This week’s Rookie Report highlights a few rookies who have struggled so far this season despite early-round status. Whether it’s due to injury or just the need for more on-field experience, multiple first and second-round rookies have yet to truly find their stride on a consistent basis at the NFL level. Chris Tripodi breaks down their play and a few other mid-late round picks, as well as an undrafted rookie quarterback getting his first NFL start against the league’s top defense.
Jeff Tuel (QB-Buf)
With Thaddeus Lewis missing Week 9 with a rib injury and E.J. Manuel just getting back on the practice field, Buffalo turned to the undrafted Tuel who played his college ball at Washington State. Tuel replaced Manuel in Week 5 against Cleveland, but his uninspiring 8-for-20, 80-yard performance led Buffalo to start Lewis the following week after promoting him from the practice squad. Tuel actually had the chance to lead the Bills to victory in that game, but threw a game-ending pick-six to T.J. Ward.
Tuel repeated that feat against the Chiefs, forcing a slant to T.J. Graham that was intercepted by Sean Smith and returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Tuel felt quick pressure off the edge from Tamba Hali and quickly tried to hit Graham, but Smith got burned by Stevie Johnson and happened to be in the passing lane afterwards for the easy pick. If Tuel had seen Johnson break free and not locked onto Graham, he would have had an easy touchdown and a 17-3 lead. Instead, that score tied the game and gave Kansas City the momentum it needed to win the game.
It wasn’t all bad for the rookie, as he did manage to throw Marquise Goodwin open to beat double coverage for an early 59-yard touchdown. Goodwin barely had a step on the corner when Tuel released the pass, showing great anticipation and trust in Goodwin’s speed. He also showed just enough arm strength to hit Goodwin in stride 40 yards down the field and let him run to the end zone untouched.
Outside of that one long ball to Goodwin, Tuel struggled and completed just 18-of-39 passes for 229 yards. He made Buffalo fans long for what Lewis brought to the team, let alone what Manuel can do upon his return. With Lewis likely healthy for Week 10 and Manuel possibly starting on Sunday, Tuel’s one-game window as a starter has passed him by. He didn’t show enough to change the scouting report on him as a future NFL backup at best.
Zach Ertz (TE-Phi)
Philadelphia’ second-round pick out of Stanford, Ertz’s career has gotten off to a slow start with just 19 receptions for 243 yards and a touchdown in his first nine NFL games. Ertz has played better with Nick Foles under center instead of Michael Vick, catching at least three balls in all of Foles’ starts and no more than two in any game with Vick at the helm. With Foles tying an NFL record with 7 touchdowns against Oakland on Sunday, Ertz got into the action with a career-high 5 receptions for 42 yards and his first career score.
On his touchdown, Ertz ran wide open on a post corner route into the end zone from 15 yards out and settled in an open area along the sideline, waiting for the rolling Foles to find him. Ertz showed great extension to catch the ball away from his body before bringing it in and made sure to keep both feet in bounds to secure the score.
On two other third-down catches, one that went for a first down and another that was just short, Ertz showed the ability to stay low out of his break and quickly turn for extra yardage after catching the ball facing his quarterback. Both times he was moving toward the chains while catching the ball, but kept his eyes on it to secure possession first.
Ertz was used in the slot often while Brent Celek lined up as the inline tight end, allowing both to see the field at that same time. The major downside to Ertz’s game is a lack of downfield speed but the other aspects of his game are solid. After catching just 5 passes in his first four games Ertz has 14 receptions in his past five as his role in the Philadelphia offense has grown. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him overtake Brent Celek for the starting role by the end of the season as the Eagles look towards the future under Chip Kelly.
Mychal Rivera (TE-Oak)
While Ertz was busy helping Nick Foles tear up the Raiders, Rivera was putting up a pedestrian stat line on the other side of a 49-20 blowout. The former Tennessee Volunteer did set a career-high with 4 receptions but only made them count for 36 yards. When presumed started David Ausberry was hurt in the preseason and eventually placed on injured reserve, it presented Rivera with an opportunity as the second tight end behind starter Jeron Mastrud, who is used mainly as a blocker.
Despite his opportunity, Rivera has played very much like the sixth-round pick that he was and that we had him graded as. Lined up on the line of scrimmage on all four of his catches, two were simple 5-yard timing routes where Terrell Pryor hit Rivera quickly out of his break. The rookie did convert two first downs on the day, the first coming on a second-and-1 play where he did a nice job of drifting away from the coverage and back towards a scrambling Pryor.
His second chain-moving reception came early in the fourth quarter with the game out of hand, but was a nice piece of improvisation. Initially kept in to block, Rivera passed his rusher on to the left tackle and rather than stay on the line with Pryor finding nobody open, Rivera slipped out into the flat for an easy catch-and-run to keep the drive going. The ability to think on his feet like that and recognizing an opportunity is a welcome skill for a late-round pick like Rivera.
Rivera was sure-handed in this game and has just two drops on the season, which is good considering his hands were sometimes an issue in college. At just 245 pounds he’s not much of a blocker but Oakland has used him mainly in the passing game, although the results haven’t been particularly impressive. Pryor is still a work in progress as a passer as is Rivera as a receiver, so growing pains are to be expected. Rivera hasn’t shown a starting-level skill set so far as a rookie and likely will be best suited as a backup tight end predominantly used on passing downs.
Manti Te’o (LB-SD)
Since making his debut in Week 4 after a foot injury pushed back the start of his season, Te’o has been quieter on the field than his offseason was in the media. Playing inside linebacker in the middle of San Diego’s 3-4 isn’t a position of statistical significance but Te’o was able to rack up 9 tackles (4 solo), a number which was likely inflated by a Washington scoring crew that is very assist-heavy when it comes to defensive stats.
Te’o’s best play of the day came in the middle of the third quarter, where he blitzed off right edge and showed good discipline not to bite on the zone read fake to Alfred Morris. Te’o immediately brought down Robert Griffin III for a 2-yard loss to set up third-and-long. The former Notre Dame star held his own in coverage as well and was targeted just twice, allowing only a 9-yard reception to Leonard Hankerson.
While some remember Te’o for missed tackles in the national championship against Alabama and his fake girlfriend, scouts know Te’o as an instinctive linebacker with good ball skills that maximizes the athleticism he has. While he has struggled in his first five career games, Te’o finally played more than three-quarters of San Diego’s defensive snaps coming out of the Week 9 bye and may see more action as the season goes on, especially on passing downs. Further development from him could help solidify a Chargers’ defense that has struggled so far this season.
Khaseem Greene (LB-Chi)
With Lance Briggs going down with a shoulder injury in Week 7, Greene stepped into his weak side linebacker role in Week 9 against Green Bay. The former Rutgers standout played just 24 snaps and handled early-down work before being pulled in obvious passing situations, finishing with 4 solo tackles on the game.
Greene made two stops on Eddie Lacy for just 2 yards each, which is something not many linebackers have been able to do on their own since Lacy came back from his early-season concussion. He did allow a short pass to be completed in his zone the only time he was targeted, but stopped Packers’ tight end Andrew Quarless short of the first down to force a third-and-short.
A late-second/early-third round prospect on the Draft Insider board, Greene was a good value pick for Chicago two rounds after drafting Jon Bostic to man the middle in place of Brian Urlacher. With Briggs aging, Greene could very likely become a starter in the next season or two next to Bostic, especially if his veteran competition struggles to stay healthy. The rookie’s athleticism and attitude was on display against the Packers on Monday night and while he’s a little small at 6’1, 240 pounds, he won’t need to take on as many blocks on the weak side and can use his speed in pursuit to rack up tackles.
Dee Milliner (CB-NYJ)
Milliner has been a whipping boy for opposing offensive coordinators and the New York media alike, finding himself benched twice so far this season and struggling to stay with receivers in coverage. After missing three games in the middle of the year with a hamstring injury, Milliner came back with two poor performances against New England and Cincinnati, the second of which got him benched again. Coach Rex Ryan gave him a vote of confidence after the Bengals’ game and kept him in the starting lineup, a move that paid off against the Saints on Sunday.
The rookie first-round pick out of Alabama played his best game when his team needed him the most against Drew Brees, making 6 tackles (4 solo), breaking up his first pass of the year and allowing just 5 receptions for 49 yards on 8 targets. His pass breakup was textbook Cover 2 cornerback play, as Milliner broke to the ball the moment Pierre Thomas turned into the flat and came across with his opposite arm to knock the pass away. He was confident and decisive in his responsibilities and showed the closing speed and ball skills that intrigued the Jets enough to make him the first corner off the board back in April.
On the next play, Milliner was caught peeking into the backfield and let Nick Toon get by him down the left sideline, only to watch Toon drop the ball on a key third down play. Besides that play, Milliner did a great job of keeping the ball in front of him and reacting quickly to make tackles and prevent yards after the catch, with the only other decent-sized play he allowed coming on a 19-yard completion to Kenny Stills where he was backed too far off the ball in Cover 3.
His size (6-0, 201) and speed (4.38) give him good upside, but Milliner’s indecision and a tendency to look into the backfield have gotten him in trouble more than a few times this season. He looked more comfortable last week than any other times this season though and if the light starts to click on for Milliner, he has the talent to be a difference maker in the New York secondary if he can play with increased confidence.
Shamarko Thomas (S-Pit)
Working in a backup role behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark isn’t the best way to get playing time as a rookie, but Thomas has seen ample action as a corner in nickel and dime packages as the Steelers try and find ways to get him on the field. Thomas has played well over the past three weeks, seeing his two highest snap counts of the season and making a career-high 8 tackles (7 solo) in Sunday’s loss to New England just two weeks after setting his previous career high with 7 tackles against Baltimore.
Thomas made a nice play in early red zone coverage on Rob Gronkowski, timing his touch perfectly to down Gronkowski at the one-yard line on third-and-goal. New England was stuffed on the next play as the Steelers defense held at the goal line. Thomas’ coverage was shaky outside of that however, allowing three first down completions on his only other targets of the game.
At 5’9, Thomas was bound to struggle covering the 6’7 Gronkowski. Thomas also had a pass interference penalty in the end zone as the first half wound down that set New England up at the Pittsburgh one-yard line, which the Patriots converted to take a 24-10 lead into the half.
Despite a solid game against the run and a good hit on Tom Brady on his only blitz of the game, Thomas had perhaps his worst game in coverage as a pro safety. It’s hard to blame him considering the matchup, but it proves that his lack of height will likely be a detriment to his safety play against big, talented tight ends like Gronkowski. He lacks the ball skills to make up for his lack of size but has great range and is aggressive against the run. The Steelers would be wise to keep Thomas in the box as much as possible and out of man coverage, but unfortunately circumstances dictated different usage for Thomas against New England.
Duran Harmon (S-NE)
Harmon is the second Patriot defensive back from Rutgers profiled here in the Rookie Report, following Logan Ryan’s appearance a few weeks ago after their loss to the Jets. With Steve Gregory leaving Sunday’s game with a broken thumb, Harmon stepped in as the next man up with 4 tackles (3 solo), a pass breakup and an interception for the second straight game. After not playing more than 10 snaps in a game until Week 6, Harmon is now in line to start in place of Gregory in two weeks.
The interception for Harmon came late in the fourth quarter to essentially seal the game with New England up 17 points, as Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown weren’t on the same page on a pass downfield. Brown ran to the post while Roethlisberger threw to the outside, giving Harmon an easy interception that he returned deep into Pittsburgh territory to set up a quick score on the ensuing drive for the Patriots. All of Harmon’s tackles came after receptions, but he wasn’t targeted at all in coverage and mostly just cleaned up for his teammates.
Known as a better run defender than cover safety at Rutgers, Harmon has shown solid tackling skills in limited playing time, making 8 tackles on the season without missing any. That could change in a starting role but Harmon is adept at diagnosing plays, closing downhill and wrapping up for the tackle. We had Harmon ranked as our 42nd best safety but New England made him the ninth safety off the board in April, showing that they have high hopes for him. Harmon will have a chance to show New England they made a good pick after their Week 10 bye.
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.