Rookie Watch: Kiko Alonso, Robert Woods shine for young Buffalo Bills
A quarter of the way through the NFL season, the 2013 rookie class has already made its impact on the league. By now, we have a pretty good idea of who has a chance to be the top rookies this season and beyond, while some questions will continue to linger for some of the class' highest-profile names.
But what has become abundantly clear is that the new regime in Buffalo has a good idea of what it's doing. Doug Whaley, promoted to GM this offseason, has brought in a new coaching staff and a new mindset to the once-proud franchise. Head coach Doug Marrone has been a tremendous fit for this team and the young players have responded to his leadership.
It helps to nail the draft, which it looks like Buffalo did. EJ Manuel, while still green, has made enough plays and shown enough promise early that questions about a franchise quarterback are at least on hold. An bad week against Baltimore doesn't dampen the enthusiasm for the ex-Florida State star. Kiko Alonso is the front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year and Robert Woods had a breakout game in Week 4 against the Ravens. More on both later.
• Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh's running game had been dormant through three weeks while the rookie Bell rehabbed a foot injury suffered in the preseason. The former Michigan State workhorse took over for the Steelers at Wembley Stadium in London and finished with 84 yards on 20 touches to go along with two touchdowns. Bell injected vitality into the running game and improved Pittsburgh's offense. Most importantly, he provided some hope that the Steelers, at the very least, have a running back of the future. Bell is the most physical 230+ pound back in the league -- he's similar to LeGarrette Blount in that his size doesn't match the force with which he runs -- but he's solid out of the backfield in the passing game and can chew up yards inside.
• Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo Bills: The aforementioned Alonso leads the league in interceptions and has the most passes defended of any linebacker in the NFL. Alonso picked off Baltimore's Joe Flacco twice on Sunday, showing the type of playmaking ability we saw last season at Oregon. Alonso had an ACL injury in college and some off the field issues, causing his draft stock to fall, but he's shown a knack for making plays through four weeks of the NFL season. He is the sort of impact player at linebacker the Bills thought they had when they signed Nick Barnett several years ago. Not only has Alonso been solid in coverage, he also leads the Bills in tackles -- 19th in the league.
• Sheldon Richardson, DL, New York Jets: Like most 3-4 defensive ends, Richardson hasn't received the headlines in New York because he doesn't have flashy sack totals. He's not J.J. Watt and that's OK. But he has made a huge impact on the Jets defense that is currently second in the league in yards, and in the top 10 in both rushing yards and passing yards. Richardson's impact upfront is a huge reason why. According to Pro Football Focus grading, Richardson is the fourth-best 3-4 DE in the league this season and the top overall graded rookie. Richardson has been excellent against the run and has started generating more pass rush, something he did expertly at Missouri. The Jets quietly have the best combination of 3-4 ends in football.
Honorable Mentions: Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo Bills; Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, New England Patiots; Alec Ogletree, LB, St. Louis Rams
• Jacksonville Jaguars safeties: Not much is going right for the Jaguars this season, but rookies Josh Evans and Jonathan Cyprien were abject disasters against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Andrew Luck completed nine of 10 passes with the Jags' safeties in coverage, for 137 yards and two touchdowns. Cyprien was one of the hottest names in the draft heading into April after impressing in offseason workouts, but the Florida International star has really struggled to adapt to NFL-level offensive schemes. For as poor as Jacksonville's offense has been, the defense hasn't been any better.
• Rookie quarterbacks: Geno Smith followed up a spectacular week against Buffalo with by far his worst game of the year against the Titans. Smith had four turnovers, with two interceptions and a pair of fumbles. Things were no better for Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon who was starting in his first game for the Bucs. Glennon threw for just 193 yards on 43 attempts with two picks and a fumble, including the game-clinching interception with under a minute to go. EJ Manuel made it a clean sweep of rookie QB's to throw two picks, as he struggled mightily against a Ravens pass defense that looked vulnerable all year. Overall, a disheartening week for the supposed futures of three franchises.
• Michael Bowie, OT, Seattle Seahawks: You may be saying to yourself 'Who?' J.J. Watt was saying the same things, as he pulverized the Seattle rookie who was making his NFL debut. Watt finished with a sack, two quarterback hits, and six hurries as he had Russell Wilson running for his life. Unfortunately for the Texans, Wilson was often able to escape and make something out of nothing, but issues along the offensive front have to a concern for the current favorite in the NFC as none of the linemen played particularly well against the Texans. Watt dominated plenty of tackles, not just rookies in their first start. It was certainly an inauspicious way for make one's debut.
Honorable mentions: Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams; Matt Elam, S, Baltimore Ravens; Jake Long, G, Chicago Bears; Jarvis Jones, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers; Lane Johnson, OT, Philadelphia Eagles
• Manti Te'o, LB, San Diego Chargers: San Diego gave Te'o his first snaps against the Cowboys and while he played just 14 plays, Te'o managed three solo tackles. The Chargers are extremely thin at inside linebacker and could really use Te'o versatility and smarts. It's too early to tell what type of player Te'o can be and what kind of impact he can have, but the Chargers face the Raiders this week and could get Te'o some late reps if the game is well in hand. It remains to be seen just how San Diego uses Te'o and what sort of role they believe he can play on this defense. For a team ranked 30th in total defense, the Chargers have to hope he can give them something.
• Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Cleveland Browns: Statistically, Mingo's day looked pretty solid with five tackles and a sack against the Bengals, but some of the concerns scouts had over Mingo's ability to play the run appear well-founded. Teams in the SEC often ran right at Mingo to mitigate his rushing ability and because he simply wasn't strong enough to hold the point of attack consistently. Those problems have continued in Cleveland as Mingo must get stronger and hold the edge better when not asked to get after the quarterback. The good news for the Browns is that when they have unleashed Mingo in passing situations, he's been able to generate pressure.
• Eric Fisher, OT, Kansas City Chiefs: It's been a rough start for the highly-touted crop of first-round tackles, but Fisher seemed to be getting on track against the Giants before going down with an injury. Fisher was the lone bright spot for the Chiefs offensive line, a group that, despite the score, struggled protecting Alex Smith. The run blocking for the unit wasn't much better as Jamaal Charles averaged just 3.6 yards per rush. It was a step forward for Fisher who had really been the weakest link, perhaps on the team, heading into Week 4. Fisher's concussion is not expected to keep him out for long and the Chiefs have to hope the strides he made against the Giants can carry over. Honorable Mentions: D.J. Hayden, CB, Oakland Raiders; Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals; Sharrif Floyd, DT, Minnesota Vikings