Rookie Watch: Geno Smith, Eddie Lacy come up big in Week 5
Rookie are often the most inconsistent players in the league, bringing jubilation one week and heartbreak the next. Rookies also can never be counted out, because no matter how quiet they've been, there's always a chance for them to break out, as a number of players did in Week 5.
In New York, Geno Smith and Dee Milliner have been as up-and-down as you can be, while Sheldon Richardson has been a brutally physical force from Day 1 -- Richardson was brilliant on Monday with five tackles, at least two TFLs and a sack along with a batted ball at the line. Richardson now has the third-most run stops in the league for a defensive lineman according to Pro Football Focus.
Smith's struggles are understandable. He's playing the hardest position in sports with a cast of skill players that is as bad as you'll find in the league. But Monday night against Atlanta, Smith showed why he was considered by many to be the 2013 class' only first-round talent at quarterback. The 39th overall pick finished 16-of-20 with199 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions in the Jets' 30-28 win over the Falcons.
Meanwhile, players around the league like Kiko Alonso and Tyrann Mathieu just keep plugging along, making big plays and providing heavy contributions for their teams. On the flip side, we're waiting for talented players like Dion Jordan to find their roles and praying guys like Andre Ellington and Zac Stacey get more playing time.
• Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets: It isn't the stats that jump off the page from the Jets' dramatic, last-second win over the Falcons, but rather the way Smith handled himself both during the week and on Sunday. As Doug Farrar pointed out, the rookie QB went to his defense and apologized for the way he played against the Titans. Then, on the road against a desperate team, he threw three touchdowns passes and looked confident in the two-minute offense, leading the Jets to the game-winning field goal. The combination of maturity and leadership on and off the field, coupled with a terrific bounceback effort on the road should give Jets comfort about their franchise signal caller. And don't look now, but the J-E-T-S are just a game out of first in the AFC East.
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• Breakout wide receivers: When the Cowboys drafted Terrance Williams in the third round, it was hard to see how he'd get targets playing behind Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten. But in an epic showdown with the Broncos, Williams was the star in a game full of them. He caught all four passes thrown his way for 151 yards and a touchdown, including an 82-yard bomb from Tony Romo. Dez and Williams stretching the field in Dallas? Oh my.
It was the opposite story on draft day in San Diego. Malcolm Floyd has constantly been hurt and Antonio Gates was clearly in decline, so the Chargers spent a third-round pick on Keenan Allen. It seemed like Allen would get plenty of opportunities to shine for the Chargers, but he was quiet through the first month of the season. That changed Sunday night against a green Oakland secondary. Allen caught six passes for 115 yards and a score, plus had another score wiped away by a penalty. The Cal product has an NFL-ready body and the strength to catch the ball in traffic. Now that he's healthy, Allen should see more targets from a revitalized Philip Rivers.
• Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers: If it weren't for a dubious holding call late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Lacy would have been the third different Packers running back in three games to rush for 100 yards after the team went 44 games without a 100-yard rusher. A whopping 51 of Lacy's 99 yards came after contact and he constantly had the Packers in second-and-manageable, which prevented the Lions' talented defensive front from pinning its ears back and getting after Aaron Rodgers. Coincidentally, Lacy was a little reminiscent of his former Alabama teammate Trent Richardson in Cleveland with a bullying style that is steady, but not flashy. Luckily for Lacy, he doesn't have to carry the load the way Richardson had to given that Rodgers guy under center and a bevy of talented receivers in Green Bay.
Honorable Mentions: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Arizona Cardinals; Sheldon Richardson, DL, New York Jets; Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers; Marcus Cooper, CB, Kansas City Chiefs; Johnathan Hankins, DT, New York Giants.
• Joe Vellano, DT, New England Patriots: With stalwart Vince Wilfork sidelined, the Patriots knew they would lose some productivity along the interior. Against a really solid Bengals offensive line, Vellano, Wilfork's replacement, was no match. The undrafted Maryland product finished with a -6.1 grade against the run according to Pro Football Focus. It wasn't any better in the passing game as Vellano struggled to get off blocks and create any sort of pressure along the interior. With Wilfork out for the year, and Tommy Kelly also hurt in the Bengals game, we may be nearing the point in New England where the injuries are just too much to overcome.
• Chance Warmack, G, Tennessee Titans: It wasn't a great week to be a rookie linemen, as a number of the big uglies failed to get on track. Warmack, who was considered one of the best guard prospects in years coming out of Alabama, was whipped by the Kansas City interior, particularly Dontari Poe who finished with seven tackles and a sack. Warmack and the Titans line also failed to open up any holes for Chris Johnson who wound up with a pathetic 17 yards on 10 carries. The ex-Tide standout will have to put those struggles behind him quickly as Tennessee will have to lean more on the running game with backup Ryan Fitzpatrick filling in for an injured Jake Locker.
• Jordan Mills, OT, Chicago Bears: Success was short-lived for Mills, who actually played outstanding football in his debut for the Bears against Cincinnati's tenacious front. Mills couldn't handle the Saints' edge rushers on Sunday, nor could he get traction in the running game. Although New Orleans was able to register just three sacks on Sunday, Jay Cutler was uncomfortable in the pocket all day and ended up as the Bears' second-leading rusher.
Honorable mention: Jeff Tuel, QB, Buffalo Bills; Dion Jordan, DE, Miami Dolphins.
• Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: Let's be clear: Through five weeks, Bernard is the most electric and dynamic rookie in the league. Given A.J. Green's struggles -- which are predicated on Andy Dalton's struggles -- Bernard may be the most consistent player on the Cincy offense. His 69 yards on 15 total touches underscore his effectiveness, but a crucial fumble in the fourth quarter on Sunday could prevent Bernard from the uptick in touches he so richly deserves. For whatever reason, the Bengals insist on giving BenJarvus Green-Ellis the lion's share of carries, and it looks like it will stay that way, at least in the near term, following Bernard's critical mistake.
• Johnathan Cyprien, S, Jacksonville Jaguars: Sunday against the Rams, Cyprien played his best game as a Jaguar, tallying 12 tackles and flashing the kind of speed and range we saw on tape at FIU. His run support has been decent all season, but Cyprien has struggled with pass coverage and the nuances of the game. Case in point: Sam Bradford completed all three passes he threw at Cyprien on Sunday. As a player who didn't play major conference college football, Cyprien has to unlearn some of the bad habits he developed when his pure athletic talents were enough. If he becomes more scheme-sure and plays fundamentally sound, the Jaguars could really have found themselves an impact player.
• Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Cleveland Browns: When you are an explosive, up-the-field pass rusher, teams are going to try and take you out of the game by running the ball right at you. That is especially true when your counterpart is a pulverizing bruiser of the caliber that Paul Kruger is. That leaves Mingo in the unenviable position of having to do what he is most uncomfortable doing: defending the run. Further, with his speed and athletic ability, he should be a pro at containing on his side of the field -- something he did a ton at LSU -- but he has struggled in the NFL to come through. He got washed inside on C.J. Spiller's 54-yard touchdown run and struggled against the Bills' big tackles as Buffalo rushed for over 150 yards last Thursday night. Making matters worse, Mingo was also unable to generate much pressure against his former SEC nemesis Cordy Glenn when the two were matched up. Honorable mention: Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo Bills ; DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans; D.J. Hayden, CB, Oakland Raiders.