Rookie Watch: Andre Ellington leads Cardinals to victory, Jets’ rookies struggle
Don’t tell the 2013 draft class that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Midway through the season, the impact players from April’s draft seem to be concentrated at one position: running back.
No running back was taken until the 37th overall pick, yet at least a half dozen rookie backs have become feature players in their respective offenses. Week 8 brought us the breakout performance of Andre Ellington. Against a broken down Falcons team, Ellington dazzled, showing off his explosive quickness and burst to the tune of 162 total yards and a touchdown on just 17 touches.
Zac Stacy pounded arguably the best front seven in the league for over 130 yards Monday night before getting injured, and Eddie Lacy toted the rock a remarkable 29 times on the ground and got another four touches through the air for 112 total yards and a score in the Packers Sunday night win over the Vikings. To give you an idea of how much trust coach Mike McCarthy has in Lacy, those 29 touches were the same number of attempts as former league MVP Aaron Rodgers had throwing the ball against Minnesota.
Even sixth-round pick Mike James was solid against Carolina in relief of Doug Martin. The former Miami back had 64 yards on 14 touches while showing nice vision and cutback ability.
Not every rookie running back flashed in Week 8, as Le’Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard made little impact for their teams, but both have had big games this year for their AFC North clubs.
• Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins: Reed led this segment in Week 7 as well, and his repeat performance stems from another stellar game in which he went for 90 yards on eight catches. Reed has become the most consistent part of the Redskins offense, developing a rapport with Robert Griffin III. While RGIII remains rusty, Reed had been his safety net, finding holes in the defense, particularly when plays break down and Griffin has to extend the play. A former Florida standout, Reed’s game resembles that of fellow Gator Aaron Hernandez (on the field only).
• Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings: There may not have been a more physically gifted player in the 2013 draft class than Patterson. Minnesota is still figuring out how to use him — and Patterson, with just one year of major college ball under his belt, is still figuring out how to be a receiver — but when you return a kickoff 109 yards for six, it’s obvious there’s a canvas with which to work. Think about this: It only took him 12 seconds to go 109 yards, carrying football pads, the ball and not running in a straight line. That is flat-out freakish speed and athletic talent. Patterson had just two catches, but you can see the big-play ability every time he touches the ball.
• Sio Moore, LB, Oakland Raiders: Pittsburgh always seems to struggle against Oakland and on Sunday, a rookie linebacker from Connecticut was a big reason why. Moore, a third-round pick, hadn’t been seeing the field much on third down, but against the Steelers’ horrible offensive line, he was able to break out. Moore notched two sacks to go along with five total tackles as the Raiders shut down the Pittsburgh offense all afternoon. Also of note, Moore’s first career sack came on the first play of the game two weeks ago against the Chiefs, when Moore bull-rushed No. 1 overall pick back into the quarterback’s lap.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans Saints; Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo Bills; Tyrann Mathieu, S, Arizona Cardinals; Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys, Micah Hyde, DB, Green Bay Packers.
• Top-10 offensive tackles: Considered two of the best athletes in the tackle class and therefore ideally suited to pass block, both Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson have had mediocre-to-bad rookie seasons to date. Week 8 was no exception as Fisher allowed a sack, a hit and three hurries, while Lane Johnson allowed a pair of sacks, four hurries and a knockdown. Both were asked to step right into starting positions as top picks, but neither seems prepared for the physical nature of NFL pass rushers. Both are highly susceptible to bull rushers, and an inability to anchor was a knock on both coming out of college. Luckily for Fisher, his team continues to win despite his struggles. For Johnson, the Eagles are on their third quarterback and the hits he’s giving up are part of the problem in Philly. At least neither is the third member of this trio, Luke Joeckel, who, after suffering a season-ending ankle injury, is forced to watch the Jaguars get embarrassed every Sunday.
• New York Jets rookies: It’s a cliche to say, “What a different a week makes,” but the contrast from Week 7 to Week 8 for the Jets and their rookies couldn’t be more stark. It’s been Geno Smith’s M.O. all season to go from awful one week to comeback hero the next, and after leading a late victory over the Pats, Smith threw two pick-sixes and was generally awful before being pulled in favor of Matt Sims late. Dee Milliner was absolutely torched by Andy Dalton and the Bengals receivers, allowing four of his five targets for a whopping 108 yards and a score. Even rookie offensive linemen Brian Winters got into the rookie act, allowing two sacks, a hit and a trio of hurries.
• Dion Jordan, DE, Miami Dolphins: When the Dolphins traded up to the third overall spot in the first round to pick Dion Jordan, they likely had one team in mind: the New England Patriots. More specifically, they were thinking about Tom Brady and putting pressure on him when Miami plays the Pats twice a year. That means you can’t no-show like Jordan did on Sunday. Scour for evidence that Jordan played Sunday against the Patriots, statistical evidence anyway, and you will come up empty. He put up a donut in the very game he was drafted to affect. To be fair to Jordan, he’s playing less than 30 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, but there’s still no excuse for coming up so short.
Honorable Mention: Josh Evans, S, Jacksonville Jaguars; Matt Barkley, QB, Philadelphia Eagles; Johnathan Cyprien, S, Jacksonville Jaguars.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1.) Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers: This award is now Lacy’s to lose. Green Bay has the third-best rushing offense in the league and Lacy is the major reason why. What’s more, Green Bay has been decimated by injuries, particularly at receiver with Randall Cobb, James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley all missing significant time, and Lacy has been the player to pick up the slack for an NFC contender. No other rookie can claim so much responsibility while also having so much success.
2.) Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins: With Gio Bernard quiet the last few weeks and Keenan Allen coming off a bye, the hottest offensive rookie not named ‘Lacy’ right now is Reed. The question moving forward will be how he plays with teams keying on him. Washington doesn’t exactly have a bevy of offensive talent at the skill position outside of Reed and Pierre Garçon.
3.) Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets: Even with Sunday’s debacle, a quarterback is always going to be in the mix here and Smith has shown he can play brilliantly at times. Given his history this season, the Cincinnati game just means Week 9 should be spectacular, which the Jets will need in a game against Drew Brees and the Saints. Smith has several signature moments to which he can point. Few other players have such sparkling examples.
Honorable Mention: Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1.) Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo Bills: The tackling machine was back to his old tricks Sunday, notching 11 stops against the Saints. That being said, Alonso hasn’t made a major impact in the passing game in recent weeks and doesn’t pressure the quarterback well on blitzes. Alonso needs to get back to making splash plays to hold off the challengers in what has become a fierce competition for DROY.
2.) Tyrann Mathieu, S, Arizona Cardinals: Arizona’s defense has played excellent football lately, and Mathieu has been making impact plays all over the field for the Cards. He had seven more tackles against Matt Ryan and the Falcons, including a pick of Ryan. Mathieu is one of the key chess pieces to a versatile, rugged defense and when he’s playing well, this unit is extremely tough. A forgettable week from Sheldon Richardson, coupled with Mathieu’s big plays Sunday were enough to move him into second, and the Honey Badgers is not far from leading this category.
3.) Kenny Vaccaro, S, New Orleans Saints: It’s so hard to bump Sheldon Richardson off this list — he’s still the best rookie according to Pro Football Focus — but the Jets are inconsistent and Vaccaro seems to make one or two plays every game that make you stand up and take notice. Rob Ryan uses him all over the field and the Texas product can cover as well as hit with some attitude. He’s leading the resurgence of the New Orleans defense.
Honorable Mention: Sheldon Richardson, DL, New York Jets.