Week 5 of the NFL season brought us the same thing we see almost every week: Injuries to multiple running backs, and late-round picks and undrafted free agents unknown to the common fan making a name for themselves. Only one player drafted in the first 100 picks made the list this week, and Chris Tripodi returns to tell you who it was and break down what he saw from a few players taken outside the first three rounds that are making an impact for their teams.
Branden Oliver (RB-SD)
With the San Diego backfield beset by injuries to Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead and ineffectiveness from free-agent acquisition Donald Brown, Oliver provided Chargers fans with glimpses of another diminutive back that used to wear #43 in powder-and-blue, Darren Sproles. Standing at just 5-8, the undrafted Oliver took over after Brown suffered a first-half concussion against the Jets. After rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and adding 68 yards and another score on four receptions, Oliver is likely to take over as San Diego’s lead back until Mathews returns to the field, regardless of Brown’s status.
The former University of Buffalo star may look similar to Sproles, but there are two big differences in their skill sets. Oliver is a far sturdier runner on the inside, playing bigger than his height with a 208-pound frame and showing the tendency to fall forward and finish runs. Sproles, on the other hand, is purely a space back with the top-end speed to take plays to the house, while Oliver ran just a 4.56 at his pro day and doesn’t have that extra gear. Both of these differences were easy to spot on Oliver’s 52-yard run in the third quarter.
A patient runner who sets up his blocks before ducking behind his lineman to make himself difficult to locate, Oliver started the play running outside to the left of the formation. Oliver quickly changed direction to cut inside his blocks and showed nice burst to head up the seam, but was met by David Harris in the hole. Unfortunately for Harris, Oliver stiff-armed the lunging linebacker to the ground and burst into the secondary. While Sproles may have been stuffed for a short gain or taken this play to the house if he was able to break free, Oliver was eventually caught just outside New York’s 20-yard-line.
Oliver’s other long play came on a 50-yard reception where he had tons of space to work with in front of him. Oliver did use his quickness and shifty feet in the open field to make two Jets defenders miss before being dragged down from behind. It’s rare to see such a small back pushing the pile and carrying tacklers for extra yardage, but that’s exactly what Oliver has the ability to do. He uses his low leverage to his advantage and stayed lower than Jets safety Calvin Pryor on his second touchdown of the game, a nine-yard reception where Pryor met Oliver at the goal line and went for the big hit out of desperation. Oliver stayed lower than Pryor and bounced right off the tackle, showing incredible balance and core strength as well as top-notch technique for a small back.
The rookie from Buffalo displayed that balance earlier in the game as well after going to the air to make a catch, barely landing before being hit. It looked like he was about to go down, but Oliver used his left hand to keep himself up to gain a few extra yards on the play. Oliver runs like he’s burrowing through a hole in the ground, always keeping his legs moving and making sure he’s the low man upon contact. Mathews is due back soon and Oliver should inherit Woodhead’s old passing-down role when Mathews returns, but the injury-prone starter may not last the rest of the season even when he does return. Fortunately for San Diego, this undrafted gem shows enough skills running inside that he won’t be overmatched getting 15-20 carries per game if the team needs him in that role. With Philip Rivers already playing at an MVP level, Oliver should be continue to make an impact regardless of his role in the offense.
Andre Williams (RB-NYG)
After sporadic usage through the season’s first three games, Williams saw an increased role in Week 4, as the Giants played the Redskins just four days after giving starter Rashad Jennings over 30 carries. The fourth-round pick from Boston College ran for 66 yards and a touchdown, serving as a precursor to his Week 5 performance. Jennings suffered a sprained MCL in Sunday’s win over the Falcons, giving Williams an opportunity to take over as the team’s bellcow. Williams responded with another 65 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and should start the team’s next two games before New York heads into their Week 8 bye.
The first thing that’s evident when watching Williams is the power and violence he runs with. Williams is a smooth runner at 5-11, 230 pounds and shows surprising 4.5 speed as well, which he uses in conjunction with his size to punish defenders. The 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist is devastating at the second level, lowering his shoulder into defensive backs and running them over with ease to create extra yards. Williams even punishes defenders his own size as well, as he ran right through Falcons inside linebacker Paul Worrilow on his three-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
Not only is Williams a powerful runner who always falls forward, he also has quick feet in the backfield that he uses to change direction and slightly alter his path of attack. The former Boston College standout shows good patience on inside and outside running plays and obviously trusts his ability as a runner. Williams consistently breaks through first contact at the line of scrimmage, shows the speed to turn the corner and get into the secondary and loses very little momentum in and out of cuts.
The main knock on Williams coming out of college was his lack of pass-catching ability and while he caught two passes for 18 yards against Atlanta, he’s still a work in progress as a receiver. His first reception went for 14 yards, but Williams trapped the ball against his body before breaking first contact and running for the first down. His second catch went for just four yards in the right flat, but he extended to make a catch with just his hands, a promising look for a player most thought would never have an impact as a receiver. Williams has been better as a pass protector than as a receiver, but lacks experience as a blocker and needs to work on his skills in that area as well to keep Eli Manning upright and stay out of head coach Tom Coughlin’s doghouse.
Coughlin is usually tough on rookies, but said he is very confident giving Williams the ball. The rookie was on the field for 31 out of 37 snaps once Jennings was injured, proving that he has the trust of Coughlin and the coaching staff. Williams is a better pure runner than his fourth-round draft status would suggest and if he can continue to impress with patience, power and speed, he has a chance to play himself into 8-10 carries per game even when Jennings returns, likely after New York’s bye. Williams is the type of runner that can wear a defense down as the game goes on, and should prove to be extremely effective in the fourth quarter.
Odell Beckham Jr. (WR-NYG)
With new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo installing a West Coast offense heavily predicated on three-receiver sets, it was disappointing to see Beckham struggle with injuries during training camp and the preseason. Finally healthy after missing New York’s first four games of the season, the team’s first-round pick (12th overall) made an instant impact despite playing just over half of the Giants’ snaps in Week 5. The team originally planned on the rookie playing 20-30 snaps but his explosive ability was immediately evident, leading to Beckham seeing the field more than twice as much as fill-in third receiver Preston Parker.
Beckham was quiet in the first half, catching his only target for seven yards and a first down on a curl route. Beckham slipped coming out of his break, but was able to keep his feet and make the catch for a first down. With the Giants down 20-10 more than midway through the third quarter, though, the rookie burned Falcons cornerback Robert Alford down the left sideline, showing off his 4.4 speed in the process. An accurate throw from Eli Manning would have resulted in an 81-yard touchdown, but the throw landed out of bounds instead.
Manning and the Giants started to recognize the need to get Beckham more involved in the second half and continued to feed him the ball. The former LSU star stands just 5-11, 198 pounds, but understands how to avoid contact, uses his hands well at the line to keep defenders off his body and shows the awareness to cut crossing routes sharply to avoid contact over the middle. After eluding defenders in coverage, Beckham has the speed and acceleration to quickly create separation, which helped him draw a pass interference penalty in the second half and get to the sideline on a crossing route against a linebacker.
Beckham’s biggest impact came on the first drive of the fourth quarter, as he did a great job selling a deep route before gathering himself at the stem of a curl route to create separation, make an easy catch and gain a few yards after the play to get the Giants into Falcons territory. Six plays later, Beckham made his biggest play of the game to put New York ahead. Fighting through contact at the line and throughout the route, the rookie was able to stay on his feet while Manning lofted a jump ball to him in the end zone. Despite standing less than 6-0, Beckham showed off his ability to attack the ball in the air, letting the corner’s momentum take him beyond the catch point and high pointing a catch for the go-ahead touchdown. This clutch play allowed New York to decline the defensive holding penalty against Robert Alford, who was covering Beckham.
Every skill Beckham offers was on display against the Falcons, from his top-end speed, quickness and burst to his body control and ability to box defenders out with his frame in the air. He extended away from his body on multiple catches to show off his strong hands, and Giants fans are loving the upside Beckham showed in Week 5. The rookie is set for more snaps going forward and as long as he stays focused on the field in practice and on game days, Beckham has a bright future ahead of him and will be an asset to the New York offense.
Prince Shembo (LB-Atl)
An outside linebacker at Notre Dame, the Falcons drafted Shembo in the fourth round and shifted him to the inside of their 3-4 defense thanks to a lack of depth at the position. A prospect with off-the-field questions stemming from a 2010 sexual assault, Shembo’s stock was in limbo leading up to the draft before Atlanta grabbed him 139th overall. After seeing time off the bench in the first three weeks of the season, Shembo has started the past two games and filled up the box score against the Vikings and Giants. A week after he made eight tackles (four solo), Shembo upped the ante with 14 takedowns, including seven solo stops, against New York in Week 5.
While Shembo was very involved against the run, the Giants also ran over 70 offensive plays, which helped him pad his stats. Just three of his tackles came on plays that gained less than three yards, and only one of those was a solo stop. This is a classic case of film telling a different story than the box score, as even Shembo’s late solo tackle that stopped a play for one yard was him guiding Andre Williams out of bounds after a teammate slowed him up. While many of the rookie’s tackles were ineffective, he did show some skills that could help him make more of an impact for the rest of the season.
At 6-0, 253 pounds, Shembo has the size to play inside and take on blocks, which he did well against the Giants. He used his hands well to keep blockers off his body and was only taken out of plays when he was caught standing straight up. Shembo showed good discipline in sticking with his assignments, keeping gap integrity and following his keys. On one play in the second half, Giants right guard John Jerry pulled to the left looking for a kickout block to spring Andre Williams off tackle. Shembo attacked Jerry’s pull on Jerry’s outside shoulder, setting the edge and forcing Williams to stay inside. Multiple Falcons swarmed to the ball and stopped Williams for two yards, while Shembo only picked up an assist coming back into the play late. This was one of his best plays of the game from a team defense perspective, yet one barely reflected on the stat sheet.
The former Notre Dame star was also effective reading and reacting to plays, but lacks special speed or athleticism to make big plays in the backfield from an inside alignment. He showed reliable tackling ability by not missing a tackle during the game, filled holes and gaps nicely and used his strength and toughness to fight through blockers to get involved in the action. Shembo lacks great potential but has the skill set to be an effective “thumper” in the 3-4, taking on blocks to free up teammates to make plays while showing an ability to make plays on his own as well. While his play on the field didn’t quite match the box score against the Giants, Shembo has played well overall this season and should continue to see the bulk of the snaps next to Paul Worrilow on the inside.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews along with interviewing NFL prospects. He has worked as a regional scout for Optimum Scouting since 2013, writes Jets-related content for Pro Football Spot and previously worked on a college football project at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft, and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.
Michigan State’s safety Kurtis Drummond has really turned it up after a tough outing against Oregon. He was splendid against Nebraska, tallying 9 tackles, breaking up 1 pass and blowing up a play late in the first half which resulted in Ameer Abdullah fumbling the ball and ending a Cornhusker scoring drive. Questions surround Drummond’s skill in man coverage and his ability to play over the slot receiver. Its something that may not be answered until the Senior Bowl, assuming Drummond receives then accepts an invitation.
Chaz Green seems a bit dinged up from his ankle injury several weeks ago but the Florida tackle displayed his versatility against Tennessee. Usually lining up on the left side, Green moved to the strong side and did a solid job run blocking.
After Michael Dyer rushed for 1242-yards as a sophomore during the 2011 campaign, which came on the heels of his record setting 1093-yard freshman season, many pegged him as a first rounder. I never bought into that opinion. Dyer was eventually dismissed from the Auburn program, transferred to Louisville and for a variety of reasons has never regained a starting job. He’s carried the ball 26 times for 65-yards (2.5-yard average) in three games this season. Dyer was a wait for the hole to open ball carrier with average physical skills and was never anything more than late round material on a good day.
Jaelen Strong/WR/Arizona State: I was cool towards Strong entering the season as I saw no single distinguishing skill in his game yet the junior has put together a string of dominating performances in the early going. The latest was against USC in which Strong caught 10 passes for 202-yards and 3-touchdowns, the last score being the game clinching 46-yard Hail Mary. Strong is not a true deep threat but catches the ball well and wins out for contested passes. I’ll hold final judgment until his true size/speed numbers are recorded but must admit Strong has definitely improved his draft stock this season.
Josh Harper/WR/Fresno State: Harper entered the season stamped as an early round prospect and thus far the senior has lived up to expectations. His numbers during the Bulldogs victory over San Diego State included 5 receptions for 76 yards. Harper has performed well against top competition in the early going including USC (6 receptions), Utah (6 receptions) and Nebraska (9 receptions). He’s accounted for almost 30% of Fresno State’s receiving production and is presently graded as a third round prospect.
Sammie Coates/WR/Auburn: Despite struggling with a knee injury Coates has excited scouts with his big play ability in 2014. Sized well, the junior plays strong as well as fast, winning out in battles but at the same time beating opponents down field for long gainers. He tallied 4 receptions for 144-yards (36-yards per catch) with one score in his most recent effort against LSU. Coates is fluid on the field and deceptively fast. He has the physical skills and upside to develop into a second receiver for an NFL team.
Akeem Hunt/RB/Purdue: During my Big Ten rankings I described Hunt as a diminutive ball carrier but a gamer with home run hitting speed. Illinois experienced what I was talking about on Saturday as Hunt burnt the Illini for 177-rushing yards and 1 score while also leading Purdue with 4 receptions. Hunt is averaging 5.9-yards per carry this season, leads the Boilermakers with 22 catches and has seen duty returning kicks. He’s not very tall (5-feet/8-inches and 185 pounds) but plays big and has a style similar to Darren Sproles.
Benardrick McKinney/LB/Mississippi State: The stats were nothing spectacular as McKinney recorded 9 tackles including one for a loss, posted 1 sack and broke up a single pass. What was impressive Saturday was his play in space, the was he played assignment football and how McKinney was never caught out of position. He did well in the middle, on the outside in two linebacker sets and oozed an understanding of what was happening during the Bulldogs blowout victory over Texas A&M. McKinney is more forceful than fast and a difference maker in the front seven. When asked if McKinney will enter the draft sources tell me, “he’s gone.”
Taiwan Jones/LB/Michigan State: Prior to the season I raved about Jones, referring to him as the hidden gem on the Spartans defense. The senior is a secret no more and looked outstanding during State’s win over Nebraska. He led the team with 10 tackles, including 3 for loss and added a sack. More importantly Jones was the main ingredient in holding the Cornhuskers Ameer Abdullah to just 45 yards. Abdullah had averaged 166-yards in Nebraska’s first five games this year. Jones displayed great skill in space last season when he lined up on the outside and the ability he’s showing as an interior run defender in 2014 is only improving his draft stock.
Bobby McCain/CB/Memphis: Looking for a sleeper at the cornerback position? Keep an eye on Bobby McCain of Memphis. To date McCain has recorded 3 interceptions and another 3 pass break-ups in the Tigers five games. Included is a 2 INT performance against Mississippi. He’s a feisty 195-pound corner with excellent ball skills but average height (under 5-feet/10-inches) and ordinary speed (4.5s). McCain is a late round prospect with potential as a nickel/dime back in the NFL.
Sleeper- Clayton Geathers/S/Central Florida: Geathers entered the season stamped as a free agent prospect by scouts but has since elevated his game. In four games this year the senior posted 35 tackles and during UCF’s conference victory over Houston last week he intercepted 1 pass while breaking up 2 more. He’s a forceful safety best in the box and plays with a special teams mentality.
Small School Prospect- Darius Allen/OLB-DPR/CSU-Pueblo: Allen was graded as a street free agent by scouts but they may want to rethink that opinion. In five games this season Allen has registered 4.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. He small (under 6-feet/2-inches and 240-pounds) yet has shown the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage throughout his college career. I’m still not sure Allen gets drafted but feel he could make a roster as a designated pass rusher/special teams player.
Jeff Driskel/QB/Florida: Driskel was the number one rated high school quarterback prospect out of high school and displayed next level skill early in his Gator career but its been all downhill since his injury last season. The most recent evidence was Saturday as Driskel could not move the Gators offense and was pulled from the game after completing under 50% of his passes, throwing three pick and getting sacked three times. He has the necessary physical skills to play in the NFL but the intangibles and signal caller intelligence are lacking.
Thomas Teal/DT/North Carolina State: Early in his career Teal looked like a legitimate next level prospect but his game has leveled off the past two seasons and in some ways regressed. He was dominated during the Florida State game, finishing with one tackle. Teal flashes ability but need to consistently play at a high level for any chance of making a roster.
After highlighting the rookie quarterbacks last week, including Vikings first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, this week’s Rookie Report focuses on two of Bridgewater’s teammates in Minnesota. Anthony Barr was taken ninth overall and was fully expected to start and see a heavy snap count early in his career, but third-round pick Jerick McKinnon was stuck behind Adrian Peterson on the depth chart with no upward movement in sight. Peterson’s legal troubles have opened up snaps for McKinnon, and the talented rookie took advantage this week. Chris Tripodi returns again to break down Barr, McKinnon and a few other first-round picks who impressed him in Week 4.
Jerick McKinnon (RB-Min)
A freak athlete who played mostly as a triple-option quarterback at FCS school Georgia Southern, the 5-9, 209-pound McKinnon’s top performances in almost every event at the NFL Scouting Combine boosted his stock into the third round, where he was drafted as the Vikings’ potential heir apparent to Peterson. Peterson’s absence from the team has given McKinnon an opportunity to play while sharing the backfield with Matt Asiata, but the dynamic rookie hadn’t touched the ball more than four times until Week 4, when he turned 18 carries and a reception into 152 total yards as the Vikings ran the ball 44 times against the Falcons.
On his first touch of the game, McKinnon ripped off a 55-yard run on a draw play. He had a huge hole up the middle and easily reached the second level, accelerating quickly past a safety who was playing near the line of scrimmage. McKinnon then used his quick feet to cut outside the cornerback, who was subsequently shielded by Cordarelle Patterson as a result of McKinnon’s vision. Instead of heading right for the sideline, McKinnon waited patiently to set up Patterson’s next block, cutting inside at just the right moment to break a weak attempt at an arm tackle and quickly stopping to allow a pursuing defender to overrun him before going down a few yards later. This run opened the eyes of the Minnesota coaching staff enough to allow the rookie to essentially trade drives with Asiata for the rest of the game.
McKinnon continued to show impressive patience throughout the game, resisting the temptation to bounce plays all the way to the sideline with his home-run speed and waiting to set up his blocks before quickly accelerating through open lanes. He showed an effective jump cut in the backfield to quickly square himself into holes developing away from the play’s initial script. McKinnon was decisive once he took the handoff, cutting just once before attacking the line and refusing to dance behind the line of scrimmage like many backs with his skills. Once in the hole, he showed excellent foot quickness to set up defenders and create hesitation that gained him extra yardage along with the ability to stay skinny in tight spaces and take on tacklers with surprising power.
The Vikings’ staff again took notice of his effectiveness, trusting him as the workhorse on the offense’s final two drives while nursing a seven-point and a 10-point lead. It’s obvious from watching McKinnon run that he has great trust in his own skills, allowing him to be patient yet decisive as holes open up. While the Falcons’ defense is one of the league’s worst, McKinnon still impressed with his skill set and showed that the talent gap between him and Asiata is vast. Asiata will still receive at least half of the workload as the bigger and more veteran back, but McKinnon is a playmaker this offense needs to utilize to help Bridgewater in Peterson’s absence. Despite his struggles as a receiver (three drops compared to five receptions) and his inexperience in pass protection, McKinnon should continue to see the field thanks to his skills with the ball in his hands. And if he can improve in the passing game, there’s a legitimate chance the Vikings may feature him over Asiata later in the season.
Eric Ebron (TE-Det)
Tight ends usually don’t command top-10 picks in the NFL Draft, but Ebron’s talent level enticed the Lions to spend their 10th overall pick on the former North Carolina star, who was the first tight end drafted that high since Vernon Davis went sixth in 2006. Draft Insider had Ebron as its 10th-ranked player of last year’s class despite issues with focus and concentration that led to some easy drops with the Tar Heels. At 6-4, 265 with 4.6 speed and an explosive 10-foot broad jump, it was easy for Detroit to deem his issues fixable. Second-year tight end Joseph Fauria’s Week 4 absence gave Ebron a chance to increase his snap count Sunday against the Jets.
After playing just over one-third of his team’s plays in the first three weeks, Ebron was on the field for 34 of 66 snaps in Sunday’s game. Lined up mainly as an outside or slot receiver with Brandon Pettigrew playing the inline role, Ebron was targeted four times by Matthew Stafford, all in the second quarter as the Lions ran more in the second half to sit on a two-score lead. Their first attempted connection was either a miscommunication or a throwaway, as Stafford overthrew Ebron up the left sideline. Covered well, Ebron slowed his route but Stafford’s pass from a collapsing pocket landed a few yards out of bounds. This was most likely a ball thrown away, with some far-fetched hope that Ebron could make a spectacular play like he did many times in college or it would fall incomplete.
Ebron’s next two targets were short curl routes, and the first was a double catch where Ebron did show good concentration to secure the pass as he fell to the ground bobbling the ball. On the second, Ebron caught the pass and used his strength to bull forward for extra yardage against the much smaller Darrin Walls. Two plays later, Ebron made his best catch of the game. Flexed out in the left slot, Ebron ran a seam route as the Jets left the deep middle of the field open, running David Harris down the field with his back to Ebron. Recognizing Harris’ back was to the ball, Stafford ripped a beautiful bullet pass behind Ebron to avoid the linebacker. Ebron’s adjustment was just as impressive, showing deft footwork to plant his front foot and the body control to turn his torso to the ball while reaching and making a strong grab through contact from Harris. That catch put the Lions up 17-3 shortly before halftime against a Jets’ team that was struggling to score and gave the Lions some much-needed cushion.
With extended playing time, Ebron was highly impressive in Week 4, albeit against a team that generally struggles to cover tight ends. Fauria is a great red-zone target, but Ebron is a dynamic receiving option who should see his role continue to expand as the season goes on. Along with Golden Tate, Ebron did a great job keeping the Lions’ offense on track with Calvin Johnson playing the decoy role at far less than 100 percent. The Lions continue to look strong at 3-1 early in the season and if this game proves to be a springboard towards more production from Ebron, they may not fall off that pace as they did last season.
C.J. Mosley (LB-Bal)
Despite racking up 16 tackles and two pass breakups in his first two games this season and playing well in run defense, Mosley struggled in coverage like most rookie linebackers do when they first reach the NFL and also missed three tackles. Baltimore’s first-round pick in the 2014 draft bounced back with two strong games in coverage against Cleveland and Carolina over the past two weeks and cleaned up his tackling as well, missing no tackles in those two games and coming up with 13 stops out of 17 total tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Against the Panthers, just one of his 11 tackles came more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage and Mosley could always be found around the football.
Despite being the second inside linebacker drafted this year, Mosley was the top-ranked ‘backer on the Draft Insider big board. He lacks the speed and athleticism of Ryan Shazier, who went two picks earlier to Pittsburgh, but is a more fundamentally sound linebacker with the strength and hands to take on blocks. Against the Panthers, Mosley was aggressive playing downhill and taking on blockers with violent hands, showing nice extension to keep his line of vision open and great strength to shed blocks once he located the ball. His initial footwork after the snap is very polished and helps him maintain correct pursuit angles. The former Alabama star also showed great awareness of down-and-distance as well, knowing when he needed to aggressively come upfield to stop running backs short of the sticks while patiently waiting for runners to commit to a hole before filling himself in long-yardage situations.
Two examples of this came on separate Carolina draw plays, one in the first half and one in the second. The first came on an early third-and-seven, where Mosley avoided false steps and took a good angle in the direction of the play. Knowing where he was on the field, Mosley waited for Panthers running back Darrin Reaves to commit to the hole before filling and stopping the scatback in his tracks two yards in front of the marker. Later on, Mosley read a first-and-10 draw from the shotgun and filled the hole immediately as an unblocked defender. The first-year linebacker then showed off his fundamentally sound technique by staying square to the line and exploding his hips violently into Reaves before driving him in into the ground. His recognition of each situation allowed him to make the best play available while avoiding any big risks.
While Mosley combines textbook technique against the run with enough strength and athleticism to find ways to the football, he’s also improving his drops and instincts in coverage. His footwork again comes into play here, as he flips his hips quickly into his drop while keeping his eyes on the quarterback to watch the play. Mosley isn’t a great pass rusher on the inside and will be used in coverage often, so his improving skills in that regard bode well for his future as a three-down player. His awareness is also excellent against the pass as well, as Mosley made a nice play getting his hands up to deflect a ball at the line of scrimmage after he was stopped on a blitz.
As a smart linebacker with incredible instincts and no holes in his game, Mosley has stepped right into the middle of Baltimore’s defense and made an immediate impact for a unit allowing just 3.3 yards per carry despite facing two top-10 rushing attacks (Pittsburgh, Cleveland) and another ranked in the league’s top half (Cincinnati). Injury concerns were really the only knock on his draft stock throughout the process, like with many Alabama players, and as long as Mosley stays on the field, he should continue to be a menace against the strong running games of the AFC North. If the Steelers could have the 15th overall pick to do all over again, they’d be smart to take Mosley over Shazier.
Anthony Barr (LB-Min)
After a very impressive debut in Week 1 against the Rams, Barr has remained consistent over the past three weeks and has at least five total tackles in each of his first four career games. Billed as a potentially dominant pass rusher coming out of UCLA, Barr made the first two sacks of his career in the last two games but has been most impressive playing the run as the team’s strong-side linebacker, using his size (6-5, 255) to set the edge more effectively than many who thought he needed to be in a 3-4 to thrive expected. In Week 4 against Atlanta, Barr had six tackles (five solo) along with his second sack against the Falcons, continuing his strong play.
Most of his tackles last week came on running backs in the passing game, but the former Bruin has actually struggled in coverage since the opening week. Barr has done a nice job of keeping plays in front of him, but his instincts are still raw and have kept him from being as aggressive as necessary in man coverage. In the first quarter, his coverage key was fellow rookie Devonta Freeman out of the backfield. Instead of reacting immediately when Freeman released into the flat, Barr chopped his feet in place. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan recognized this and immediately dumped the ball to Freeman, who would have gotten a first down if he didn’t slip on the play. Instead, it was a six-yard gain setting up third-and-short. On a second-and-six play in the third quarter, Barr found himself 10 yards off the line of scrimmage as Steven Jackson made an in cut just in front of the first-down marker for an easy catch and first down. Barr came up quickly to make the tackle, and he’s been very solid in that respect, but he still doesn’t trust himself to come up aggressively on short routes by running backs.
Despite those coverage issues, the rookie’s closing speed has been very impressive and that continued against the Falcons. On the final play of the third quarter, Barr chased Devonta Freeman down on a play run to the other side of the formation. Barr fought through a block on his way to the ball and showed the combination of speed and strength that made him a top-10 pick. The rookie showed that explosiveness on the previous drive by blowing up pulling guard Jon Asamoah on Antone Smith’s 48-yard touchdown run, but his aggressive allowed Smith to get around the edge. Barr laid into Asamoah with his inside shoulder and knocked him to the ground, but Smith used his speed to get outside of the failed block before Barr could recover. Smith was able to cut back inside his receiver’s block on the outside and take the play to the house. If Barr had altered his angle to beat Asamoah to the spot and force Smith back inside, the play likely would have been stopped before the first-down marker, let alone the end zone.
While Barr has shown his share of inconsistency, he came up with one of the biggest plays of the game for the Vikings on a third-and-12 in the fourth quarter. His man-coverage key was running back Jacquizz Rodgers and when Rodgers stayed in to help pass protect, Barr saw an opportunity to make a play. His delayed blitz up the middle was unblocked and his closing speed flashed on tape again, as Barr was able to get to Ryan before he could react to the pressure, taking him down for a big sack to force a punt and preserve the Vikings’ seven-point lead.
Barr is still a raw player in a lot of ways, but his talent is exceptional and has allowed him to be a positive piece of the Vikings’ defense so far in 2014. With continued development and improving instincts in the passing game, Barr has the potential to be a complete, three-down linebacker who can make an impact in every facet of the game and have a very long NFL career. Defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer has to be ecstatic over his progress thus far.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter to talk football and the NFL Draft.