Breaking Down the NFL's Biggest Rookie Studs So Far
Which rookies are already making a name for themselves as studs in the NFL? After breaking down the preseason and training camp performances of the top rookies, here is a look at those who are already standing out.
There are tons of rookies on every team who look great so far, but these five players have the look of early studs and big impacts for their respective teams.
Kendall Wright, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans need a big impact from Kendall Wright this season, and early accounts show that they're going to get one.
Wright lines up here on the outside of the formation against man coverage. We can tell this is man coverage because of the close alignment of the cornerback pre-snap. Wright's best strengths are his quickness and his ability to change direction. The Titans are smartly using him on breaking routes, such as the post pattern we see here in the red zone.
Wright is able to generate several yards of space after the break at the top of his route stem and work back to the ball. Immediately after breaking into his angle, Wright's eyes are back to quarterback Jake Locker. This sets up for an easy pitch-and-catch between the two youngsters.
Wright was viewed as an exceptional slot wide receiver and return man coming out of Baylor, but his early play has proved that he's capable of being much more in the Titans offense.
Janoris Jenkins, Cornerback, St. Louis Rams
The line on Janoris Jenkins pre-draft was that he was incredibly talented, but he needed to find himself in a system that would protect him from the outside world and his off-field distractions. It's only been two weeks, but the St. Louis Rams are doing a good job of letting Jenkins focus on the field.
Jenkins was a known cover man at Florida, and his ability to match up in zero coverage is showing up in the NFL already.
Jenkins lines up here in man (zero) coverage. His alignment is spot-on. Look at the balance in his hips and feet, shoulders square, poised and ready to fly.
In man coverage, Jenkins is asked to follow the receiver wherever he goes. On this play, that means a seven-yard out. The receiver explodes off the line of scrimmage and tries to get Jenkins to turn his hips and get out of his backpedal into more of a run. A great cornerback can hold his backpedal until the route is exposed, and that's what we see Jenkins do here. He's still in his backpedal when the receiver begins to break to the sideline.
When Jenkins has to break, we again see balance. He quickly steps back from his backpedal and changes direction to cut in front of the route.
The result on this play was actually an amazing catch by T.Y. Hilton, but Jenkins showed his ability to break on the ball and hang with receivers on a very tough route to defend. His ability to stay in alignment and jump the route shows the type of coverage we all loved in Jenkins pre-draft.
Chandler Jones, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots desperately needed help at outside linebacker during the 2011 regular season and playoffs. They believe they've found their answer in Chandler Jones.
Jones lined up at both defensive end and outside linebacker against the New Orleans Saints in the team's first preseason game. Depending on if there was a tight end on his side or not, Jones may be in a three- or two-point stance. His versatility is one of the many things we've come to like early on.
At the snap we see Jones engage the blocker—in this case, Jermon Bushrod. Jones isn't known to be incredibly strong, so this isn't an ideal situation for the player scouted coming out of Syracuse.
What happens next shows Jones' development. He disengages from Bushrod by generating depth with his arms and then ripping free of the block. Now Jones is running free in the backfield.
Jones didn't register a sack on this play, but he did force quarterback Drew Brees out of the pocket and pressure him into a forced throw. Jones did exactly what the Patriots need from their pass rush by getting penetration into the backfield and closing in on the quarterback from the back side.
Whitney Mercilus, Outside Linebacker, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans defense was already one of the best in the NFL. Add in pass-rusher Whitney Mercilus, and this is a group that could dominate again in 2012.
Where Mercilus is expected to make an early contribution is as a pass-rusher, especially on third down. At Illinois last season, Mercilus led the NCAA in sacks, so we know there's potential here. What wasn't expected of Mercilus, at least not early on, was an ability to help in the run game.
Here we see Mercilus at the top of the formation, lined up as the left-side outside linebacker. He's matched up against the 49ers' right tackle.
At the snap, Mercilus comes down the line of scrimmage and gets depth into the backfield. Notice where he's looking—Mercilus immediately sees the run and is locked onto the running back. He also has his outside arm free to maintain a contain position should the back cut upfield toward his position. This is excellent technique.
Once the runner takes a step inside—away from his outside containment—Mercilus works to bend the edge and get upfield to track the running back down from behind. Here's where Mercilus' strength and quickness come into play. He's able to shed the blocker—again, thanks to that outside arm being free—and close in on the runner from behind before he gets upfield.
The result is a tackle for Mercilus and a gain of one yard for the offense. All because the outside linebacker played with proper technique and was able to shed his blocker.
Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears
It's no secret that Alshon Jeffery is loved in these parts. His play early on is making Bleacher Report's draft projection for Jeffery look very good so far.
Jeffery's play has been the talk of Bears camp, but what's he doing right?
Jeffery is lined up here as the "Y" receiver at the bottom of the screen, going against man coverage by the Broncos defender. Jeffery has the physical ability to excel in these matchups due to his size and strength.
The best thing for a receiver without great speed or agility is to steal inside leverage against the defender. If Jeffery can get inside the body of the defender, he can break off his route and use his body to shield the defender from the ball. Smaller, quicker receivers may look for outside leverage, but not Jeffery.
We can see above that Jeffery has worked himself to the inside, and his strong outside step at the snap has turned the cornerback away from him. The defender is actually looking at the sideline, with his head faced away from Jeffery. The cornerback is beat at this point.
Jeffery executes a picturesque curl route by running "off" the defender and then breaking back to the ball. Because he had inside leverage, and because he turned the cornerback with that strong outside step, Jeffery actually causes the defender to fall down when he breaks back to the football.
This results in an easy catch for Jeffery, who now has room to run after the catch for a first down.
While these aren't the only rookies who are dominating early on, this is a look at five first-year players we'll be watching closely for major impacts in year one.
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