A pair of rookie wide receivers stole the spotlight at Gillette Stadium in Week 6.
When does a first-year player lose the rookie tag?
For New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills, it happened in the fourth quarter of the Saints' Week 6 loss to the New England Patriots. On third down and 20 near midfield down by six points, the Saints needed to make something happen. Stills was facing single coverage on the outside while sprinting toward the end zone. The Patriots provided safety help over the top, but that didn't stop Drew Brees from launching the ball to the end zone intended for the rookie.
In an instant, Stills wasn't a rookie anymore. With subtle body position, he got a bit of separation. He judged the ball better than either Patriots defensive back, timing his leap perfectly. But it was the body control and focus he showed in traffic that allowed him to pluck the ball out of the air and come down with the game-tying touchdown.
That wasn't a rookie play.
Kenny Stills, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints
Stills may have only been in the game for 41 offensive snaps and was only targeted three times, but he has the attention of Brees. The former Oklahoma wide receiver caught every pass thrown in his direction and made the spectacular catch with the game on the line. With Jimmy Graham made obsolete by Aqib Talib, Brees had to look elsewhere, and Stills came through. His quarterback won't forget that.
Kenbrell Thompkins, Wide Receiver, New England Patriots
Kenbrell Thompkins saw Stills' clutch catch and raised him just moments later. With under ten seconds to play in the game, Thompkins ran a simple route to the corner of the end zone against single coverage. The throw was perfect from Tom Brady, but Thompkins came through. Brady knows all too well how unreliable rookie wide receivers can be but he came after Thompkins anyways. He only caught three of his six targets in the game, but Thompkins should get a nice confidence boost from the game-winning touchdowns, which is all some players need to spark them.
Johnathan Cyprien, Safety, Jaguars
As a senior at Florida International, Johnathan Cyprien flashed often. His reckless playing style and athletic ability generated plenty of buzz. But early in his rookie season, Cyprien looked timid, unsure of himself coming off injury. As the weeks have gone by, however, he's gotten more comfortable. Against the Broncos in Week 6, Cyprien was still making some mistakes. He took a poor angle on a few tackles and was flagged for a penalty. The difference, though, was that the mistakes were aggressive in nature. That's an improvement.
Ezekiel Ansah, Defensive End, Detroit Lions
Ekeziel Ansah has been more productive than most expected in his rookie season, but in Week 6 the Lions' defensive end hit a bump in the road. He had two tackles and a quarterback hurry but did not look comfortable rushing the passer. He was too often caught upright and didn't flash many secondary pass rush moves. That's what happens when a developing rookie goes up against one of the league's best left tackles as Ansah did in Week 6, lining up across from Cleveland's Joe Thomas. The competition doesn't come much tougher.
Eric Fisher, Offensive Tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
It's hockey season, and Michigan native Eric Fisher had his skates on in Week 6. Fisher has been bad this season, but his performance against the Oakland Raiders may have been his worst of the year. He was consistently letting players into his chest and getting driven into the backfield. He seems to lack balance on the right side and isn't comfortable getting into his set.
Star Lotulelei, Defensive Tackle, Carolina Panthers
Star Lotulelei has been a consistent presence in the top part of this weekly feature. He hasn't wasted much time becoming an impact player on a loaded Panthers' front-seven. Against the Vikings in Week 6, though, Lotulelei was nowhere to be found. He was on the field for 34 snaps but didn't record a single tackle. He wasn't as quick off the ball as he's been, and the Vikings found a way to wash him out in the running game.
Rookie of the Year
Offense: Giovani Bernard, Running Back, Cincinnati Bengals
The Offensive Rookie of the Year chase is taking shape. Bengals running back Gio Bernard is the leader at this point because of what he's done in a limited role that is sure to grow. Once he starts getting more carries, the shifty Bernard will be eating up yardage and doing enough to impress voters. Jets quarterback Geno Smith may have enough impressive moments to make this interesting, though.
Defense: Sheldon Richardson, Defensive Lineman, New York Jets
Sheldon Richardson doesn't play a glamorous position, which may hurt his chances of winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, but it's impossible to ignore the impact he's had on New York's defense. He's been firing off the ball and hitting the line of scrimmage hard at the point of attack. Many questioned his fit in the Jets' defense, but it's been a perfect match thus far.