After one week of football, it’s time to take a look at which rookies lived up to the early hype surrounding them. While some of these first-year players were drafted with high expectations, others weren’t drafted at all but manufactured expectations through training camp and preseason performances as well as early opportunities to see the field. Chris Tripodi will let you know which rookies came through for their teams in Week 1 as this year’s initial Rookie Report has an AFC East feel to it, with five of this week’s players residing on teams in the Northeast.
E.J. Manuel (QB-Buf)
A surprise first-round pick by the Bills, Manuel stepped right into the starting quarterback job after a good first preseason start and the ongoing concussion issues of Kevin Kolb. Kolb was expected to start the season and let Manuel learn from the sideline, as everybody except the Bills had the rookie pegged as a high-ceiling project that was not ready for the NFL, which was evident when they took him in the first round. Despite missing the final few weeks of the preseason due to a minor knee cleanup, Manuel made it back in time to lead Buffalo into New England and will be learning on the job this season.
Doug Marrone and the Bills’ coaching staff did a nice job of protecting Manuel and not asking him to do too much against the Patriots and the rookie almost rewarded them with a victory. Manuel threw for just 150 yards and completed 18 of his 27 attempts but he showed the ability Buffalo saw in him to make him a first-rounder on his second touchdown pass. Stevie Johnson got a step behind two New England defenders in the red zone and Manuel led him beautifully, putting just enough loft under his pass to get over the defense and putting the ball where only Johnson could make a play on it. On this play, Manuel showed off the big-play ability he showed at Florida State.
One of the knocks on Manuel were his issues with timing and placement in college and while he was very efficient in his first start, there were a few passes he would want back. One in particular was a third-and-1 midway through the fourth quarter where Manuel found Stevie Johnson crossing over the middle for a first down. Manuel was slightly late with the ball and delivered a low pass that hit Johnson’s hands and should have been caught, but was not thrown as accurately as it could have been. A completion would have kept the drive alive in New England territory and likely led to at least a field goal, which turned out to be the difference in a 23-21 loss.
Overall, there was much more to like about Manuel’s performance than not. He was poised in the pocket all game, didn’t turn the ball over and wasn’t sacked at all. Manuel ran just 3 times for 23 yards, showing good decision-making ability to tuck and run when defenders turned their back in man coverage without bailing out of the pocket at the first sign of trouble. It may not have been the dynamic debut of Robert Griffin III last year but for a player everybody thought needed time to develop, Manuel was poised, confident and showed very good leadership ability. As a result, learning on the job may end up being the best thing for his timing and accuracy issues as practice speed and game speed are worlds apart.
Geno Smith (QB-NYJ)
Smith was expected by most to be the first quarterback taken in this year’s draft but with the Bills taking Manuel and other quarterback-needy teams waiting for the QB class of 2014, the Jets landed Smith, a player who was rumored to be in the mix for the first overall pick early in the draft process, with the 39th overall pick. Smith dealt with a sprained ankle during the preseason and look bad in his lone start against the Giants, throwing three interceptions and running out of his own endzone for a safety. But Mark Sanchez’s shoulder injury made him the starter by default and while Smith had a more uneven debut than Manuel, he led his team to victory and played a pivotal role in a late comeback drive.
After three consecutive three-and-outs to start the game, Smith led the Jets to a field goal before fumbling inside his own 10-yard line on the Jets’ next drive instead of going down and taking a sack. He followed that up with an interception on his next drive and after running backwards and taking an 18-yard sack on the first play of the drive after that, Smith settled down and led the Jets to a touchdown before the half. As poor as his first half play was, Smith bounced back well in the second half to keep the Jets in the game instead of compounding his previous mistakes, something the Jets are used to seeing from Sanchez.
The Jets couldn’t run the ball at all but like Smith did at West Virginia, he was able to use the screen and short passing game to move the ball down the field and keep pressure at bay. Smith showed good poise in the second half and the willingness to run when he had to, although it clear isn’t his first choice. Like Manuel, Smith stayed committed to making plays from the pocket and only used his legs as a last resort, keeping his eyes downfield until he crossed the line of scrimmage and trying to make plays with his arm. When he had time to throw, he showed the ability to stand tall in the pocket and reset his base while progressing through reads. On the final drive of the game, he completed a 25-yard pass to Kellen Winslow and ran for 10 yards on the next play, drawing a late hit penalty on Lavonte David as he went out of bounds to set up the game-winning field goal.
The lack of a running game may prevent the Jets from protecting Smith as well as the Bills can with Manuel, but their defense will give him a chance to win a few games if he can avoid turnovers. Marty Mornhinweg would be smart to continue to use the screen game to keep opposing defenses from blitzing at will but Smith still needs to improve his footwork under pressure, especially up the middle. New England’s defense will be a great test for the rookie on Thursday and while struggles are to be expected from Smith this season considering his subpar supporting cast and underdeveloped footwork, he will have every chance to prove himself as the leader of the Jets this season. He stayed confident last week, kept his team in the game throughout the second half and put them in position to win when it mattered most, something the Jets have been sorely lacking at quarterback for the last two seasons.
Kenbrell Thompkins (WR-NE)
After all the production that left New England for various reasons this offseason, Thompkins was the surprise of Patriots’ training camp. The rookie from Cincinnati went undrafted in April, mostly stemming from a childhood that saw him arrested seven times before he turned 19. He quickly jumped second-round pick Aaron Dobson and fourth-round pick Josh Boyce on the depth chart to replace Brandon Lloyd as New England’s “X” receiver and after an 8-catch performance in the team’s third preseason game, Thompkins had plenty of sleeper appeal heading into the season.
Thompkins’ route-running and play recognition is what separated him from Dobson and Boyce in camp but on Sunday against Buffalo, none of those skills were apparent. Thompkins was targeted 14 times but had just 4 receptions for 42 yards, a terrible catch rate considering Brady completed 25 of his 38 passes to other players. Thompkins had trouble creating separation and looked lost at times on the field, not breaking sharply out of his routes or positioning himself to attack the ball. His major blunder came down 21-17 in the third quarter, as Thompkins stopped his route in the back of the endzone to let Leodis McKelvin run by him while Brady escaped pressure. Instead of starting back in the other direction like Brady expected, Thompkins froze while Brady led him the other way and the pass fell incomplete. Two plays later, Brady fumbled a fourth-down snap and the Patriots were still behind on the scoreboard.
Bill Belichick is not one to keep a player on the field if they aren’t performing up to his standards, as Stevan Ridley’s benching last week proved. Danny Amendola’s latest injury, however, should mean Thompkins will remain highly targeted in the near future despite his Week 1 inefficiency. Julian Edelman was very productive in Week 1 and should be the main beneficiary of Amendola’s absence and Thompkins will need to perform this week to stave off his competition. If he doesn’t bounce back against the Jets on Thursday, I would expect to see the other New England rookie receivers get a chance on the outside even if Amendola stays on the sideline. If Belichick is willing to bench a 1,200-yard rusher, he’s definitely willing to bench an undrafted, unproven rookie.
Marlon Brown (WR-Bal)
After giving Anquan Boldin away to the 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick and losing tight end Dennis Pitta to injury, the Ravens are starving for reliable targets for Joe Flacco in the passing game. They were looking to Jacoby Jones to fill in opposite Torrey Smith while Brandon Stokley worked the slot, but Jones sprained his MCL on Thursday night when his own teammate ran into him on a punt return. Like Kenbrell Thompkins, Brown was an undrafted receiver who opened eyes with his preseason performance. Unlike Thompkins, Brown didn’t disappoint when he got an opportunity.
Brown tore his ACL after playing eight games as a senior, which played a big part in him not being drafted. Tavarres King was Georgia’s more highly regarded receiver and a bigger big-play threat for the Bulldogs, while Brown is more of a possession receiver. The rookie turned 6 targets into 4 receptions for 65 yards last Thursday night including a touchdown, which came in the fourth quarter when the game was out of hand. Regardless of the timing of his score, Brown proved to be as reliable as he was in the preseason and with Jones slated to miss 4-6 weeks of action, he will step into the starting lineup across from Torrey Smith.
At 6-4, Brown has great size and his touchdown came on a corner route in the endzone, which I expect to see more of as the Ravens try to take advantage of his height and Flacco’s arm strength. If Brown can continue to be consistent, he will provide a viable possession complement to the big-play ability of Smith. Jones has always been underwhelming as a receiver so it seems unlikely he gets his job back when he returns from injury unless Brown struggles badly in his new role. With little other competition on the roster, Brown has the ability to run with the starting job on a potential contending team.
Zach Sudfeld (TE-NE)
Another undrafted Patriots’ rookie who made a name for himself in the preseason, Sudfeld was expected to fill the “joker” role played so well by the now-incarcerated Aaron Hernandez. The former Nevada star’s college career was littered with injuries as he missed two full seasons with the Wolfpack and underwent a total of six surgeries in his college career. Finally healthy during his senior season, he broke out with 598 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns to put himself on the NFL radar. New England decided to take a flier on Sudfeld after the draft with Hernandez’s legal issues and Rob Gronkowski recovering from back surgery.
Unfortunately for the Pats, Sudfeld was even worse than Kenbrell Thompkins was in Week 1. He played just 20 snaps including 11 pass plays, ran just 9 routes and was targeted only once. Sudfeld dropped that lone pass and worst of all, it bounced into the hands of Bills’ cornerback Justin Rogers for an interception in New England territory. Buffalo took advantage of the short field, scoring two plays later to cut New England’s lead to 17-14 entering the half. Sudfeld saw very little of the field from that point on.
To add injury to insult, Sudfeld is now dealing with a pulled hamstring that is threatening his availability for Thursday night’s game against the Jets. Regardless of his injury status, the impending return of Rob Gronkowski likely in Week 3 or 4 along with his ineffective Week 1 performance will threaten much of the playing time that would have been available to Sudfeld. Without a draft pick invested in him, the Patriots won’t feel the need to force him back onto the field unless they think he can help their offense. If the Buffalo game was any indication, he may be a long way off from having the impact some expected this season.
Sheldon Richardson (DE-NYJ)
After the Jets traded Darrelle Revis for the 13th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and drafted Dee Milliner with their 9th overall pick, most thought the team would look to improve their offense with a player like tight end Tyler Eifert or their pass rush with linebacker Jarvis Jones. Instead, the Jets threw everybody a curveball and used the pick they got for Revis on Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. A freak athlete who runs a sub-5.00 40-yard dash and checks in at 6-2, 295 pounds, the Jets envision Richardson as a five-technique end that will allow them to move last year’s first-round pick Quinton Coples to outside linebacker, but many questioned Richardson’s fit in the New York defense.
After one week, Richardson looks like the real deal as he was a big part of the Jets’ outstanding performance shutting down Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin, who ran for just 65 yards on 24 carries. Richardson’s early contributions were expected to come from shooting gaps and providing an interior pass rush with his explosive first step, but he was credited with 7 tackles (3 solo) including 4 stops in the running game. He was largely invisible as a pass rusher and his first-step quickness got him in trouble on an early offsides penalty, but it was a great debut overall for Richardson.
Richardson’s only pressure on the quarterback came as an unblocked rusher and he recorded a half-sack on the play, but otherwise he was handled well in the passing game by Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn. Richardson will be lined up against Nate Solder on Thursday night and if he can find a way to put some heat on Tom Brady a few times and stuff the run as well as he did in Week 1, there won’t be many people questioning whether he was the right pick for the Jets. Considering he was taken with the draft pick New York got for one of the best players they’ve ever had, expectations are high but Richardson has done nothing but perform so far in his NFL career.
Tyrann Mathieu (CB-Ari)
The player formerly known as the “Honey Badger,” Mathieu was an electric All-American cornerback and returner at LSU before being dismissed from the team the summer before his sophomore year for breaking team rules. Mathieu also had issues with marijuana and reportedly admitted to an NFL team that he failed more than 10 drug tests at LSU. He later refuted that report but the damage was already done and despite his precocious talent, Mathieu fell into round three due to character concerns and questions about whether his size (5-9, 186) would limit him in the NFL.
Reunited with former Tigers teammate and close friend Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals felt comfortable taking a chance on the reportedly cleaned-up Mathieu and after their first game against the Rams, it looks like their risk may just be rewarded. Mathieu made 7 tackles on the game and missed just one while making one of the highlight plays of Week 1. Jared Cook broke open for a long pass up the seam and was on his way to the endzone when Mathieu chased him down from behind and poked the ball out of Cook’s left hand and into the endzone, where the Cardinals recovered for a touchback. It wasn’t all good for Mathieu as he did have a 38-yard pass interference called on him but while he allowed Tavon Austin to make 6 receptions, they went for just 41 yards.
Mathieu is best suited for a nickel role and that’s exactly what Arizona will be expecting from him this season. He will also see time as a safety in sub packages as the Cardinals attempt to get his playmaking ability on the field as often as possible. He played 42 of 71 snaps in their opener and with the NFL trending towards more three-wide sets, Mathieu will have plenty of opportunities on the field to prove his doubters wrong as long as he can stay clean off the field. So far, he’s shown every indication of being a changed man and if that continues, opponents will want to make sure they protect the ball when they play the Cardinals.
David Amerson (CB-Was)
Heading into the 2012 season, Amerson was coming off an All-American performance that saw him intercept 13 passes his sophomore year. He struggled to duplicate that performance as a junior before entering the draft and fell into round two as a result. Desperate for help in the secondary, the Redskins took Amerson 51st overall in April and while I was down on the pick with Amerson rated as a third-rounder on our board, the early returns say that I may have been wrong to doubt Washington’s belief that Amerson was the player he showed as a sophomore, not as a junior.
The statistics don’t jump at the page from his Week 1 debut with just 4 tackles (2 solo) but Amerson was targeted only 4 times even though the Eagles ran 83 plays (34 passes) in Chip Kelly’s first game as head coach. Of those 4 targets, Amerson allowed just one completion for 8 yards and broke up a deep third-down pass to Riley Cooper near the end of the first quarter to force Philadelphia to punt from the Redskins’ 40-yard line. Amerson was on the field for 78 of those 83 plays since the Redskins were in the nickel for the majority of the night, as the Eagles used three-receiver sets to attack what they perceived to be a weakness in Washington’s secondary.
While the Monday night struggles of the aging DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson won’t deter teams from copying the Eagles’ receiver-heavy blueprint, Amerson should quickly find his way into base packages if he continues to play the way he did in Week 1. He’s already put his ball skills on display and if he can translate his 4.4 speed to deep coverage and show the fluidity to stay with receivers down the field, he could prove to be a very nice pick for the Redskins despite my initial reservations.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and interviewing NFL prospects. He also writes for Optimum Scouting, Yahoo! and Jets 101 and has previously worked at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.
After months of speculation, the Jets finally unloaded star cornerback Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay for two draft picks, a 2013 first-round pick (#13 overall) and a conditional 2014 fourth-round pick that becomes a third rounder if Revis is on Tampa Bay’s roster on the third day of the 2014 league year. Adding an extra first rounder this year gave the Jets some extra flexibility to plug some of their many roster holes, but the player they drafted with that pick was a surprise to many. Chris Tripodi grades the Jets’ haul from the 2013 draft.
Dee Milliner/CB/Alabama (Round 1/Pick #9): After trading Darrelle Revis just days before the draft the Jets were happy to draft the top cornerback on their board when he fell to them, despite rumors he could go in the top five. A very physical corner that likes to challenge opposing receivers, Milliner quieted pre-Combine questions about his speed with a blazing 4.37 40-yard dash to cement his top-10 draft status. While the Jets were likely hoping for Tavon Austin here to give their offense a much-needed playmaker, a potential Pro Bowler and immediate starter in the defensive backfield is a nice consolation prize, not to mention a good combination of value and need.
Sheldon Richardson/DT/Missouri (Round 1/Pick #13): The Jets took a lot of heat for this pick considering their need for a pass rusher and while I may be in the minority, I’m on board with Richardson. New York’s linebacker depth has been decimated in recent seasons and a position that was once considered a strength is now loaded with question marks. Richardson is an explosive athlete with the versatility to play as both a 3-technique tackle and a 5-technique end. His presence gives Rex Ryan plenty of flexibility up front with Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples also having the ability to play multiple spots along the line. The Jets will likely play more 4-man fronts in 2013 to mask their issues at linebacker and as teams like the Giants have shown, depth along the defensive line is an invaluable asset in today’s NFL.
Geno Smith/QB/West Virginia (Round 2/Pick #39): The pick of Geno Smith has been scrutinized heavily in the past week and a half and while it’s difficult to question the value of picking the draft’s top quarterback on Day 2, it’s easy to question the situation he’s been put in. The Jets are a dysfunctional mess and it starts at the quarterback position, where Mark Sanchez is a near-lock to be on the roster thanks to his exorbitant cap figure. Sitting and learning for at least half the season is probably the best route for Smith, especially with little talent at the skill positions, but more ineffective play from Sanchez may not allow that to happen. New York may also have a very high pick next year in what projects to be a strong quarterback class; this pick could block them from taking a player like Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater or force them to give up on Smith after just one season. This pick was good value and gives the Jets three players from the Draft Insider Top 25, but Smith could have landed in a far better situation for his own development.
Brian Winters/G/Kent State (Round 3/Pick #72): Winters is another example of value meeting need for the Jets, as he was expected to go right around this spot and should immediately step into the starting lineup. After playing both tackle positions with the Golden Flashes, Winters projects as a starting NFL guard with a nasty attitude, good vision and excellent field awareness. He gets good movement in the running game and understands blocking angles in pass protection, which should help limit the pressure up the middle that bothered Sanchez so much last season. It’s not a flashy pick for the Jets, but definitely a solid one.
Oday Aboushi/T/Virginia (Round 5/Pick #141): A left tackle with the Cavaliers, Aboushi will probably switch over to the right side to compete with Austin Howard as D’Brickashaw Ferguson is entrenched on the blind side. He also may move inside to guard but while Aboushi is a terrific pass blocker, he lacks the nastiness of Winters in the running game. Combined with average run-blocking strength, projecting Aboushi to the right side is a tough sell but we had him rated as a third-round prospect, meaning the Jets found value again along the offensive line. If he can improve in the running game, he has starting potential and ideally would settle in at left guard while Winters mans the right side of center Nick Mangold.
William Campbell/G/Michigan (Round 6/Pick #178): A defensive lineman at Michigan, the Jets plan to move Campbell to guard in using their third consecutive pick on an offensive lineman. Campbell was no more than a sixth-round prospect as a defensive tackle but his coaches at Michigan mentioned to Jets personnel that they feel he can be a good guard in the NFL. Campbell is a powerful bull rusher who used his size (6-5, 311) and explosiveness to hold his ground and collapse down the line on the defensive side of the football. If he can transfer those skills to his new offensive position, his combination of size and athleticism presents good upside in the 6th round and will at least provide the team with some depth along the line. The Jets likely aren’t expecting a contribution from Campbell until 2014 at the earliest.
Tommy Bohanon/FB/Wake Forest (Round 7/Pick #215): This pick seems like a great fit for the Jets, who struggled last season to open holes in the running game and were devoid of a safety valve out of the backfield on passing plays. Bohanon has great blocking vision and strength along with the toughness teams look for in their lead-blocking fullback. Bohanon is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and shows good footwork in pass protection, giving the Jets a solid third-down option in two-back sets. His lack of speed and experience running the football are knocks on his game but with a deep stable of running backs the Jets won’t need him to do much other than block and catch, which happen to be Bohanon’s strengths.
Grade: B-. The Jets went into the 2013 draft with tons of holes to fill and while they picked up an extra first-round draft pick by trading Darrelle Revis, they also traded away their fourth-round pick for the Saints’ Chris Ivory. Picking up Ivory was good value as he seems likely to be the team’s starting running back, although a back like Johnathan Franklin would have also been a nice fit for Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast offense. They drafted to solidify the interior of their offensive line which was a disaster last season outside of Nick Mangold, hoping to protect Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith up the middle and open up holes for Ivory, Mike Goodson and Bilal Powell to run through. The Jets do still have a need at safety and didn’t pick up an offensive playmaker or bolster their pass rush, however, which were three of their biggest needs. Unfortunately the Jets just didn’t have enough picks to fill all of those needs, but the ones they made came with good value. New York picked up three immediate starters and possibly four pending a quarterback competition. It’s hard to be too disappointed with their draft considering the possibility that they addressed up to six starting positions for 2014, which is when the team should realistically be looking to compete again.
A defensive focus hits the Rookie Report coming out of the holidays and with just two weeks left in the season, many of the players listed below have seen their names here before. Some have continued their strong play throughout the season while others are just starting to find their way in the NFL as their rookie year comes to a close. Chris Tripodi is back with another edition of the Rookie Report.
Robert Griffin III (QB-Was)
RGIII highlighted the first rookie report of the 2012 season with a 320-yard passing performance and it was apparent from the moment he stepped onto an NFL field that he was more than just a running quarterback. While he has rushed for 763 yards and 6 touchdowns this season, he also has topped 3,000 yards passing with 20 passing touchdowns, just 5 interceptions and an average of over eight yards per pass attempt.
After missing Week 15 against the Browns and allowing first-year backup Kirk Cousins to show off his talents, Griffin returned to lead the Redskins to victory over the Eagles in Philadelphia. Coach Mike Shanahan said his star rookie was not limited at all by his knee injury that required a brace, but Griffin rushed for a season-low 4 yards on just 2 attempts and said Wednesday that he will be able to do more in Week 17. While the former Baylor star didn’t put on a show Sunday, he did complete 16-of-24 passes and throw 2 touchdowns with an interception.
If Sunday’s performance represented a hobbled Griffin, he looked better injured than half of the quarterbacks in the NFL at full strength. NFL scouts recognized that Griffin was an accurate passer coming out of college but nobody expected him to complete 67 percent of his passes as a rookie. While he has thrived in the short passing game, he does have a 46.7 percent completion rate and 7 touchdowns on passes over 20 yards downfield. Outside of the potential risk for injury if he doesn’t learn to slide more often or get out of bounds, Griffin has shown little downside in his game and should continue to blossom into a superstar.
Marvin Jones (WR-Cin)
Cincinnati has been trying to fill their void at wide receiver on the other side of A.J. Green all season and when Mohamed Sanu broke out with multi-touchdown games a few weeks back, it seemed the Bengals had found their answer. But as quickly as Sanu broke out, he went down with a season-ending stress fracture that opened the door for Jones, a fifth-round pick from California, to start for Cincinnati.
Jones has done little with his opportunity, catching just 10 passes for 130 yards on 18 targets in his four starts including none against the Eagles in Week 15. He had his best statistical game of the season on Sunday, catching 5 passes for 65 yards, but that volume was mainly due to the Steelers constantly double-teaming Green and forcing Andy Dalton to spread the ball around. Jones dropped an easy touchdown in the second quarter that would have provided a huge boost to the Bengals in a game they won 13-10 without scoring an offensive touchdown.
At 6-2, 195 pounds, Jones is tall but certainly isn’t a physical specimen. While his height allows him to get vertical and make some nice catches, he will need to improve his playing strength to have a chance to stay in a starting lineup at the NFL level. If he can do that and eliminate the rookie mistakes he’s been making on a weekly basis, he does have the speed (4.47), hands and route-running ability to be effective behind Green and Sanu in the slot in 2013. The Bengals need him to be more this season but unless the light goes on quickly for Jones, they may not get what they’re looking for.
Quinton Coples (DE-NYJ)
After recording just two sacks in his first 12 NFL games, both of which came in Week 6 against the Colts and one of which resulting in a face mask penalty, Coples has turned it on in the past three weeks in the midst of the Jets’ unraveling season. After a rough start to the season that saw the raw rookie from North Carolina struggle mightily at times, Coples has 3.5 sacks in his past three games and is up to 5.5 on the season.
Coach Rex Ryan was quoted as saying that Coples was, “kind of hitting his stride a little bit,” leading up to the San Diego game, a game which saw the former Tar Heel pick up another 1.5 sacks as he looks to finish the season strong. Coples has certainly looked as raw as most scouts thought he was entering the 2012 draft but his recent play has been encouraging enough that it’s hard to consider his rookie season an absolute bust.
The Jets were likely expecting 6-8 sacks from Coples as a rookie and while he can still reach that plateau, his production has been too little, too late for a team that has been desperate all season for an elite-level pass rusher. At 6-6, 290 pounds with 4.7 speed, he has the ability to be that player for the Jets if he can continue to display the consistency he has shown by sacking the quarterback in three consecutive games. It may have taken an entire season, but New York is finally seeing results from their 2012 first-round pick.
Zach Brown (LB-Ten)
Since stepping into the starting lineup for Tennessee in Week 2, Brown has experienced the highs and lows of rookie life in the NFL. After a 10-tackle debut where Brown sacked Philip Rivers and forced a fumble, the rookie out of North Carolina had more than six tackles just twice in the following six weeks. Since then, Brown has made more than 7 tackles in four of seven games including 9 (8 solo) on Sunday and has 3.5 sacks over his past five games.
Along with fellow youngster Akeem Ayers in the Titans’ linebacking corps, Brown has improved his ability on the blitz in recent weeks and has been lauded by coach Mike Munchak for disguising his blitzes better, allowing him to use his 4.5 speed to get to quarterbacks before they can react. One of the knocks on Brown entering the draft was his lack of forceful blitzing despite his speed, something he has definitely worked to improve during his first NFL season.
Like Janoris Jenkins below, Brown has first-round ability and can be one of the best second-round picks of the 2012 draft if he continues to develop in his first few seasons in the league. He has become a mainstay in the Tennessee lineup as Colin McCarthy has struggled with injuries and after watching him improve steadily throughout the year, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Brown doesn’t start next season.
Janoris Jenkins (CB-StL)
Like Robert Griffin III earlier in the report, Jenkins has been making impact plays all season long in the St. Louis secondary. He started off his career with an interception in Week 1 against Matthew Stafford but he’s been at his best over the last five weeks with three interceptions, a fumble recovery and four pass breakups. The most impressive stat over that span, however, is that Jenkins scored a touchdown on each of those turnovers.
The former Florida and North Alabama star followed up a two-touchdown Week 12 against Arizona by taking a fumble recovery to the house the following week and, on Sunday, Jenkins intercepted Josh Freeman early in the game and took it in for a score as well. The first-year cornerback has been a big-time playmaker for the Rams in his rookie season and may have worked his way into talks for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, something few would have expected after being dismissed from the Gators program just a year ago.
Jenkins’ may not score four times every five games over his career, but 4.42 speed, explosiveness and burst to the ball give him the potential to cause turnovers and take them to the house. Despite being drafted over a round after the player below him on this list, Jenkins has had a far better rookie season and it’s not farfetched to say he has a chance to be the best cornerback in the 2012 draft class.
Morris Claiborne (CB-Dal)
Unlike Jenkins, who has flourished early in his NFL career, the rookie from LSU has hit his share of road bumps along the way. After a few solid games in the middle of the season where Claiborne was consistently around the football, the former Tiger has struggled to make plays in the passing game and against the run. Before Sunday’s game, he hadn’t topped 5 tackles in a game and had just 1 interception and 5 pass breakups.
Claiborne made a career-high 10 tackles (9 solo) and although most of those came after Drew Brees completions, only one of those went for over 15 yards and just two over 10. Claiborne also made a nice play to break up a pass intended for Marques Colston in the endzone to keep New Orleans from scoring at the end of the first half, one of two pass breakups in the game for the rookie.
The former Tiger made what could have been a huge play for Dallas in overtime, forcing a Colston fumble deep in the Cowboys territory after a quick slant. Unfortunately for Claiborne, the ball bounced 20 yards upfield and was recovered by the Saints’ Jimmy Graham to set up an easy field goal and put Dallas in a must-win situation on Sunday to make the playoffs.
Claiborne’s performance against the pass-happy Saints should give hope to a Dallas pass defense that has struggled lately after a good start to the season. Not all rookie cornerbacks hit the ground running like Janoris Jenkins and Claiborne is an example of a player that needs to go through some growing pains before hitting his full potential. He showed off a complete and physical game on Sunday and the Cowboys will need Claiborne to build off of this game to help get them to the playoffs this week.
Jayron Hosley (CB-NYG)
Hosley has been a decent producer for the Giants in their nickel package this season and made a season-high 6 solo tackles against Baltimore on Sunday, three of which came after first-down completions and another three in the running game. While the Giants season has gone downhill in the past two weeks, the rookie third-round pick from Virginia Tech has been a solid find for New York.
At just 5-10, 178 pounds, Hosley’s size is the biggest knock on his NFL potential. Despite having just 1 interception on the season, he entered the NFL with excellent ball skills and has 5 pass breakups on the season, a solid number for a nickel back. His 4.41 speed allows him to stay with receivers down the field and recover when he’s beat with a great closing burst and recovery speed.
Hosley can play in both man-to-man and zone coverage and works hard to stop the run, as seen on Sunday. The former Hokie has good skills but won’t be able to cover bigger NFL receivers, which will likely prevent him from ever being a starter. He can certainly find a home in the nickel though as he already has with the Giants behind Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara.
Harrison Smith (S-Min)
The 29th overall pick out of Notre Dame, Smith started slowly this season and had no more than 3 solo tackles in any of his first six games. In the nine games since, the former Fighting Irish star hasn’t made less than 4 solo tackles in a single game and has put together three double-digit tackling performances along with 3 interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and 2 touchdowns on interception returns.
Smith has been even better over his last five games, totaling 42 tackles (36 solo) as Minnesota has made a push towards a playoff spot in the NFC. So far in his rookie season, Smith has lived up to his reputation as a hard-hitting downhill safety and while he wasn’t known as a ballhawk in college, Smith has shown the ability to play the ball in the air and stay with opponents in coverage.
At 6-2, 213 pounds, Smith has prototypical size for an NFL strong safety and has done nothing but improve so far in his first NFL season. He was the second safety taken in April and while the first (Tampa Bay’s Mark Barron) started the season playing better football, it’s Smith who is closing the season on a high note on a team with playoff aspirations. If he continues to find himself around the ball consistently, the future is very bright for the Vikings young strong safety.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, compiling Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and conducting draft interviews with NFL prospects. He has been a sportswriter for multiple newspapers and previously worked at ESPN and with the Rochester Red Wings, the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.