We’re almost halfway through the 2013 NFL season after Week 8’s action, but some rookies are just finding their way. More injuries and inconsistency around the league has led to opportunities for first-year players and this week’s Rookie Report, like most others, includes a couple of undrafted rookies who took advantage of their extra playing time. A few other highly drafted rookies are getting a shot now as well after struggling through the start of the season. Chris Tripodi will break down who caught his eye from last week’s NFL games.
Montee Ball (RB-Den)
Drafted in the second round with the intention of stepping into the starting role, Ball struggled in pass protection during training camp and the preseason and as a result, Knowshon Moreno has been Denver’s lead back throughout their 7-1 start. On 54 carries this season, Ball has averaged barely over 3 yards per carry and regardless of issues in pass protection, he hasn’t been able to prove his worth as a runner either in limited time.
Ball did see his highest snap count of the season in Week 8’s win over Washington, playing 30 snaps compared to 38 for Moreno and 10 for C.J. Anderson with Ronnie Hillman inactive after a key fumble last week. He had 11 carries for 38 yards including a 4-yard touchdown that showed what Ball brings to the table. Stuffed at the line of scrimmage on a draw play, Ball kept his feet moving and pushed his way into the endzone, although he had some help from his offensive linemen as well. It was a tough run that signified what Ball has been since his days at Wisconsin.
With word that Moreno’s workload will be reduced a bit, Ball has the potential to see 5-10 carries per game the rest of the way as long as he can stay ahead of Anderson on the depth chart. Both will see carries behind Moreno but it seems that Ball is first in line for backup work or a starting role if Moreno were to get injured. Only then will we see what Ball might be capable of in the high-powered Denver offensive attack.
Mike James (RB-TB)
With Doug Martin’s status unknown for the near future thanks to a torn labrum, the starting running back job in Tampa Bay now belongs to a late sixth-round pick from Miami. Making his first career start against a tough Panthers front seven, James ran for just 39 yards on 10 carries as the Bucs were playing catch up for much of the game and ran 13 times compared to 58 passes. Even while losing third-down work to Brian Leonard, James was still able to add 4 receptions for 25 yards.
James’ biggest play of the day was a 20-yard reception in the first quarter where he caught Luke Kuechly on his heels and quickly cut inside on an angle route to create separation and a run after catch opportunity. James also showed excellent patience and vision on a 15-yard run in the second quarter, pressing the hole and waiting for it to open before quickly cutting through it and making a few other quick moves for a first down. James had trouble finding much running room outside of that play with just one other run longer than 4 yards, a 7-yard gain on a draw play.
James will continue to carry the load on first and second down in Martin’s absence, which could last as long as the rest of the season or as short as a few weeks, depending if he can successfully rehab the injury which is apparently at no further risk. James may not be the biggest or the fastest back but he has good instincts, finishes runs and has good hands out of the backfield. He should prove serviceable replacing Martin for a team that’s going absolutely nowhere this season.
Aaron Dobson (WR-NE)
After being outplayed by undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins in the preseason and losing the competition to be New England’s starting X receiver, Dobson still got his share of passes thrown his way but was very inefficient with them. Going into Week 8 against Miami, Dobson had 7 drops on just 45 targets this season, a surprising number considering his low drop totals in college at Marshall. Even with his shaky hands, Dobson started in Week 8 over Thompkins and played 50 snaps to 14 for Thompkins.
Dobson wasn’t targeted in the first half but dropped a pass on New England’s first play of the second half. He redeemed himself on the next drive however, doing a great job selling an in route to get the corner to bite and then breaking past him for a 14-yard touchdown catch that got the Patriots back in the game. Dobson also made a nice play on a ball Tom Brady purposely threw short on a go route down the sideline, stopping to let the corner run by him and making an easy catch.
That play was more impressive to me than the touchdown, as Dobson has struggled at times adjusting to balls thrown creatively into tight coverage by Brady. If that play and his Week 8 efficiency (4 catches on 5 targets) is a sign of growth for Dobson he may take the starting job and run with it as Thompkins has apparently fallen out of favor with the return of Danny Amendola to the lineup. If Dobson can’t maintain his consistency however, he could be the receiver getting just 14 snaps next week.
Sio Moore (LB-Oak)
Oakland’s third round pick out of Connecticut, Moore took over as the starting strong side linebacker for Kaluka Maiava in Week 2. Despite playing with the first teamers, Moore has played over half of the Raiders’ defensive snaps just once as he comes off the field in nickel packages. The former Husky has played generally well but had his best statistical game of the season last week against Pittsburgh, racking up 6 tackles (5 solo) and 2 sacks after making his first career sack in the Raiders’ last game against Kansas City.
Moore’s first sack was an easy one as a miscommunication along the Pittsburgh offensive line left Le’Veon Bell to block both Moore and Nick Roach. Bell chose Roach and Moore was left with a free shot on Ben Roethlisberger. His second sack wasn’t much more difficult as he got a free release off the edge and was thrown off track slightly by Bell, but Moore stayed with the play as Roethlisberger escaped the tackle box and picked up the sack. He added another hit on Roethlisberger as well as stopping Heath Miller for just a yard on the one pass thrown in his zone.
The speed and instincts scouts loved about Moore in college have translated to the NFL and while he doesn’t have great stats so far this season (11 tackles, 3 sacks), the plays he has made have been impactful. He’s held up well against blockers on the strong side and has also been valuable on special teams for Oakland. The Raiders’ defense has been surprisingly good this season and Moore is an important part of their resurgence.
Paul Worrilow (LB-Atl)
With Stephen Nicholas out with a thigh injury, Worrilow got his second straight start at weak side linebacker for the Falcons. After making just 4 tackles (2 solo) and missing 2 in his Week 7 start, Worrilow bounced back by making 6 solo tackles and not missing any against Arizona in Week 8. He was also able to get pressure on Carson Palmer when used as a pass rusher.
Undrafted out of Delaware due to size (6-0, 230) and speed (4.85) concerns, Worrilow showed the ability to take on blocks and work through the trash to make a few nice plays just beyond the line of scrimmage. His lack of range limited the plays he could get to and despite his efficient tackling, there are some NFL plays that Worrilow just can’t make. He gets the most from his talent though and has done a solid job filling in over the past few weeks.
Worrilow wasn’t asked to do much in coverage and likely won’t be in the future, as he just doesn’t have the athletic ability to match up with NFL playmakers. Despite a decent performance, his presence in the starting lineup is a sign of how shallow and beat up the Falcons’ defense is this season. In an ideal world, Worrilow would be a special teams standout who saw occasional linebacker snaps in short-yardage situations. Unfortunately for Atlanta, their circumstances this season have been anything but ideal.
Xavier Rhodes (CB-Min)
Rhodes has been playing behind Josh Robinson and Chris Cook as Minnesota’s nickel back despite being one of the team’s three first-round picks. After a solid start to the season, the former Florida State star struggled coming out of the Vikings’ Week 5 bye and while he made a career-high 7 tackles last week, Rhodes also had a hand in Minnesota’s defense allowing 44 points to Green Bay in a loss on Sunday.
Despite a few nice plays in the running game and no missed tackles after completions, Rhodes did struggle in coverage despite allowing just 3 receptions for 30 yards. All three of those catches came on third or fourth down and resulted in Green Bay first downs, while Rhodes was also flagged for a defensive pass interference against Jarrett Boykin on an early 2nd-and-15 to give the Packers an easy first down.
Adjusting to life in the NFL is difficult for cornerbacks, even first-round picks like Rhodes. While he’s been an asset in run defense with 22 tackles and only one missed tackle all season, Rhodes has broken up just 2 passes thrown his way and doesn’t have an interception. Rhodes is allowing less than 60 percent of the balls thrown his way to be caught but has benefitted from some missed throws by opposing quarterbacks more than his own ball skills. On a positive note, he hasn’t been beat for a touchdown all season and if he can start making more plays on his own, his athleticism will take him places in the NFL.
Dwayne Gratz (CB-Jac)
The second third-round pick from Connecticut profiled after Week 8, Gratz was actually the Jaguars’ opening day starter before hurting his ankle and missing the next five weeks. While he was out, Will Blackmon has excelled in the starting lineup and actually been one of the league’s best corners, relegating Gratz to the bench upon his return last week.
Gratz did see nickel snaps against San Francisco in Week 8, although most of those came in the ground game as the 49ers pounded the run in a blowout victory. As a result, Gratz made 5 tackles but none for less than a 4-yard gain. The only ball thrown to his area was a short screen to Anquan Boldin that ended up gaining 4 yards on 3rd-and-1 but overall, Gratz was solid in coverage overall and didn’t allow the underwhelming San Francisco receivers to get open against him.
With Jacksonville still winless, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gratz move back into the starting lineup at some point to replace Alan Ball, who has limitations of his own. For a team already starting two rookie safeties and clearly playing for the future, they should give their third-round pick an extended look in the starting lineup if he continues to prove himself in the nickel. Gratz can play both the run and the pass and has the look of a future NFL starter once he gains more experience.
Jeff Heath (S-Dal)
With fellow rookie J.J. Wilcox’s sprained knee in Week 7, the undrafted rookie from Saginaw Valley State was pressed into duty and filled in admirably in his first NFL start. Heath played every snap but one in the Cowboys’ 31-30 loss to the Lions after playing just 42 downs in the defensive backfield all season. He had a very strong game against the run with 9 tackles (5 solo) and a forced fumble.
Heath’s big play came after Reggie Bush bounced a busted inside run to the corner inside Dallas territory. Heath came up from his single-high safety position and took a great angle to the outside to cut Bush off. An aggressive hit from the rookie knocked the ball out of Bush’s hands as he tried to stiff arm Heath and Dallas recovered to stop the Detroit threat.
Great size (6-1, 195) and speed (4.45) made Heath an intriguing small-school prospect but for as good as he looks in run support, Heath isn’t great in coverage and doesn’t have the ball skills to be a true playmaker. He’s a great fit on special teams though and stepped in nicely for Wilcox last week. Despite his undrafted status, the Cowboys can be confident that Heath can hold his own in the secondary if Wilcox misses more time.
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.