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.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter to talk football and the NFL Draft.
It was a weekend that saw the top team in the land, Florida State, require overtime to pull off the victory over Clemson. Yet even in defeat there were terrific performances from next level hopefuls on the losing end. Here are the Risers and Sliders for week Four.
Lets start with a few house keeping notes.
During Oregon State’s 21-point win over San Diego State, defensive end Obum Gwacham, who continues to receive strong praise from scouts, tallied one sack and one tackle for loss. Oregon State’s next four games include USC, Colorado, Utah and Stanford which pose a great challenge for Gwacham.
During the first half of the Alabama-Florida game I thought Gators left tackle Chaz Green looked good and his run blocking was impressive. After having his leg rolled up on Green tried to play with a heavily wrapped ankle late in the first half but was far less effective.
Alabama running back Kenyon Drake’s play, specifically his play on special teams, was mentioned after week two. Against Florida he opened the scoring with an 87-yard touchdown reception. Most impressive was the way Drake lined-up on the flanks then threw several moves on the Gator defensive back and separated down field.
One of the more interesting stories to follow through the 2015 NFL Draft is that of Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke. His record setting passing numbers are numbing and include 5076 passing yards as a sophomore in 2012 (when ODU was a IAA program) with 44 touchdowns then 4022 yards and 33 scores a year later. Both seasons his completion percentage was at or near the 70% range. In four games this season Heinicke has managed 1172-yards passing with 10 TDs. Numbers aside Heinicke’s pass placement and location is on the money as receivers rarely break stride or need to work for the reception. His game management and decision making also ranks up there with the best on the college level. His measurements fall short of the mark as Heinicke touches the tape a shade over 6-feet tall and weighs under 200-pounds. Heinicke, rated as a street free agent by most scouts, is a cross between Colt Brennan and Chase Daniel. Whatever he is or isn’t Heinicke most definitely deserves a chance next summer in camp.
Vic Beasley/DE-OLB/Clemson: A year ago when Florida State annihilated Clemson, Beasley’s performance ran parallel to the beating his team received as he tallied one solo tackle and was handled all game by Seminoles left tackle Cameron Erving. And while Clemson lost a close game in overtime this weekend, Beasley’s performance was brilliant compared to a year ago. The senior terrorized Florida State all night posting 2 sacks and 2 tackles for loss. It was obvious Florida State focused on Beasley as two blockers were assigned to him most of the night. The end result was Beasley breaking through blocks to make plays or the creation of opportunities for teammates. Most impressive was his ability rushing the passer out of a three point stance as well as standing up over tackle. This time around Erving looked intimidated and confused through much of the game.
Nate Orchard/DE-OLB/Utah: Scouts had been raving about Orchard during the early part of the season despite Utah’s lackluster schedule. Hence the game Saturday against Michigan was a big test for both team and player. After a slow start Orchard turned on the burners during critical moments in the second half and looked dominant at times. He finished with 7 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks while also breaking up a pass. The ability Orchard displayed off the line of scrimmage in space was impressive and nicely complimented his pass rushing skills. Comparisons are being drawn to former Boise State star Demarcus Lawrence, selected in the second round last April by the Dallas Cowboys. If Orchard continues his impressive play he could also move into the second frame.
Kris Frost/OLB/Auburn: Frost caught my eye during the summer when I graded him as a late round pick but the junior has exceeded expectations in the early going. The athletic linebacker prospect displayed pass rush prowess in the victory over Kansas State, totaling 2 sacks and 2 tackles for loss to go along with 6 tackles. Frost projects as a weak-side prospect and has consistently shown skill making plays in pass coverage but the newest element of his game, rushing the passer, will further boost his draft stock.
Landon Collins/S/Alabama: Entering the year I decided to take a wait and see approach towards Collins, stamping him with a late round grade. Thus far in 2014 he’s made a believer of me. The junior was a part time starter last season but has shown great development this year after moving in with the first team on a fulltime basis. His athleticism and ability to make plays in coverage is impressive. During the blowout victory over Florida, Collins made an acrobatic interception in deep centerfield and a pair of terrific pass defenses on the sidelines. Sized well, he’s more than just the strong safety some have suggested he’ll be.
Greg Mabin/CB/Iowa: Mabin sat on the sidelines the past two seasons and has taken well to the starting role this year. During the Hawkeyes razor thin victory over Pittsburgh, Mabin broke up passes on consecutive downs late in the game, helping seal victory for Iowa. Both passes were aimed at Panthers star receiver Tyler Boyd. For the game Mabin had three pass deflections, giving him four this season. He’s also averaging 5 tackles a game this year and is a developing prospect that combines next level size with solid ball skills.
Tevin Coleman/RB/Indiana: Most of the running back talk in the scouting community centers on four underclassmen: Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon and Jay Ajayi. Coleman, the next in line, has his supporters and is building momentum. Despite playing with an injured knee Saturday, he posted 132-yards rushing on 19 carries during the Hoosiers upset win over Missouri. In three games this season Coleman has totaled 569-yards on 66 caries for an average of 8.6-yards per handoff, not bad for a ball carrier that tips the scale just under 210-pounds.
Sleeper of the Week: Derrick Mathews & Efrem Oliphant/LB/Houston: Undersized but scrappy and productive, both Mathews and Oliphant are overlooked in the scouting community but must not be taken for granted. Both are tackling machines as Oliphant led Houston with 134 last season followed by Mathews with 116. Both are terrific in pursuit with the ability to make plays sideline to sideline and though neither are likely to be selected in the draft each could make an impact in camp next summer.
Small School Prospect- MyCole Pruitt/TE/Southern Illinois: Pruitt, someone I wrote about a year ago, was stamped as a late round pick by scouts entering the season and proved his worth against Purdue, the only IA program SIU faces this season. MyCole led all pass catchers with 10 receptions for 136 yards and could not be stopped by the Boilermaker defense. Pruitt caught 48 passes as a junior after 49 during his sophomore campaign and already has 26 receptions in four games this year. Though short (under 6-feet/2-inches) he’s a sure handed tight end with enough speed to split the seam. He’ll be a solid last day pick for a team needing a move tight end or H-back.
Tyler Lockett/WR-RS/Kansas State: There’s a wide variety of opinion on Lockett’s next level ability but his performance against Auburn had detractors saying “I told you so.” The speedy wide out dropped two passes in the first quarter of his teams loss to the Tigers, including one which slipped through his hands in the end zone. Dropped passes and poor pass catching technique is nothing new for Lockett. On film he’s body catcher who seemingly needs to grasp the ball against his frame to secure the reception. This leads to drops, double catches and a lot of missed opportunity. He’s the type of player who’ll wow coaches with big plays from the line of scrimmage or long kick returns then at the same time break hearts with his inability to cleanly catch the ball.
Carl Davis/DT/Iowa: I expected a lot from Davis entering the season but I’m quickly coming to the conclusion his reputation does not meet reality. Against Pittsburgh, who started a back-up redshirt freshman at center as well as a sophomore at guard, Davis was nearly invisible. Finishing the game with half a tackle for loss and two assisted tackles, he was continually handled at the point of attack and was a non-factor. Scouts believe Davis could be a top 100 pick but he’ll need to dominate against lesser competition or he’ll fall into the later rounds.
One of the deepest draft classes in recent memory has now had two weeks to prove why scouts and draft pundits were so high on the 2014 crop. As usual, there have been impressive performances by top picks like Bills rookie receiver Sammy Watkins as well as some disappointments, including Eagles’ first-round pick Marcus Smith, who was inactive for Week 2 after being drafted 26th overall. Many late-round picks and undrafted free agents have also made early noise, including Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns and Browns running back Isaiah Crowell, who will likely find their way into future reports. Chris Tripodi returns to break down four rookies who caught his eye in Week 2 of the NFL season.
Terrance West (RB-Cle)
Ben Tate’s knee injury in the Browns’ opener will keep him out at least through Cleveland’s Week 4 bye, giving the team’s third-round pick out of Towson an early opportunity as the starting running back. While the undrafted Crowell has gotten his share of work and shown the talent that made him a favorite of many draftniks despite a laundry list of off-the-field concerns, West is the player Cleveland traded up to take at the end of Day 2 knowing that Tate missing time this season was likely. He was also one of the few backs in this year’s class with true feature-back size at 5-9, 225.
Not only does West have good size, but he also has quick feet that were on display Sunday against New Orleans. West ran for 68 yards on 19 carries in the game and showed the skill set that intrigued the Browns, who hired Kyle Shanahan and his zone-blocking scheme to be their offensive coordinator in the offseason. West is a very patient runner who trusts his feet and skills enough to wait until he spots an opening before darting through it. His combination of patience, vision and burst makes him an ideal fit in Cleveland’s zone scheme. West is also nimble and uses his quick feet and an effective stutter-step to avoid tacklers in the backfield. On his third-quarter touchdown run, West used a plant step in the backfield to cut into the hole, quickly get to the second level and run through an arm tackle for the nine-yard score.
West lacks elite top-end speed and, despite weighing in at 225 pounds, is not a tackle-breaking bruiser on the inside. He falls forward and doesn’t get stopped dead in his tracks, but runs with a more balanced style that combines his footwork with the size to hold up on a heavy workload. West is an adequate receiver who shows good awareness on pass routes, as he did well to find an open area to give scrambling quarterback Brian Hoyer a target early in the first quarter Sunday.
While West didn’t officially fumble, the ball did come loose several times just after he was down by contact or had stepped out of bounds. He was occasionally careless with the ball at Towson and while this hasn’t affected him yet, future fumbles would open the door for Crowell, arguably the more-talented back, to see additional work. Although West may not hold onto the starting job when Tate returns as soon as Week 5, he’s likely earned himself 8-12 touches behind the free-agent acquisition, who doesn’t exactly have a strong track record of staying healthy.
Sammy Watkins (WR-Buf)
After the Bills traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up from the ninth overall pick to fourth in order to draft Watkins, it was obvious the team was going into win-now mode for the 2014 season. Many, including myself, questioned the thought process behind the trade and didn’t see the Bills as a playoff team thanks to quarterback E.J. Manuel’s developmental struggles. On the other hand, Watkins was the best wide receiver in a stacked class and a perfect fit for Manuel’s check-down tendencies as a player who can dominate by racking up yards after the catch.
A quiet Week 1 saw Watkins catch just three passes for 31 yards on four targets, but Manuel threw 11 of his 26 passes in Watkins’ direction in Sunday’s win over the Dolphins. Despite playing at less than 100 percent due to a lingering rib injury, Watkins made eight receptions for 117 yards and his first career touchdown, showing elite quickness off the line and into his routes. He would have had another touchdown if not for a great play by Brent Grimes, who knocked a long first-quarter pass out of Watkins’ grasp on a fly route down the sideline.
Watkins still needs to work on sharpening his route-running on short and intermediate passes, although he did focus on making sharper breaks in tight coverage compared to off coverage. Watkins needs to gather himself at the stem of his route in order to make controlled breaks, as playing at his high speeds leads to rounded-off routes if a receiver doesn’t take chop steps to slow his momentum. His game-breaking skills with the ball in his hands were on display as were his sticky mitts, as Watkins consistently extended to snatch passes away from his body and outran pursuit angles taken by Dolphins defenders.
Playing at less than full health, Watkins was the dominant force that scouts expected him to be. The former Clemson star could’ve actually had three touchdowns against the Dolphins if it weren’t for Grimes’ first-quarter play and a goal-line overthrow by Manuel early in the second quarter. If the Bills can build off their 2-0 start and turn the 2014 season into a playoff campaign, something Watkins will undoubtedly be a huge part of, they won’t miss that first-round pick as badly as some expected. And if Watkins cleans up his route-running, he has the natural talent to be one of the best receivers in football.
Preston Brown (LB-Buf)
A three-year starter at Louisville, Brown was a surprise third-round pick by the Bills in the 2014 NFL Draft. Most experts, including us at Draft Insider, had Brown pegged as a fourth or fifth-round pick and a good choice early on Day 3. Despite his rock-solid play in college, middle linebackers without elite physical traits aren’t usually hotly-contested draft commodities in today’s speed-obsessed NFL. Brown was initially expected to play behind two-down middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who signed a one-year contract in the offseason, but Nigel Bradham’s Week 1 suspension and Keith Rivers’ groin injury have given Brown a big opportunity. After two good games, the Bills will have a hard time sending him back to the bench.
After making seven tackles, including five solo stops, in Week 1, Brown stepped up in Week 2 to lead Buffalo with 13 tackles, including seven of the solo variety. Brown did a great job taking on blockers with his head up to locate the football before shedding and wrapping up ballcarriers. A sure tackler, Brown rarely missed when he had a chance to make a play and did a nice job bringing down backs on first contact. He fought hard through traffic, used his hands to keep blockers away from his body and took good angles to the ball. Brown’s recognition ability was on display, which helped him get to the sideline effectively in pursuit despite lacking great speed.
Brown also showed well in coverage, flashing the skills to stay with running backs in the flat to force the ball elsewhere and reacting quickly to short dump passes, stopping plays for minimal gains. He did a nice job pressing the line of scrimmage when keying on running backs before they got into their routes, forcing them to alter their paths while trailing closely behind. Brown did allow a third-down conversion to Charles Clay, but stayed with Clay well and was close to getting a hand on the pass.
Rivers is expected to remain out for Week 3 before potentially returning for the Bills’ final game in September, so Brown should get another chance to prove he belongs in the starting lineup. If the surprising Bills can beat the Chargers at home and move to 3-0 with Brown performing well, it won’t be easy for head coach Doug Marrone and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to take the rookie out of the lineup. At the very least, he’s likely earned himself significant rotational stops, especially if Rivers isn’t ready to assume a full-time role upon his return.
Kyle Fuller (CB-Chi)
A draft riser throughout the off-season process, Fuller went from a sleeper first-round pick to lock for Day 1. The Bears had one of the NFL’s worst defenses last season and while their numbers against the pass were far better than against the run, their thin, aging secondary was a definite position of need. Fuller had November surgery to repair a core muscle injury, which is a major reason his stock was depressed at the start of the offseason. Once he proved himself 100 percent from the injury, his stock corrected itself and returned to his true talent level.
Fuller was all over the field against the 49ers on Sunday night with seven tackles, including five solo stops, two interceptions and two pass breakups after a quiet Week 1. He started out shaky, as an early defensive holding penalty gave the 49ers an automatic first down on third-and-long, a drive that ended in a field goal. Fuller would bounce back, however, and make his impact felt against the run early. An aggressive run defender, Fuller made a few nice tackles on Frank Gore and Vernon Davis to stop the ballcarriers in their tracks. While he whiffed with his right hand when diving to break up a pass to Michael Crabtree in the red zone, Fuller did well to keep his left hand behind to wrap Crabtree’s waist and prevent extra yardage, showing great instincts and technique in short sideline coverage despite missing the breakup.
The rookie from Virginia Tech made an excellent play chasing down Gore from the backside later in the game on another red-zone run, but his real impact came in the fourth quarter with the two most important plays of Chicago’s win. With the 49ers starting at their own 22, Fuller timed his defense perfectly on a short curl pass to Crabtree, establishing great position to get his right arm in to break up the pass. Somehow, he was also able to pin the ball against Crabtree with that arm and control it for a game-changing interception that he returned inside the San Francisco 10-yard line. After Chicago took a 21-20 lead one play later, Fuller added a second interception on the following drive. Showing great awareness and instincts, Fuller recognized Colin Kaepernick scrambling towards the sideline, peeled off of Crabtree and undercut Derek Carrier’s route to the boundary, extending for an impressive interception and another long return into San Francisco territory, which led to the second Bears’ touchdown of the quarter.
Fuller’s performance against Crabtree late was especially important in the wake of veteran corner Charles Tillman third-quarter injury. The 33-year-old left with a season-ending, and possibly career-ending, triceps injury that has already landed him on injured reserve, meaning Fuller’s development will take on an even more important role for a Chicago team looking to make a playoff run. Fuller was a shutdown corner that opponents avoided at Virginia Tech, and he’s translating those skills quickly to the NFL level. Tillman’s loss is huge for the Bears but if Fuller can continue his solid play and fill the veteran’s shoes, it will be a huge boost for a defense in need of some good news.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter to talk football and the NFL Draft.