NFL and has been a big part of the Lions’ improvement on defense. For a player who was supposed to be too raw to contribute immediately, it’s impressive to see him hold his own against the run and add 2.5 sacks in his first three career games. The presence of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley next to him on the defensive line certainly doesn’t hurt but the Lions drafted Ansah for his Pro Bowl upside in the long run and considered anything they got from him this season to be a bonus. He has continued to improve like he did at BYU and with an athletic specimen like Ansah, his potential is limitless and he could give Detroit the best defensive line in football.
Akeem Spence (DT-TB)
After starting in Week 1 against the Jets, Spence has come off the bench the past two weeks but saw a season-high 51 snaps against the Patriots last week. Spence has been extremely impressive against the run in the early part of the 2013 season and Week 3 was no different, as three of his four tackles on the game were stops on plays that went for two yards or less. In Week 3, Spence showed an ability to rush the passer as well.
The former Illini defensive end showed off his explosive first step and quickly got his hands on New England center Ryan Wendell in the third quarter, turning him away from the ball until he had a clear path to shed the block and sack Tom Brady. Spence’s explosive ability off the line and the quickness to shoot gaps has been more of an asset against the run so far this year, but he also had two hurries of Brady in the game and looks to be translating his talents into a pass rush.
Spence is a bit undersized for a three-technique at 6-1, 307 pounds and the knock on Spence that pushed him into the fourth round was a lack of bulk and marginal pass rushing ability. His interior quickness has immediately translated to the NFL level however, which should buy him some time to get bigger in the weight room if his frame will allow. If Spence can build off his Week 3 performance and develop into a good pass rusher on the inside as well, he and Gerald McCoy could make for an excellent tackle tandem in the future. If talented defensive ends Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn start playing to their potential as well, the Tampa Bay defensive line can be a force. Spence has improved every week so far this season, which the Bucs have to be happy to see in what is quickly becoming a lost season in Tampa.
Kenny Vaccaro (S-NO)
The top safety prospect on our board, the Saints made Vaccaro the top safety drafted when they took him 15th overall. While many of the draft’s other top safeties offered more specialized skills against either the run or the pass, Vaccaro was viewed as a player who could excel both in the box and in deep coverage. He had his share of rookie struggles in the first two weeks of the season but with Roman Harper sitting out Week 3 with a knee injury, Vaccaro stepped up and played his best game as a pro.
While only two of his tackles came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Vaccaro showed the ability to cover short routes early in the game. On a third-and-3, Vaccaro got physical and knocked fellow rookie Stepfan Taylor slightly off his crossing route, pushing him back a yard before Taylor made the catch. Vaccaro wrapped Taylor up immediately and showed the strength to pull him down and not allow extra yardage for the first down, which could be a sign he’s improved on one of the weaknesses we noticed on his college film, his lack of functional strength for his size.
Vaccaro also intercepted his first career pass early in the fourth quarter on a bad pass from Carson Palmer. Vaccaro would have been in position to make the tackle short of the first down marker but instead found himself with an opportunity for the interception, showing good reaction time and hands to bring in the pass which seemed to catch him by surprise. The rookie from Texas totaled 7 tackles (6 solo) on the day along with his interception and played well both against the run and the pass. Vaccaro should continue to play a big part in the Saints’ defensive resurgence under Rob Ryan this season.
Johnathan Cyprien (S-Jac)
As tends to be the case with small school players, there was some draft debate on Cyprien. We had him rated as a solid second-round prospect and thought the Jaguars did well taking him 33rd overall, but there were some that thought he deserved to be drafted in the mid-late first round. While playing on a team that may be the worst in football this season doesn’t help matters, Cyprien currently ranks as Pro Football Focus’ 81st best safety out of 82 this season, ahead of only sixth-round rookie Baccari Rambo who was benched by Washington this week. Cyprien isn’t in danger of being benched on a rebuilding squad, but Jacksonville would like to see more consistency than they have so far this season.
The main positive for Cyprien from Week 3 came on his lone blitz of the game after he looked to be driven up the field and out of the play by Marshawn Lynch. Cyprien didn’t give up on the play and closed quickly on the scrambling Wilson, forcing a fumble that Jacksonville recovered. This strip sack is the highlight of a tough season so far for Cyprien as he’s been charged with 5 missed tackles, third worst among NFL safeties. He’s struggled in pass coverage as well and while he’s looked overwhelmed so far in his rookie season, he has also made some nice plays all over the field.
Like Vaccaro, Cyprien has the ability to make an impact in every facet of the game. He has great range to the sideline along with good ball skills while showing the ability to lay the big hit. His instincts were good at the college level and once the light turns on for Cyprien, the Jaguars should see a completely different player than they have so far. Defensive backs tend to struggle in their early exposure at the NFL level and coming out of Florida International where he didn’t face much NFL-level competition, it’s not surprising to see Cyprien start slowly. Expect him to pick up his play as the season moves along but his true impact may not be felt until 2014.
Eric Reid (S-SF)
After losing Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson to Tampa Bay in free agency, the 49ers used their stockpile of picks to trade up and draft Reid 18th overall in April’s draft. At 6’1 and 213 pounds, Reid has the size to play in the box and the mentality of a linebacker. He was the best fit out of the safeties available to replace Goldson and plays a similar style, which has made his transition to the NFL much smoother than Vaccaro and Cyprien’s. While the 49ers’ defense hasn’t played up to its typical standards this season, Reid has been solid overall filling Goldson’s shoes.
The rookie from LSU was questionable for Week 3 after suffering a concussion the week before. Reid ended up playing 70 of San Francisco’s 72 defensive snaps and contradicting the scouting report on him coming out of college, his play has been better against the pass than the run this season. Reid has a pass breakup in each of his three career games and intercepted passes in both Weeks 1 and 2. His first career pick was a gift from Jermichael Finley, who dropped a pass right into Reid’s hands. Reid also got some help on the second interception, as he had tight coverage down the field on Golden Tate but Tate fell down, allowing Reid to make the easy pick.
Reid looked a bit unnatural making both interceptions, which doesn’t change the book on his average ball skills. Reid lacks the sideline-to-sideline range of a safety like Cyprien but showed the ability to flip his hips and stay with the playmaking Tate up the seam. Reid will still make his living as a big hitter in the box, but it’s promising for his pro potential that he’s gotten off to a good start against the pass. If he can clean up his pursuit angles and missed tackles (5 this year, 3 against Indianapolis in Week 3), Reid should fill Goldson’s shoes quite well.
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.