Rookie Watch: The best, worst, and in between from rookies in Week 1
Once the preseason ends, the time for projecting and assessing a player’s future is over. In Week 1, teams need rookies to start playing like veterans.
Unfortunately, more often than not, they don’t. They are, after all, just rookies. What’s more, the NFL’s unemployment line is littered with players who sparkled early on, only to watch their careers fizzle whether due to injury or other reasons.
With that in mind, here are the rookies who stood out in Week 1, both for better and for worse.
• The QBs: The outcome of the games were different for Geno Smith and EJ Manuel, but the poise and decision-making of both were impressive. Smith, a second-round pick, threw the ball a whopping 38 times after attempting just 37 passes total in the preseason, and engineered the Jets’ game-winning drive — albeit aided by a bonehead penalty by Lavonte David. Manuel, facing the Patriots’ aggressive defense, was patient and efficient, tossing two touchdowns and completing 18-of-27 passes — a 66.7 completion percentage. We’ll get a better idea of how far along the No. 16 overall pick is when he faces Carolina Sunday.
• Eric Reid, S, San Francisco 49ers : Like the 49ers need another ball-hawking safety who can run and loves nothing more than lighting up receivers and running backs. Reid, the No. 18 pick, was all over the field against the Packers, making six solo tackles to go along with an interception of a ball that bounced off the hands of
usually sure-handed Jermichael Finley. On one Aaron Rodgers scramble, Reid responded with so much speed and explosiveness, he went from out of the frame to making the tackle before you could read the number on his back. Dashon who?
• Jordan Mills, OT, Chicago: A fifth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, Mills easily outplayed the Bears’ first-round pick Jake Long against the Bengals. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Mills came out with a +3.4 grade, out-pacing Long’s -1.7 by a wide margin. Going against the pulverizing front seven of the Bengals, both rookies acquitted themselves, however, as the Bears did not allow a sack of Jay Cutler. Now Chicago’s starting right tackle, Mills will face further challenges in his own division from players such as Jared Allen and Clay Matthews. Cincy was a good early test and the rookie more than held his own.
Honorable Mention: Tyrann Mathieu, S, Arizona Cardinals; Sheldon Richardson, DT, New York Jets; Alec Ogletree, LB, St. Louis Rams; Kenny Still, WR, New Orleans Saints.
• Eric Fisher, OT, Chiefs/Luke Joeckel, OT, Jaguars: The top-2 picks in the draft made their regular-season debut in the same game and neither looked particularly comfortable. Joeckel allowed a sack to Justin Houston, who finished the day with three, proving essentially unblockable against the Jaguars’ struggling offensive front. He (and the rest of the line) also failed to open any running lanes for Maurice Jones-Drew who finished with 15 carries for 45 yards. Fisher’s struggles were less obvious, but he was inefficient, at times, in the running game. Fisher’s athleticism was part of his appeal and he flashed it against the Jaguars, particularly in pass-blocking, but the Chiefs are going to need Fisher to be better in the run-game.
• Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, Patriots: To be so down on a player who was undrafted out of Cincinnati may seem a bit harsh, but blame the hype machine in Boston for that. Thompkins was billed as the player who would keep the Patriots’ offense afloat while Danny Amendola got up to speed and Rob Gronkowski got healthy. Instead, his debut was as the Globe put it, awful. He caught four passes for 42 yards, but was targeted 14 times. Thompkins — to the chagrin of the fantasy owners who took him about four rounds too high — failed to make relatively routine plays on a number of occasions whether it was getting two feet in bounds, or just completing the catch. He even reportedly ran the wrong route on a play near the goal line that wound up being a sack. Things can’t get much worse, but the Pats will need Thompkins more than ever with Amendola and Gronk out this week.
• Darius Slay, CB, Detroit Lions : We thought there might be some rookie-on-rookie matchups between Slay and first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson in the Vikings/Lions game, but Slay struggled so mightily, he was lifted in favor of August-signee Rashean Mathis. Slay had no interest in tackling Adrian Peterson on two touchdown runs (he’s not the first to make such a business decision) and played just 44 snaps as a result of his timidity. Coming out of Mississippi State, Slay, a second-round pick, was praised for his aggressiveness and toughness against the run, but against the Vikings, we didn’t see that same level of intensity. Getting benched against Christian Ponder in favor of a street free agent is not an ideal way to start your NFL career.
Honorable Mention: Bjoern Werner, OLB, Indianapolis Colts; Dee Milliner, CB, New York Jets.
• Eddy Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers: The rookie back was supposed to save the Packers’ running game, but managed just 41 yards on 14 carries against the 49ers. Granted he was going against the fiercest defense in football, but Lacy was indecisive and sluggish to the hole, which is exactly the opposite of what we saw in the preseason. As the game wore on though, Lacy seemed to find a grove. On the go-ahead Packers’ score, Lacy had a 31-yard catch-and-run to set up his one-yard score. Green Bay’s line also didn’t do Lacy any favors, as holding calls negated several of his best runs of the day. An early fumble by the second-round pick was uncharacteristic — he was known for being as sure-handed as they come at Alabama — and was a major momentum swing early in the game, leading to Lacy getting benched. As good as the SEC is, monsters like Aldon and Justin Smith — who combined to force the fumble — don’t play there.
• Dion Jordan, DE, Miami Dolphins: Trading up to No. 3 to get the Oregon standout was a shock for the Dolphins, but the athletic, versatile Jordan has the potential to be a star. Surprisingly, he played just 17 defensive snaps — and 17 special-teams snaps — and was limited to one tackle. The good news for the Dolphins was that one tackle happened to be a sack, but his usage was odd to say the least. Expect some growing pains for Jordan this season as Miami figures out how to use his unique blend of size and speed. With Cameron Wake coming off the other edge, Jordan could see plenty of one-on-one matchups.
• First-round corners: While Dee Milliner struggled for the Jets at times, Xavier Rhodes and D.J. Hayden played pretty well considering the offenses they were facing. Rhodes covered Calvin Johnson on five targets and allowed four completions, limiting Megatron to just 33 yards. Hayden was targeted just three times by Andrew Luck and allowed three completions. Both tall, big-bodied corners were drafted specifically to cover guys in their conference like Calvin Johnson and Reggie Wayne, respectively. We’ll see if they can hold up long term with the receivers of all shapes and sizes the NFL will throw at them.
Honorable Mention: Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals, Cordarrelle Patterson WR, Vikings