The NFL is all about being good right now, as fewer teams are content with the idea of a rebuilding season. That puts pressure not just on coaches and general managers, but on rookies to step up and contribute sooner than ever.
After one week of preseason play, which instant-impact rookies stood out the most—good or bad? Here is a look at five rookies whose play jumped off the film. Good, bad and in between, these five players will be counted on early and often in 2013.
No. 3—EJ Manuel, Quarterback, Buffalo Bills
Draft Slot: Round 1, Pick 16
Situation: Second Quarter, First-Team Offense
The first game in a player's career is always tough to scout due to nerves, jitters and a little rust. As such, it's always good to see extended action from a rookie in his first NFL game. The Buffalo Bills wisely left EJ Manuel in for 36 plays in their opener against the Indianapolis Colts. Thanks to that, we got to see real-time development from the only quarterback selected in the first round.
The biggest scouting point for me in this game was, could Manuel look off defenders and get through his progressions? We didn't see him do that enough at Florida State, nor did we see it in his earliest preseason action.
Manuel has a bad habit of staring down his targets, as we see here when a tight end streaks across the formation on a drag route. Despite the presence of two defenders, he has his eyes locked on the target. This would be OK if he were looking at the tight end to pull a safety up, but that's not the case.
Despite the defenders, Manuel throws underneath to the covered player, which results in one of his few incomplete passes on the day. Coach Doug Marrone will be pointing this out in film study all week as the team prepares the young quarterback for the regular season.
Manuel wasn't perfect from a technical standpoint—he stared down his receivers far too often and elected to take checkdowns over tougher downfield throws. But then something happened when the team got the ball back with 1:50 left in the second quarter.
The video here shows Manuel and the Bills in the two-minute offense, which is very similar to what he ran at Florida State: uptempo plays, quick decisions and no wasted throws. Manuel wasn't perfect on this drive, but compared to his play in the first quarter, this was a revelation in terms of his ability to handle stress and a ticking clock.
Finishing 16-of-21 for 107 yards won't win games for the Bills, but as Manuel progresses, the team can open up the playbook and challenge him to throw the ball down the field more frequently. That's the next step in the rookie's development.
No. 75—Kyle Long, Guard, Chicago Bears
Draft Slot: Round 1, Pick 20
Situation: Second Quarter, Second-Team Offense
What impressed me most about Kyle Long's first series was his awareness on the inside, coupled with his quickness flowing into space and finding defenders to block. That's rare for any rookie, but very rare for a rookie who played tackle in college.
Here's an example of Long's maturity and intelligence as a blocker.
In the images above, we see Long aligned with a nose tackle to his left, head-up on the center. At the snap of the ball, since he's not matched up with a defender, his job is to attack the nose tackle and help the center. He does so with a swift move off the ball and great inside technique to down-block on the tackle while keeping himself angled to see any delayed blitzes or stunts into his gap.
Long chips the nose tackle and, upon recognizing that no blitz is coming, helps the center finish off the blocker. Driving back the nose allows the quarterback ample room to step up in the pocket if needed—which could be huge for Chicago this year if the tackles again struggle to keep Jay Cutler protected on the edge. And as the video shows, Long does this with fluid movements, strength and a bit of a nasty streak.
Take a look at another play, this time a run away from Long. As the right guard, he'll be asked to pull often in the power run game, and that plays into his strength as an agile mover on the offensive line. Here's where that 4.93 he posted in the 40-yard dash helps out.
Long's first move is to get down the line of scrimmage, and he does so in a very controlled motion. He's not top-heavy as he shifts, but balanced and poised instead. Smooth, even. His shoulders are squared and he's in position to set the edge for an outside run or cut upfield and seal off a defender should one shoot a gap.
Long will get more reps in Week 2, but his high level of play in 53 of the Bears' 63 snaps against the Carolina Panthers is a sign of things to come.
No. 79—Damontre Moore, Defensive End, New York Giants
Draft Slot: Round 3, Pick 81
Situation: First Quarter, Punt Return Team
When you're a rookie hoping to make the roster as a pass-rusher, any hint that you can get to the backfield helps. Block a punt on your first try? That's even better news.
Damontre Moore did that, coming off the right edge of the Pittsburgh Steelers' punt team and blocking Drew Butler's punt attempt. How'd he do it? Speed, a little luck and a bail-out mentality to go get the football.
Situation: Second Quarter, vs. First-Team Offensive Line
Blocking punts wasn't all Moore did in his first game. He also flashed his pass-rushing potential with three quarterback hits and another hurry. The former Texas A&M defensive end looks like a natural coming off the edge.
Facing off against starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert, Moore shows off his quickness and agility with a good outside move to force quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to step up in the pocket. Moore does his job on this play.
We see him here getting within arm's reach of the quarterback, flushing him from the pocket and not allowing the passer time to set up and find a deep route. Instead, Gradkowski must move and improvise, which results in a short throw instead of a potentially bigger play. That's what you want from a defensive end, as sacks happen on a low percentage of plays. Generating and applying pressure is what will help Moore stay in the starting lineup.
No. 52—Alec Ogletree, Outside Linebacker, St. Louis Rams
Draft Slot: Round 1, Pick 30
Situation: First Quarter, First-Team Defense
Alec Ogletree was drafted out of Georgia as a hard-charging linebacker prospect who could play both inside and outside in a 4-3 defense. The Rams are asking him to play on the edge as a run-stopper and coverage 'backer. In his first outing, we saw an area where Ogletree must improve soon.
As the Browns throw a swing pass to Ogletree's side of the field, we see him identify the ball and flip his hips to run the alley toward the ball-carrier. That's a positive first step.
His next move is to start closing on the football by recognizing which direction the receiver will run—outside to the sideline or upfield toward the hashes. Ogletree starts to pull the chain, but you'll notice his angle getting too shallow here.
Now it's paydirt time: Either hit the ball-carrier in the open field for a big stop, or lose the angle and let him slip by for a gain. Ogletree's shoulders aren't squared here, though, and the back is reading the linebacker's upper body to decide which way to cut with the ball. Already, we see the back start to transfer his weight to cut back inside of Ogletree.
The result? A missed tackle in the open field. Ogletree does manage to trip up the runner and slow him down for teammates to make a tackle, but what should have been a tempo-setting kill shot in the open field turned into a negative play for the Rams defense. Learning to close the angle on runners by running through the ball-carrier will be key for Ogletree's development.
No. 84—Cordarrelle Patterson, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings
Draft Slot: Round 1, Pick 29
Situation: First Quarter, Second-Team Offense
First-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson made an impact on his very first play for the Vikings with a 50-yard kickoff return to open their preseason game against the Houston Texans. While impressive, that's not the play worth highlighting.
Patterson was my No. 1-ranked wide receiver in the 2013 NFL draft thanks to his size, run-after-catch ability and potential to become a dynamic pass-catcher with some time to develop. Here, we see how that might look.
We see Minnesota in a shotgun formation with "20" personnel—two running backs and no tight ends. Patterson is split to the left of quarterback Matt Cassel. We can recognize outside technique from the cornerback, which tips us off to zone coverage by the defense. In this scenario, Patterson has the advantage with his size and speed.
Off the snap, we see the defense shift into its coverage. We see zone coverage from the cornerback (No. 22) and an outside linebacker dropping into the flats. Patterson's job on a post route is to break off between the two and maintain inside positioning on the cornerback. Just like boxing out in basketball.
Patterson breaks the route off perfectly, separating himself from the cornerback while running a shallow enough angle to keep the safety from jumping his route. The result is a nice catch-and-run for the Vikings offense.
This is exactly the type of route for which Patterson comes into the NFL ready-made. Breaking routes where he has to stick his foot in the ground and then use his size and speed combination to win matchups are ideal for the rookie's success.
This is a look at just five of the many impressive rookies from the first week of preseason action. More will rise, as these players may struggle to learn from their mistakes or duplicate their early success. The preseason has value, though, in allowing us to evaluate rookies, other young players and even veterans holding on to a job outside the starting lineup.
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