With the 2013 NFL season winding down, it’s that time where many rookies around the league need to impress to earn roster spots or starting positions for 2014. From first and second-round draft picks to undrafted free agents, the time for evaluation is now as playoff teams look for players who can help them in the postseason and non-contenders look to evaluate their own young talent and decide whether they have enough to lead the team to the playoffs in the future. Chris Tripodi is back with another set of rookies from around the NFL.
Geno Smith (QB-NYJ)
After four straight games of completing less than 10 passes, it turns out all the Jets’ rookie quarterback needed was a healthy Jeremy Kerley. With his only reliable wide receiver returning to the lineup and some help from a shaky Raiders defense, Smith bounced back with his first passing touchdown since Week 7 and added a rushing score as well, completing 16-of-25 passes for 219 yards.
Smith showed pocket presence that hadn’t been seen from him in weeks, stepping up away from edge pressure to come up with some big completions. Smith also handled interior pressure better than he has in the past two months, showing a willingness to use his feet to escape the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield to make a play through the air. When nothing materialized, Smith didn’t hesitate to scramble and rushed for a career-high 50 yards, including a 32-yard run highlighted by a nice juke move on Kevin Burnett, who had intercepted Smith earlier in the game.
The former West Virginia star wasn’t perfect and did throw an awful ball to Kellen Winslow early that could have been a touchdown. Winslow had a step along the seam, but Smith’s ball was thrown like he expected Winslow to break for the pylon and was nowhere near his intended receiver. His footwork when starting under center is still an issue and his base prevents him from getting his lower half into throws, resulting in multiple balls sailed high on the game. Smith had two potential interceptions dropped but could have had a third touchdown as well if Santonio Holmes caught an end zone lob along the sideline that him in the hands.
This was Smith’s best game in the last two months and he did well not to sulk after his benching last week. His willingness to use his legs will serve him well behind a struggling offensive line if he continues to run and that added threat will allow him to extend plays and give his receivers time to get open. Despite taking a small step forward, Smith still needs to clean up his footwork and decision making to last an NFL starter. A similar performance against a ferocious Carolina front seven this weekend would be a welcome sight for Jets fans struggling through another season of endless turnovers from the quarterback position.
Knile Davis (RB-KC)
With the Chiefs blowing out a Redskins team that seems to have given up on the season, Davis got some late work and gave MVP candidate Jamaal Charles a well-deserved breather for the final quarter. His 11 carries were a season-high as he had just 22 carries in the season’s first 12 games since Charles has turned into a legitimate workhorse for Kansas City. Davis totaled just 30 yards on the ground but added a 17-yard reception to his totals as well.
With just two carries over 3 yards, Davis wasn’t very consistent against a Washington defense that knew the clock-killing runs were coming. He showed good burst on a 6-yard run but his highlight was a 17-yard touchdown that displayed great rushing skills. Davis ran right and his blocking was busted but he jumped over his own fallen lineman and quickly back towards the middle once he landed. Heading right towards the safety, Davis showed surprising change of direction to cut straight up the field, eliminate the safety’s angle and break an ankle tackle on his way to the end zone.
Davis showed off good footwork again on a late reception, stutter stepping his way to the sideline and creating his own angle to pick up extra yardage. While he’s unlikely to see significant work unless Charles were to suffer a serious injury, Davis displayed the talent scouts were enamored with at times when he was at Arkansas. He has also done a nice job returning kicks where his straight-line speed is especially effective, as he has a touchdown return already this season.
Da’Rick Rogers (WR-Ind)
It’s been a trying rookie season for the talented Rogers after going undrafted back in April. Billed by scouts as a player with first-round talent, Rogers’ laundry list of off-field problems that led to his dismissal from Tennessee weighed heavily in the minds of NFL teams, who rarely let a player with his talent slip through the cracks. Rogers signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent but was later cut and signed to Indianapolis’ practice squad. Rogers was waived again by the Colts shortly after being activated and went unclaimed, staying on the practice squad until finally seeing playing time last week.
Andrew Luck took a shot to Rogers down the field on the Colts’ first drive but left the ball short, allowing Pacman Jones to break it up. The splash play from Rogers came on Indianapolis’ first drive of the third quarter as the rookie took a short third-down slant from Luck, broke an ankle tackle, lowered his shoulder to bust another tackle and turned on the jets to reach the end zone. His strength was evident later in the game as well on a screen pass where he gained an extra three yards by never stopping his legs and he scored his second touchdown on a short screen that showed the Colts’ willingness to put the ball in his hands with a chance to make plays after the catch.
Rogers did have a late drop on a ball thrown behind him, but it hit him right in the hands and is a play that could have been made. With Reggie Wayne out for the season and Darrius Heyward-Bey finally benched, it was only a matter of time until Rogers got an opportunity to see heavy snaps and that is unlikely to change going forward. He has the talent to make big plays and draw coverage away from T.Y. Hilton, who has struggled with the extra defensive attention thrown his way since Wayne’s injury.
Justin Pugh (T-NYG)
A surprising first-round pick out of Syracuse, Pugh switched from left tackle to right tackle this year and has been starting for the Giants since Week 1. After a slow start to the season that included an awful performance against Carolina in Week 3 where he allowed 7 hurries and 2 sacks to Charles Johnson, the former All-Big East tackle has blossomed into New York’s best offensive lineman, which is as much a compliment to Pugh as it is an indictment on the team’s struggling line.
After allowing 24 hurries in the first five weeks of the season, Pugh has dropped that number to 11 pressures in his last eight games, a difference of over three per game. His run blocking has been outstanding over the last three weeks as well, opening up nice holes on the strong side for Andre Brown. On a negative note, Pugh allowed multiple pressures for the first time since Week 7 and struggled against Kendall Reyes, who is not having a good season for the Chargers.
Weighing just around 300 pounds, Pugh isn’t as big as most right tackles in the NFL and relies more on quickness than strength in his game. That hasn’t been a big issue for him so far but it’s part of the reason many scouts thought he would be better as a guard, as he shows good skills in motion and the ability to hit a moving target. His footwork still needs work as well but it’s tough to nitpick on Pugh with the struggles of other rookie offensive lineman around the NFL. He’s quickly validating his draft status and given the Giants hope along their offensive front that none of their other lineman are providing.
William Gholston (DE-TB)
Part of Tampa Bay’s second unit on the defensive line, Gholston has struggled in all facets of the NFL game so far in his rookie season. The cousin of Jets’ 2008 first-round bust Vernon Gholston, William showed flashes at Michigan State but struggled with a consistent motor much like his cousin. He played his best game of the season on Sunday against Buffalo however, recording two sacks in the Bucs’ rout of the Bills.
Gholston manhandled tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Kraig Urbik with strong bull rushes on a few plays, pushing Urbik back into E.J. Manuel for an easy sack early in the game and shoving Glenn backwards into C.J. Spiller to make a tackle for loss later in the game. Once engaged however, he showed the limited extension and pass rush moves that made him a fourth-round pick despite first-round physical ability. His second sack in the fourth quarter came on a stunt where he was able to use his athleticism to beat Glenn around the edge into a rolling Manuel.
Much like his college career, Gholston flashed a few times on tape but did little else of note in his 28 snaps last Sunday. While Tampa Bay would be very happy with these contributions on a consistent basis, it seems likely Gholston will go right back to his prior struggles. It’s always possible that Gholston could be turning a corner but he’s fooled scouts before with big performances and it’s right to remain skeptical until he proves he can perform at a high level for more than just one game.
Leon McFadden (CB-Cle)
McFadden stepped into more playing time against New England on Sunday after nickel back Christopher Owens was placed on injured reserve and had already been seeing more time as a safety in dime packages. He played more snaps against the Patriots (57) than he had all season (46) and predictably struggled in coverage, allowing 5 receptions on the day for 74 yards but McFadden tackled well to limit yards after the catch and finished with 7 tackles (4 solo).
The third-round pick from San Diego State got beat early by giving too much cushion to Josh Boyce and Rob Gronkowski underneath, but came up quickly to make stops after the catch and was solid defending the run as well. McFadden was exposed late however, getting beat by Julian Edelman on consecutive plays during the game-winning drive. Edelman ran a post each time and on both plays, McFadden froze on the break and allowed Edelman to get past him. He also picked up a crucial pass interference penalty in the end zone to set the Patriots up to score the game-winning touchdown with under 30 seconds left, making contact with Josh Boyce over 20 yards downfield and disrupting the route enough to draw the flag.
As a mid-round pick coming from a non-BCS school, McFadden needed some time to get up to speed with the NFL game and obviously still has some work to do in that respect. Going against Tom Brady is a tough first test for any cornerback though, let alone a rookie seeing his first significant playing time of the season. McFadden will look to bounce back next week and certainly has the athletic potential to improve in his late-season audition, although at 5-9 his height will likely always limit him to slot duty.
Jordan Poyer (CB-Cle)
With McFadden’s promotion to nickel packages, Poyer took over McFadden’s safety role in dime packages and played 26 snaps himself. A 7th-round pick that Draft Insider had rated as a late 3rd or early 4th rounder, he acquitted himself better than McFadden albeit in more limited playing time. He should see consistent snaps on passing downs too as the Browns play out the string on another non-playoff season.
While McFadden was picked on in slot coverage, Poyer didn’t allow any completions at all on 20 pass plays and played well against the run as well with 6 solo tackles. He did a nice job of quickly reading a first-down draw play to Shane Vereen and came up aggressively to make the stop after a short gain. Later on, Poyer did a nice job reading Brady’s eyes and coming off his route to make a tackle on Vereen after a short curl route.
It was an overall uneventful game for Poyer despite making plays in the running game, but his presence in the backfield in certain packages allowed T.J. Ward to play to his strengths in the box as an extra linebacker. His open field tackling skills looked improved from his Oregon State days and he showed the toughness and awareness that led many scouts to give him a mid-round grade. It’s early in his evaluation, but Poyer can stick in the NFL if he continues to play solid football and provide a good return on investment for the Browns in the 7th round.
Zeke Motta (S-Atl)
After starting free safety Thomas DeCoud left early against Green Bay with a head injury, Motta stepped in for the final three quarters and held his own, making 6 tackles (4 solo) and allowing just 28 yards on 4 completions through the air. A late 7th-round pick out of Notre Dame, Motta showed off his aggressive nature coming up the field that was on display often with the Fighting Irish.
Motta allowed a short touchdown to tight end Andrew Quarless, but had decent coverage on the play and was beat by a well-thrown back shoulder pass. Earlier in the game, he didn’t recognize Jordy Nelson coming into his zone and allowed an 18-yard reception over the middle, but was otherwise solid in pass coverage. Motta showed good recognition of play action and picked up tight end Ryan Taylor in the flat, delivering a solid hit that stopped Taylor in his tracks. The rookie also showed great burst toward the line of scrimmage to stuff Eddie Lacy in the backfield and while he didn’t finish the tackle himself, he held Lacy up long enough to allow the rest of the Atlanta defense to swarm to the ball.
Like most late-round picks, Motta has a specific niche at the NFL level and that’s his ability against the run. He has very good instincts and takes ball carriers down quickly on first contact with his aggressive nature. Motta does well covering in the short area but struggles outside the numbers and in man coverage over slot receivers. Despite his limitations, Motta belongs on an NFL roster and in the right situation, has potential as a classic strong safety with great size (6-2, 213) and run stopping skills.
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.