After a full slate of preseason games, I thought it might be a good idea to write a few words about the rookie NFL players I covered in my breakdowns before the draft. Obviously some guys played more than others and a few didn't play at all, so keep that in mind and take all this with a grain of salt since, after all, it is only one game.
The No. 1 pick overall in the draft got his first taste of live game action against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night. It went about like I expected it would. Clowney used his unique combination of size, quickness, speed and power to flash several times early. He beat a Cardinals tight end like a drum at the line of scrimmage for a tackle for a loss. He also lined up beside J.J. Watt on a passing play where Watt came home with the sack but Clowney was right on his tail. Another thing that I liked is that Clowney showed a little diversity in his moves in the short amount of time he was out there. I'm sure you might have seen some folks say he was only bull rushing, but they were mistaken. Every power rush isn't a bull rush. Clowney showed power with a spin inside as well as a long arm that juuuusst about got him close enough to knock the ball out of the opposing quarterback's hand before he could throw a touchdown in the red zone.
The Tim Tebow Chronicles
The Tim Tebow Chronicles
Close, but no cigar.
On the other hand, Clowney was exploited by the Cardinals in pass coverage several times. If you recall from my breakdown, that's to be expected at first. Clowney is going to have some growing pains this year as he gets adjusted to playing linebacker and nobody should freak out about it. He is obviously athletic enough to be a decent cover guy, so once he gets the technique part down, he shouldn't be a liability at all.
And let's be real for a minute, it's the preseason so the Texans are going to want to put Clowney in different situations to see what his strengths and weaknesses are before they get to the regular season. But if you think they are going to have him covering guys more than rushing the passer, I have some prime real estate in the swamp lands of Florida to sell you.
Greg Robinson, St. Louis Rams
Robinson wasn't dominant against the Saints, and it appears that it will take him a little time to catch up to the speed of the game. Right now, he is working at guard and offensive tackle. That may be slowing his progress a little bit because he hasn't settled into one spot yet. He's still going to be a monster in my opinion, but for now, it looks like he is going to need quite a bit of work to feel comfortable enough to come off and mash people like he is used to doing.
I thought it was a head-scratching move for the Bills to trade up for Watkins, and after two preseason games, I am still terribly confused. If you read my breakdown before the draft, it should be obvious that I think he is certainly talented enough to be taken with the fourth pick. I kinda just wish another team, one with a decent quarterback, had done so. After hearing about Watkins tearing up practices at Bills camp, he has been relatively quiet so far in the games. He did haul in three passes for 21 yards against the Panthers, which is ok for an early preseason game I suppose. I just have a hard time seeing how he is going to have the kind of impact he should have this year (and beyond) with an erratic quarterback like EJ Manuel throwing the ball to him.
I'm just being honest.
Jake Matthews, Atlanta Falcons
Because the Falcons are on Hard Knocks, we got to see last week that young Jake really is "about that life." He wasn't about to let veteran Kroy Biermann punk him on the field, so when Biermann tried to do so, Matthews laid hands on him, and not in a spiritual way.
That is the kind of attitude you want to see from your offensive linemen. Now, being tough isn't all that it takes and Matthews had some miscues in their game against the Dolphins (his holding penalty negated a long touchdown run). He hasn't looked overmatched at all, either on the show or during the game. It looks like he will go a long way toward shoring up a Falcons offensive line that was pretty damn awful last year.
The Bucs selected Evans with the seventh pick in the draft, but didn't do a whole lot to address their offensive guard position. Evans was quiet against the Jaguars because his quarterback, Josh McCown, was running for his life almost every play.
Yeah, so maybe I'm a lil pissed off about that performance right now. Moving on ...
Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams
I think the St Louis Rams would say Donald has been exactly as advertised so far. He is so damn quick off the ball and good with his hands. There were a few plays against the Saints where it looked like he was unblocked, but on second glance, you could see that he just beat the block right away. Offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches are going to have nightmares trying to figure out how to block up that Rams front four, and if Donald continues to develop, he and Robert Quinn are going to have a bunch of races to the quarterback.
It is amazing that two years ago the Dallas Cowboys offensive line was considered a weakness, and now, after selecting Martin to be their starting right guard, it's suddenly the strength of the team. Martin has solidified a unit that took steps forward last year with the addition of center Travis Frederick. After watching him play against the Chargers, it's evident he is not only ready to start this year, but also play at a very high level. I mean, that offensive line had Brandon Weeden (!) looking like a viable NFL quarterback for crying out loud! Yeah, Martin fell down on a screen play which got the back "blowded up," as Emmitt Smith would say, but that play was an anomaly and for the most part he wasn't just OK, he was dominant.
Now, if only he could play a little defense, too ...
Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
Cooks probably went to the perfect team for his skill set. As soon as he was selected with the 20th pick, I swear I could hear three NFC South defensive coordinators mutter "oh shit" in unison. A guy that quick and that fast who has decent hands and knows how to make people miss is exactly the kind of wide receiver Saints head coach Sean Payton loves to feature in his offense. Against the Rams, Cooks put clown shoes on just about their whole secondary on his touchdown catch, which consisted of making one guy miss completely then turning on the jets and just outrunning two others.
I still worry about his size because he is pretty small, but if he can stay healthy that Saints offense could be even more potent. And for what it's worth, I might have sold him a little short in my draft assessment.
Brandin Cooks, Photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images
Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
In my breakdown of Kelvin Benjamin, I predicted that he would end up being drafted lower than he should have been. The Panthers, who basically are rebuilding their wide receiver corps from scratch, took him with the 28th pick in the first round, which was earlier than I thought he would go. However, Benjamin still may prove my prediction right if he continues to make the kind of ridiculous touchdown catches he did in his first preseason action against the Buffalo Bills. That kind of catch is exactly the reason why the Panthers drafted him in the first place. The fact that almost by default Benjamin will be the No. 1 option at wide receiver for the Panthers this season should also help him build quite an impressive resume on the stat sheet by the end of the season.
I don't want to get too carried away here, but from all outward appearances that kid is going to be a star.
Ra'Shede Hageman, Atlanta Falcons
We get to see a little more from Hageman than other rookies because of Hard Knocks. I'm not much into reality TV shows, but I have to admit I can't wait to see how the interaction between Hageman and his defensive line coach (and former badass NFL linebacker) Bryan Cox develops. Hageman needs a ton of technique work. He just doesn't have a feel for playing defense yet, so how he takes coaching will make a big difference on how quickly he develops as a defensive lineman. That he seems to talk back too much and appears to be a little ... soft (yeah, I said it) is likely to come to a head, and soon, with a no-nonsense guy like Cox. So yeah, I'm going to have my popcorn ready whilst monitoring that situation.
In the preseason game against the Dolphins, Hageman's strengths and limitations were evident from play to play. The kid is strong as all outdoors, so when he has some semblance of an idea of what he is supposed to be doing, he generally made an impact. Several times, however, he looked like he had no idea what was going on, even after beating the blocker. It was a decent start for his first preseason action, but he is going to have to develop more football awareness if he wants to make the plays he should be making.
Michael Sam, St. Louis Rams
I thought the Rams ended up getting a steal when they drafted Sam in the seventh round. Every team needs guys who can rush the passer, and that's something Sam had a knack for in college. Of course, the Rams are stacked on their defensive line so there's the question about whether or not he'll make the roster. His performance against the New Orleans Saints showed that he can play in this league. He was able to turn the corner several times on pass rush, and he made a pretty good tackle on a run stunt where he showed his quickness and change of direction.
Michael Sam's Debut
None of this means he will ever start a football game or be a star player. What it does mean is he didn't look out of place at all rushing alongside several of the Rams' first-team defensive linemen. There's still a lot of preseason left for him to go forward or backward, but I thought he made a pretty good first impression.