Some NFL teams are starting to play their way out of playoff contention after ten weeks of the NFL season, which generally leads to more playing time for rookies as front offices look towards building their roster for next season. This week, a few first-round picks showed up with solid games after quiet seasons to this point, while some late-rounders and undrafted free agents have taken advantage of injuries to show they have NFL skills as they fight to remain in the league. Chris Tripodi will reveal the rookies who caught his eye in Week 10’s Rookie Report.
Benny Cunningham (RB-StL)
With Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Zac Stacy ahead of him on the depth chart when the season started, not many expected Cunningham to see any significant playing time this season. Undrafted out of Middle Tennessee State, the rookie was nothing more than depth for the Rams. With Richardson ineffective all year and Pead in the doghouse, Stacy took over the lead back role a few weeks into the season and Cunningham has emerged as his main backup, with Richardson getting a healthy scratch last week. Since Stacy has been a workhorse, Cunningham has seen just 18 snaps over the past two weeks but made them count on Sunday.
Cunningham started off well with an 18-yard reception on a first quarter screen pass, selling a run blocking assignment until releasing at the last second and picking up a first down on third-and-15. He picked up 8 yards on a draw on the next play, cutting back to the left when nothing was open right. Cunningham saw just one more carry before running four times on the final drive with the game already decided. The former Blue Raider did break a 56-yard run against a 9-man box to start that drive, showing good burst through a nice hole up the middle and enough speed to beat Antoine Bethea to the sideline.
While Cunningham isn’t fast, he shows solid vision as a runner and good enough burst to hit holes hard at 5’10, 217 pounds. He’s similar to Stacy in that regard and the Rams seem happier keeping the offense consistent with their backup in the game rather than using quicker backs like Richardson and Pead as a change of pace. If Stacy were to go down, Cunningham would likely inherit 15-20 carries per game. He doesn’t have the same vision or quick feet as the Rams’ new featured back, but Cunningham has shown enough to hang around as a second or third running back in the NFL.
Tavon Austin (WR-StL)
The Rams’ 8th overall pick out of West Virginia, Austin has seen his playing time dwindle since scoring two touchdowns in Week 2 and being profiled here, as St. Louis has struggled to find a good way to utilize his unique skill set. After playing 42 or more snaps in each of the season’s first four weeks, Austin hasn’t seen more than 33 in a game since. He saw just 15 snaps Sunday against Indianapolis but made the most of them with 2 touchdown receptions totaling 138 yards and a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown.
The Colts’ inability to contain Austin on punts in the first quarter was a precursor to his big return, as he had returns of 18 and 29 yards that showed off his speed and acceleration, hitting holes quickly once he spotted them and speeding past multiple defenders. His long return came when he grabbed a ball inches away from a Colts player trying to down it inside the 5-yard line. Austin took a few quick stutter steps to set up his blocks and then showed why he ran a sub-4.3 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, flying down the sideline for the score.
Austin’s speed was on display during the Rams’ next drive as he blew by Vontae Davis on a vertical route for an easy 57-yard touchdown catch. His 81-yard score came on a short crossing route which played out exactly the way St. Louis pictured it when they drafted Austin. He motioned inside to a trips formation and ran underneath the other receivers to create space. Once he caught the ball all it took was one quick inside cut to get safety Antoine Bethea turned around and nobody was catching Austin on his way to the end zone.
While Austin has been marginalized in the offense thanks to Zac Stacy’s emergence, Sam Bradford’s injury and less three-wide receiver sets, he still found a way to show off his game-breaking ability in limited playing time. It’s possible that this game could be a springboard for increased usage but unless the Rams’ game plan changes significantly, it’s more likely that Austin will remain an all-or-nothing player in a part-time role. If the light has finally clicked on for Brian Schottenheimer on how to use Austin though, even a limited number of snaps could provide multiple big plays per game.
Chris Gragg (TE-Buf)
Rated as a 4th-round prospect on the Draft Insider board, Gragg slipped all the way to the 7th round in April’s NFL Draft before Buffalo added him to improve their depth at a position of weakness. With starter Scott Chandler an underwhelming pass catcher despite standing 6’7, the Bills saw an opportunity to add another receiving threat for E.J. Manuel after drafting receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin earlier in the draft. Gragg hasn’t had much of an impact so far this season but made his first 4 receptions of the season in Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh, totaling 25 yards and his first career touchdown.
Gragg started the game with an awful drop in the second quarter when he was wide open in the flat with room to run. While his stats look decent, he didn’t actually record a catch until the Bills’ final drive when the game was out of reach. He didn’t show the ability to get downfield, as all of his receptions came on short curls and quick outs. Gragg did show good hands after his early drop, extended to snag one of those late catches well away from his body. His ability to use his body to shield defenders from the ball when breaking on his routes was apparent on his touchdown at the end of the game, as he jumped to slow down the defender as well and prevent them from making a play on the ball.
While Gragg saw more snaps (16) in Week 10 than he had all season, his performance wasn’t all that impressive. He rounded off a few routes and while he showed his natural ability as a receiver, Gragg isn’t ready for significant snaps at the NFL level yet. Used mainly on pass routes, it was difficult to get a grasp on whether his blocking has improved at all from his days at Arkansas. With Chandler in the final year of his contract and the Bills falling further out of contention, Gragg may see extended snaps towards the end of the year so Buffalo can see how he fits into their future.
Travis Frederick (C-Dal)
The biggest surprise of Day 1 in the NFL Draft, the Cowboys drafted Frederick in the late first round after trading down with San Francisco and were blasted by draft analysts and the media, as many had Frederick rated as low as the 3rd round. Draft Insider had Frederick as a 2nd rounder and the second best center available behind Barrett Jones, but so far the Wisconsin product has carried his All-Big 10 college production over to the NFL and quieted the critics from draft night.
Just like he was a surprise on draft day, Frederick has surprised with strong play and has been Dallas’ best interior lineman this season, grading as Pro Football Focus’ 8th best center. An aggressive and powerful run blocker with the Badgers, that ability has quickly translated to the NFL level and he has opened up holes nicely for DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle this season.
As good as Frederick has been in the run game, his pass blocking has been just average thanks to a lack of speed (5.56) and agility. He has improved in the area as the season’s gone on and has allowed just 8 hurries and 2 sacks, both of which came in Week 2 against Dontari Poe and the Chiefs. Frederick may never live up to his first round draft status but if he continues to improve throughout his career, he won’t be viewed in a negative light either.
Datone Jones (DE-GB)
A late first-round pick from UCLA, Jones has worked strictly in a rotational role for the Packers and hasn’t seen more than 25 snaps in a game yet this season. He struggled to start the year and had just one tackle in Green Bay’s first seven games but had 7 hurries in the three games leading up to Week 9, when he recorded his first career sack against the Bears. Those numbers were just an appetizer for Jones’ game on Sunday, as he picked up another two sacks in a loss to the Eagles.
On Philadelphia’s first drive of the game, Jones started the play stood up in front of the left guard spying Nick Foles on third-and-14. Foles was forced to step up in the pocket and when he tried to break the pocket to the left, Jones was right there to take him down and stop the drive well short of midfield. His second sack also came on third down late in the first quarter and was far more impressive, as Jones bull rushed left tackle Jason Peters 10 yards into the backfield and brought down Foles just outside of field goal range, forcing the Eagles to punt the ball away and forcing Peters out of the game with an injury.
Not known for his strength, Jones’ domination of a good tackle like Peters was impressive and shows that he’s developed in his first season as a pro. He explodes off the line and uses his hands well to set up opportunities to make plays with his athleticism. If Jones continues to rush the passer this well and make big plays, Green Bay may need to consider giving him more snaps. The Packers need defenders who can make things happen with Aaron Rodgers out for a few weeks and Jones looks like he can help out.
Glenn Foster (DE-NO)
An undrafted free agent out of Illinois, Foster has struggled most of the season as a rotational 5-technique end in New Orleans’ 3-4 and hasn’t made a single stop in the running game. He does have 3 sacks though and after seeing a season-low 9 snaps in Week 9 against the Jets, Foster played half of the Saints’ defensive snaps for the first time all season against a pass-heavy Dallas offense.
The former Illini defensive tackle came up with a big sack on Dallas’ first drive of the second half, as Dallas needed to put together a good drive to crawl out of a 28-10 halftime deficit. On third-and-9 near midfield, Foster lined up as a 3-technique against left guard Ronald Leary and fought him off with solid hand play, keeping his feet moving to beat him to the outside and take down Tony Romo as he tried to scramble to his left.
Foster also showed some quick-twitch reactions after a great first step helped him bust through the B gap on a screen pass late in the third quarter, getting his right hand up to deflect the pass intended for Cole Beasley. Foster may not have the size (6-4, 286) to be a full-time player at the NFL level, even as a 5-technique, but shows enough quickness to be a solid pass rush specialist on the interior. He has played better over the past few games and if he keeps making progress, Foster can be a key contributor for the Saints late in the season and into the playoffs.
A.J. Klein (LB-Car)
With starter Chase Blackburn out due to a foot injury, Carolina’s fifth-round pick from Iowa State stepped into the starting weak side linebacker role against San Francisco and had a nice game, making 5 tackles (2 for loss) including his first career sack. Those numbers are even better considering Klein was removed on obvious passing downs and played only 32 snaps in the game.
Klein made his presence felt early by stopping Frank Gore in the backfield on a third-and-1 run on San Francisco’s second drive, showing good instincts to react quickly to the run and fill the hole. Klein’s sack came early in the second quarter when he blitzed untouched off the left edge and didn’t bite on play action, staying with Colin Kaepernick as he rolled out and making the sack despite Kaepernick grabbing his face mask on the play. Klein came back the next play to stop Gore again for just one yard, showing quick feet to avoid getting blocked at the second level and filling the hole again.
A tough linebacker who was the Big 12’s co-Defensive Player of the Year in his junior season, Klein’s issues in coverage will limit him to a two-down role at the NFL level but he showed that he can have a big impact playing in just base packages. He’s a disciplined player with good size (6-1, 250) and speed (4.68) playing both downhill and in pursuit. Blackburn hasn’t played well so far this season and if he remains out after aggravating his foot injury and Klein continues his strong play, Blackburn may not have a job when he comes back.
Kayvon Webster (CB-Den)
Webster initially took over as Denver’s nickel back in Week 5 before Champ Bailey’s return dropped him back to dime duty in Weeks 6 and 7. Bailey re-injured his foot during his second game back and hasn’t played since, giving Webster an opportunity to regain his role the nickel. Webster has played well overall this season and had a career-high 5 tackles (4 solo) and a pass breakup on Sunday despite not playing his best game in coverage.
Targeted five times by Philip Rivers, Webster allowed 4 receptions for 51 yards, three of which came against fellow rookie Keenan Allen. He did prevent a potential touchdown in the second quarter, staying stride for stride with Vincent Brown down the right sideline and knocking the ball away to force a field goal attempt. All four the receptions he allowed resulted in first downs though, as Webster flipped his hips too soon allowing inside position to Allen and slipped twice when his receiver ran a curl route.
Webster received a free agent grade from us before the draft but was drafted late in the third round. He showed a few of his biggest flaws on Sunday, as his fundamental issues in his backpedal hurt him planting out of breaks. At 5’11, 198 pounds with 4.34 speed, Webster is not short on talent but will need to clean up the basics of his game in order to be anything more than a sub-package defensive back in the NFL.
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 and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.