St. Louis – After ten weeks it is becoming very apparent that rookie RB Steven Jackson might be the steal of the 2004 NFL Draft. In backup duty Jackson has accounted for 337 yards (a robust 5.1 yards per carry average) and two touchdowns. He is averaging slightly more than six touches per game but he has made the most of them. Look for Jackson to see even more touches as the Rams begin a playoff push to end the season.
Rookie DE Tony Hargrove is the backup behind starting right defensive end Bryce Fisher. He has seen limited time recording only 16 tackles but three of those have gone for losses. He also plays a key role, along with fellow rookie LB Brandon Chillar, on special teams.
Chillar backs up starting strong-side linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and in spot duty has registered 17 tackles with three for losses. Chillar's speed and pursuit are what make him an asset and he could possibly challenge one of the starters in his second season in 2005.
QB Jeff Smoker impressed coaches early with his strong arm and good footwork, but like most rookie QBs he hit a wall in his knowledge of the system and he has remained the third quarterback on the roster all season. Smoker has the ability to be a solid starter in the league and under the tutoring of head coach Mike Martz he could find himself ready to make a move on backup QB Chris Chandler during the offseason mini-camps.
One undrafted rookie is expected to get the first start of the rookie class. Rookie DT Brian Howard got his first start against Green Bay in storied Lambeau Field. When he heard about his starting assignment on Wednesday words were hard to come by.
"A lot of things go through your head when you hear that - being a young guy, and undrafted," Howard said. "Obviously it's exciting."
Howard who is undersized at 6'4" and 278 pounds is quick and surprisingly strong at the point of attack. He has basically played on special teams most of the season and did not dress against New England on November 7th. Last week against Buffalo he played several snaps, registering four tackles with one tackle for loss.
He replaced starter Damione Lewis in the lineup to "get a spark along the line" according to Martz.
Next Game: vs. San Francisco, December 5th
San Francisco – The 49ers took control of their own destiny in a way on Sunday. Their loss to the equally hapless Miami Dolphins 24-17 gave them sole possession of the top draft choice in the 2005 Draft. There are still five weeks to be played but the Niners are likely to be underdogs all five contests.
One harbinger of hope for the struggling franchise is its 2004 rookie class. Led by second-round finds G Justin Smiley and CB Shawntae Spencer, both starters, the 49ers have infused the team with a youth movement that should pay dividends in the not-so-distant future.
Spencer stepped in for starting CB Mike Rumph in week four and has not relinquished his starting spot. On the season Spencer has 39 tackles and four passes defensed. Spencer is tall (6'1") but he lacks the bulk and strength to matchup with the bigger receivers that are so in vogue nowadays. With a year in the weight room he should be able to challenge Rumph for playing time next season.
Smiley is a great drive-blocker and he pulls well for a big man. He is still learning the nuances of pass-protection but he is far from the weakest link along the line.
Fourth-round selection LB Richard Seigler hasn't seen much time, contributing only one tackle, but he is a demon on special teams and his speed, athleticism and sure tackling will be assets on the outside as early as next season.
S Keith Lewis, selected in the sixth round, opened eyes in training camp with his fiery attitude and his ability to be in the right place at the right time. He is savvy and makes up for his lack of bulk with good footwork and sure tackling. He hasn't recorded a tackle so far but has seen time in five games.
QB Cody Pickett was an after thought being selected in the seventh round, but his size and above-average arm impressed head coach Dennis Erickson enough to release veteran Brandon Doman at the end of training camp. He has been inactive for the entire season, backing up Ken Dorsey and Tim Rattay, but Erickson sees a future in the league for the former Husky.
Next Game: @ St. Louis, December 5th
Arizona – Perhaps no other set of rookies has meant more to their team than the foursome of WR Larry Fitzgerald, C Alex Stepanovich, LB Karlos Dansby and DT Darnell Dockett.
Stepanovich was named the starter in the pivot after head coach Dennis Green cut veteran Pete Kendall with two weeks remaining in the preseason. He hasn't disappointed. Stepanovich is tough and technically sound. His intelligence is what sets him apart from most rookies as he makes most of the line adjustments.
Fitzgerald was named the starter on one side before he even came to camp. He has done what most thought he would do. So far he has 41 receptions for 578 yards and four touchdowns. With injuries to second-year receivers Anquon Boldin and Bryant Johnson, Fitzgerald didn't have a complimentary wideout on the opposite side, so teams simply rolled their coverage to his side. Look for him to have a solid final month of the season and to bust out in 2005 with some big numbers.
Dansby has been a terror of late. He has started six of the last seven games and while he only has 26 tackles and one forced fumble, he also has four sacks to tie for second on the team. Dansby plays the strongside linebacker spot and needs to learn how to disengage better, but his size/speed ratio makes him a playmaker.
Seventh-rounder QB John Navarre has been inactive for the entire season but he will be under center this week, when the Cardinals head to Detroit this Sunday. Many close to the franchise were shocked at Green's latest move in trying to find a quality signal-caller.
"I think John has some special qualities," said Green. "He's a smart quarterback, and he has had a chance to spend a lot of time in our system. He has worked hard and has gained my confidence. ... Shaun (King) had his chance the last couple weeks. A quick hook? Yep. Tough business. And you don't ever have to apologize for it being a tough business."
Next Game: @ Detroit, December 5th
.NET Reporter Scott
Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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