Analysis  

 

Among rookies, Justin Blackmon down, Luke Kuechly up

This past Sunday was one of the wildest in recent memory, with plenty of dramatic moments and big performances. But with all the hubbub, many folks might not have noticed that two unheralded rookies book-ended the day.

Cincinnati Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu started things off by taking a direct snap in a Wildcat formation and throwing a 73-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in the first play of Cincinnati's 38-31 win over the Washington Redskins. Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker closed things out with a last-second, game-winning field goal in a night-time matchup with the New England Patriots.

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What makes these players especially notable is that, with the exception of some high-level quarterbacks, it's tough for rookies to come in and make an immediate impact. Yet Sanu, a high school quarterback who threw three touchdown passes out of the Wildcat formation at Rutgers, and Tucker, who went undrafted despite being a successful kicker in a high-profile program at Texas, were able to do just that.

Considering how tough it can be for first-year pros to find success, I've identified five rookies who have exceeded or lived up to expectations and five who seem to be in over their heads so far this season. 

None of these rookies play quarterback, which is a separate beast. That position gets plenty of attention; even casual fans likely already know how Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck are doing. That's why you won't find their names included below.

All of these players are just three games into their pro careers, which, it almost goes without saying, means we're dealing with some limited sample sizes. Still, it's possible to draw some conclusions about how these players are progressing so far.

FIVE THRIVING ROOKIES

Cordy Glenn, T, Buffalo Bills
Glenn, a second-round draft pick, has started all three games despite playing a very difficult position for a rookie. A giant of a man who's also very light-footed, he moves like a point guard. Glenn has done a lot to help Buffalo rank third in the NFL in rushing; he really stood out against Kansas City in Week 2. If the draft were to take place today, I think Glenn would probably be taken much higher.

Johnny Hekker, P, St. Louis Rams
Hekker was a rugby-style kicker in college, which perhaps caused him to be overlooked; he eventually landed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent. In three NFL games, he's punted 14 times, with his punts traveling an average of 48.8 yards. In my opinion, he's the reason the Rams beat the Redskins in Week 2, when he booted a pivotal 66-yarder. I think he's going to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player some day; he has amazing leg extension when he hits the ball, and the hang time on his punts is around 5.1 seconds, which is very good.

Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
The ninth overall draft pick has stepped in nicely as the Panthers' starting weakside linebacker. Kuechly, who had 12 tackles in a loss to the New York Giants last Thursday, plays even better in space than he does against the run.

Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins
Last week, we praised the Redskins for taking a shot on Morris with a sixth-round draft pick. After three weeks, he's shown himself to be the kind of one-cut runner that coach Mike Shanahan loves, leading Washington with 263 rushing yards and three scores on 61 attempts. Morris will block in pass protection, but he's not a great receiver.

Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks
Wagner plays with great speed and toughness, and makes plays all over the field when defending the run. The final call in Seattle's Monday-night matchup with the Green Bay Packers obviously stole the spotlight, but Wagner had a fine outing, collecting a season-high eight tackles.

We considered many young players when writing this piece. Here's a list of other successful first-timers who didn't quite make our cut:

Jamell Fleming, CB, Arizona Cardinals; Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis Colts; Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears; Janoris Jenkins, CB, St. Louis Rams; Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots; Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Mychal Kendricks, LB, Philadelphia Eagles; Dontari Poe, DT, Kansas City Chiefs; Kevin Zeitler, OG, Cincinnati Bengals.

FIVE UNDERACHIEVERS

Mike Adams, OT, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh needed offensive-line help when it drafted Adams out of Ohio State in the second round, but he hasn't been able to win the starting right tackle job. He played just one snap with the offense against the Jets in Week 2 and wasn't active for a loss to the Oakland Raiders.

Justin Blackmon, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars traded up to take Blackmon with the fifth overall pick, but he has just four catches for 31 yards so far this season. He didn't have any catches in Week 2 and had just one for seven yards in Week 3. The interesting thing is that when the Jaguars needed a big play against the Indianapolis Colts, they threw to Cecil Shorts III instead of Blackmon, who doesn't look very fast or explosive when running routes.

Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Floyd was looked at as a possible running partner for star receiver Larry Fitzgerald when he was taken with the 13th overall draft pick. However, after coming in overweight, Floyd has just one catch for eight yards (and a touchdown) so far. He was targeted just twice in Week 3 and not at all in Week 2.

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Brian Quick, WR, St. Louis Rams
Drafted at the top of the second round to fill a position of need for the Rams, Quick has not caught a pass yet. He was inactive in Week 3 after being targeted just once in Week 2 and not at all in Week 1. He hasn't looked like a very good route-runner.

Riley Reiff, OT, Detroit Lions
Detroit could use offensive-line help, but Reiff, their first-round pick, has not been able to break through at either right or left tackle.

Two other players who have been less than impressive thus far are San Francisco 49ers receiver A.J. Jenkins, who has not played in a game this season, and Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin, who has started but hasn't looked very good.

While it's true that these players haven't fulfilled the high expectations that were set for them coming out of college, they're all still just three games into their careers. Rookies don't often come in and burn up the league. Receivers, especially, have a difficult time adjusting to the NFL. However, that isn't to say that these players can't go on to better things this season or in the future.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

» Phone Call of the Week: Joe Montana called to tell me about the day his son, Nate Montana, had playing quarterback for Division II West Virginia Wesleyan on Saturday. The younger Montana threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-17 win over Seton Hall. Joe thought it would be a good idea for me to come down and watch his son play. I told him I shouldn't even be talking to him after what he did to the Dallas Cowboys when I was working there.

» During the Tennessee Titans' 44-41 overtime victory against the Detroit Lions, Titans return man Darius Reynaud lateralled a punt across the field to Tommie Campbell, who sprinted 65 yards for a touchdown, reminding many of the Music City Miracle. Fittingly, Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry was also responsible for that famous play that helped push Tennessee to Super Bowl XXXIV. Lowry told me that he first saw the play they ran Sunday in 1983, when the Washington Redskins used it against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Lowry has a huge notebook full of special-teams plays, and, as we can see, has used them from time to time.

» I noticed two unsung heroes during Week 3. Tennessee Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers, who came with me to the draft in 2011 but left to go home when he wasn't a first-round pick, racked up 16 tackles and a sack during the big win over Detroit, and is currently Tenneesse's leading tackler. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh -- another notable rookie -- kicked a 52-yard field goal in a big win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, becoming the first rookie in NFL history to boot three field goals for 50 yards or more in his first three games. Walsh came through in support of quarterback Christian Ponder, who might have qualified as Week 3's third unsung hero if he weren't already plenty well known.

» Auburn coach Gene Chizik invited me to be his guest for Saturday's game against LSU, and I was able to see that program's recruiting process in action. About four hours before the game, prospective players met in the Heisman Room, where the history of Auburn players who have won the illustrious award is showcased. The prospects were welcomed by a group of students called the Tigers and Tigerettes. This group was incredibly organized and exceptionally well-versed on the rules when it comes to what they can and can't do with potential recruits. Unfortunately for Auburn, the Tigers lost, but Chizik still called me this week to make sure everything went well during my visit. It's pretty nice for a guy to get beat and still take time to make a call like that.

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