Big names dominated among this week’s rookies with two players from each of the first three rounds making an impact in Week 5. Just past the one-quarter mark of the season, it’s about the time when the light goes on for many rookies around the NFL and you can expect most of these players to continue to play well for their teams as the season goes on. Chris Tripodi will let you know who caught his eye from Week 5’s action.
Eddie Lacy (RB-GB)
After a concussion knocked him out early in Week 2 and allowed James Starks and Johnathan Franklin to put up 100-yard games in his absence, Lacy missed out on a 100-yard day of his own by just a yard in Green Bay’s 22-9 win over Detroit on Sunday. Franklin was set to work in a change-of-pace role until he was benched after a fumble on his third carry. Lacy had 23 carries on the game and added a reception and looks like the Packers’ feature back as long as he stays healthy.
Despite not having a rush over 9 yards that counted (a 13-yarder was called back for holding), Lacy averaged over four yards per carry thanks to gaining at least 3 yards on 18 of his 23 carries. That’s impressive consistency from a player in just his second full game, but it defines who Lacy is as a running back. He had many big runs in Alabama thanks to his offensive line getting him to the second level where he could run over defensive backs but in the NFL, he’s more likely to settle in as a runner who picks up the tough yards inside by keeping his feet moving and creating push after initial contact.
Without home-run hitting speed or great hands out of the backfield, Lacy will need to show the ability to pass block to stay on the field on third down. He has done just that in limited action so far this season and will need to continue to outperform Franklin and Starks in that aspect of the game to maximize his snaps. If he can, Lacy will be able to show off his aggressive, powerful running style for 20-plus carries every game and has the potential to put up big numbers in the high-powered Green Bay offense.
Keenan Allen (WR-SD)
Allen was the top receiver on many draft boards heading into the offseason and a late 1st/early 2nd round receiver on the Draft Insider board. A PCL injury that forced him out of Cal’s last three games lingered throughout the draft process, causing Allen to miss February’s NFL combine and contributing to a 40-yard dash timed in the 4.7s at his Pro Day in April. The injury and speed concerns dropped Allen all the way into the third round which only made him more of a steal for the Chargers, who received one of our top draft grades as a result of getting such great value on Allen.
Despite not catching a pass in the first half, Allen finished with 6 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown with the Chargers’ in catch-up mode the entire second half. One of Allen’s strengths at Cal that was magnified by playing with the inaccurate Zach Maynard was his timing, body control and strong hands to go up for the ball and come down with it in traffic. He showed those skills multiple times against the Raiders and had a great leaping touchdown grab on the sideline that was called back after replay showed he barely missed getting his left foot down in bounds.
Allen also showed off playmaking ability with the ball in his hands, catching a short slant inside the Oakland 5-yard line and breaking a tackle before fighting his way into the endzone. He showed nice agility on a few other catches to create extra yardage as well. While Allen isn’t a deep threat and is more of a 4.55 guy on tape than the 4.7 he ran at his Pro Day, that’s certainly good enough to succeed at the NFL level with the rest of his polished skill set. Allen has also left his PCL issue in the past, which is great news for Chargers fans looking to catch a break at receiver with Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd going down for the season already.
Terrance Williams (WR-Dal)
With Miles Austin shocking everybody and missing consecutive games due to a hamstring issue, Dallas’ third-round pick from Baylor got an opportunity to start and ran with it…literally. Williams’ big play was an 82-yard catch-and-run last week against Denver but for a receiver most scouts thought was raw coming out of college, he has been surprisingly efficient in his two starts replacing Austin. On 12 targets Williams has 11 receptions for 222 yards and a touchdown, showing the big-play ability that allowed him to post silly statistics (1,832 yards, 12 TD as a senior) in the wide-open Baylor offense as a senior.
Williams did a great job coming back to the ball on the second play of the game and found an opening in the secondary to pick up an extra 10 yards as well. He followed that up with a big mistake as time ran down in the first half, not getting out of bounds on a deep catch down the right sideline with less than 20 second lefts and costing the Cowboys a few more shots at the end zone in Denver territory. Williams made up for it in the third quarter by getting separation deep and breaking loose for an 82-yard touchdown. The ball wasn’t thrown perfectly in stride but Williams slowed down to jump and shield the defensive back from the ball, also giving him the chance to get away once he made the catch.
Draft Insider had Williams rated as a 2nd round prospect and after the way he’s played in the past two weeks, the Cowboys have to be very pleased they were able to get him in the third. Much like Keenan Allen above, Williams has the talent to outperform his draft slot but is more of a big-play receiver with sub-4.5 speed than a possession wideout like Allen. With Miles Austin’s consistent inability to stay healthy, Williams could play a bigger role in the Dallas offense than expected for the rest of the season.
Tyler Eifert (TE-Cin)
The first tight end drafted in the first round since teammate Jermaine Gresham went 21st in 2010, the Bengals made Eifert the 21st overall pick as well in their search to add playmakers around limited quarterback Andy Dalton. Much like Eifert and Gresham share draft distinctions, they’ve been sharing targets this season which has limited the production of each. Eifert has 24 targets to Gresham’s 28 and while he has more yards (212 to 205), Gresham has caught 22 passes compared to Eifert’s 17. Week 5 against New England was the first week Eifert had more targets, making 5 receptions for 53 yards in the process.
Eifert’s big play was a 22-yard reception in the first quarter. Lined up in the backfield, Eifert ran a simple route up the seam and got behind Jerod Mayo, extending nicely to catch the ball away from his frame and keep moving up the field. Eifert showed off his hands again along with great focus on a 12-yard catch in the third quarter. Andy Dalton led him right into Steve Gregory and despite catching the ball away from his body, Eifert showed strong hands to hang onto the pass and bounced off the hit to gain a few extra yards before going to the ground.
Also a strong blocker, Eifert was a big reason the Bengals ran for 162 yards with his ability to seal the edge and move defenders off the ball. Considering the severe blocking shortcomings of Gresham this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Eifert start to get more work in the run game to add to his action on passing downs. Both have been effective and necessary safety valves for Dalton but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Eifert’s role increase as the season wears on. Pro Football Focus has Eifert as their 9th rated tight end, while Gresham is 55th out of 56 due to his porous run blocking.
Kawann Short (DT-Car)
The Panthers are quietly building one of the NFL’s best young defensive lines and while first-round pick Star Lotulelei has gotten the early attention due to his dominance in run defense, Short has made a big impact as well. Despite not starting any of Carolina’s first four games, the second-round pick from Purdue has been a great pass-rushing complement to Lotulelei with 1.5 sacks in the past two weeks and has also played the run well with 12 tackles (6 solo) in rotational duty.
Short’s early half-sack came easily as he was essentially unblocked on his way to Carson Palmer early in the second quarter. In the third quarter Short owned new Arizona left tackle Bradley Sowell, turning him inside to get into the backfield and stop Alfonso Smith for a loss of 2 yards. Short finished the game with 5 tackles (3 solo), a half sack, two hurries and two quarterback hits as he was consistently applying pressure to Palmer. He was called for a late hit on Palmer early the first half as well, hitting the quarterback as he went to the ground after releasing a pass.
After a disappointing senior season at Purdue, Short fell into the second round where the Panthers were glad to pair him up with Lotulelei. Adding two first-round physical talents to their defensive line has paid immediate dividends for Carolina, as they have seen their front seven play improve dramatically from last season. Short’s combination of power and athleticism has served him well rushing the passer and he’s also been good against the run. Once Short develops more moves with his hands, he will benefit even more from the attention teams are already shifting Lotulelei’s way.
Chris Jones (DT-NE)
With All-Pro tackle Vince Wilfork going on injured reserve after suffering an Achilles injury in Week 4, the Patriots were left scrambling with a lack of depth on their interior defensive line. A late sixth-round pick out of Bowling Green, Jones stepped into the third tackle role and saw his first action of the season that week against Atlanta, playing 19 snaps behind Tommy Kelly and Joe Vellano. With Kelly hurting his knee on Sunday, Jones saw 36 snaps at tackle and responded with 4 tackles (2 solo) and 1.5 sacks.
Jones’ first sack was key in holding Cincinnati to a second-quarter field goal, but he got to Andy Dalton less as a result of his own ability and more through offensive miscommunication. Jones was initially doubled by Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith but when fellow tackle Joe Vellano beat the center through the A-gap, Zeitler went to help while Smith let Jones go inside, thinking he had help from Zeitler. His half sack later came on a more impressive move, as he quickly ripped through center Kyle Cook to collapse the pocket around Dalton and bring him down.
While Kelly’s injury isn’t thought to be serious, the Patriots will need Jones to step up and play important steps for the rest of the season. While his ability to quickly fire gaps leads to an effective pass rush, Jones lacks bulk and was consistently pushed off the line against the Bengals. His inability to shed blocks led to struggles against the run, the same struggles on tape that were the major reason he lasted until the sixth round despite his gap-shooting ability. If Kelly is forced to miss time teams will look to run at Jones up the middle to take advantage of his weaknesses and prevent him from getting backside penetration to disrupt plays in the backfield.
D.J. Hayden (CB-Oak)
Like most rookie cornerbacks, Hayden has struggled early in his rookie season. Hayden’s learning curve may be intensified by the season-ending and life-threatening heart issue he faced this offseason after tearing a vein in his heart but he has made a full recovery and even started in Week 3 against Denver, when Oakland relied on their nickel package to try and stop Peyton Manning. Drafted 12th overall by Oakland, the Raiders were reportedly prepared to take Hayden with the 3rd pick until they were able to swing a trade with Miami.
Excluding the Week 3 disaster where Hayden was exposed by veteran receivers and a Hall of Fame quarterback on Monday Night Football, Hayden has played decent football for the Raiders. The former University of Houston star made his first career interception count on Sunday night (actually Monday morning), picking off Philip Rivers in the endzone with under two minutes to go to seal an Oakland victory. While Hayden was beat initially to the post by Keenan Allen, he stuck with the coverage and took advantage of Rivers’ late throw that was behind Allen, showing the closing speed and hands to that intrigued the Raiders’ brass to reach for the game-sealing pick.
Hayden did commit his second penalty of the year, a pass interference on Allen where he was too active with his hands on a back-shoulder curl after starting in press coverage. The coverage was good if he released Allen after five yards but instead Hayden was flagged with his back to the ball, a situation where he struggled in some in college. His run support was solid with 8 tackles (3 solo) and outside of the Denver game where he missed six tackles, Hayden hasn’t missed a tackle in 2013. He will continue to be inconsistent this season but the rookie flashed the talent that made him a high first-round pick back in April.
Marcus Cooper (CB-KC)
With former 2004 first-round pick Dunta Robinson struggling as Kansas City’s nickel back, Cooper stepped in Week 5 with a solid performance. Drafted with the third-to-last pick in the 7th round by San Francisco, the 49ers let Cooper go at final cuts and he was claimed off waivers by the Chiefs. Cooper played just 14 snaps in the first three weeks of the season but has played all but 20 in the last two weeks, taking over nickel duties in place of Robinson. Cooper has played well and is looking like a savvy waiver pickup for the 5-0 Chiefs.
Cooper made a quick special teams impact to put the Chiefs up 7-0, falling on a muffed punt that was kicked into the endzone for a touchdown. The 6’2 corner also used his length to make a big interception on Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter, breaking quickly on an out route by Nate Washington to get his hands on the ball and showing the strength to rip it away from Washington, who fought hard to secure the catch. The ball was thrown behind Washington but Cooper’s timing and concentration were very impressive on the play.
The former Rutgers standout also made a great play on a deep ball to Washington on Tennessee’s next drive, getting great inside position and using his length again to attack the ball in the air and knock it away. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown at Cooper 14 times this season and have completed just 3 passes, the lowest completion percentage allowed by any corner in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. Cooper will need to prove he can keep up his strong play and if he can, his height and coverage ability in the same secondary as 6’3 Sean Smith will give the Chiefs a great advantage against teams with taller receivers.
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.