Second-Year Players I’m Monitoring in August

Stuart is willing to give LaMichael James a shot to earn the starting job with his RSP Writers team.  Photo by Neon Tommy.
I loved watching James at Oregon and he’s worth monitoring as a second-year player with the 49ers. See who else I’m watching closely for a variety of reasons. Photo by Neon Tommy.

What have you done for me lately? It’s an underlying mantra of performance-based industry. Of course there is the concept of earning equity on past performance. Peyton Manning built enough equity in his career that a career-threatening neck injury didn’t prevent at least three teams to engage in a high-stakes bidding war for his services.

Draft picks often earn a little equity because NFL teams are paying them a salary that influences these organizations to show a little patience. Still, it’s a small increment of time. Teams expect second-year players to make a significant improvement with their play or Year Three is a “get good or get going” scenario.

Earlier this week I wrote about 10 rookie offensive players and players that I’m monitoring during the preseason. This post is a series of short profiles of 10 offensive players entering Year Two who I’ll be monitoring with interest.

Tight End/Fullback Evan Rodriguez, Dolphins: Rodriguez has the skills to become a productive H-Back in the NFL. He’s a physical player with good skills after the catch and the speed to threaten the seam. The Bears drafted the Temple product last year and 14 months later the team waived its fourth-round pick after two arrests (DUI and disorderly conduct) during the off season. Rodriguez has a golden opportunity to earn a spot on the depth chart and learn from Dustin Keller, a receiver with similar dimensions who has more polish and professionalism, but lacks Rodriguez’s rough and tumble style. If the second-year prospect figures out that Miami is a chance for a career rebirth and not a grave yard disguised as a party, he could give the Dolphins enormous flexibility as a player who can move around the offensive formation and help Ryan Tannehill dictate the defensive scheme before the snap. I’m monitoring Rodriguez to see if he can mature and commit himself to being a professional.  If so, he has the football acumen to develop into a player like Chris Cooley, who was an H-Back earning 50-70 catches 700-plus-yards, and 6-8 touchdowns between 2005-2007.

Wide Receiver Rod Streater, Raiders: The second of three skill players who were rookies from Temple last year (Bernard Pierce was the third), Streater surprised NFL fans in 2012 when the undrafted free agent walked into Raiders’ camp and earned a significant role in the Oakland offense, gaining nearly 600 yards and averaging 15 yards per catch. I liked Streater’s speed, skill to set up breaks, and use of his hands against press.  Even after last year’s success I still have questions about Streater’s ability to make plays in tight coverage and against physical play. I thought he needed to get stronger physically. So far, reports from Raiders’ camp indicate that Streater is the most consistent option on the field. While I’m not making a physical comparison, I used to hear the same praise for Todd Pinkston until he hit the field. The Raiders have a receiver in Streater with true upside as an all-around threat, even if he never elevates his game to stardom. My checklist report on Rod Streater with play-by-play notes from a senior-year contest against Ohio.

Running Back Lamichael James, 49ers: San Francisco’s backfield is not as crowded as it appears. As talented and dedicated as he is, Marcus Lattimore is a hope and a dream for next year that may never come to fruition. Kendall Hunter looks fast . . . on the sideline rehabbing an Achilles’ tear. While Hunter is expected back before the season It leaves two healthy backs of note: Frank Gore and Lamichael James. Gore is what Achilles’ would have looked like on a football field post-Trojan Horse Incident (and survived) if his mamma had held him by the backs of his knees while dipping him into the River Styx as a baby. But Gore’s journey to the Elysian Fields of pro football is drawing near and there must be a successor. This year, that successor-in-training could be James, who has bulked up to 205 pounds and maintained his lightning-quick burst and agility. Gore has also noted that James’ improvement as a pass protector is “night and day” better. That’s the key. James has the talent to be this decade’s Brian Westbrook in Pistol formation where he can make a defense pay huge if they misread who is getting the ball. There’s a good chance James may never be a bell-cow back, but give him 120-150 touches and 40-60 receptions and he’ll be a dangerous weapon.

Wide receiver depth for the Texans could be the difference between a deep playoff run and another one-and-done. Photo of Keshawn Martin by Matt Radickal.
Wide receiver depth for the Texans could be the difference between a deep playoff run and another one-and-done. Photo of Keshawn Martin by Matt Radickal.

Wide Receiver Keshawn Martin, Texans: Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins are the receivers of note, but with Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter leaving town in recent years, I’m curious if Martin can develop fast enough to provide the Texans quality plays not only as a slot receiver, but as depth on the perimeter. Sure Lestar Jean might own that role in name, but I like Martin’s versatility. If Johnson or Hopkins succumb to injury, the Texans will need a second play-maker to be more than a one-and-done playoff team.

Running Back Michael Smith, Buccaneers: The addition of Mike James, Brian Leonard and Peyton Hillis make it appear that the Buccaneers may have Smith as the No.2 runner on its depth chart, but they don’t trust him to have a starter workload with near the volume of Doug Martin. I don’t blame them. However, I do believe he is by far the most talented runner on the roster after Martin and close observers of the Buccaneers happenings have a quiet, but collective man-crush on the explosive, second-year runner from Utah State. I often thought Smith and Colts rookie Kerwynn Williams were smarter runners between the tackles than the team’s big back Robert Turbin.

Wide Receiver LaVon Brazill, Colts: Brazill flashed skill that earned him a spot behind Reggie Wayne last year and he made a few big plays in a cameo role. If you’ve been reading this blog for at least a year then you know I loved his skills at Ohio. A substance abuse violation has left Brazill’s roster spot in jeopardy this summer and by all accounts he’s had a mistake-prone camp. The one thing I did like is that Brazill admitted that he has to eliminate marijuana from his life if he wants a shot at earning a living in the NFL. He stated the obvious rather than danced around the issue. With Darrius Heyward-Bey dealing with a sprained knee, Brazill still has a shot to keep his roster spot despite good work from Andrew Luck’s former Stanford roommate Griff Whalen. On the basis of talent, Whalen is a career reserve; Brazill is a potential starter, but professionalism and consistency matter.

Running Back Chris Polk, Eagles: Polk should have been a no worse than a fourth-round pick based on his talent (and that’s a very conservative estimate), but he went undrafted. I can only speculate through the lens of my own observations why:

  • His conditioning looked like that of a running back from another era. He had a bit of a spare tire at the Senior Bowl.
  • He appeared stiff as an athlete in Mobile.
  • Like Zach Sudfeld this year, Polk’s lengthy injury dossier was a turnoff.

Polk was signed after the Eagles drafted Bryce Brown – a back with immense talent, but had made numerous questionable decisions, including quitting the Kansas State team. But Polk was still good enough to make the Eagles roster last year and this year he and Brown made Dion Lewis expendable. While Brown is a phenomenal talent capable of All-Pro production, Polk isn’t far behind – especially now that he’s in shape. Chip Kelly knows this after facing the University of Washington running back in conference play. Polk is an even better receiver than Brown and he’s a tough, patient runner who breaks tackles. I’m monitoring Polk because I think he’ll push Bryce Brown if Brown continues to bounce runs to the corner store and carry the ball like it’s a dirty diaper.

Wide Receiver Marvin Jones, Bengals: You’re surprised, he’s listed I know. I never mention him. You shouldn’t be surprised that he’s earning more love than Mohammed Sanu from observers at Bengals’ practice. Jones runs better routes, has a better vertical game, and he’s tougher in tight coverage. Not that it will matter greatly, because Marvin Lewis isn’t big on depth charts and Sanu will see plenty of time – especially in the red zone where he thrives. However, it will matter greatly if A.J. Green gets hurt and I believe if this happens Jones can provide the type of production we used to see from Donald Driver in Green Bay.

I've never left the Hillman bandwagon. Just lounging in the backseat enjoying my popcorn. Photo by West Point U.S. Military Academy.
I’ve never left the Hillman bandwagon. Just lounging in the backseat enjoying my popcorn. Photo by West Point U.S. Military Academy.

Running Back Ronnie Hillman, Broncos: I swear there are times I wake in the morning on my office couch after a late night of writing and have a flashback that Cecil Lammey sneaked into my office and chanted “Hillman” in my ear non-stop for 15 minutes. Since I’m not afraid of running backs underwhelming as rookies or being labeled too light or too small, Hillman is near the top of my list as a player worth monitoring during the preseason. The fact he wasn’t much of a blocker didn’t surprised me last year; he still ran like the player I saw at San Diego State. It seems like many people are waiting for Montee Ball to become the starter at some point this season. If Hillman stays healthy, I think those folks might need a comfortable recliner – it even comes in Orange Crush.

Wide Receiver Brian Quick, Rams: I’ve been skeptical of Quick’s prospects and I remain so. Now that the Rams are playing a wide-open offense, can Quick fit in? Can he run routes? Has he improved enough to contribute? Austin Pettis lacks Quick’s athletic upside (which I think has been overstated since fall of 2012), but he understands the game and has great mitts. I’m looking forward to hearing more about Quick’s progress to see if there is any glimmer of hope.

Fantasy draft coming up? Download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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