After six weeks of the NFL season and 48 rookies profiled, the pickings start to get a little slim in finding impact players from week to week. A common theme of these pieces tends to be injuries piling up all over the league and providing opportunities for talented rookies to prove their worth and this week was no different. Some guys below will even have a shot at starting for the rest of the season if they prove worthy. Find out who stood out to Chris Tripodi in Week 7.
Joseph Randle (RB-Dal)
With DeMarco Murray hurt, Dallas’ fifth-round pick got the chance to fill the role everybody expected him to get a shot at this season with Murray being one of the more injury-prone runners in the NFL. Lance Dunbar was also out for the Cowboys, leaving the backfield to Randle and Phillip Tanner. Despite drawing the start, Randle played just 46 of 82 snaps while Tanner saw 20 as the Cowboys called passes on 52 of their plays, showing a lack of confidence in their replacement backs by going even more pass-heavy than usual.
Randle did little to change that opinion on Sunday, rushing for just 65 yards on 19 carries and catching 3 passes for 28 yards. His longest run of the game was 12 yards and came when the Eagles clogged the middle and forced Randle to bounce outside. While he did a nice job of quickly recognizing the play was busted and getting outside, he had a huge hole to run through and just had to hit it. Randle’s vision and instincts are good but his talent as a runner is ordinary, as he shows little in the way of speed and power to get more than what’s blocked and went down right after contact on his biggest run.
With the Cowboys souring on Murray as a future feature back and potentially looking into the trade market, it’s unclear if Randle will see another 19-carry game this season. Dunbar is also expected to play next week and was considered the favorite for backup duties before his injury, but Dallas views him as nothing more than a change-of-pace back. The most likely scenario seems to be Randle starting and getting 10-15 carries with Dunbar spelling him on passing downs and Tanner playing third fiddle with possible goal-line work. As much as the Cowboys may not trust Murray, he’s still by far their most talented back and they need him back to be a contender come playoff time.
D.J. Fluker (T-SD)
After watching Philip Rivers struggle under constant pressure last season, the Chargers made protecting their star quarterback a priority by drafting Fluker with the 12th overall pick in April. It’s unusual to see a team draft a player they expect to settle in at right tackle that high in the first round but his size (6-5, 339) and strength were too much to pass up and he was our highest rated lineman left on the board once Alabama teammate Chance Warmack was drafted by Tennessee.
After a rough Week 1 debut that saw Fluker matched up with J.J. Watt, Fluker bounced back with four solid weeks in a row before struggling in his first exposure to left tackle at the NFL level. When King Dunlap went out with his second concussion in two months, Fluker switched sides and struggled in pass protection, especially against the speedy Andre Branch. He allowed two hits on Rivers after letting up just one all season but continued his consistent performance in the run game since struggling in that department in Week 1.
This was Fluker’s first game where he looked overmatched against the pass rush, which was supposed to be his weakness coming out of college. Pro Football Focus has him graded higher in pass protection than run blocking so far this season though, which is definitely a good sign for his NFL futures. Dunlap missed two games earlier this season with another concussion and with backup left tackle Michael Harris on injured reserve, Fluker will likely get another shot at left tackle for the next few weeks until Dunlap returns. The Chargers have a bye this week to give Dunlap extra time to get healthy but then face the Redskins and Broncos, two teams with elite pass rushers on their roster. Fluker will be tested and we’ll see if he can translate his strong play on the right side over to the left.
Larry Warford (G-Det)
A second-round prospect here at Draft Insider who fell to Detroit in the early third round, Warford was drafted to give the Lions a mauling presence on the inside of their offensive line. Like Fluker, Warford weighs in over 330 pounds and was more highly regarded for his run blocking than his work against the pass. The former Kentucky guard has actually struggled with his consistency in run blocking this season while excelling against the pass, similar to Fluker.
Warford is Pro Football Focus’ highest ranked rookie offensive lineman so far this season, but he’s coming off of his worst game of the year. He received a negative grade in pass protection for the first time in his career, allowing 4 hurries and 2 hits on Matthew Stafford after allowing just 2 hurries and 1 hit in the first five games of the year. The Bengals have one of the best defensive lines in the league and on this day, they were able to use their quickness to take advantage of the first-year guard.
The biggest weakness on Warford’s college film was an inability to handle speed rushers and limited lateral range. His body type is meant for a power running game which made him an interesting fit in Detroit before the season, but he’s been better than the Lions could have expected right away. He’ll have a chance to bounce back against the Cowboys in Week 8 and has been a big reason Reggie Bush has had a solid season so far in 2013.
Star Lotulelei (DT-Car)
The 4th ranked prospect on the Draft Insider board, Lotulelei slid all the way to 14th in the draft due to a heart condition and the former Utah All-American is making teams who passed up on him regret it. After a hot start in the first two games that included 7 tackles (6 solo) and 4 defensive stops, Lotulelei had just 4 tackles (3 solo) and 2 stops in his next three games. Just when it looked like teams had adjusted to the 315 pounder’s presence on the inside, Lotulelei exploded with his best game yet against the Rams.
Lotulelei doubled his season total with 6 defensive stops on the day on each of his 6 tackles on just 16 snaps against the run and brought Zac Stacy down twice in the backfield for 2-yard losses. Each play displayed a different skill, with the first stop showing a quick first step off the snap that allowed Lotulelei to penetrate the A-gap and power through the guard’s block to bring down Stacy. His second tackle for loss was a power move where Lotulelei showed good extension and hands to shed the block and stop Stacy dead in his tracks.
These plays among others on Sunday displayed the athletic ability that made Lotulelei such an intriguing prospect heading into draft season. He’s been one of the more impressive defensive rookies this season even though it doesn’t appear in the stat sheet because his tackle numbers are low and he doesn’t impact the game as a pass rusher. Lotulelei’s job is to stop the run though and he’s been great in that aspect, showing development from the main weakness of his college tape and shedding blocks with improved hand moves at the point of attack.
Jon Bostic (LB-Chi)
A season-ending injury to veteran linebacker D.J. Williams opened the door for Chicago’s second-round pick to get his first career start in Sunday’s game against the Redskins. Bostic responded to the opportunity by making 8 tackles (6 solo) in a high-scoring 45-41 loss and while the former Gator had his moments, there was plenty of room for improvement.
Bostic’s one solo tackle that came within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage was a force out of a scrambling Robert Griffin, but even this play put his flaws on tape. Bostic was keying on Robert Griffin III on a read option and mirrored him well to the outside after avoiding a block. Rather than stay in his hip pocket though, Bostic took a false step forward that forced him to chase Griffin out of bounds from behind after a short gain rather than potentially bringing him down behind the line of scrimmage.
A positive for Bostic came on a play that didn’t count in the second quarter. Griffin faked to Roy Helu up the middle but Bostic didn’t bite, instead keying on the fullback pulling out to block for Griffin. He took on the block nicely on the fullback’s outside shoulder, forcing Griffin back into the defense. With nowhere to go, Griffin froze and Bostic shed the fullback and took him down, although a Chicago penalty nullified the play. For a linebacker who struggled at times biting on play action and getting off blocks at Florida, this was a promising play even if it didn’t count in the box score.
As seen on the first Griffin run, Bostic still struggles with pursuit angles but has the athleticism to make up for it. He did a solid job in pass coverage as well despite allowing 2 receptions for 34 yards to Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed and once he gets better at the fundamentals, Bostic has the talent to start in the middle for Chicago for a long time.
Logan Ryan (CB-NE)
With Aqib Talib missing Sunday’s divisional matchup with the Jets, Ryan stepped into the starting lineup in the nickel and played by far his most snaps of the season, seeing the field on 65 of New England’s 93 defensive plays. The Jets dominated time of possession against the Pats which gave the third-rounder from Rutgers ample opportunity to make an impression.
Two plays after allowing a 16-yard catch to David Nelson in tight coverage, Ryan made the biggest play of the game for New England to give them an early 21-10 lead. With Geno Smith under pressure and staring down David Nelson on a crossing route, Ryan jumped in front of Nelson for an interception as Nelson stopped his route and Ryan returned it 79 yards for a touchdown.
While that was a big play for the New England defense, Ryan struggled otherwise against Nelson, who wasn’t even on an NFL roster a few weeks ago. Nelson had 4 receptions for 80 yards on his other 6 targets including a 27-yarder where he beat Ryan quickly off the line and had a step downfield. An underthrown ball by a scrambling Geno Smith was the only thing that saved a touchdown and while Ryan was in position to make a play on the ball, Nelson jumped over him to make a great catch from behind.
With any rookie cornerback you have to take the good with the bad and that’s what New England dealt with on Sunday. While Ryan showed the great ball skills he flashed with the Scarlet Knights, he also lacks long speed and couldn’t recover down the field once he was beat early by a receiver with just average jets. Ryan will go back to a dime role if Talib returns next week but if not, he should get another chance and will look to be more consistent in coverage.
Nickell Robey (CB-Buf)
Robey was a fifth-round prospect out of USC as rated by Draft Insider but as a 5’8, 165-pound cornerback, he fell out of the draft entirely before being picked up by the Bills. Robey has seen time in Buffalo’s nickel package all season with Stephon Gilmore out and even thought Gilmore returned two weeks ago, he’s been limited which has allowed Robey to continue seeing a healthy number of snaps.
Like Ryan above, Robey also intercepted a pass for a touchdown but his helped his team to victory against Miami. On the Dolphins’ first possession he quickly diagnosed a curl from slot receiver Brandon Gibson and aggressively jumped the route almost a full second before Ryan Tannehill released the pass, showing impressive closing speed and good hands for the interception. Robey returned it 19 yards for the game’s first score. He showed that same burst later in the first quarter to recover on a quick slant route to Gibson and break up the pass.
Very adept at jumping short routes, Robey broke up another curl in the fourth quarter, this time intended for Rishard Matthews. Overall he allowed just 1 reception for 5 yards while being targeted 4 times and even pressured Tannehill on a blitz that forced him to throw the ball away on a third-down play.
Robey may be short but what he lacks in height he makes up for with aggressive play and great burst to the ball. Robey gambled on a few short routes and won this time around but I wouldn’t be surprised if offensive coordinators try to incorporate some double moves from their slot receivers into future gameplans. Until they do though, Robey will continue to have success jumping quick routes underneath when receivers don’t have enough time to create the separation they need against him.
Josh Evans (S-Jac)
The first pick of the 6th round of April’s draft, Evans has seen starter’s playing time since strong safety Dwight Lowery was injured in Week 3. Lowery was placed on injured reserve two weeks ago which secured Evans’ spot in the starting lineup, giving the Jaguars two rookie safeties along with Jon Cyprien. Predictably, Evans has struggled to this point in the season and particularly in coverage.
Against the Chargers, Evan had a career-high 9 tackles (8 solo) and played well in coverage, seeing just one pass thrown his way for a short 7-yard completion to Antonio Gates early in the game. He showed his downhill skills in the running game by making a few nice plays in the red zone to stop potential touchdowns, once on a run by Danny Woodhead that Evans stopped at the 1-yard-line and another on a shovel pass to Antonio Gates where Evans crashed down from his single-high safety spot to clean up a missed tackle by Geno Hayes. Both plays saved touchdowns and the Chargers scored just 3 points combined on these two drives.
Evans also made a nice play on an early blitz, avoiding a crack block from Vincent Brown to stop Ryan Mathews for a short gain. This game may have been Evans’ best performance of the season so far as he didn’t let himself get exposed in coverage and was his usual solid downhill self against the run. A hard-hitter prone to missing tackle, Evans was efficient against San Diego and is playing better than second-round teammate Cyprien so far this season.
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.