In 2012, the NFC West is stacked with rookies who have made their presence felt at a number of different positions.
Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks is arguably the most impressive rookie quarterback from this year's class. Chris Givens has shown the St. Louis Rams that speed does indeed kill, and even Bruce Irvin has proved he was worthy of the 15th overall pick by registering seven sacks as a situational pass-rusher.
However, no NFC West rookie has had a bigger impact on his positional unit than cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Jenkins has helped turn one of the most under-performing, injury-riddled secondaries into one of the most talented secondaries in the NFL.
Under the tutelage of head coach Jeff Fisher and veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan, Jenkins is improving weekly and quietly making a solid case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. But does he have enough impressive tape to outdo Casey Hayward, Chandler Jones and Bobby Wagner?
Let's take a look by examining his play in coverage three-fourths of the way through the season. What we find out will help us draw our own conclusions.
As a cornerback, coverage needs to be your biggest area of strength—unfortunately, very few corners make the same immediate impact that they made at the collegiate level. The NFL is full of wide receivers who are big, fast, smart and strong.
At the collegiate level, not every wideout has the ability to play in the NFL. It doesn't matter if a player plays in the SEC or Pac-12. Nothing replicates the speed and toughness of the NFL like the NFL. By now, we have all seen what Jenkins did against Julio Jones and A.J. Green while at Florida, so we know the talent is there, but what has he done through 12 games in his rookie season?
In the image above, you can see what type of season the analysts over at Pro Football Focus think Jenkins is having. And, to be honest, I'm split on the way they have graded Jenkins in particular games. There are some games where I totally agree with PFF and there are other games where I totally disagree.
His season has been a bit of a roller coaster—when he has a good game, it's usually sensational and his play is at a level few can match. But when he has a bad game, it's about the worst thing you can imagine.
To me, his roller-coaster style of play doesn't fall on a lack of physical skills or an inability to play at a high level, it more reflects a lack of mental focus. I say that because, at times, it appears as if he almost trusts himself and his abilities too much, which in turn causes him to play with a lack of discipline.
However, his undisciplined play will sometimes result in highlight-reel plays. Take his first pick-six of the Rams' Week 12 game against the Cardinals for example. His initial assignment on this play is left wide receiver Michael Floyd. As Floyd starts to make his way downfield on a vertical route, Jenkins peeks into the backfield to check on Ryan Lindley's field of vision.
Lo and behold, he sees that Lindley is eying the short-left portion of the field, which tells him that the rookie quarterback is looking to check the ball down to running back LaRod Stephens-Howling. But the beauty of Jenkins' ability to read the play is that he is already thinking one step ahead.
By being one step ahead, it allows him to bail on Floyd down the sideline and read Lindley's eyes so he can start to break on the ball to secure the interception. As you can see, he reads the play perfectly and jumps the throw for a pick-six.
But let's back up for a minute. Let's pretend a seasoned veteran was under center—if that's the case, the veteran quarterback pump fakes or simply looks off the throw to the flat and instead hits Floyd streaking down the sideline for a huge gain.
Jenkins makes an arrogant decision by bailing on a coverage scheme that left no help behind him. If Lindley throws that ball down the sideline to Floyd, chances are it goes for a touchdown and Jenkins' great instincts all of a sudden turn into bad judgement.
Here's an example of a play where fellow rookie Ryan Tannehill caught Jenkins peaking in the backfield a little too long. In the screenshots above, it's evident that No. 21 thinks he sees an opportunity to make something happen from the start of the play.
That thought may have had some truth to it, but it's pretty hard to make anything happen when you lose track of the wide receiver you are supposed to cover. Tannehill saw Jenkins peaking into the backfield just like he was against Lindley—the only difference was Tannehill recognized it and Lindley didn't.
As soon as Tannehill realized Jenkins was peaking, he located his man and hit him for a 29-yard touchdown score. If the rookie cornerback would have taken the time to simply locate him, the play may not have resulted in a score.
St. Louis ended up losing its Week 6 battle with the Dolphins 17-14.
When NFL teams draft cornerbacks, they draft them to limit the opposing team's big, highlight-reel plays. They don't draft them so they can freelance and do whatever they want out on an island. Players are expected to play within their team's defensive systems.
Very few cornerbacks are allowed to freelance and do their own thing—the only ones I can really think of are Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman. Two is a pretty small sample size in terms of the entire NFL.
There's no question Jenkins is in the right system under coach Fisher, he just needs to become a more disciplined player if he ever wants to hit that elite status like Revis and Sherman.
Even though the big plays have made him seem like a worthy Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, his play outside of the one or two good plays a game would beg to differ. The consistency of his play isn't at the level it needs to be right now.
Hayward, Jones and Wagner are all sound players who rarely make mistakes. Jenkins will probably end up having a better career than all three of them, but please, for now, don't buy into the Rookie of the Year hype.
It wouldn't be the right thing to do; it would only justify his risky play. Only becoming a more fundamentally sound player will help Jenkins become a better cornerback.
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