Many football fans label the divisional round as the best weekend of the football season (note: as a Patriots fan, I agree that divisional round weekend is always fun). With two games on both Saturday and Sunday, the round of 8 usually brings about some memorable close games.
This year’s version of divisional round weekend ended with all of the higher seeds winning, but there were plenty of other takeaways from the four games. As a draft analyst, I pay close attention to the growth and development of rookies who I scouted less than a year ago. With multiple impact rookies making their mark in the playoffs, it’s a prime opportunity to see how these players have translated and progressed for their NFL teams.
Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs
Quietly, Kansas City has a lack of rookies making an impact this season after surrendering their 2018 first round pick in the Patrick Mahomes trade. Luckily, the Colts have enough stud rookies to go around.
Phenom linebacker Darius Leonard continued his stellar play this season, racking up 14 total tackles (10 solo). While the majority of Leonard's tackles came from rallying to the football on short passes, the way he closes space down on ball carrier is impressive. On top of that, he had a forced fumble and recovery that Indianapolis desperately needed to get back in the football game at the time. Leonard’s play this postseason reaffirmed his status as one of the best young players in the league, and potential defensive rookie of the year.
Rookie all-pro guard Quenton Nelson faced one of the toughest challenges of his young career in Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones. While there were a few reps where Nelson gave more ground into the pocket than normal, his anchor was on display. One a particular rep, Jones had the leverage and hand placement on Nelson, but the guard was still able to lower his hips and stop Jones' charge. That type of strength and mobility is rarely, rarely ever seen in rookie offensive lineman.
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
Similar to the Chiefs, the Rams don't have an impact rookie on the roster due to not having a first or second round pick in 2018. However, with Cowboys wide receiver Allen Hurns injured, rookie Michael Gallup stepped up and produced in his absence. Gallup posted 6 receptions for 119 yards on Sunday, both career highs.
The biggest play for Gallup came on an over the shoulder catch that set Dallas up at the 1 yard line while trailing by 16. Gallup showed nice awareness to get down the field when quarterback Dak Prescott extended the play. While I would prefer to see Gallup turn his body and high point the pass, he hauled it in nonetheless.
The missing ingredient for Gallup is transitioning from receiver to ball carrier, as too often he seems unnatural with the ball in his hands. If he can improve this aspect of his game for next season, expect him to take a big step forward.
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots
New England's offense had a surgical performance on Sunday, with a dominating mixture of the run and pass against the Chargers' predominant defensive back personnel. Rookie running back Sony Michel was arguably the star of the entire game.
Michel had four carries of over 9+ yards in the first half alone, including a 40 yard burst that set New England up inside the 10 on the drive that put them up three touchdowns. Michel would finish the game with 24 carries for 129 yards and 3 touchdowns.
An encouraging thing from a scouting perspective when it came to Michel's performance on Sunday was his equal success on zone and gap runs. His biggest gains came on outside zone, but he picked up yards on power and isolation runs as well. Michel undoubtedly has a well rounded profile for the position.
There was a ton of praise given to Chargers rookie safety/hybrid Derwin James throughout the season, and that continued on Sunday. The all-pro would finish with 10 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, as Los Angeles relied on him near the box. However, my eyes were fixated on rookie outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu.
Last week against Baltimore, Nwosu made the game-clinching strip sack on Lamar Jackson. Against New England, Nwosu would pick up 4 tackles (1 tackle for loss). All of his tackles came in pass coverage, including running down James White's jet sweep shovel pass from the backside. For a player known for rushing the passer, Nwosu's versatility expanded as a rookie.
Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints
New Orleans has some promising rookies in defensive end Marcus Davenport and wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith. Unfortunately for them, neither one made that big of an impact on Sunday. For the Eagles, the rookie who was the most involved in the game was cornerback Avonte Maddox.
Philadelphia's secondary has been depleted by injuries all season, and they relied on Maddox down the stretch of the season. Early on against New Orleans, Maddox was tasked with shadowing NFL receptions leader Michael Thomas.
Maddox performed well in this role early on, allowing minimal separation and even running step for step on Thomas on a third down for an incompletion. However, the somewhat volatile nature of Maddox's game would arise from that point on. He would allow multiple receptions to Thomas, leave the game and re-enter, and continue to compete with mixed results. At one point, Taysom Hill got behind the Eagles secondary, and Maddox made a pass breakup on an under thrown ball.
In the end, Michael Thomas would end up with an impressive stat line, much of it coming against Maddox, who would finish with 6 solo tackles and that lone pass breakup. It was a tough task, and Maddox performed admirably. Look for him to compete for a starting position in Philadelphia next season.
A formal welcome to the NFL Draft, fans of the Colts, Cowboys, Chargers and Eagles. We're on to the Conference Championship round!