Another year of draft evaluations are upon us with the NFL playoffs down to the final eight. The two topics merge into one here as the same players that were becoming household names last year at this time are now finishing their first NFL season, with several playing integral parts in their team’s postseason success. I’ll look at two rookies, one from each team in each playoff game and see how they might play a crucial part in this weekend’s games.
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Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens
JJ Watt doesn’t believe a rookie wall exists. As the season goes on he only gets better. When Wade Phillips drafted Watt to play defensive end in his 3-4 system, he felt that he could play at an NFL level straight out the gate. Starting from day one in training camp, it was obvious that Phillips was correct. Watt was the most pro ready rookie that I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Watt went on to rack up 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and even 4 pass defended this season. He showed in college that he never quits on plays and that shows up in his NFL stat lines when you see the number of tackles for losses, sacks, batted balls, etc.JJ saved his best for the Texans’ and his first ever playoff game.
Last week against the Bengals after the Texans just tied the game 10-10, Cincinnati tried to put a drive together right before the end of the half. JJ Watt jumped up and picks the Andy Dalton pass at the line and returned it for a score. That play shifted all of the momentum in Houston and the Texans never looked back. Watt also added a sack in the game. JJ Watt continues to improve every week and seems to have stepped his game up for the playoffs. He will be a key ingredient in Houston has any chance of going to Baltimore and knocking off the Ravens. He’s strong against the run and therefore will need penetration to either stop or redirect Ray Rice. He has 5.5 sacks and could prove to shake up the inconsistent Joe Flacco.
Only seven other 3-4 defensive ends had more sacks than the rookie JJ Watt and out of those, only one had more pass defended and only two had more tackles.
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Torrey Smith is close to what I expected out of him. He’s a speed guy that can get over the top. I’ll admit that I didn’t think he would have as much success as he has had. Smith is not a complete receiver and a veteran cornerback with decent speed should be able to take him out of the game or a defensive scheme that has a safety protect over the top. With that said, Smith still managed 50 receptions for 841 yards and 7 touchdowns against NFL defenses. You have to respect what he does, especially with a 16.8 ypc average.
The Texans will be focused on Ray Rice in this game and rightfully so but if Smith gets matched up with Kareem Jackson across from him, he could change the outcome of the game. Jackson doesn’t have NFL speed and Smith could exploit it on the 9 route. Even if Jackson manages to stay in Smith’s hip pocket, Kareem doesn’t play the ball and could still turn out to be a huge reception of pass interference. Houston would be wise to match up the faster, more talented Johnathan Joseph with Smith but even this gives the Ravens a mismatch with the veteran Anquan Boldin being able to manipulate Jackson. Obviously the wise choice would be to bench Jackson for Jason Allen but Houston fails to do that every week.
Consequently, Smith should help Baltimore on offense even if he’s not getting a ton of catches. On a side note, he is a rookie and has struggled with drops. I’ll be watching to see if his tendency to drop passes shows itself in a big moment like the AFC Playoffs.
Prediction: Baltimore Ravens 23-13
Other Rookie Notes: TJ Yates has been asked to do a lot as a 5th round pick out of UNC. He’s been up to the challenge but beating Cincy at home is a lot different than traveling to Baltimore to face Lewis, Reed, Ngata, and Suggs. No one mentions injuries until they happen but the Texans already know what it’s like to have a rookie quarterback one injury away from being the starter. Tyrod Taylor and the Ravens may find out the world Houston has been living in if Flacco gets his bell rung. Tyrod was a 6th round pick this year out of another ACC school, Virginia Tech.
Taylor was drafted 28 picks after Yates in this year’s draft. Both signal callers were four year starters and faced each other all four years with Tyrod getting the best of TJ, three games to one. Brooks Reed saw his playing time increase after Mario Williams went down for the year and he amassed a total of 45 tackles and six sacks. The Ravens offensive tackles will have their hands full with Reed and Connor Barwin coming of the edges. Jimmy Smith looks the part of the NFL corner but still has some improving to do. If he matches up with Andre Johnson in this game the Ravens will probably shade Ed Reed but if they do that, Owen Daniels should have an opening.
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Jayson Braddock is an NFL Scout / NFL Writer & On-Air Personality. Jayson is also a football insider for the Dylan Gwinn show on 790 AM in Houston, TX - Listeners NOT in the Houston metropolitan area can hear Jayson on iheart radio or sports790.com. You can also catch Jayson on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio with Scott Engel and the morning crew every Thursday at 10:30am ET. You may email Jayson directly @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JaysonBraddock