Heath-Rawlings on NFL: Rookie report

November 7, 2012, 11:13 PM

There’s a moment that occurs in the rookie season of every NFL player destined to make an impact on the game.

It doesn’t usually happen at first. Most times, it doesn’t happen until at least mid-season. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, and an off-season of doubt — “Can I really play in this league” — follows, tugging incessantly at their plans for stardom, into their sophomore campaigns.

That moment though, when the game suddenly slows down, the running lanes and passing windows –the ones that were open in college, but have shown only thin cracks of light so far in the NFL — suddenly appear, wide and inviting, and instinct takes over, is the moment every team that spends a high draft pick is desperately waiting for.

And the very best rookies don’t even want to admit they’ve cleared that bar. They hope the true breakthrough is still around the corner. That the game might slow down a little more, the windows and lanes opening even further.

It’s telling that Andrew Luck would only give himself a ‘C’ when asked to grade his performance as a rookie. It’s not just public humility that compels Doug Martin to shrug off his record-setting 251-yard, four-touchdown performance as “getting comfortable with the offence”.

The best rookies don’t want to be the ones to say they’ve arrived — they want us to do it for them. So we will, with mid-season grades for the league’s freshman crop.

Andrew Luck: A-
-The scary thing is that this grade isn’t an A-plus, because you couldn’t ask for anything more from Peyton Manning’s successor. The Colts are 5-3 and sitting on an AFC playoff spot. Luck has as many yards passing in Indianapolis (2,404) as Manning does in Denver. He has five wins in his NFL career, and in four of them he’s led game-winning drives.

He’s averaging 300 yards per game. Oh, and he’s also leading AFC quarterbacks with 148 rushing yards and three scores. If Luck had a rookie moment, it probably came back at Stanford, when he was running his own offence and basically behaving like a veteran NFL quarterback before he’d ever donned a pro jersey.

The reason this grade isn’t higher is a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5:4 and a 56.5 completion percentage — Luck is seeing the windows as well as any quarterback in the league, but he’s also learning, through trial and error, just how quickly they close at this level.

Robert Griffin III: B+
-RGIII has been everything the Redskins dreamed he’d b — and if you could say with more certainty that he’d be doing it for the rest of the season, this grade would be an ‘A’, too. But you can’t.

After suffering a concussion in Week 5 on a freak play while scrambling towards the endzone, Griffin vowed to be more careful about protecting his head –only to be found, on 4th and 4 in Week 9, leaping into the air towards the first down line as three Panthers all launched themselves at him.

The speed with which he’s adapted to the NFL has been breathtaking — and so are the hits he’s taken trying to gain a few extra yards. Griffin, it appears, talks a safe game but doesn’t always play one. As revelatory as he’s been, one big hit lowers this grade to a ‘C’ pretty quickly.

Doug Martin: A
-A month ago, this was a ‘C’. Then Martin started to hesitate, just for a split second, before making his cuts. Since then he’s run off a string of escalating performances that have vaulted him into the offensive rookie of the year conversation.

Martin has the kind of strength and speed that will always allow him to emerge from contact at the line of scrimmage. But by letting his blockers make their moves before he makes his cut, Martin’s been able to come out of the other side of the line with downfield lanes.

He entered the season expected to carry the load, and looked intimidated by that responsibility in October. Now he’s comfortable with it and even looked a little heated last week when coach Greg Schiano chose to rest him for a series with the Bucs up big after his third touchdown. That’s the kind of fire that produces true superstars — not to mention victories.

Trent Richardson: B-
-This is a harsh grade for T-Rich — but to whom much is given, much is expected. Richardson’s size and skill set make him the most complete back to come into the NFL since Adrian Peterson. And, by and large, he hasn’t disappointed — he’s running with punishing strength, taking defenders for an extra two or three yards after contact, carrying the load for an offensively anemic team and, increasingly, becoming a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield.

In Cleveland’s Week 9 loss to the Ravens, Richardson handled every single carry for the Browns and racked up 105 yards on the ground and another 31 on check-down throws — 47 percent of the Browns total offence.

But it hasn’t all been gravy — Richardson’s dealt with a rib injury that’s limited his effectiveness over the last few weeks and has shown surprising inconsistency, occasionally letting a handful of fruitless early carries affect his attitude for the rest of the game. In four of his nine games (including one injury-hampered outing against the Colts), Richardson’s been held to 2.1 yards-per-carry on 53 touches.

The talent is clearly beyond reproach, but the going will get tough in the NFL — particularly on a rookie rusher operating without an effective passing game — and Richardson needs to do a better job sticking to the game plan.

Ryan Tannehill: B
-The same expectations and performance curve that hurts Richardson brings Tannehill’s grade up to a respectable level. Unlike Luck and RGIII, who were expected to take the reins of their respective teams right away, Tannehill had to come into camp and fight for the starting job — and few expected him to be ready to handle it.
Eight games into the season, the Dolphins are, against all expectations, a .500 team, with the rookie sporting impressive wins over some tough defences. He’s been prone to mistakes, and has occasionally forced plays that aren’t there, but considering he’s working with two starting wideouts — Davone Bess and Brian Hartline — who were accomplished enough that the Dolphins flirted with the Player Formerly Known As Ochocinco during training camp, the fact that he’s on pace for 3,500 yards is impressive.
Tannehill’s completion percentage is better than Luck’s and just 0.7 per cent behind RGIII’s. It’s safe to say he’s ahead of schedule.

Three more who have made an impact:

Chandler Jones: A
-The Patriots have an elite young pass rusher. Somebody stop the presses. Jones is among the league — not just rookie — leaders in Pro Football Focus’s ratings of 4-3 defensive ends.

Morris Claiborne: B
-The Cowboys secondary was a huge weakness last season. It takes more than one rookie to right the ship (Dallas also added veteran Brandon Carr), but Claiborne has held down his side of the field and has graded solidly in coverage.

Brandon Weeden: B-
-Well, he’s not Colt McCoy, so that starts him off as a C+. Weeden’s a 28-year-old rookie who may not make the best decision every time (nine touchdowns against 12 interceptions) but has given the Browns a chance to win. If Josh Gordon and Greg Little can continue to improve along with him, the Browns 2013 passing attack could border on…acceptable. I know. I’m shocked, too.

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