The big rookie news heading into Week 4 was Mike Glennon taking over for Josh Freeman in Tampa Bay but the Steelers also debuted first-year running back Le’Veon Bell, playing his first game since suffering a foot injury before the season. Glennon’s undrafted safety valve made this week’s report as well as two other second-round picks who have had their shares of ups and downs in the early season. Chris Tripodi returns with another look at impact rookies around the league.
Mike Glennon (QB-TB)
The clash between Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman finally came to an end last week, as Schiano made the decision to bench Freeman in favor of third-round pick Mike Glennon. In the week since Freeman has requested a trade, missed a team meeting and stated his willingness to restructure his contract to get out of Tampa Bay. If that wasn’t enough indication that Glennon would have the starting job to himself for the rest of the season, Freeman was inactive for Sunday’s loss to Arizona.
The game started well enough for the rookie out of N.C. State, as he threw his first career touchdown pass on an 8-yard slant to Mike Williams on his second career drive. Lined up in the shotgun, Glennon took a quick three-step drop and fired a strike to Williams, who fell forward into the endzone. That was the major highlight of the game for Glennon and looked like it would be enough to win until the final four minutes. On second-and-6 from his own 11, Glennon was late over the middle and threw behind Vincent Jackson, allowing Patrick Peterson to break on the ball for the interception. The Cardinals scored on the next play to tie the game at 10.
After Arizona took a 13-10 lead, Glennon had one last chance to lead the Bucs to a win. Instead, he felt the pressure from Frostee Rucker and sailed a throw high for Vincent Jackson that was intercepted by Peterson to end the game. It was a rough first game for Glennon, who completed 24-of-43 passes for 193 yards. Tampa Bay kept the gameplan simple for the rookie most of the game and he completed 18 out of 22 passes thrown under 10 yards as their defense kept the Cardinals at bay. When Glennon needed to make plays at the end of the game to keep Tampa Bay alive, he struggled connecting with his receivers down the field.
Despite his big arm, Glennon thrives on rhythm and timing like we saw on his TD pass to Williams. He was known to check it down in college when he wasn’t testing downfield and that was evident on Sunday, as he threw 17 passes to his backs and tight ends. We questioned Glennon’s decision making and accuracy at N.C. State and he did little on Sunday to show improvement in those areas. Most scouts thought Glennon needed time to develop before being thrown into action but Freeman’s poor play and unprofessional behavior forced the organization’s hand. The Bucs now have a week of film to break down heading into their bye week which might help Glennon come Week 6, although he’s likely still in over his head. He’s the same player he was at N.C. State.
Le’Veon Bell (RB-Pit)
After missing the first three weeks of 2013 with a Lisfranc injury, Bell wasted no time making Steelers’ fans forget about the early struggles of Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones. While Pittsburgh fell to 0-4 in what is already a lost season, Bell scored twice to help the Steelers put up a season-high 27 points. A surprise second-round draft pick in April, Bell carried 16 times for 57 yards and caught 4 passes for 27 yards on 5 targets while playing 60 of the Steelers’ 79 offensive snaps, as Pittsburgh will look to Bell to be a workhorse like he was at Michigan State.
Despite his size and power at 6’1, 230 pounds, Bell is a three-down back equipped with good hands, deceptively quick feet and the skills to protect the passer. Bell showed off his vision and footwork on his first touchdown run in the opening quarter, sidestepping penetration in the backfield and bouncing outside for an 8-yard score. He displayed short yardage ability on a 1-yard plunge in the third quarter for another score as he put his entire skill set on display in his first career start.
Bell will never be an electric playmaker but he’s a very good fit in the Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers have been rotating backs over the past few seasons but Bell is the complete package and won’t need to come off the field in specific game situations. He routinely put up 30 and even 40 carries with the Spartans so he’s shown the ability to carry a heavy workload, although his mileage was used against him at times in the draft process. Despite those worries, Bell will be a key part of the Steelers offense for the next few seasons and should give them the balance they’ve been lacking on offense.
Robert Woods (WR-Buf)
After passing on Tavon Austin with the 8th pick by trading down to draft E.J. Manuel eight picks later, it was no surprise that the Bills took Woods with their first pick of round two. With Stevie Johnson better suited for slot work and a lack of outside options, Woods filled a big need for Buffalo and was also a good value pick, as we had him rated as a potential late 1st-round pick. Overshadowed by Marquise Lee in a disappointing junior year, Woods was an All-American as a sophomore and came with an NFL-ready label.
Woods has just 11 receptions in his first four NFL games thanks to some struggles from Manuel but he also has 201 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns at the quarter point. After a rough Week 3 against the Jets where he caught just 2 of the 10 passes thrown his way, Woods bounced back with 4 receptions for 80 yards and a score and had a second touchdown overturned as well.
Woods is a polished receiver who runs crisp routes to get open and showed the ability to make catches in tight coverage. He adjusted nicely to a few passes thrown low by going to the ground to make the play and protecting the ball. Though not seen as a true vertical threat, Woods has 4.43 speed and showed it on a post pattern that turned into a 42-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He almost scored again late in the third, but replay showed that Woods had the ball jarred slightly loose by Jimmy Smith and didn’t control it until he was out of bounds.
The former Trojans star receiver has made an immediate impact at the NFL level and his chemistry with Manuel improves every game. Woods has done well creating yards after the catch by forcing multiple missed tackles this season, but also has two drops as well. His hands were never an issue for Woods in college and shouldn’t be at the pro level, while he has also looked good blocking down field in the running game. Woods may not have the athletic upside of receivers like Cordarrelle Patterson and DeAndre Hopkins, but he’s a solid technician with the speed and playmaking ability to be an impact NFL receiver.
Tim Wright (TE-TB)
A former receiver at Rutgers who went undrafted in April, Wright showed a good rapport with new starting quarterback Mike Glennon against the Cardinals. With Luke Stocker going on injured reserve after Week 3 and Tom Crabtree missing the game due to injury, Wright filled in as the team’s second tight end on Sunday and while starter Nate Byham wasn’t targeted once, Wright made 5 receptions for 41 yards on 6 targets. He was far more in sync with Glennon than the others Tampa Bay receivers, likely from a comfortable number of backup reps in practice.
Wright was in on 32 of the 47 pass plays run by the Bucs and at 6’4 and just 220 pounds, it’s easy to see why Tampa Bay rarely used him on rushing downs. Unranked on our predraft scouting board, Wright was used mostly in the slot and Glennon seemed to trust where Wright was going to be in his routes, which explains the heavy reliance on him in the passing game. Three of Wright’s receptions went for 42 yards, including a nice catch in tight coverage to convert a third-and-12 in the first half.
Glennon also dumped the ball short to Wright multiple times when his reads down the field weren’t open for no gain or a short loss. With Crabtree’s status for the next few weeks unknown and Byham hitting injured reserve, Wright may see even more snaps in the passing game while Glennon gets his feet wet at the NFL level. The rookie tight end isn’t fit to be lined up inside but ran solid routes and showed the ball skills to be effective flexed out in the slot, which will be especially valuable if his presence keeps Glennon comfortable.
Desmond Trufant (CB-Atl)
Atlanta focused on upgrading their secondary in April’s draft, taking Trufant 22nd overall and Robert Alford with the 60th pick. While the Falcons have still struggled to defend the pass on their way to a 1-3 start this season, Trufant has been the bright spot among the Atlanta cornerbacks. On Sunday against the Patriots, Trufant made 6 tackles (4 solo) in the run game and broke up a pass for the fourth straight game.
Trufant’s best play of the game came on a New England 2nd-and-goal with the game tied 10-10 in the third quarter. Trufant was physical with fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins off the line and threw off his route by forcing him inside. By the time Thompkins got back outside, Trufant was in position to bat the ball up the air and had the awareness to recover and knock a second-chance opportunity away from Thompkins after the ball popped up in the air. New England eventually had to settle for a field goal.
Thompkins got Trufant back in the fourth quarter though, catching a perfect fade route from Tom Brady for an 18-yard touchdown to put the Pats up 27-13. Trufant mirrored Thompkins beautifully on the play but Brady put it where only Thompkins could make the play and the undrafted rookie extended to make a nice diving catch along the sideline. Trufant played a good game for the Falcons and it’s tough to fault him too much on this play. Even if he got his head around on time, he didn’t stand a chance against a perfect throw.
One of the weaknesses we noted in Trufant’s scouting report was that he was slow to locate the ball, which was on full display on Thompkins’ touchdown. Trufant also flashed his quick hips, physical coverage and ball skills though and while he hasn’t been perfect so far this season, Trufant is not the reason Atlanta’s secondary has struggled. He’s been consistent in coverage and against the run and has the athleticism to continue to develop into a good NFL cornerback.
Darius Slay (CB-Det)
The Lions knew they needed to upgrade their leaky secondary this offseason and used their second-round pick on Slay, a burner with 4.34 speed who only started one season at Mississippi State. The Lions threw Slay right into the fire despite that lack of experience and it showed in Week 1, as he allowed Jerome Simpson to catch 8 passes for 140 yards and ended up benched. Slay was benched again the next week and lost his starting job to Rashean Mathis for Week 3, playing only on special teams. Mathis started again in Week 4 but was knocked out of the game early with a concussion, leading to a shot at redemption for Slay.
Playing 64 of the Lions’ 73 defensive snaps, Slay showed improvement from the first two weeks of the season. He did a nice job breaking up a third-down fade pattern to Alshon Jeffery in the third quarter to force Chicago into a field goal, keeping his eyes on Jeffery and attacking the ball when Jeffery went for the catch. A perfect pass would have beaten Slay, who didn’t turn around, but it was a good play regardless.
Jeffery did finally beat Slay on a deep route late in the fourth quarter when Slay left his backpedal as he looked in at Jay Cutler thinking he had help deep, but Jeffery dropped an easy touchdown. He made a touchdown grab over Slay on the next play but Slay was in very good position and Jeffery made a strong leaping catch over Slay’s outstretched arm. Again though, Slay didn’t get his head around on the play which is a theme we noticed on his college tape.
The Detroit cornerback situation bears watching if Mathis can’t play in Week 5, as Slay will be needed to fill in again. Slay made 7 tackles (6 solo) last week and was generally solid in run support but will need to work on his awareness with the ball in the air and staying fluid in his backpedal, two of his biggest weaknesses that have translated to the NFL level. It will be tough for him to fix these on the job but the Lions will welcome any improvement he can show as the season goes on.
Matt Elam (S-Bal)
After playing just 13 snaps in Baltimore’s Thursday night opener against the Broncos, Elam hasn’t come off the field on defense. The Ravens’ first-round pick started his first career game in Week 2 and has played every snap since. He played well in his first two NFL starts, both Baltimore wins, but took a step backwards in Sunday’s loss to Buffalo, struggling against the run and the pass and grading out at -1.7 according to Pro Football Focus.
After an interception gave the Bills a short field with a 13-7 lead in the second quarter, Elam did his best to help Buffalo extend their lead with another touchdown. After a play fake on second down, Elam sat on a crossing route rather than protecting his deep half of the field in Cover 2, allowing Stevie Johnson to run free into the endzone; only an E.J. Manuel overthrow prevented a touchdown. On third down, Elam’s lack of height at 5’10 created a mismatch against 6’7 tight end Scott Chandler and Manuel lofted a pass that allowed Chandler to use that advantage to get the first down. Playing single high safety on the next play, Elam came up into the hole when Fred Jackson broke into the secondary but got flat-footed, lost his traction and missed the tackle, giving Jackson a clear lane to the endzone.
Elam’s height will always lead to issues covering tight ends, even though most aren’t as big as Chandler. The slight hesitation in his game showed on the Jackson touchdown run and he missed two tackles on the game after whiffing just once in the first three weeks. On a positive note, his speed and ability to play both the run and the pass have also been on display since he took over Michael Huff’s starting spot. Elam has the talent to put this shaky performance behind him as he gains experience as an NFL starter.
Earl Wolff (S-Phi)
Wolff has seen his snap counts increase after playing just 8 plays in Week 1 and with Patrick Chung missing last week’s game with a shoulder injury, Wolff had the unenviable task of starting his first NFL game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. While the fifth-round rookie out of N.C. State struggled in rotational action in the prior two games, those issues were nothing compared to the problems he faced in Week 4.
Wolff was thrown at five times on Sunday and all five went for completions, totaling 95 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came on a screen pass to Demaryius Thomas where Wolff came too far upfield and let himself get blocked rather than keeping contain and forcing Thomas to cut back into the teeth of the defense where he had help. Wolff also let Eric Decker get behind him for a 52-yard pass play when he was responsible for the deep third of the field and no other receivers were threatening his zone, getting caught well out of position.
Along with his struggles in coverage, Wolff also missed multiple tackles in the run game and looked overmatched against the well-oiled machine that was the Broncos’ offense. We had Wolff rated as a third-round prospect and thought he was a steal for the Eagles early in round five, but he hasn’t looked the part yet through the first quarter of his NFL career. It might be harsh to judge a rookie on his performance against a Hall of Fame quarterback but for a player known for his instincts and discipline at the college level, he has struggled making the transition to the pro game and avoiding mental mistakes.
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.