First Impressions: The Top Ten Rookies
First Impressions: The Top Ten Rookies
Boundless enthusiasm and baseless optimism, it must be Week 1 of the preseason. It’s that time of year where fans cling to the hope that what has gone before either means everything or nothing. The past means nothing to the team that had the four-win season; they can be the team that goes from worst to first. It means everything to the team that won it all; they can join the pantheon of back-to-back Superbowl champions. It is indicative to the team that finished strong but fell short; they will take that next step this season. Everyone knows that this only pans out as planned for a few teams, but after the starvation of the off-season the sense of optimism is palpable.
Well the first week of preseason is in the books and it’s time to take a look back and reflect on the first impressions. Ten players have as much pressure and expectation on them as any, the first 10 selected in New York during April’s NFL Draft. In spite of past history suggesting it isn’t a sure thing these players are expected to turn around their franchise’s fortunes and lead them to the top, sooner rather than later.
These expectations are rarely realistic, but with baited breath we take a look at the first showing of these 10 heralded rookies, well those that saw the field anyway.
1. Andrew Luck
One of the most underrated aspects of Luck’s predecessor in Indianapolis was his ability to avoid pressure and make his offensive line look good. On the evidence of this game Andrew Luck will be much tested under pressure and he appears up to the task. He wasn’t as subtle as Peyton Manning in side stepping the rush but he did always look composed and though he took some hits he wasn’t flustered by the early pressure. His completion to Ty Hilton on his fifth pass was a risky one, Jenkins drove under the route but Luck just got the pass through. It is only a first view in preseason but Luck appears ready to make the seamless transition to the NFL that fans and pundits projected from him.
2. Robert Griffin III
For the last 12 months Robert Griffin III has been upstaging the more heralded Andrew Luck, winning the Heisman Trophy and stealing the headlines around the Draft as the Redskins paid a king’s ransom to select Griffin with the second overall pick. However in their first competitive action Luck exacted his revenge and after a solid debut against the Bills, Griffin was firmly upstaged when Luck played the Rams. Griffin looked solid enough for the Redskins however, so there’s no need to fret for Redskins fans. His first pass, an incompletion, might have been reviewed and overturned in season but after that he was for the most part given safe throws and he didn’t introduce any danger to them. If your first preseason game is there to find your feet in the NFL then Griffin should have done just that. We will wait to see more from Griffin in the coming weeks.
3. Trent Richardson
Rarely when the name Dr. James Andrews is mentioned is it immediate good news for a fan base; Browns fans learned that in the last week. Richardson missed the Browns preseason opener with the Lions and his status for the beginning of the regular season remains unclear. He was drafted to be the Browns new workhorse, early wear and tear after a busy collegiate career will start to make Browns fans nervous.
4. Matt Kalil
A solid debut for Kalil but he missed a golden opportunity to announce his arrival in the NFL on debut. Going up against the best defense in the league from last season in the 49ers he got off to a little bit of an uneasy start before settling down later in his 18 snaps. Faced with the task of blocking last year’s rookie phenom Aldon Smith, he was beaten for quick pressure on the final play of the Vikings’ opening drive and prior to that was beaten by a shoulder shimmy from Smith, though he did see him deep enough to curtail any pressure on that play. As a run blocker he was beaten for a short tackle by Ricky Jean-Francois and stumbled on a pull block failing to effectively lead a Toby Gerhart run outside. As the first quarter wore on Kalil settled but wasn’t really tested again after the start of the game. We’re eager to see how Kalil puts together a full sixty minutes of football next month.
5. Justin Blackmon
After a lengthy holdout Blackmon is now officially a Jacksonville Jaguar and after the Jags waived Lee Evans he is already working with the Jags’ first team and is slated to start on Friday against the Saints. Blackmon did however sit out the Jaguars’ first preseason game, we and Jags fans will be eager to get a first look at Blackmon against the Saints. Both to see how good he is and whether he can have a positive effect on Blaine Gabbert’s development.
6. Morris Claiborne
Another member of the Top 10 struggling with injury early in preseason, Claiborne is scheduled to miss the Cowboys’ first game in Oakland tonight. There were some reports, later addressed by Stephen Jones as misleading, that the Cowboys were frustrated with Claiborne and his injuries. At the end of the day, this is preseason and while early injuries are never welcome, Cowboys fans will only be interested in Claiborne being healthy come Week 1 when he, hopefully, goes head-to-head with Eli Manning and the Giants’ receiving corps in the season curtain-raiser.
7. Mark Barron
A foot injury sidelined Barron for the Bucs’ preseason bow on Friday night in Miami, making him the fourth member of the Top 10 to be sidelined for the opening week of preseason. Barron and the Bucs don’t expect him to miss any more preseason games and they need him healthy to start the season. The terrible play of Tampa Bay’s secondary was a big reason for their struggles last season and Barron is supposed to be the man to remedy their ailing defensive backfield this season. Without him their secondary looks alarmingly similar to last season’s, and that is in no way a good thing for the Buccaneers and their fans.
8. Ryan Tannehill
After months of it being trendy to write Tannehill off and panning the Dolphins for reaching for him, it now appears to be trendy to say that the Dolphins should hurry him into action. The buzz around Tannehill’s preseason debut has been under the level of that relating to Luck and Griffin’s, but it could be easily argued that he was the second most impressive Top 10 pick in the opening week of exhibition. Tannehill got off to a rookie-esque start, capping a predictable run-run-pass play call with an overthrow to an out route. Outside of that one throw, a late speed out without the necessary velocity, which Tannehill forced, that might have been picked off for a touchdown by Anthony Gaitor, the rookie was on the money. He showed touch on deep throws, getting a pass over Marquese Wheaton on a long pass to Roberto Wallace in the third quarter and didn’t make a mess of his short passes, allowing the likes of Charles Clay to collect a lot of yardage after the catch.
Probably most impressive, however, was his passing against zone coverage. Considering his inexperience and the relative inexperience of his receivers, there were a number of passes completed to hitch routes against zone coverage, throwing receivers open from behind a defender. Such passes are often a mystery for young quarterbacks but Tannehill made them his own. There is an important note of caution here, Tannehill was going against the backups of what (until we see otherwise) is a miserable Tampa Bay starting defense. The Dolphins’ starting QB battle is heating up and Tannehill at least showed on Friday night that he cannot be ruled out as not being ready to step in immediately.
9. Luke Kuechly
What better way to make a name for yourself in preseason than to make a splash play? Particularly when you come in with the reputation of being a “safe” pick, adding that early splash is just going to get the positive press and fan support rolling in. Kuechly did just that with his forced fumble on Arian Foster, a play on which he worked in field and clearly targeted the football to force it loose. However Kuechly’s display wasn’t faultless. This forced fumble and his tackle for no gain at the goal-line, sniffing out Ben Tate in traffic, were impressive plays, but they were balanced by some nervy early play as well. Earlier in that drive he was cut trying to contain an outside run by a pull-blocking Wade Smith which widened that gap on a 6-yard gain by Ben Tate. He was part of a mix up in the middle of the field which allowed a big gain by Owen Daniels, the play after which he was slow to get over the top of a run which took Tate and the Texans down to the 2-yard line. As the nerves start to settle in the coming weeks we’ll see whether Kuechly’s play settles down at the same time.
10. Stephon Gilmore
Preseason is a tough time for any defensive back, let alone a rookie corner playing against a first team offense. You aren’t on the field for very long, Gilmore played 14 snaps starting at right corner against the Redskins’ first team, and consequently you don’t get very long to build into the game or recover from mistakes. On Pierre Garcon’s touchdown reception he showed how not to play against an offensive lineman in space. Gilmore hit Williams in the middle of the chest and that simply isn’t a battle that a corner is going to win against a tackle. Gilmore not only lost contain at the second level but was also driven upfield for 5 yards by Williams, to cut off Jairus Byrd’s pursuit. Steve Johnson has been quoted as saying he sees a lot of Darrelle Revis in Stephon Gilmore, we may need to wait for the regular season to see if what Johnson sees is really there.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.