PFF Rookie Watch: Late Bloomers
Perhaps more than ever, rookies are stepping right into the league and having immediate success. Our Race for Rookie of the Year is littered with first-year players who have earned starting roles from their first day of training camp. However, beyond those rookies who have received the majority of the hype, there are a number of under-the-radar players who waited their turn and started to see an increase in playing time here in the second half of the season.
For some teams, the late-developing rookie could act as an added bonus or perhaps just added depth for a playoff push. For the teams out of the race, these rookies could be players to build around for the future.
Whether they were forced into action due to injury, or earned their keep by sitting and watching, here are some of the rookies who have seen the field on a more regular basis in the second half of the season.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Drafted to back-up first-round pick Robert Griffin III, Cousins saw spot duty in two games before making his first start last week. He led the Redskins to a comeback win in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens, and then graded at +3.0 against the Cleveland Browns as the starter. Cousins was featured as the Best Offensive Sub for Week 15 as he helped keep Washington’s playoff hopes alive while holding the fort for Griffin’s likely return this week. Though he’s thrown only 48 passes to this point in his career, Cousins has impressed many around the league and rumors are already circulating about his price tag in a future trade.
DeVier Posey, WR, Houston Texans
Have the Texans found their No. 2 wide receiver to play opposite Andre Johnson? WR Kevin Walter has been entrenched in the role, but he’s never been a player who had instilled fear into opposing defenses. While Posey has taken snaps throughout the season, he had his first real chance to shine last week against the Indianapolis Colts. He hauled in all three passes thrown his way for 46 yards, including a 36 yarder on a deep post route into traffic. Posey saw a season-high 36 snaps, while Walter played a season-low 39, so this may be a sign of things to come as Houston prepares for the playoffs.
Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston Texans
The Texans’ first-rounder was eased into the action this season, as he didn’t play more than 17 snaps in a game until he played 71 in Week 12. He’s started the past four games, and despite the six sacks on the season, he has not been an effective pass rusher. He’s grading at -9.7 for the season with a Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) of 6.9 that ranks 24th out of the top 33 qualifiers among 3-4 outside linebackers. He’s fared better as a run defender, grading at +1.1 with six run stops. The Texans continue to search for an edge rusher to complement DE J.J. Watt.
LaMichael James, RB, San Francisco 49ers
James did not see his first action until Week 14, and he’s played only 29 snaps on the season. With Kendall Hunter out for the year, James has taken over the role of change-of-pace back behind starter Frank Gore. He’s started slowly, averaging only 3.8 yards/carry, but he’s forced three missed tackles on his 16 attempts. The 49ers are extremely creative in the running game and with Colin Kaepernick a threat to run from their shotgun/pistol packages, James will be in good position to use his speed and elusiveness to create big plays.
Trevor Robinson, C, Cincinnati Bengals
It’s been a revolving door at center for the Bengals this season, but Robinson has brought stability to the position in the second half. His first full game was Week 10, after seeing spot duty throughout the beginning of the season, and he’s graded at +2.3 since taking over the starting job. He’s given up seven pressures on his 215 pass-block attempts for the year, while grading at +1.3 as a run blocker.
Dezman Moses, OLB, Green Bay Packers
The injury bug has struck the Packers at outside linebacker, forcing the undrafted Moses into extended action in Week 9. He’s had 205 pass rush opportunities with only 16 pressures to show for it, good for a PRP of 6.7. The return of Clay Matthews eased Moses’ workload last week, and he may have a better chance to contribute in a more limited role going forward.
Other Rookies on Playoff Contenders
James Brown, OG, Chicago Bears: The Bears’ offensive line has had another difficult season, and Brown first filled in at left guard in Week 14. The undrafted free agent has struggled, giving up six pressures on his 55 pass blocks and grading at – 3.4 in the running game.
Marvin Jones, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have been cycling through No. 2 wide receivers, and Jones was the latest to get a shot. He’s played 86% of snaps the past three weeks, but managed to haul in only five receptions for 65 yards in that time.
David DeCastro, OG, Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh’s first-round pick, DeCastro was injured in the preseason and finally made his debut last week. He played all 62 snaps, grading at +2.2 for the day.
Kelvin Beachum, OT, Pittsburgh Steelers: With a lot of attrition on Pittsburgh’s offensive line, Beachum has started the Past three games after playing only seven snaps on the season. He’s given up 15 pressures on his 158 pass block attempts for a near-average pass block grade of -0.1.
Jarius Wright, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Wright made his debut in Week 10 and he’s been a part of Minnesota’s never-ending quest to find playmakers at wide receiver. After a promising start that included a 54-yard reception, he’s cooled off in recent week and has 14 receptions for 167 yards and three drops on the season.
Turn the page for rookies on non-playoff contenders.
Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Perhaps the most notable of the late starters, Foles took over for injured quarterback Michael Vick in Week 10 before starting his first game the following week. Foles has had his ups and downs, ranging from his -6.7 grade in his first start to a +6.1 masterpiece against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14. For the season he’s grading at -8.2, and he has two more weeks to prove that the Tampa Bay game was not an anomaly, and show that he’s capable of becoming the Eagles’ future signal-caller.
Vinny Curry, DE, Philadelphia Eagles
Curry made his debut in Week 12 and it coincided with the release of DE Jason Babin. Though he was expected to boost the Eagles’ pass rush, Curry has rushed the passer on only 28 of his 72 snaps, tallying three hurries. He’s shown well against the run, as he’s picked up six stops on his 42 run snaps, good for a Run Stop Percentage of 11.9. He’ll continue to get a long look as part of Philadelphia’s deep defensive line rotation.
Nate Potter, OT, Arizona Cardinals
It’s been a well-publicized horrendous season for the Cardinals’ offensive line, and Potter got his first crack at left tackle in Week 9. He’s provided a slight upgrade over incumbent D’Anthony Batiste, who graded at -38.8 with a Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) of 88.6 that ranks second-worst among tackles. Potter has given up 22 pressures on his 226 pass-block attempts, for a PBE of 93.4 and overall grade of -6.1. Perhaps he can make continued improvement like fellow rookie Bobby Massie, but it’s likely that Arizona will be looking for offensive line help this offseason.
Donald Stephenson, OT, Kansas City Chiefs
After tearing it up at the NFL Combine, third-round pick Donald Stephenson got his first start at right tackle Week 11, before seeing time at left tackle for the next four games. While he’s showed well as a run blocker (+0.9), Stephenson has had some issues in pass protection, as he’s given up 15 pressures, including four sacks, on his 148 pass-block attempts ,for a less than stellar Pass Blocking Efficiency of 91.1. With starting left tackle Brandon Albert in the final year of his contract, Stephenson has two more games to prove that he’s the future at the position for the Chiefs.
Leonard Johnson, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Johnson saw the field a little earlier than most of the other players on this list, as he played his first significant action in Week 8. After a strong start grading at +4.6 over a three-game stretch, he’s since graded at -5.0 over his last five games as part of a depleted Tampa Bay secondary. He’s been the culprit on a pair of 80-yard touchdowns over the past five weeks and he’s surrendered four total scores in that time. Despite a decrease in playing time last week, Johnson has already exceeded expectations as an undrafted free agent and Tampa Bay will give him a long look as a future piece of their secondary.
Coty Sensabaugh, CB, Tennessee Titans
A favorite among NFL Draft analysts, Sensabaugh had only 33 snaps under his belt before matching that number in Week 9. He’s now up to 213 snaps on the season, 178 of which have come in the slot. He’s made some nice plays on shorter passes, but he’s struggled at times with balls thrown over his head. He’s missed only one tackle in his 21 attempts, so that could bode well for more snaps in the slot going forward. For the season, Sensabaugh is right around average grading at -0.6 overall.
Other Rookies on Non-Playoff Contenders
Ron Brooks, CB, Buffalo Bills: Buffalo has been depleted at the CB position, and Brooks cracked the starting lineup in Week 13. While he’s made some nice plays in coverage, the fundamentals have failed him as he’s missed four tackles and committed three penalties on his 153 snaps.
D.J. Campbell, FS, Carolina Panthers: Campbell saw his first action with seven snaps in Week 13, and he’s been in on every play the Past two weeks. In his limited time, he’s missed two of his seven tackle attempts and given up 5-of-6 passes thrown his way for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Brandon Taylor, FS, San Diego Chargers: Taylor played 16 of his 19 career snaps last week against the Carolina Panthers. He has two run stops in his limited action, and his role is expected to increase in the last two games.
Tashaun Gipson, FS, Cleveland Browns: After playing 58 snaps the first four weeks of the season, Gipson didn’t see the field again until Week 11 and he’s now played 321 snaps for the year. He’s showed his inexperience at times, like in Week 13 when he bit on a Carson Palmer pump fake and allowed a wide receiver to get behind him for a touchdown, but for the most part, Gipson has shown well at -0.3 for the season.