With no offensive rookies emerging in Week 8, this week’s Rookie Report will focus mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Two first-year defensive backs recently moved into the starting lineup thanks to injuries to the veterans ahead of them, and both were impressive in their extended opportunities. Meanwhile, a Tampa Bay linebacker broke out with a big game in the Bucs’ win and Chris Tripodi breaks down the struggles of one of the most hyped members of this year’s rookie running back class.
Melvin Gordon (RB-SD)
After two straight years where no running backs were drafted in the first round, Melvin Gordon became the second runner taken in the top 15 after the Chargers selected him to replace the departed Ryan Mathews. Like the rest of the Chargers outside of the passing game, however, Gordon has struggled this season, topping 55 rushing yards in a game just once and proving to be a non-factor in the passing game. While the second part of that equation was expected based on his lack of receiving production at Wisconsin, Gordon continued to struggle on the ground in Sunday’s loss to Baltimore, carrying 18 times for just 54 yards.
Despite the poor numbers, Gordon did a nice job of picking up consistent yardage early in the game. Of his first six runs, three went for three yards and three went for four yards as the Chargers offense worked almost exclusively out of the shotgun. Normally a boom-or-bust runner who is often stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, Gordon stayed on schedule with effectively early runs despite the San Diego offensive line struggling to open up holes. The rookie showed good burst to get moving upfield and avoided hesitation at the line of scrimmage, instead just plowing forward for as many yards as he could get. Gordon also used a nice juke move to avoid backfield penetration and a three-yard loss before heading straight up the field for four yards.
Gordon started to produce more middling results in the second quarter, taking eight carries for 24 yards with a long run of six yards, when he followed his blocks well from the shotgun and pushed forward for extra yardage. Gordon could’ve had a longer run on the following play, but ran into his own lineman at the second level rather than cutting back inside the block and ended up with just five yards. While the Chargers’ problems along the offensive line don’t help matters and neither did facing a good Ravens run defense, Gordon seems to be running with a lack of confidence in his patience and vision, which will happen when you’re used to getting hit early. As Gordon’s scouting report noted, he isn’t a creative runner that can create on his own, despite his home-run speed, and that weakness is even more glaring behind a bad offensive line.
His speed hasn’t even helped him in the open field, as Gordon hasn’t capitalized on the few opportunities he’s gotten in space. After catching a short pass early in the third quarter, Gordon had time to put a move on the defensive back and break free. Instead, Gordon hesitated after catching and turning upfield, allowing himself to get undercut and stopped after just four yards. After that play, Gordon touched the ball only four more times all game, including two consecutive plays where he was almost stopped for a safety. The first was a run up the middle where Gordon had no room to run and his forward progress was stopped as he broke a tackle and was taken down in the end zone, but he was ruled down at the one-yard line. On the ensuing swing pass, Gordon had his legs taken out inside the one-yard line, just feet from a safety that would’ve cut the Chargers lead to just two.
Gordon’s rookie struggles continued in Sunday’s loss, and the rookie has yet to break out of his slump. As a runner with great burst and change-of-direction ability, Gordon isn’t getting the opportunity to showcase those skills behind his team’s shoddy offensive line. When he does find himself in space, Gordon lacks the confidence to make moves to get free and create extra yardage. After years of running behind Wisconsin’s traditionally elite offensive line, Gordon is getting a taste of the other end of the spectrum, and it’s affecting him as a runner. It’s tough to have confidence in Gordon breaking out anytime soon, either, especially with Danny Woodhead receiving his share of touches out of the backfield as well.
Kwon Alexander (LB-TB)
After signing Bruce Carter to a four-year, $17 million to play inside linebacker this season, the Bucs changed course thanks to Alexander’s strong play during training camp and the preseason. The fourth-round draft pick out of LSU has been starting in the middle for Tampa Bay since late August and turned in his finest game of the season in Sunday’s win over the Falcons in Atlanta. Alexander made a career-high 11 tackles (six solo), intercepted his second pass of the season and forced a fumble as well as recovering one.
Alexander made a highlight play on Atlanta’s first drive after the Falcons drove inside the Bucs’ 10-yard line. The rookie linebacker made a leaping interception in the end zone and showed off his 4.55 speed with the ball in his hands, bursting through the Falcons offense all the way down to the Atlanta 11-yard line. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they were called for offsides on the play, nullifying the interception, but that doesn’t take away from the talent, speed and ball skills Alexander showed on the play.
It took Alexander just two plays on Atlanta’s following drive to force a turnover that counted. The rookie bit on Matt Ryan’s play-action fake, which allowed Julio Jones to get behind him over the middle for a big gain. Alexander hustled after Jones though, catching the unexpecting receiver from behind and ripping the ball right out of his hands before returning it for 21 yards. This was the ultimate run-and-chase play, which epitomizes who Alexander is as a player based on his scouting report out of college.
Late in the second quarter with the Falcons threatening near midfield, Alexander made another big play for the Tampa Bay defense. Turning and running easily with tight end Jacob Tamme up the seam, Alexander took advantage of a poor throw that Matt Ryan left too far inside and secured the interception, stopping Atlanta’s drive and leading to a Tampa Bay touchdown after returning the pick 15 yards back to midfield.
With the Falcons down big early and forced to abandon the run, Alexander made most of his stops in the passing game. His sideline-to-sideline speed and ability to cover ground was on full display, as the first-year linebacker chased down multiple screens out to the flanks and laid a couple big hits at full speed in the process. Alexander’s emergence has been a key to Tampa Bay’s surprisingly stout run defense this season and will make it easy for the Bucs to cut Carter after the season, as the veteran has no dead money left on his contract. Alexander and Lavonte David should combine to make Tampa Bay’s linebacking corps one of the fastest in the NFL over the next several seasons.
Kevin Johnson (CB-Hou)
Draft Insider’s top cornerback available in the 2015 NFL Draft, Kevin Johnson was the second player drafted at his position after the Texans made him the 15th overall pick. Playing behind both Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph as Houston’s nickel corner, Johnson has been a steady presence in the Texans’ secondary as a rookie and enjoyed his best game of the season last week filling in for the injured Jackson, making six tackles including five solo stops and two for loss as well as breaking up a pass and making his first career interception.
Johnson was quiet for much of the first half, which is generally a good thing for a cornerback, but the one play he made was impressive, showing off his physicality and aggressive nature. Lined up as the closed corner on a first-down run play, Titans receiver Justin Hunter attempted to block Johnson as the corner approached the line of scrimmage. Despite a thin build at 5-11 and just 188 pounds, Johnson tossed the 6-4, 201-pound Hunter several yards into the backfield, knocking him into running back Antonio Andrews in the process to trip him up. Johnson then touched the fallen Andrews down for a one-yard loss.
With Houston up 10-3 midway through the third quarter, Johnson saved a touchdown by chasing down Andrews across the field after the Titans running back had broken multiple tackles to get through the second level. Two plays later, Johnson came up hard on a screen pass to Kendall Wright, stopping the receiver in his tracks for a loss of three and knocking Wright out of the game with an injury.
The Texans entered the fourth quarter with a 17-6 lead as the Titans crossed midfield, but Johnson refused to let Tennessee drive any further. Taking advantage of a Zach Mettenberger pass thrown late and behind Dorial Green-Beckham in tight coverage, Johnson made the easy interception and returned the pick 22 yards back into Tennessee territory. The rookie corner ran Green-Beckham’s out route right with the receiver, putting himself in great position to make a big play.
Johnson showed out against both the pass and the run against the Titans in Week 8 and while Tennessee is a bad football team, standing out against them is a sign that you’re doing your job. Johnson was aggressive coming up to sniff out screen plays and allowed just one catch on the day, while his interception put an end to one of the Titans’ few opportunities for a comeback. Jackson doesn’t seem close to returning from his high ankle sprain, which will give Johnson a few more weeks to show he deserves to hang onto his new starting spot once the struggling veteran returns.
Jaquiski Tartt (S-SF)
Early in the week leading up to Sunday’s game against the Rams, the 49ers placed veteran safety Antoine Bethea on injured reserve with a pectoral injury, opening up the strong safety role for Tartt. A rookie second-round pick out of Samford, Draft Insider had Tartt pegged as a fourth- or fifth-round prospect, but San Francisco coveted him enough to draft him with the 14th pick of Round 2. Tartt had a solid game against a run-based St. Louis team that plays to his strengths Sunday, recording six tackles (five solo) and forcing a fumble.
Playing deep safety late in the first quarter, Tartt found himself too deep and allowed a 24-yard reception to Tavon Austin in front of him after a play-action fake from Nick Foles. Even though Tartt was over 10 yards away from Austin when Foles released the pass, the rookie safety quickly closed the gap and hit Austin shortly after he made the catch, ripping the ball loose in the process and forcing a big turnover early in the game to keep the Rams’ offense off the scoreboard.
Tartt continued to impress with his speed and closing ability throughout the rest of the game, coming up aggressively from his safety position to make plays around the line of scrimmage. He was shot out of a cannon on an early five-yard completion to Bradley Marquez, immediately shutting down any chance of yards after the catch with a strong close and sure tackle. Tartt did the same on a second-quarter swing pass to Todd Gurley, coming up to pick Gurley up in man coverage and riding him out of bounds quickly for no gain.
Sometimes an aggressive safety can be too aggressive, however, which was the case near the end of the first half for Tartt. The rookie came up hard to fill his spot in a Cover 3 zone and allowed Jared Cook to slip past him into the seam. Cook busted through two tackles and rumbled for 49 yards before Tartt used his 4.4 speed to catch up to Cook just before he made it to the end zone. The rookie safety wasn’t responsible for covering the seam on the play, but he showed his intent too quickly, allowing Nick Foles to anticipate Cook running open.
At 6-1, 221 pounds with his aforementioned 4.4 speed, Tartt is a physical freak at the safety position. His explosiveness and closing speed makes him a dangerous run defender, but Tartt could use some work on his efficiency in coverage. Coming out of a small school like Samford, growing pains are to be expected from Tartt, who is one of the few 49ers to flash consistent talent on film. The starting strong safety job should remain his for the rest of the season, and Tartt will give San Francisco fans something to look forward to when it comes to the team’s future.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.
Though there were few games of national importance, week nine on the college schedule saw a number of close contests and wild finishes. Here are the Risers and Sliders from this weekends schedule including major news on several highly rated underclassmen.
Jacoby Brissett/QB/North Carolina State: I labeled Brissett as the most underrated signal caller from the senior class prior to the Clemson game and his performance against the Tigers impressed NFL scouts. Despite the Wolfpack coming up short on the scoreboard, Brissett registered 254-yards passing with 3 scores and no interceptions against the top pass defense in the ACC. Brissett’s command of the offense was impressive as were the array of passes he delivered. He has a big league arm and easily drives the ball downfield with speed yet at the same time displayed feather like touch when necessary. He needs to be more consistent with his mechanics which will improve his accuracy but considering the upside Brissett brings, coupled with the sad state of the quarterback position moving towards April’s draft, a second day pick is in the offing.
Brandon Doughty/QB/Western Kentucky: I initially mentioned Doughty back in 2013 when he looked like an up and coming prospect under then head coach Bobby Petrino yet despite a change in coaches Doughty’s game has improved. He’s been on a tear this season completing almost 72% of his throws for 3310-yards and 30 TD’s (5 INTs) in just eight games. Doughty lacks great physical skills and is more of an underneath passer but shows a command of the offense as well as the ability to move the chains. He projects as a late round pick and should make a roster for a timing or west coast offense.
Travis Feeney/OLB/Washington: Area scouts stamped Feeney as a late round pick entering the year, an opinion I disagreed with back in August. And from what I’m told scouts are now starting to believe he’s top 100 material. Freeney turned in a dominant performance against Arizona posting 11 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks as well as forcing a pair of fumbles and breaking up a pass. Freeney lines up at the Huskies “Buck” position, which he’s not really suited for, yet he’s found ways to produce. He displayed exceptional skill playing in space as a junior, proving to be a complete three down defender and now he’s making plays in the opponents backfield coming off the line of scrimmage. Good workouts and clean medical reports prior to the draft coupled with his play the past two seasons should solidify him as a third round pick.
Nick Martin/C/Notre Dame: Except for one poor penalty Martin did a terrific job against Temple’s pair of interior defensive tackles during Notre Dame’s victory. He effectively protected his quarterback all game as well as opened holes for the running backs. Martin is a nasty defender who plays fundamentally sound football and has made a major move up draft boards as many scouts now stamp the senior as a top 42 selection.
Ryan Switzer/WR/North Carolina: The junior is considered by Tar Heel coaches as the top receiver prospect on the roster and he proved as much against Pittsburgh. Switzer finished the contest with 5 receptions for 126 yards and 1 score. For the season he’s averaged 14.3-yards on 30 receptions and found the end zone three times. Though more of a late round prospect Switzer is a consistent underneath target with sneaky deep speed.
*Sleeper Prospect* Antwione Williams/LB/Georgia Southern: The Eagles are one of the better stories in college football as the former IAA program are on their way to a second consecutive nine win season. They’ve also had a fair number of middle round picks in recent draft’s and Williams could be next. There’s been a lot of recent chatter about the linebacker who measures 6-feet/2.5-inches, 250-pounds and times 4.7s in the forty. Williams leads the defense in tackles (67), tackles for loss (7) and has added 2.5 sacks. Though more of a two down defender, he’ll be a solid fit on the inside of a 3-4 alignment come Sunday afternoon.
*Small School Prospect* Tyrone Holmes/DE-OLB/Montana: Last year former Grizzly Zack Wagenmann earned a free agent contract after terrorizing quarterbacks on the college level and Holmes will likely follow suit. Eight games into the season he’s already totaled 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss as well as 64 total tackles. He’s a slug it out lineman that finds ways to make plays and offers possibilities as a situational pass rusher.
Jerell Adams/TE/South Carolina: Despite starting just six games prior to his senior season Adams was considered a potential middle round pick by area scouts in large part due to measurables. Adams measures 6-feet/5-inches, 240-pounds and times in the 4.6s-area but he’s still more size/speed than football player. Adams has 16 receptions in 8 games this season and caught just a single pass against a porous Texas A&M defense. He’s a physically imposing prospect but must quickly transfer his athletic ability into football production.
Le’Raven Clark/T/Texas Tech: Many rated Clark as a potential late round pick entering the season but the big bodied lineman has yet to prove he’s anything other than a size prospect. Clark lacks balance, does not play with body control and all to often get beat by opponents. Late in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma State as Texas Tech was driving for the game tying score, Clark was beaten badly by Jarrell Owens, a back-up filling in for the injured Jimmy Bean. The result was not only a sack but a fumble which ended the drive and the Red Raiders hopes.
Word in the scouting community is Notre Dame could have as many as four first round picks coming from the 2016 draft. Nick Martin is the surprise senior projecting as a potential top 32 selection along with Ronnie Stanley as well as juniors Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. The most recent word is both underclassmen will enter the draft. I’ve been told for a while Smith will opt for the NFL once the season is complete and recently heard the same on Fuller.
Will Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch declare for the draft? I’d say its about 95% “go” for Lynch at this point and that’s being cautious. I’m told members of Lynch’s inner circle have been meeting extensively with agents and its just a matter of the quarterback staying healthy for the rest of the season.
Sources tell me barring injury offensive tackle Germain Ifedi will likely enter the draft. I rank the Texas A&M junior higher than most and at this point grade him as a mid-to-late first round pick.
While there are few games of national consequence this weekend there are a number of contests which will impact conference rankings. And when the ball’s in the air there are several prospect match-ups scouts will focus on. Here are three games to watch for week nine.
USC vs Cal
3PM EST FOX
A resurgent USC Trojan team takes on Cal with much talked about Jared Goff, the recently struggling signal caller who looks like he’s headed toward the draft. This is a big match-up from both a scouting and conference perspective.
Goff was a player I spoke about during last week’s Risers and Sliders. He’s a cerebral quarterback with the ability to accurately place passes into the hands of intended targets. Goff needs to physically mature as he possesses a thin build and struggles standing up against the rush but he offers a tremendous amount of upside. It may take a bit longer than many expect for him to be truly NFL ready.
After two tough outings Goff has a chance to right the ship against USC, a team whose pass defense ranks in the bottom half of the PAC 12. The Trojans allow almost 238-passing yards per game and have posted 17 sacks in seven games played, ranking 7th in the conference.
USC does feature safety Su’a Cravens, a top 60 junior expected to enter the draft. Cravens can be a difference maker as he’s disruptive on the blitz and shows cover skills between the numbers.
Clemson vs North Carolina State
3:30 EST PM ABC
Nationally ranked Clemson hopes to stay unbeaten. North Carolina State hopes to pull off an upset and become bowl eligible with a victory.
Clemson enters the game with the top pass defense in the ACC which features highly considered pass rusher Shaq Lawson as well as underrated cornerback Mackensie Alexander.
Lawson made the risers list earlier this week as he’s constantly getting pressure off the edge and up the field. He has the ability to flatten and the speed to chase in pursuit. Lawson must shake off what’s been a string of mostly disappointing undersized pass rushers from the Clemson program but he does project as a second day choice.
Alexander’s stats are not great; 11 tackles and 1 pass broken up in seven games though most of this is due to the fact opponents won’t challenge him. Alexander is a nice combination of size, ball skills and upside. Like Lawson, he also projects as a day two pick but the red shirt sophomore could move into the first round with a good junior campaign in 2016.
Alexander and Lawson now face Jacoby Brissett, possibly the most underrated quarterback from the senior class.
Brissett is a terrific athlete with a big league arm which allows him to make all the throws. He’s more than a run first signal caller as Brissett plays smart football and delivers accurate passes. He’s under 200-yards passing per game this season but his completion percentage stands at 67% and he’s tossed just a single interception versus 10 touchdown passes.
I expect Brissett to receive an invitation to the Senior Bowl if healthy at the conclusion of the season. A good performance against a highly ranked team which puts the top pass defense in the conference on the field every week would be a major plus for his draft stock.
Mississippi vs Auburn
12PM EST ESPN
Ole Miss hopes to build off their important win a week ago against Texas A&M. On the other hand Auburn needs this win to keep their head above water. There are a several match-ups scouts will monitor during this contest including a battle between juniors in the secondary.
After a slow return to the field Mississippi receiver LaQuon Treadwell has his game back on track. In eight games this season he’s totaled 54 receptions for 756 yards with 5 scores. Thirty two of those catches have come in the past four games. If his medicals pan out Treadwell is a top 12 pick and projects as a number one receiver on Sunday.
Treadwell will be the focus of the Auburn defense and safety Johnathan Ford will be a big part of the effort. Considered one of the best junior safety prospects in the country, Ford is efficient, makes a lot of tackles (leads Auburn with 72) and covers a lot of area on the field. His consistency and ball skills are red flags and Harris has a single interception/pass break-up this year.
Ford can quell many of the concerns by delivering a big performance against Treadwell, who overmatches him in areas of size, performance and overall talent.