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.
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A lot of points were scored this weekend by teams at the top of the national rankings yet despite this defensive prospects reign supreme atop the Risers list. Before we proceed with Week Five Risers & Sliders its time to revisit a few players spoken about over the summer.
Just after the 2014 draft I penned a story on Stanford linebacker James Vaughters, a terrific athlete who must start making more plays on the field. Off the Army game sources who attended the contest informed me they like Vaughters but feel he’s out of position in Stanford’s 3-4 alignment and is better suited for a traditional 43 defense. Ironically this weekend against Washington the senior linebacker had his best game of the season, notching a team leading 9 tackles (almost doubling his total for 2014) and adding 2 tackles for loss. Vaughters is a talent; whether or not he gets any post-season scouting consideration is another story, but I fully expect him to make an NFL roster next fall in one form or another.
Staying on the linebacker theme, I’ve raved about Benardick McKinney since he was a red-shirt freshman at Mississippi State and believe he has top 32 potential in the draft. He’s a powerful linebacker who forces the action up the field, something that was on display during the Bulldogs victory over LSU two Saturday’s ago. The next two games on the schedule include Texas A&M then Auburn, teams that may penalize McKinney if he’s too quick moving up the field. Both games will challenge the talented defender who must prove he’s effective making plays in reverse and in open space.
Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson was someone I pointed to in June during my Mountain West preview, referring to the strong armed passer as a poor man’s Blake Bortles. That prediction looked foolish after the first two games of the season as well as the first half of Saturday’s game against Boston College, all situations where Grayson struggled. The light seemingly went on during the second half against BC as Grayson recovered from a pair of first quarter interceptions then led CSU to an upset victory. For the day Grayson completed 65% of his throws for 268-yards with 2 scores. Not on the stat sheet was the way he took control of the offense, directing four scoring drives starting in late in the second half on enemy territory. Grayson’s known for his vertical passing ability but was able to dink and dunk his team down the field, taking what was given to him rather than forcing passes into coverage. From a physical standpoint Grayson possesses the skills required of a top 100 pick but questions surround his classroom habits and there are concerns he’ll struggle digesting a complicated playbook. Regardless, he’s a good senior quarterback prospect few are talking about.
Alex Carter/CB/Stanford: Carter’s star continues to shine as the junior has displayed great improvement this season. During Stanford’s critical conference victory over Washington, he shut down Husky receivers and came up big during the closing moments of the game, breaking up several passes to go along with five tackles. Carter possesses excellent size and plays strong, physical football. Numerous west coast sources tell me Carter will enter the draft and he’s expected to slot into the top 100 selections.
Danny Shelton/DT/Washington: Scouts have been raving about Shelton all season and the senior did not disappoint during the loss to Stanford. He finished with seven tackles, recovered one fumble and was relentless in his pursuit of the action all game. After five games this season Shelton leads the Husky defense in total tackles (46), tackles for loss (10) as well as sacks (7). In the midst of a career season, Shelton’s playmaking skill has elevated his draft stock.
Jordan Jenkins/OLB/Georgia: With all the available talent at the linebacker position on the Georgia roster, Jenkins is often the forgotten man yet he’s one of the better defensive prospects for the Bulldogs. His play in the third quarter against Tennessee turned the tide of the game. Jenkins started early in the quarter with a drive killing sack then later forced quarterback Justin Worley to the sidelines with a ferocious hit. For the game Jenkins had 5 tackles and 2 tackles for loss to go along with his sack. He’s forceful, athletic and projects as a third round pick.
Tavon Young/CB/Temple: Young opened the scoring for Temple with a 93-yard interception return in the first quarter of the Owls 26-point victory over UConn. That makes three picks in four games this season for Young who’s developing into a terrific prospect. Sporadically used in the starting line-up the prior two seasons, Young offers opportunistic ball skills and the junior projects well as a dime back for the next level.
David Cobb/RB/Minnesota: Prior to the season I mentioned how surprising it was Cobb receives little mention in the scouting community. The senior is considered a street free agent by most scouts while I stamped him as a potential seventh round choice. Cobb stole the show during the Gophers shellacking of Michigan, totaling 183 yards on 32 carries. Prior to the game the Wolverines fielded one of the better run defenses in the conference. Cobb is a big-bodied (220lbs) ball carrier who pounds opponents on the inside while offering enough short area quickness to make defenders miss. He’s more of a interior ball carrier/short yardage back but possesses enough skill to make a roster in the NFL.
Sleeper of the Week: Kevin Byard/S/Middle Tennessee: In the age when a safety in the NFL must be able to show versatility, the junior from MTSU is one to watch. In five games this season Byard has posted a team leading 3 interceptions and ranks second on the squad with 27 tackles. He’s a three down defensive back with the ability to play the pass sideline-to-sideline as well as thrash opposing ball carriers up the field.
Small School Prospect: Nick Boyle/TE/Delaware: The Blue Hens were victorious over conference foe James Madison and Boyle was a big factor in the game. He led all Delaware receivers with 5 receptions (48 yards) and his blocking helped the team rush for 168 yards. Boyle is not fast enough to stretch the seam rather a throwback tight end dependable catching the ball in the short and intermediate field as well as dominating defenders at the point of attack blocking.
Devin Gardner/QB/Michigan: Initially Gardner was suppose to be on our Sliders list a week ago but was given one Saturday’s reprieve due to space consideration. The fact he was benched against Minnesota forced the issue but the bottom line is Gardner has been terrible this season. The senior was given a middle round grade from scouts who view him solely as a quarterback at the next level yet at this point no one can argue he deserves to be drafted.
A week before the regular season was set to begin, none of the four quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft were starting for their teams. The Jaguars still planned to sit Blake Bortles for the entire season (or as long as possible), Johnny Manziel was beaten out by veteran Brian Hoyer, Teddy Bridgewater was ready to learn behind Matt Cassel and Derek Carr was behind Matt Schaub on paper, although reports of him being the likely starter were already circulating and confirmed just a few days later.
After Week 3, three of those four quarterbacks are now starting for their respective teams, thanks to Chad Henne’s ineffectiveness and Cassel’s foot injury that will keep him out for a while. We can expect to see Bortles, Bridgewater and Carr under center for the rest of the season, and Chris Tripodi breaks down what they did well in Week 3 as well as where they need to improve.
Blake Bortles (QB-Jac)
After a decent Week 1 performance in which Jacksonville held an early 17-point lead, Jaguars starting quarterback Chad Henne imploded in Week 2 against the Redskins. His offensive line, arguably the worst in football, did him no favors by allowing 10 sacks, but some of those were on Henne holding the ball too long as well. Down 30-0 at halftime of Week 3 against the Colts, Henne was benched after throwing for just 30 yards in the first half while the Jaguars’ offense was completely lifeless. Enter Bortles, who was supposed to sit for the entire season even though the Jags picked him third overall, to start the second half.
A strong preseason performance initially fueled the fire towards Bortles getting a shot to play this season, and with Henne stifling the offense’s ability to move the football, the timetable was accelerated again. The plan was to let Bortles develop on the bench, but once Gus Bradley and company realized that plan could stunt the development of the offense around him, they decided it was time to make the move. The initial plan was smart because while Bortles’ skill set was worthy of a top-three pick, he is still rough around the edges.
At 6-5, 230 with the athleticism to break the pocket, Bortles fits the prototypes for both size and athleticism at the quarterback position in today’s NFL. Despite his solid frame, his balls tend to lose velocity beyond 15 yards downfield, and it’s because his footwork is a work in progress. Watching Bortles in the preseason was impressive, as he seemed to have ironed out some of his footwork issues and was using his lower half effectively to drive the ball downfield and to the sideline. That was against vanilla defenses, however, and these issues were still present in the second half Sunday against Indianapolis.
Jacksonville ran almost twice as many plays from the shotgun as they did under center, and Bortles’ issues in his lower half were far more prevalent when dropping back from under center. When setting up his base, Bortles showed a tendency to bring his front foot too close to his body, keeping his back leg stiff and causing him to lean back and throw off his back foot. He threw multiple passes that ended up short down the sideline as a result, one of which ended up as his first interception of the day. Bortles’ lack of lower-body torque also led to him throwing all arm on a few plays, many of which were either left low or behind his intended target, leading to incompletions and limited yards-after-catch opportunities.
It wasn’t all bad for Bortles, and there were plenty of positives about his debut. He injected life into the Jagaurs’ offense in the second half with his ability to threaten the deep and intermediate zones on the field and also to escape pressure. While his tendency to lock onto receivers too quickly before scanning the entire field allowed the Indianapolis safeties to make plays on the ball, he generally showed nice awareness and anticipation even if the results of the play didn’t show it. On a screen pass, Bortles held the ball for an extra beat rather than releasing it, which prevented the ball from being knocked down at the line of scrimmage with a rusher in the passing lane. Fellow rookie Allen Robinson was his favorite target on the day and their chemistry was apparent, as Bortles trusted him to be where he was supposed to be and threw him into open areas a few times, one being a dime dropped in between three Colts defenders.
Bortles reacted well to edge pressure on most plays when he could step up in the pocket, but didn’t sense Bjoern Werner’s presence on his third-quarter fumble that would have been a safety if not for an illegal contact penalty on the Colts. That play by Werner may have been payback for one earlier in the half, where Bortles bootlegged left out of play-action only to be met by Werner. Rather than panicking and getting sacked, Bortles recognized the pressure, spun back to the right and rolled out to find his fullback for a 26-yard gain. That one play encompassed the potential in Bortles’ game: Spacial awareness, the athleticism to extend plays and the ability to gather his feet underneath him and throw accurately on the run.
The Jaguars also used the zone-read effectively with Bortles in the game, and while the Colts likely did not prepare at all during the week to face such plays, future teams will which should open up passing windows for Bortles in the short and intermediate field off backfield fakes. While a smaller quarterback like Robert Griffin III is at increased risk of injury using the zone read, Bortles’ size should help protect him better when he runs. The former Central Florida star is also a passer first when he’s on the move, and does a nice job of keeping his eyes downfield looking to make a play with his arm before running only when forced.
One thing is for sure about Bortles, and it’s that he’s a much better option than Henne. That was the case from the start, but the Jaguars knew as well as anybody who extensively scouted Bortles at UCF that he was raw and needed time to work on his footwork. Putting him behind an offensive line in shambles is a somewhat scary thought, but there’s no reason to think Bortles will become the next Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert saw ghosts even in college, while Bortles has enough mobility to break the pocket when necessary and the size to protect himself on the run. He will definitely take his share of lumps this season, but the Jacksonville offense will look much better with him under center.
If Bortles eventually works out the kinks in his lower half and learns to scan the field and look off safeties, the natural talent is there for him to live up to the expectations bestowed upon him as the No. 3 overall pick. Jets quarterback Geno Smith had similar footwork issues under center in his rookie season, and despite his poor performance Monday night against the Bears, Smith looks like a much improved quarterback since Week 14 of last season than he did in his first 12 career games. Bortles’ development could follow a similar path, except he has young, exciting weapons to work with on offense.
Teddy Bridgewater (QB-Min)
Despite being drafted 29 picks after Bortles with the final pick of Day 1, Teddy Bridgewater was expected to make starts this season barring a Matt Cassel career renaissance. While Cassel was playing better than Henne, he fractured several bones in his foot early in the second quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Saints and was quickly ruled out for the game. With Cassel set to miss an extended period of time, the Vikings should be Bridgewater’s team for the rest of the season even if Cassel returns to full health. If his performance Sunday against the Saints is any indication, Minnesota should be in good hands.
Bridgewater’s first pass came under duress, as he backed away from pressure to sling a pass off his back foot to Greg Jennings along the right sideline. Unlike Bortles, however, the poor mechanics shown on this play by Bridgewater were not indicative of a larger issue, just a reaction to the play in front of him. Aggressive defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brought pressure again on the next play from scrimmage, and Bridgewater calmly found safety valve Matt Asiata wide open in the flat for a long gain.
The former Louisville star was under pressure for most of the game as Ryan dialed up blitz after blitz to try and force the rookie into mistakes, but Bridgewater’s mobility in the pocket allowed him to extend plays while his poise and calm demeanor kept him from making dangerous throws into coverage. His worst throw came on a third-and-five from the Saints 22-yard line, when he fired a pass way too hard into traffic intended for Matt Asiata on a quick diamond-in, getting Asiata nailed in the process.
Bridgewater’s best play of the game also came on a third-and-short play against the blitz. Ryan brought the house on third-and-one, recognizing that he needed to force Bridgewater to do something out of character to keep the Vikings from picking up the first down. The rookie calmly slid back in the pocket away from the incoming defenders, giving the speedy Cordarelle Patterson time to separate from Kendrick Lewis on a short middle cross before lofting a beautiful touch pass over the defensive line to Patterson for a two-yard gain and a first down.
The rookie was mostly limited to short passes on the day thanks to a combination of Ryan’s blitz packages forcing the ball out quickly, his comfort level on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and the limited playbook the coaching staff was using with their backup quarterback in the game. Bridgewater did make a few throws over 15 yards down the field, both to Greg Jennings. The first came on a play-action pass where the rookie quarterback had plenty of time to throw and hit Jennings in stride on a deep crossing pattern for 30 yards. Bridgewater tried to hit Jennings deep down the right sideline on the next throw, slightly overthrowing him to the boundary. One of the main knocks on Bridgewater during the draft process was leaving his deep balls short, and while that wasn’t the issue on this particular throw, Bridgewater did have to put his entire body into the throw to power it downfield. It’s something to watch for in the coming weeks, at least.
His aforementioned athleticism and pocket mobility didn’t just make Bridgewater effective avoiding pressure, but also extending plays on rollouts and throwing on the move after play-action. On the first drive of the third quarter, Bridgewater rolled right after play-action and placed a perfect ball on the move to Patterson for a nice sideline catch for 14 yards. Later in the game, Bridgewater used his elusiveness to make three Saints defenders miss in the backfield before escaping and lofting a ball to Jerick McKinnon in between two defenders, which was dropped.
Overall, Bridgewater did a great job of recognizing pressure, stepping up when it came off the edge and not being afraid to move into a hit to complete the play. His footwork was very polished and impressive and while he avoided risky throws in favor of dump-offs at times, he wasn’t afraid to push the ball into the intermediate range of the field when opportunities presented themselves. Bridgewater did a nice job of picking and choosing his spots, finishing 12-for-20 for 150 yards in just under three quarters of play. A good example of this was a late third-and-five where Bridgewater was pressured and could’ve dumped it off to McKinnon in the flat but eschewed the flat pass that wouldn’t have gotten the first down, instead stepping up away from pressure and trying to hit Jennings beyond the first-down marker. The pass was incomplete, but showed that Bridgewater has the situational awareness to know when checking down against pressure isn’t his best option.
There were a lot of positives to take out of Bridgewater’s debut and few negatives, as his pocket presence seemed to improve as he got more comfortable with the flow of the game. He was very composed against heavy pressure and showed a willingness to take what the defense gave him, while at the same time looking to make a bigger play when possible. Working under Norv Turner should aid Bridgewater’s development, as will having a veteran target like Jennings and an explosive weapon like Patterson who can create big plays without the ball being pushed downfield. If Bridgewater can hit a few more intermediate and deep throws in the coming weeks and continue to take care of the football, his future will be as bright as it once looked when he was touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick.
Derek Carr (QB-Oak)
Unlike Bortles and Bridgewater, Carr started both of the Raiders’ first two games this season, meaning he wasn’t just thrown into the fire this past week against New England. While at Fresno State, Carr threw on almost every play from scrimmage, which included a large amount of screen passes and short routes that served as the Bulldogs’ de facto running game. The Raiders, recognizing Carr’s familiarity with the short passing game, have kept him in a similar role so far in his rookie season. While Carr has completed 68 of his 108 passes in three games this year, he hasn’t averaged more than 10 yards per completion in any game.
The reasoning behind this gameplan could lie in the Raiders’ general lack of talent on offense, but it could also be that Carr isn’t ready to consistently threaten defenses down the field. While his footwork in clean pockets has been fine so far, he still doesn’t react well to pressure, particularly in the A and B gaps. On a third-and-10 play early in the second quarter, the Patriots’ blitz was picked up well by the Raiders’ protection but Carr, who started with a short drop out of the shotgun, bailed five yards backwards and completed a three-yard pass to Mychal Rivera. The ball had to travel a long distance to get back to the line of scrimmage, and Carr released the pass while moving backwards away from a non-threatening blitz. He didn’t give himself the chance to threaten the defense near the first-down marker because he panicked before giving his protection the chance to pick up the blitz.
On a first-and-10 with just under two minutes left to play in the game and the Raiders inside the New England 35-yard line, Carr again bailed backwards against the blitz. This time the pressure was heavy and didn’t get picked up, but instead of trying to scramble to extend the play and give himself a chance to throw the ball away outside the tackle box, Carr threw the ball up for grabs to a covered James Jones down the sideline. The pass wasn’t intercepted by Darrelle Revis, but it was an unnecessary risk on first down in field-goal range.
Two plays later, Carr threw an incomplete fade pass to Andre Holmes down the left sideline. The decision wasn’t poor, but his mechanics were. Carr hopped onto his back foot before releasing a pass straight into the air that ended up overthrown, although a pass interference call gave the Raiders the ball at the New England six-yard line. This was a consistent problem for Carr at Fresno State as well, as he has a tendency to trust his arm too much and throw sideline routes off his back foot. Sometimes it works as a back-shoulder pass but most of the time the ball ends up short, and isn’t placed in a spot where only the receiver can make the catch.
Carr did some good things against the Pats as well, showing nice anticipation on an early third-and-six completion to Rod Streater. Looking comfortable in a clean pocket, Carr anticipated Streater’s break into an out route and released the pass just before Streater cut to the sideline, leading to a nine-yard gain for the first down. Later in the game, Carr completed a similar route to Jones, but the ball came out late and was only completed because of Carr’s strong arm. On a positive note, Carr did a nice job scanning the field, starting with his first read to the right and coming all the way back left to find Jones. That’s part of the reason the ball came out late, but credit Carr for being patient, finding the open receiver and using his arm talent to make up for the lack of perfect timing.
The play that gives me the most hope for Carr’s potential was a third-and-four pass with four minutes left in the third quarter. Rather than falling back while throwing a deep ball down the left sideline, Carr set his feet and stepped into the throw, fitting a nicely-thrown ball in to Holmes between the cornerback and the safety. Holmes timed his leap perfectly to box out the corner and protect himself against the safety, putting the Raiders’ in field-goal range with the 29-yard connection. Oakland eventually settled for the field goal, but this play shows the potential Carr has if he cleans up his footwork on fade routes. A Carr-to-Holmes connection on these types of plays has dangerous potential.
While Carr’s first three career games have been far from disastrous, there’s also a lot for the rookie to learn. Unlike Bortles’ footwork issues that would have been better served getting worked out on the sideline, a luxury the Jaguars found out they didn’t have, Carr’s live repetitions should help reinforce what he needs to improve on. Watching the film from Week 3, especially his short sideline balls to Holmes and Jones, should show him the throws he has the skills to make if he gets his feet under him. The arm talent is special and he can make every throw on the field, but bad habits in the pocket can be tough to break. Just ask Jay Cutler, who still throws off his back foot and trusts his arm too often in his ninth NFL season. Carr’s style is very similar to Cutler’s gun-slinging ways, but the rookie has a lot to work on before he gets to that level.
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