With more and more teams packing it in as their seasons come to an end and playoff hopes dissipate, rookies who haven’t seen much playing time early in the season are getting a chance to audition for roles and roster spots heading into 2014. A few of these first-year players were drafted in the first 2-3 rounds and only recently are seeing openings on the depth chart. This week also had a couple undrafted players step into bigger roles for their teams and while one struggled in his newfound role, the other thrived and could be pushing for more playing time to finish out the season. Chris Tripodi is back to break down what he saw from rookies in Week 12.
Dennis Johnson (RB-Hou)
After Arian Foster was placed on injured reserve a few weeks ago, Johnson stepped in as Houston’s backup running back behind Ben Tate. Playing through cracked ribs, Tate isn’t the picture of the health at this point in the season either which meant it was just a matter of time until Johnson got his chance for a few carries. It was Tate’s ineffectiveness on Sunday that led to an extended look for Johnson however, as the pending free agent had just 1 yard on 7 carries in the first half. Johnson ended up with 74 yards rushing on 13 carries and added 2 receptions for 13 yards.
Johnson did little before the final drive of the first half, when he carried the ball on Houston’s first four plays for 47 yards and made a nice one-handed grab on a short 3rd down pass to set the Texans up for a field goal before intermission. His big run of the drive went for 29 yards, as Johnson showed good patience to wait for his blockers to open a hole before finding it and quickly bursting through for a nice gain. The hole wasn’t very big, but Johnson used his diminutive stature (5-7, 193) to squeeze through the tight opening. Once he was in space, he was quick enough to avoid a square hit from the safety but did get tripped up.
The undrafted rookie from Arkansas also showed off good leg drive on multiple runs, picking up extra yards after contact. On a third-and-2 early in the third quarter, he was hit by Paul Posluszny right at the first down marker but pushed ahead for an extra two yards to move the chains. Johnson then ran for 12 yards on the next play, showing the ability to press the hole before cutting upfield and the quickness to juke a linebacker and pick up extra yardage at the second level.
Despite his lack of size, Johnson is an excellent runner with one major weakness: ball security. NFL running backs must hold onto the ball or they find their way into the doghouse and Johnson struggled with that during the preseason, which led the Texans to cut him. With the injury issues they’ve had they brought Johnson back during the season and he hasn’t fumbled again yet, but he will need to make sure that continues to keep a roster spot. His lack of ideal size makes him an unlikely feature back at the professional level, but he has plenty of natural ability as a runner and could settle in as a nice change-of-pace back.
Cordarrelle Patterson (WR-Min)
After being limited to less than 30 snaps in each of his first 9 NFL games, Minnesota’s first-round pick from Tennessee has played mostly on special teams so far as a rookie. While he’s been an electric kick returner and already has 2 return touchdowns, he’s started the past two games at wide receiver thanks to Jerome Simpson’s DWI and Greg Jennings’ injury and made 11 receptions for 82 yards, including 8 catches for 54 yards this week. He’s been catching most of his passes around the line of scrimmage as the Vikings are trying to unleash his raw playmaking ability on their opponents.
Before even catching a pass against Green Bay, Patterson had a 57-yard kickoff return to set the Vikings up in Green Bay territory. Christian Ponder rewarded him with a short catch on the next play, but Patterson struggled with the press of Davon House and couldn’t create separation. Used mostly on curls, slants and screens, Patterson didn’t catch a pass longer than 9 yards until the game’s final play, where he took a screen pass 21 yards against prevent coverage.
Ponder did give Patterson a few shots down the field, missing high on the first one. Patterson got his hands on a deep fly down the left sideline but had to extend for the ball, which allowed House to time his hit and knock the ball out of Patterson’s hands. House also prevented a potential game-winning touchdown pass to Patterson, who got behind him over the middle late in overtime. Patterson would have had an easy catch in the back of the end zone but House got a finger on the pass, which was just enough to throw Patterson off and cause him to drop the pass.
Despite 11 targets and 8 receptions, Patterson didn’t do much with the ball in his hands beyond his long kickoff return early in the game. The drops are excusable in context as House made nice plays on both of them but as Patterson develops, those are the plays that will make the difference between him being just a solid receiver and the star that his talent says he can be. Patterson needs to see the field to improve his consistency and the Vikings will give him all the action he can handle in a lost season. Watch out for a potential breakout from Patterson next season, especially if Minnesota drafts a competent quarterback to replace Ponder.
Justin Hunter (WR-Ten)
With Kenny Britt firmly entrenched in the doghouse and Damian Williams sitting out with a quad injury, the door was open for Hunter to make an impact in the Tennessee passing game as their third receiver. After catching 7 passes for 122 yards in the first 10 games of the season, the second pick of the 2nd round had a career-high 6 receptions for 109 yards in a 23-19 win against the Raiders that kept the Titans’ playoff hopes alive.
Hunter was just as impressive on the field as he was in the box score, catching all 6 of his targets from Ryan Fitzpatrick for 5 first downs and his third career touchdown. The former Tennessee star was very effective over the middle, with four of his receptions coming on third down slants and square-in routes. Known as a big play threat coming out of college, Hunter was able to get open and make tough catches in key spots. On the final drive of the game he caught a big third-down pass that was thrown behind him, showing strong hands and the ability to adjust to the ball in the air, take a hit from the safety and still hang on.
His touchdown came from 54 yards out and showed off the big-play skills that made him a high second-round pick. Hunter ran a corner route on 3rd-and-2 just short of midfield and found himself wide open. Fitzpatrick short armed the pass and Hunter did a nice job of coming back to the ball, but found himself facing two defenders immediately. Hunter quickly broke inside and cut it back outside, showing off the athleticism to make both defenders miss on his way down the right sideline for the score.
With Nate Washington entering the final year of his contract next season and Britt on his way out of Tennessee, Hunter will get a chance to be the big-play threat the Titans need opposite Kendall Wright during their push for the playoffs. The question marks surrounding Hunter heading into the draft were drops and lazy route running but he has polished his game in a short period of time and it certainly helps being an extra year removed from a torn ACL. Hunter has the physical skills to be the best receiver in this draft class if he continues to develop and more performances like this that help his team win will only help.
Darius Johnson (WR-Atl)
Johnson has been a part of the Atlanta passing attack since Julio Jones went down for the season in early October, especially as Roddy White struggles with injuries this year as well. The undrafted rookie from SMU had his best game of his young career so far with 6 receptions for 67 yards as the Falcons looked to exploit fill-in cornerback Corey White. While the numbers were nice, Johnson also made a few mistakes after halftime that made him an afterthought as the game went on.
Johnson almost scored on Atlanta’s first drive, but was ruled down at the 1-yard line after stretching for the end zone on a quick in. He played well in the first half, making easy catches against loose coverage from White and showing impressive extension and hands on a quick slant that went for 17 yards. Johnson also worked back to a scrambling Ryan on one play to break open for a first down. That was the good.
The bad came in the second half as Johnson came open on a crossing route on third-and-2 early in the third quarter. With nobody around him, Johnson simply dropped the ball and forced the Falcons to punt. Early in the fourth quarter, Atlanta drove down inside the New Orleans 25-yard line when Johnson caught a short screen pass and didn’t secure the ball quickly enough, fumbling it away to the Saints and taking points off the board on a potential go-ahead drive.
While last Thursday’s game started well for Johnson, he was barely targeted in the second half and hurt the Falcons badly when he was. A disappointing senior year at SMU led to him going undrafted along with a lack of size (5-9, 179). His normally soft hands failed him on his big drop and fumble and without the ability to stretch the field vertically with height or speed, Johnson needs as a reliable underneath receiver who can move the chains. He has struggled with increased playing time over the past two weeks and without improvement, may have trouble making the 53-man roster next season when Jones is healthy again.
Jamie Collins (LB-NE)
A second-round pick of New England’s who has seen limited playing time this season, Collins was very impressive against Denver in just 23 defensive snaps, making 10 tackles (6 solo) after recording just 15 on the season. The Patriots wanted to take advantage of the former Southern Miss star’s athletic ability against the high-powered Denver offense and were able to do just that in their big Sunday night victory.
Collins’ biggest play of the game came in the third quarter after the Patriots cut Denver’s lead to 24-14. With the Broncos driving towards midfield on third-and-5, Collins ran over Knowshon Moreno on a blitz through the A gap and forced Peyton Manning off his spot in the pocket along with Dane Fletcher. Manning fumbled the ball and had to go to the ground to recover, where Collins was there to officially end the play and the drive.
While many of Collins’ tackles came 5 or more yards downfield and some after third-down receptions that extended drives, he was generally good in coverage and showed the ability to stay close with tight ends Virgil Green and Jacob Tamme. Collins kept his eyes on the quarterback as well, allowing him to come off his own coverage to help his teammates when they were targeted. With great athleticism, he should have more impact rushing the passer this season and can continue to improve his coverage skills as well. After seeing just 4 snaps in his previous two games, Collins’ strong play in a big victory over Denver should earn him more reps as the season goes on.
Brandon McGee (CB-StL)
Pressed into action with nickel back Cortland Finnegan heading to injured reserve, McGee stepped in as the Rams’ nickel back Sunday against the Bears. A fifth-round pick out of Miami seeing his first significant playing time of the season, his inexperience showed with some serious struggles in coverage as McGee allowed completions on all four of the passes thrown his way for a total of 47 yards.
The longest pass he allowed was an 18-yard screen to Alshon Jeffery where McGee was easily cut and allowed Jeffery to get extra yards. McGee’s biggest issues came with penalties however, as an early illegal contact penalty nullified an interception by Janoris Jenkins and allowed Chicago to score after keeping possession. His next two penalties also directly resulted in a touchdown, as McGee had his hands all over Earl Bennett in the end zone and didn’t turn back to the quarterback, making it an easy call for the refs. A few plays later, McGee was called for holding on Alshon Jeffery to give the Bears another first down inside the 1-yard line, which they would eventually punch in for a touchdown.
McGee did show toughness against the run, aggressively filling the hole quickly to stop Matt Forte and shedding stalk blocks on outside runs. His deficiencies in coverage were too much to overcome though, as he lacks experience at the NFL level and the confidence in his own fundamentals which causes him to resort to using his hands when he shouldn’t. Future opponents looking at this tape will definitely be looking to exploit McGee both in the slot and outside and unless he improves quickly, the Rams defense will likely have some issues when teams throw his way. While Finnegan was struggling this season, McGee looks like a downgrade from the veteran.
D.J. Swearinger (S-Hou)
Since taking over the starting strong safety spot in Week 7, Swearinger has been one of the few bright spots in what’s amounted to a lost season for the Texans who had Super Bowl aspirations before the year started. With free agent bust Ed Reed now allowing deep touchdowns with the Jets, Swearinger has been as advertised against the run but also is playing very well in coverage and looks to be a nice building block for Houston in the secondary.
Swearinger’s most impressive play could have been even better, as he dropped a potential interception that could have turned into a go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter. Right before the snap, Swearinger jumped up to the line of scrimmage and pointed free safety Shiloh Keo back to the middle third. Reading the screen pass, he jumped into the passing lane but couldn’t secure the pick. This play showed the aggression and confidence Swearinger has carried with him from South Carolina to the NFL that made scouts so high on his potential.
The former Gamecock was also strong against the run, lining up in the box and stopping Jacksonville running backs in their tracks at the line of scrimmage. Swearinger’s impressive play certainly made it easier for Houston to get rid of Reed a few weeks ago and coming off his best game of the season, he will look to finish his rookie year strong. He plays bigger than his listed 5-10, 217-pounds and has the potential to be an impact safety against both the run and the pass.
T.J. McDonald (S-StL)
In his return from a broken leg that landed him on short-term injured reserve, McDonald was a little rusty against the Bears. The third-rounder out of USC played fine against the run and made 6 tackles (5 solo) while missing just one, but his pass coverage let something to be desired as he allowed an early touchdown to Martellus Bennett and wasn’t much of a factor in the passing game.
Lined up in press man on 2nd-and-goal from the 7-yard line, McDonald couldn’t disrupt Bennett’s route and got beat on a quick out to the pylon. Bennett made the catch just short of the goal line and while McDonald did a nice job trying to keep him out of the end zone, he had already let him get too deep and couldn’t prevent the touchdown. McDonald did save a touchdown later on a pass caught by Bennett up the seam, doing a nice job as the last line of defense and using the sideline to his advantage.
The rookie’s best play of the game came on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, as McDonald did a nice job beating the pulling guard into the hole and grabbing the ankles of Michael Bush in the backfield. Fellow rookie Alec Ogletree had time to come in and shut the play down for good for a 2-yard loss, but it was McDonald’s quickness and penetration that busted the play before it could get going.
McDonald has great size at 6’2, 220 pounds and is known for his downhill playing style, although he has struggled with missed tackles when he’s been on the field this season with 7 in just five games. The former Trojans safety had actually been better in coverage before Sunday’s game and once he gets comfortable in the NFL and shows less hesitation in his game, McDonald has the potential to clean up the missed tackles and become an impact player in the St. Louis secondary.
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.