At this point in the NFL season, the injuries are really starting to pile up, even for teams who remained relatively healthy through the first two months. The last few weeks have been particularly devastating for some teams, with the Baltimore Ravens at the top of the list. Their rookie fourth-round running back stepped into a bigger role this week with Justin Forsett injured, but he wasn’t the only rookie to show out with extra playing time. Chris Tripodi takes a look at Week 11’s impact first-year talents.
Javorius Allen (RB-Bal)
For the second straight season, the Ravens drafted a big running back in the fourth round to add depth behind a smaller, injured veteran. Last year, it was Coastal Carolina’s Lorenzo Taliaferro, a 6-0, 225-pound back who slotted in behind starter Ray Rice.
This season, Javorius “Buck” Allen from USC was drafted as insurance for Justin Forsett, who emerged after Rice’s release in 2014. With Taliaferro on injured reserve and Forsett breaking his arm early in Sunday’s win over the Rams, Allen carried the load for Baltimore, rushing 22 times for 67 yards and catching five passes out of the backfield for 48 yards.
Allen had some nice moments in the second quarter after replacing Forsett, most notably a 17-yard run that accounted for most of his 28 yards on seven first-half carries. On an off-tackle run to the right, Allen did a nice job recognizing the overpursuit of the Rams defense, cutting back inside into open space and finishing the run with authority by lowering his shoulder and running over safety Rodney McLeod for five extra yards.
That play was a nice change after Allen was to slow to recognize a similar overpursuit on his first carry of the game in the first quarter, where he gained four yards after trying to run through a closing hole on the right side. If Allen had recognized the opening sooner, an indictment on his poor vision and instincts as a runner that were evident on his USC film, he could’ve had a bigger gain.
The power Allen showed on his big 17-yard run is an important part of the rookie’s game, and he’s difficult to bring down with weak tackle attempts and in crowded spaces. The former Trojans star also showed an acumen for beating first contact in space, easily shedding low-tackle attempts from smaller corners on multiple second-half receptions.
In fact, most of Allen’s yardage in the second half came through the air, as he had as many negative runs (two) and he had runs over five yards. He showed off his versatile skills out of the backfield, making catches away from his body and quickly turning upfield after securing possession. Allen showed the receiving ability to adjust to low passes without losing momentum and finished receptions violently after building up a head of steam.
While he didn’t have many impressive second-half runs, there simply weren’t many holes to run through against a solid St. Louis run defense. His longest run after halftime went for nine yards on a handoff from the shotgun, with Allen hitting the hole up the middle and breaking free of an ankle tackle from defensive tackle Michael Brockers to get the Ravens into field-goal range. It took multiple Rams to bring him down on his ensuing three-yard run, which set up the game-winning kick.
Allen was most effective in space and with a head of steam at the second level Sunday, and with Forsett being sent to IR along with quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens will need to utilize him heavily as a receiver out of the backfield with Matt Schaub taking over under center. Finding running lanes shouldn’t be much of a problem against the porous Browns and Dolphins defenses over the next two weeks, and Allen played well enough in a tough matchup to give Baltimore confidence he can handle the bulk of the touches out of the backfield going forward.
J.J. Nelson (WR-Ari)
With Michael Floyd sidelined by a hamstring injury, the fastest player at the NFL combine got his chance to play a meaningful role for the Cardinals. Fifth-round pick J.J. Nelson out of UAB played 38 snaps in Sunday’s win over the Bengals and put his 4.25 speed on display, catching four passes for 142 yards and a touchdown on six targets.
The 5-10, 160-pound speedster’s day didn’t get off to a great start, as he was the intended target on Carson Palmer’s second interception of the first quarter. Nelson broke open in on a post over the middle between the Bengals’ zone coverage over the middle, but Palmer expected him to continue his route down the field, which led to an easy pick for safety Reggie Nelson.
That miscommunication was forgotten after Nelson converted a 3rd-and-16 on the following drive, as the diminutive rookie made a big 23-yard catch for a first down. Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey was in position underneath on Nelson and the pass looked like it was intended for John Brown, but Nelson showed good awareness to stop his route and come back to the ball while Rey kept flowing towards Brown.
That play gave Palmer some increased confidence in Nelson, as he tried to squeeze a pass to the rookie in triple coverage during a two-minute drill at the end of the second quarter. The ball was tipped by the underneath linebacker, however, and Nelson was helpless as Rey closed for a big hit, which Nelson was fortunately able to get up from.
With the Cardinals down 14-7 in the third quarter, the pair connected for a 64-yard touchdown. Nelson blew by Darqueze Dennard’s short zone coverage at the line of scrimmage and the Cover 2 safety was focused on the left sideline, giving Nelson a clear path to the opposite side of the field. Palmer’s throw was on the money as Nelson reeled in the pass at the 10-yard line and kept Reggie Nelson at bay long enough to finish the score.
The Cardinals’ Nelson showed he could be effective on short passes as well, taking a quick slant on 3rd-and-14 and turning it into a 36-yard catch-and-run. Stopping on a dime after securing the catch, Nelson made Dre Kirkpatrick look silly as the corner whiffed on an ankle tackle before watching Nelson tack on extra yardage down the sideline.
Palmer’s increasing trust In Nelson was evident as Arizona started the game-winning drive from their own 15-yard line. On 1st-and-10, Nelson got separation on a 15-yard in route and Palmer found him for 19 yards to get the big drive started. While it wasn’t the sharpest break at the stem of his route, Nelson’s incredible quickness helped him get open for the big play.
Floyd may not return to the lineup in Week 12, as hamstring injuries tend to linger, particular for speedy receivers. In the meantime, Nelson gave the Cardinals every reason to feel confident in his ability to fill in as their No. 3 receiver, and he’s obviously jumped Jaron Brown on the depth chart. A Week 12 matchup with the 49ers might give Nelson another chance to show off his game-breaking skills and natural ability as a receiver against a burnable secondary.
Ben Heeney (LB-Oak)
Aldon Smith’s year-long suspension created a big hole in Oakland’s defense, and the Raiders relied on their fifth-round pick out of Kansas to fill it Sunday against the Lions. Heeney had been scarcely used this season, but played 38 snaps and responded with seven tackles (five solo) and a sack.
Heeney was very involved in the first half and helped keep the Lions of the end zone on the game’s first possession. A pick play opened up a flat route to running back Ameer Abdullah, but Heeney recognized his teammate getting caught up and sprinted out to chase down Abdullah, who fell down and allowed Heeney to make the play. The play would’ve been a touchdown if Abdullah stayed on his feet, but Heeney showed nice recognition to get out there in the first place.
As a cover linebacker, Heeney got good depth on his drops and stayed in close coverage against receiving threats like Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. The depth he got on a pass play late in the first quarter took away the passing lane to receiver Lance Moore and forced Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to leave the pocket and scramble. Not only did Heeney force the scramble, but he closed quickly to the sideline to force Stafford out of bounds after just five yards.
Heeney did a nice job finding his assignments in man coverage and even lunged for a nice pass breakup in the second half after a slight bite on a play-action pass. The rookie recovered quickly to find Tate and hit him within five yards of the line of scrimmage to throw off his route before making a play on the ball.
The rookie linebacker’s sack came late in the second quarter, as Heeney blitzed from middle linebacker and used a nice stutter step-rip combo to beat the guard and bring down Stafford for a five-yard loss. His instincts and downhill speed were also on display later in the game, as he slid up to after feeling an incoming block from the tight end and shot forward to bring down running back Theo Riddick.
Heeney did overpursue Abdullah on one of his tackles and although he recovered to make the tackle nine yards down the field, he would’ve been in position to stop the play a lot sooner if he had stayed home in the middle of the field.
A third-round prospect on the Draft Insider board, Heeney showed the instincts, tenacity and pursuit skills that had us so high on him. The rookie did nothing to keep himself from seeing more of the field next week in Tennessee and could be playing himself into a big role with the team for next season as well. The Raiders have drafted well over the past few seasons, and Heeney is another example of that for a team on the rise.
Adrian Amos (S-Chi)
An early fifth-round pick of the Bears out of Penn State, Amos has started the entire season in Chicago. The safety has been one of the top defensive rookies this season despite pedestrian numbers, but turned in his best game on the stat sheet this season Sunday against Denver with seven tackles and a sack.
Amos was relatively quiet for most of the first half before making a big impact on the final drive of the second quarter. He showed good awareness and downhill ability coming off deep coverage to close on a short pass to tight end Owen Daniels, avoiding a lead block on his way to making a solid open-field tackle.
Shortly after, he stayed home on a play-action pass before closing on Vernon Davis after working through a couple of other defenders, putting him slightly behind in coverage. Later on the drive, he laid a monster hit on Davis coming up from safety, knocking the veteran tight end to the ground with force after a short catch.
Amos also prevented one of Demaryius Thomas’ patented screen passes from going for good yardage, shooting up to wrap up Thomas and drag him almost 10 yards before forcing him out of bounds after just a three-yard gain. Not many defensive backs have the strength to manhandle a big receiver like Thomas like that.
The rookie safety added his first career sack on the second play of the third quarter, coming in unblocked on a safety blitz to nail an unsuspecting Brock Osweiler from the back side. On a 3rd-and-9 in the red zone two drives later, Amos closed quickly for a wrap-up tackle on slot receiver Jordan Norwood, setting up a 4th-and-1 from the 2-yard line that Denver would fail to convert.
Overall, Amos did exactly what he’s been doing all season and played a very solid game on the back end. The rookie showed off his sure tackling, closing speed, pursuit ability and tough, aggressive nature at 6-0, 218 pounds. Amos has yet to be exposed in deep coverage as many expected and as long as he continues to keep plays in front of him, his NFL future looks very bright.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.
Saturday was highlighted by a number of upsets which will have a major effect on the national rankings. It was also a weekend where a pair of underclassmen defensive tackles stood out. Along with updated news on the underclassmen here are the Risers and Sliders for week twelve.
Andrew Billings/DT/Baylor: During an interview early Saturday morning on WEIR 1430, I was asked to name one junior prospect who would make an unexpected charge up draft boards. My answer? Andrew Billings. Hence it was more than gratifying watching his performance as Baylor knocked off Oklahoma State some 15 hours later. Billings finished the game with 2.5 tackles for loss as well as 2 sacks and was a dominant force throughout the contest. On one sack Billings bull-rushed a double team block, collapsing the pocket to bring down the quarterback. The big-bodied junior is an athletic, three down defender with the ability to line up at several spots in a multitude of schemes. He has all the makings of a mid-first round choice.
Kenny Clark/DT/UCLA: Clark has been a dominant force throughout most of the season and put his prowess on display during the Bruins victory over Utah. The stats were nothing outstanding, 4 tackles with 1 tackle for loss, but Clark’s ability to attract double team blocks and command the attention of Utah’s offensive line created opportunities for teammates. Like Andrew Billings the UCLA junior is a three down defender with potential in a variety of schemes. As reported several weeks ago Clark is expected to enter the draft and could slide into the late part of round one.
Tyler Matakevich/LB/Temple: The Owls are in the midst of a wonderful campaign spearheaded by their stingy defense, a unit led by Matakevich. The productive four year starter posted a team leading 11 tackles during the all important victory over Memphis, whose offense was held to no touchdowns and under 240-total yards. Matakevich is smart, tough and rarely makes mental errors but has size limitations (under 6-feet/235lbs). In many ways he reminds me of former Detroit Lion Stephen Boyd, a size limited fifth round pick who went on to become a three time Pro Bowl selection.
Darien Harris/LB/Michigan State: Harris is another who does not measure well for the tape but plays big time football. He posted six tackles during the upset victory over Ohio State, including some very important stops. It raised his season total to 71 tackles, ranking him second on the Spartans defense. Built more like a traditional weak-side linebacker, Harris will be good value on the draft’s last day as either a run stopping inside linebacker or a one-gap pursuit defender.
Bucky Hodges/TE/Virginia Tech: The tight end position will be dictated by underclassmen in next year’s draft and Hodges, who’s expected to enter the event, will be near the top. An imposing figure on the field, Hodges plays more like a possession receiver, displaying the ability to get downfield and snatch the ball from the air. He attracts the attention of opponents, as he did on Saturday against North Carolina, yet continually comes away with important receptions during the games critical moments. Still rough around the edges, Hodges carries a great amount of upside and grades as a top 100 pick.
Kolby Listenbee/WR/TCU: The Horned Frogs lost a close contest to Oklahoma as neither quarterback Trevone Boykin or star receiver Josh Doctson dressed. This made Listenbee’s performance all the more impressive. He caught just four passes but averaged more than 24-yards on each catch, finding the end zone once. The OU game was nothing out of the ordinary for Listenbee who has averaged 21.2-yards on 28 receptions this season (5 TD’s) after 18.4-yards on 41 catches a year ago. Possessing legitimate 4.4s speed, he’s the perfect compliment on the college level for Doctson and a true vertical threat for the next level.
Max Redfield/S/Notre Dame: The junior safety has improved his game immeasurably this season and is earning accolades from NFL scouts. He’s combined for 23 tackles the past three games, giving him 54 for the season, to go along with 3 pass defenses. Redfield offers good size and next level range. If he continues to progress on the field he could move into the second day of the draft in the not to distant future.
*Sleeper Prospect* Corey Davis/WR/Western Michigan: The younger brother of Titus Davis is the next member of his family making a mark in the MAC. The speedy receiver posted 76 receptions, 1114 receiving yards and 9 TDs this season, becoming one of the better deep threats in the conference. And though slightly off his numbers from a year ago (78/1408/15), scouts still consider Davis a legitimate middle round choice and potential fourth receiver in Sunday’s line-up.
Gunner Kiel/QB/Cincinnati: Entering the season many believed Kiel was a future first round pick, an opinion I never believed. He’s now struggling to remain a first team quarterback. Kiel was benched for ineffective play during the Bearcats disastrous loss to South Florida and before being pulled he was 8 of 15 passing with two interceptions. And while he’s a definite arm talent, Kiel’s reads and decision making leave a lot to be desired.
Kyle Carter/TE/Penn State: As a sophomore in 2013 Carter looked like a big time talent after catching 18 passes in just four starts. The following season he took a backseat to Jesse James and finished with 16 catches. Carter’s started just two games this season and has 12 catches to his credit. He offers solid computer numbers (6’ 3”/245lbs/4.75s) but seems very detached from the action.
Sources tell me UCLA guard Alex Redmond has “one foot out the door” and will enter the draft. Redmond has been described to me as a physical freak with upside but someone who needs to pull it together. I continue to hear Bruins tackle Caleb Benenoch is waiting on his grade from the advisory committee before committing to the draft.
For a number of weeks I’ve been hearing Mississippi State receiver Da’Runnya Wilson will enter the draft. I was recently told Wilson himself is telling people he’ll leave for the NFL once the season ends.
The feeling in Tennessee is cornerback Cam Sutton will enter the draft.
Changes in the Maryland program are likely to result in defections by underclassmen. I’m told Yannick Ngakoue is very likely to enter the draft. Ngakoue is a solid pass rushing defensive end who projects to outside linebacker on Sunday. There’s also a belief defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson could opt for the draft. Jefferson looked like an up and coming prospect in 2013 before missing all but three games in 2014 with a knee injury. Jefferson has looked good at defensive tackle (he lined up at defensive end as a sophomore) this season, posting 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Border wars, conference rivalry’s and playoff spots as well as bowl berths are on the line this weeks as the regular season winds down in college football. Here are three games to watch including news on the upcoming decisions faced by many of the nation’s top underclassmen.
LSU vs Ole Miss
A longtime border war which could go a long way in determining the number two spot in the SEC West is on the line.
Keep close eye when Ole Miss junior Robert Nkemdiche lines-up across from Jerald Hawkins of LSU.
Most area scouts believe Jerald Hawkins has not had a good season yet despite this I’m told the Tigers left tackle is very likely to enter the draft. In his defense Hawkins has been struggling with a bum ankle but is expected to start this game. He offers size, strength and solid footwork off the edge.
Nkemdiche is also expected to enter the draft and has looked dominant at times this season. He splits double team blocks on the inside while also showing the agility and speed necessary to rush off the edge. Nkemdiche projects as a top 25 pick.
Michigan State vs Ohio State
Michigan State was surprised by Nebraska a few weeks ago but could jump back into the playoff picture if they beat undefeated Ohio State at the Horseshoe.
Look around the internet and you’ll often see Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook graded as a first round pick. Talk to NFL scouts and the opinion is quite different as some don’t even rank Cook as the top senior signal caller in the nation, never mind a first round pick.
Cook is a great arm talent, no doubt, as he’s able to make all the throws to just about any point on the field. His accuracy and pass placement are another thing altogether. All too often Cook needlessly has targets reaching back or leaving their feet to make receptions which results in lost opportunities after the catch.
If that happens on Saturday Cook will be cooked. The back seven of the Buckeye defense reads like a first team NFL depth chart and offers a number of first round picks.
Conerback Eli Apple and linebacker Darron Lee, both of whom are expected to enter the draft, grade as first round picks. Junior safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, as well as senior linebacker Joshua Perry, will be selected during day two of the draft or the opening frames of the final day.
This represents the most talent laden defense Cook has faced this year and will go a long way in determining his final draft stock.
Mississippi State vs Arkansas
7PM EST ESPN
Two underclassmen, both of whom are likely to enter the draft, face-off in this one.
Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry is a downfield pass catching threat with reliable hands. He has the speed to split the seam and the size to create mismatches. As first reported several weeks ago, numerous sources tell me Henry will exit for the NFL after the season.
Mississippi State linebacker Ben Brown, a favorite of mine, has consistently shown himself to be a terrific box defender but can he cover and make plays in reverse? The tape makes one believe he can but Hunter offers a tough challenge on Saturday.
Sources tell me Brown is also very likely to enter the draft and his ability to play in space against the Arkansas offense that likes to mix it up, could be telling.