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The All-22: Examining the preseasons of rookies with much to prove

The All-22: Examining the preseasons of rookies with much to prove Photo:

The preseason is important for a lot of people, but for rookies of any stripe, it's crucial -- it's the first time they get to test their mettle against NFL talent, and the first chance for coaches to see where their young players are -- and what still needs improvement. In this installment of the All-22 (which could be called the "No-22," since the NFL doesn't make coach's tape available in the preseason), we examine the preseasons of three rookies -- a first-rounder, a second-rounder and an undrafted player who may be a future star. 

Ja'Wuan James, OT, Miami Dolphins

Obviously, the Miami Dolphins' 2013 offensive line was a disaster. Between the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying scandal and a generally horrid level of line play that saw quarterback Ryan Tannehill sacked a league-leading 58 times, it was clear that changes had to be made. Martin and Incognito are out the door, as is right tackle Tyson Clabo, who was a swinging gate all season, allowing 11 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 31 hurries. Miami looked to solve its obvious protection issues by signing free agent left tackle Branden Albert to a five-year, $46 million contract with $25 million guaranteed, and selecting Tennessee right tackle Ja'Wuan James with the 19th overall pick in the 2014 draft. The James pick was a bit of a surprise -- some informal scouting services placed a second-round grade on him -- and based on the college tape I saw, I wondered about the 6-6, 311-pound James' ability to hold up in power run blocking. No question that he was fast and agile enough to pass-block and hit the second level in run-blocking, but I didn't see a lot of functional strength in a lot of his tape.

Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey, however, said James was the best player the team had left on the board at 19, not just the best offensive lineman, and the pick was easy to make.

"He’s been a targeted player, a guy we spent a lot of time on in the process leading up to the draft," Hickey said after the pick was made. "He’s a guy that I interviewed in my previous capacity at the Senior Bowl. We interviewed him at the combine. We brought him in for a visit here. We had our offensive line coach go work him out. He was always a targeted player for us, and we are very excited about the skill set that he brings, about the person that he is, the quality person. He started 49 games. He’s been a captain, played at the highest level in the SEC, a real quality person that we really enjoyed during our time with him. We had a conviction for the player, and we are excited to add him to our roster."

Through three preseason games, James has validated Hickey's faith by playing at an extremely high level -- better than I saw from his college tape, especially when playing with power and authority -- and pass-protecting as well as can possibly be expected. According to Pro Football Focus' metrics, James has allowed no pressures -- no sacks, no hits and no hurries -- in 71 pass-blocking snaps. That doesn't represent times when he appears to get outmatched to either side by speed-rushers (especially speed-rushers with really good foot-fakes), but after watching his NFL tape, I'd say that even at 19, the Dolphins may have a bit of a steal here.

Understanding complex defenses

You see a lot of rookie offensive linemen miss blocking assignments when they're tasked to protect against a base defender, and then veer off into a blitz protection. James had an understanding of this from his time at Tennessee, and it's already showed up in his first NFL preseason. When the Dolphins beat the Cowboys 25-20 last Saturday, James showed that he gets this concept right away, with 12;20 left in the first quarter. He's originally assigned to Dallas end George Selvie, but peels off to deal with cornerback Sterling Moore when it's clear that Moore is blitzing from the slot to inside. It seems like a simple thing, but understanding the spacing, passing the edge rusher off to the right guard and taking the blitz from outside keeps quarterbacks clean, and that's a major improvement in Miami.

 
With 2:20 left in the first quarter, James sprang running back Knowshon Moreno for an 11-yard gain by executing an inside-outside block on Selvie first, and then on linebacker Justin Durant. The Dolphins can be sure that their rookie right guard will come through when he needs to see the whole picture in front of him. That's a great asset. 

Using leverage to dominate

James didn't surprise me with his agility and intelligence. What was startling in the Dallas game, and through the preseason overall, is how his pad level has consistently improved. He's firing off the ball lower and with more power, allowing him to match strength with strength. Here, with 8:34 left in the first quarter, he rag-dolls end Tyrone Crawford twice on Moreno's 19-yard run by getting his hands out and attacking with force.​ Clearly, James is on his way to having the whole package. 

Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

When Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly decided to release receiver DeSean Jackson on March 28 and essentially replace him on the roster with former Saints running back Darren Sproles, the move left a hole in Kelly's multi-dimensional offense. Though Jackson wasn't the kind of receiver Kelly preferred, his ability to shoot past defensive backs and own one-on-one matchups is rare. So, it wasn't a surprise when the Eagles selected Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews in the second round of the 2014 draft. Matthews brought in 201 passes in his final two collegiate seasons, and ended his time as the SEC's career leader in receptions (262) and receiving yards (3,759). Matthews has the one thing Kelly wants in his receivers above all -- the ability to deal with man-to-man coverage. As the coach said at this year's owners meetings, it's on his mind a lot.

"Having guys who can get open versus man coverage is a key deal," Kelly said. "Whether it’s Coop [Riley Cooper] or Mac [Jeremy Maclin] or DeSean or whomever. I think that’s the one thing we know as a group going in, one-on-one coverage is a big deal for us. It is a big deal in this league. I don’t have the numbers, but people probably played us more man than most teams in the league. We’re always looking for guys who can exploit that matchup. The addition of Sproles -- are you gonna play us in man? Now you have to have a linebacker cover him if he’s the back. That’s kind of a huge addition when we thought about bringing him [Sproles] in."

Matthews, who also happens to be Jerry Rice's cousin, will likely see a lot of time in the slot in his new home, though such designations are generally too simple for Kelly's passing game. When I watched his Eagles preseason tape, a few things became clear. This team wants Matthews to be a high-volume receiver -- only Buffalo's Robert Woods and Arizona's John Brown had more targets than Matthews' 19, and no receiver has more catches than his 15 -- and they'll do that by running him all over the place. Matthews is already entrenched in the Kelly system, meaning that he'll do everything from little wheel screens to deep sideline routes. Though he has the basic physical attributes to make that all happen, there are two things which come up on his tape -- collegiate and professional -- that give me pause.

Matthews leads the NFL through this preseason with 113 yards after the catch -- he has 134 receiving yards overall -- but that doesn't mean he's getting a lot of those yards after contact. Primarily, Matthews grabs real estate after the catch the same way a lot of Kelly's receivers do -- because Philly's offense requires defensive players to spread out in different ways, and it's easier to throw receivers open. Because of this, Matthews' two obvious liabilities won't show up in the stats, but they're evident on tape.

Yards after contact

For a guy his size (6-3, 212), Matthews has a disturbing tendency to go down at the slightest contact -- shoulder hits, ankle tackles, and arm drag-downs. Kelly will put his receivers in positions to succeed away from defenses, but it's a bit distressing how much Matthews will appear to need that, at least for now. Especially when things are so well-blocked for him. Here, against the Steelers last Thursday, Nick Foles hits Matthews with a quick receiver screen, and there is textbook blocking in front of him by the tight end, right guard and right tackle. Matthews blows through this, but when Steelers safety Mike Mitchell went to ankle-tackle him ... well, that was all she wrote. ​

Contested catches

Matthews is also prone to losing the ball when tested by defensive backs on contested catches, and this goes back to his college days. Though he impressed at the Senior Bowl, Matthews had a couple of drops, and whether this is a product of concentration or an inability to win those physical battles, it's going to be a problem over time unless it's fixed.  That's not to say that Matthews is some sort of bust. He's a smooth accelerator, and when he's up to full speed, he's tough to catch. I really like him on outs and drag routes; wherever he can maximize defensive space with his overall speed and agility. And he's a willing blocker, which is crucial in this run-heavy offense. But if he's to be a leading receiver for the Eagles, well, Chip Kelly's system may be high-speed and razzle-dazzle, but an element of physical toughness is needed. ​

Ethan Westbrooks, DE, St. Louis Rams

In every draft class, there are players who, were things based on talent alone, would be selected higher than they are or, for that matter, selected at all. One of the more intriguing members of the 2014 undrafted class is Ethan Westbrooks, the star defensive end from West Texas A&M who put up 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in 2012, and followed that up with a seven-sack, 19.5 tackles for loss season in 2013 when every opposing offense was keying on him all the time. Westbrooks had come from Sacramento City College and had never attracted the attention his talent should have received. Add in the perception that he would be uncoachable (he had a fairly impressive number of offside penalties in his Division II time), and it all added up to an unknown, and therefore undraftable, factor. The Rams signed Westbrooks to a free agent contract with a $20,000 bonus and $30,000 guaranteed -- an impressive sum for an undrafted player -- and put him to work at a level of competition he'd never seen before. Westbrooks, who had two sacks in the East-West Shrine game (the one shot he's had at proving that he could go up against tougher competition) was unfazed by the challenge, though it is as part of a defensive line that most agree is the NFL's best and deepest.

"It's always harder to go from junior college to Division II and then go to the NFL because you never really play against what most people think is the best competition," he told FOX Sports Midwest last week. "Over the years, I felt Division I is just a name. People assume that everybody there is just the best of the best. You soon find out some of those dudes shouldn't be playing. I know you can definitely come out of Division II, whether you spend two years or four years. It's really how hard you want it."

Right now, Westbrooks is primarily known as the guy whose efforts could keep the more well-known Michael Sam off the Rams' roster when the team makes its final cuts Sunday. And though Sam has played better than I thought he would (he struck me as a third-day prospect), it's pretty clear Westbrooks belongs in the NFL, and should be known for that alone. He currently first overall in Pro Football Focus' rankings for 4-3 defensive ends, and though all the preseason caveats apply, the tape shows a player who is going to get things done no matter who's trying to block him.

Technique, and explosion off the snap

Not only is Westbrooks frighteningly quick off the snap, but he's already got a better-than-average (though embryonic) array of hand moves that accentuate his physical advantages. He got his only sack of the preseason against the Packers in Week 2, but that was essentially an unblocked play. I was far more impressed with what he did to right tackle Aaron Adams to take running back DuJuan Harris down for a 2-yard gain with 6:53 left in the first half.

That's a straight-up club/counter (Reggie White embarrassed people with an elevated version called the "hump move") and Westbrooks using his speed and strength to bring his man down. Through the preseason, he's also shown tremendous effort on plays going away from him, good gap awareness on blitz packages, and the ability to rush the passer and stop the run from a five-tech position inside. Westbrooks and Sam will get one more preseason shot to show what they can do. And if they both play left defensive end against the Dolphins on Thursday, they'll each see a bit of Ja'Wuan James. Whoever does better against Mr. James might be the one who breaks the tie, and makes the team.

As much as I like the Sam story, I'm betting on Westbrooks.

Audibles Podcast: Rookies who will be household names by end of training camp
In this clip from the SI.com Audibles Podcast, Ben Eagle, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke discuss which rookies will be household names by end of training camp.
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