As the pre-season nears its midpoint, rookies are beginning to make strong cases for regular season snaps. Fortunately for the Eagles and Bengals, some of their early round rookies already have established that they deserve consideration for starting gigs.
Based on their play in the team’s second pre-season game, several of the Eagles’ defensive rookies appear to be ready for significant roles. The team’s top two 2010 picks, defensive end Brandon Graham and safety Nate Allen, already look like NFL starters.
Graham made an impact as a pass rusher, getting around the rotund Andre Smith for a sack. On another play, the defensive end delivered a hit on the quarterback. But Graham was even more impressive as a run defender: he dominated offensive linemen at the point of attack, a few times plowing his way into the backfield.
Because of his lack of prototypical length, many draft analysts weren’t convinced that Graham could be an every down defensive end. However, his play against the Bengals indicates he’s more than ready to take on a starting job.
Nate Allen’s night got off to an embarrassingly rough start. Early in the game, he was trucked by Cedric Benson, but Allen mostly impressed from that point on. He did a nice job racing in on a blitz, which rushed a Carson Palmer throw that was picked. And on a running play, Allen showed some aggressiveness dropping his shoulder on a hit that dislodged the football (the ballcarrier was ruled down).
Perhaps more importantly, Allen showed the smarts and speed to be effective covering the deep half. When Chad Ochocinco burned Ellis Hobbs with a double move, Allen was there to run step for step with #85, leading to an incompletion.
Rookie linebacker Keenan Clayton also distinguished himself in coverage. The 4th round pick was considered by some to be a reach, but he’s thus far outperformed most of his fourth frame peers. Clayton did a great job in man coverage, stopping a running back before he could get to the first down marker. He also showed great instincts, sniffing out and intercepting a screen pass.
Clayton closed out the night with a big hit on receiver Quan Cosby. And with his combinations of instincts, speed, and aggressiveness, Clayton could earn the opportunity to wallop other wideouts this fall.
While many of the Eagles’ defensive rookies impressed, some of their first year offensive players struggled. Former Northwestern signal caller Mike Kafka threw two picks, only avoiding a hat trick because a cornerback dropped another INT opportunity. The rookie QB had trouble locating his receivers and struggled with his accuracy, especially on deep throws.
Kafka’s reportedly been very impressive at training camp, showing great anticipation and better than expected arm strength. But the rookie QB doesn’t appear close to being able to handle the top backup job. For now, Michael Vick’s firmly ensconced as the team’s #2 quarterback, and the team might consider bringing in a veteran backup if Vick ever misses time.
In addition, undrafted rookie offensive tackle Austin Howard had a less than stellar game. Howard’s received rave reviews for his work in training camp, but he had a tough time matching up against Bengals rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Howard repeatedly was jolted back on initial contact and failed to counter with an effective punch. Though the former tight end moves well, Dunlap was able to run the arc around him for a sack.
Dunlap is a tremendously gifted defensive end, so it’s not at all surprising that a UDFA tackle didn’t hold up well against him. But with Howard reportedly competing to be the 3rd OT on the depth chart, it’s disconcerting that he struggled against a starting-caliber defensive lineman.
On the flip side, the Bengals have to be pleased with Carlos Dunlap’s play. The 2nd round defensive end missed the team’s first pre-season game, then was rather quiet in the second one. But against the Eagles, Dunlap notched a sack, a tackle for loss, and a QB hit. In addition, the 285 pound d-lineman raced down the field and made a tackle on special teams.
Dunlap was plagued by work ethic and consistency issues in college, but he appears to be getting his professional career off to a good start. If he keeps himself out of trouble and continues to work hard, the uber-talented big man could be just as productive as the defensive ends drafted ahead of him in April.
While Dunlap’s beginning to show some promise, 4th round defensive tackle Geno Atkins is continuing to astound and impress. Atkins has been a disruptive force in the team’s first three pre-season games, notching 3 1/2 sacks and 6 TFL. Of all the defensive rookies in the league, Atkins arguably has been the most productive.
Atkins was a constant presence in the Eagles’ backfield. On one series, Atkins sacked Michael Vick, then forced a pick by plowing a guard into the backfield. And along with his quickness, Atkins has displayed surprising strength.
While the team most likely will deploy Atikins early on in a situational pass rushing role, the rookie d-lineman may simply be too talented to take off the field. And if pressed into extended duty, it looks like the Georgia product could have a major impact.
On offense, 1st round tight end Jermaine Gresham appears to be set for a similarly large impact. After starting off with an unimpressive, catch-less Hall of Fame Game, Gresham has upped his game and proven to be a dynamic receiving target.
Gresham still struggles as a blocker. He lacks the power at the point to move defenders. Also, he glaringly missed one of his pass blocking assignments, providing Trent Cole an unobstructed path to the quarterback.
However, Gresham is proving himself as a pass catcher. He’s shown improvement in his explosiveness coming out of a three-point stance. Also, he’s looked very good standing up at the wing and split out wide as a receiver. He’s shown off reliable hands, as well as the speed to quickly gain yardage after the catch.
If he continues to improve, Gresham quickly could become one of the better receiving tight ends in the league. With Batman & Robin working outside, Gresham will have plenty of opportunities to run free in the middle of the field, and he appears ready to take advantage of them.