Deep receiver class paying dividends

Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Minnesota's Mewelde Moore were easy choices on offense.

Originally Published: November 10, 2004
By James C. Black | ESPN.com

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger became a regular fixture in the offense much faster than the Steelers anticipated. And two months into the season, it's working out just fine.

The Miami (Ohio) alumnus, ESPN analysts Sean Salisbury and Joe Theismann's first-half MVP, was the obvious choice at quarterback for Rookie Report's midseason team. Roethlisberger, coming off of wins over previously unbeaten New England and Philadelphia, has become the first rookie to start his career 6-0 since Pittsburgh's Mike Kruczek did so in 1976.

"He's remarkable," Eagles linebacker Mark Simoneau said. "Look at him on the field and he doesn't look like a rookie, he looks like a guy who's been around four or five years."

Ben Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to six straight victories.
Aside from his first appearance against Baltimore in which he replaced injured starter Tommy Maddox, Roethlisberger (1,316 yards, 11 touchdowns) has been in total control. He's first in the AFC in completion percentage (69.0), third in passer rating (105.2) and sixth in touchdowns (11). He's thrown just five interceptions this season, two coming against the Ravens and another on the first play from scrimmage in his first start at Miami.

"I try not to get overwhelmed with it, and I try not to get overexcited," Roethlisberger said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "because I don't want it to take over what I am feeling and the emotions, so I try to keep calm and levelheaded."

Minnesota's Mewelde Moore (64 carries, 376 yards) hasn't had the impact over a prolonged stretch like Roethlisberger, but his performance in October made him an easy choice at running back. The Vikings, proving just how deep they were at tailback, turned to Moore when Michael Bennett and Onterrio Smith were unavailable against the Texans. Moore gained 182 total yards in that contest and accumulated similar numbers over the next two games.

"I don't know what to say. Humbly speaking, I've been doing this for years," Moore said after the win over New Orleans. "I'm just doing my job."

Midseason Rookie Team
Off. Player Team
QB Ben Roethlisberger Pittsburgh
RB Mewelde Moore Minnesota
WR Michael Clayton Tampa Bay
WR Keary Colbert Carolina
WR Larry Fitzgerald Arizona
WR Roy Williams Detroit
OT Robert Gallery Oakland
G Jacob Bell Tennessee
C Alex Stepanovich Arizona
G Chris Snee N.Y. Giants
OT Nat Dorsey Minnesota
Def. Player Team
DE Will Smith New Orleans
DT Tommie Harris Chicago
DT Igor Olshansky San Diego
DE Kenechi Udeze Minnesota
LB Teddy Lehman Detroit
LB Jonathan Vilma N.Y. Jets
LB D.J. Williams Denver
CB Dunta Robinson Houston
SS Gibril Wilson N.Y. Giants
FS Erik Coleman N.Y. Jets
CB Nathan Vasher Chicago
Special Player Team
Returner B.J. Sams Baltimore
Kicker Nate Kaeding San Diego
Punter Kyle Larson Cincinnati
Also getting the job done league wide are first-year receivers. Ten wideouts were taken in the first two rounds of the draft and several have made early contributions. In fact, because of the depth at wideout and the thin crop of tight ends (partly because of injuries suffered by Kellen Winslow, Benjamin Watson and Kris Wilson) we're pulling a Mike Martz and running a four-receiver set.

Detroit's Roy Williams was a no-brainer for the team despite being less productive than any of the other three wideouts selected. Williams, who has been a non-factor or no show in four of the past five games because of an ankle injury, has been a one-man highlight reel at times while leading the Lions with 27 catches, 395 yards and five touchdowns.

Statistically, the most impressive receiver has been Tampa Bay's Michael Clayton, elevated to the starting lineup when injuries sidelined Joey Galloway, Joe Jurevicius and Charles Lee. Clayton, with at least four receptions in all but one game this year, is sixth in the NFC with 595 yards.

Fellow first-rounder Larry Fitzgerald has yet to post a 100-yard game, but has been relatively consistent for the Cardinals. He had a 48-yard grab down to Miami's 3-yard line to set up his two-yard scoring reception for the game-deciding touchdown in Sunday's win over the Dolphins.

Our fourth receiver, Keary Colbert (453 yards, two touchdowns), has also gained more playing time in large part because of injuries. The USC alumnus has compensated for some of the big plays Carolina lost when Steve Smith suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. Nineteen of Colbert's 27 catches have gone for first downs.

Completing the offense is the line: tackles Robert Gallery (Oakland) and Nat Dorsey (Minnesota); guards Chris Snee (N.Y. Giants) and Jacob Bell (Tennessee); and center Alex Stepanovich (Arizona).

On the other side of the ball, there are some strong candidates up the middle. Vince Wilfork (21 tackles, one sack) has helped the Patriots deal with the free-agency departure of Ted Washington and Darnell Dockett (21 tackles, two sacks) has been impressive for the Cardinals. However, the two defensive tackles earning spots on our team are Chicago's Tommie Harris and San Diego's Igor Olshansky.

The Bears' defense, despite a struggling offense that generally doesn't win the time of possession battle, is ranked ninth overall. Harris, figured to play a bigger role in stopping the run, has also gotten after the quarterback -- collecting 3½ sacks to go with his 27 tackles.

Conversely, San Diego's defense has been helped by an offense that's scoring a lot of points and forcing opponents to shy away from running the ball. The Chargers are allowing just 81 yards a game on the ground and Olshansky has been a factor, recording 27 tackles and one sack.

Rounding out the defensive line are New Orleans' Will Smith (17 tackles and two sacks) and Minnesota's Kenechi Udeze (18 tackles and three sacks).

D.J. Williams
Getty ImagesDenver's D.J. Williams has 53 tackles, including 5½ for losses.
Our group of linebackers is led by a pair of former college teammates who have picked up where they left off. Miami alumni Jonathan Vilma (51 tackles) and D.J. Williams (53 tackles) are among their teams' leading tacklers and factor in mightily to the Jets and Broncos, respectively, being ranked top 6 defensively in the AFC. Our third 'backer is Detroit's Teddy Lehman (45 tackles, second on team), who's had to emerge following the serious injury to Boss Bailey.

In the secondary, there were a lot of strong candidates at safety. First-rounder Sean Taylor (Washington), former linebacker Michael Boulware (Seattle) and Madieu Williams (Cincinnati), who has played both safety spots in addition to cornerback, have made some big plays for their respective clubs. But they haven't had the impact of Big Apple defensive backs Gibril Wilson and Erik Coleman.

Wilson, who was inactive for the season opener against the Eagles, took over as the Giants starting strong safety when veteran Shaun Williams suffered a season-ending left knee injury on Sept. 24. Since then, Wilson, a fifth-rounder from Tennessee, has emerged as a consistent playmaker. He leads the team with 48 tackles, three interceptions and also has five pass deflections and three sacks.

"I told them, if you get him into camp, you're gonna have a hard time ever cutting him," Tennessee secondary coach Larry Slade was quoted as saying before the NFL draft.

Though Coleman has played from Day 1, the circumstances leading to his role as starter are similar to Wilson's. The fifth-rounder from Washington State, taken seven picks after Wilson, was thrust into the starting lineup after Jon McGraw suffered a groin injury. Coleman had a game-saving interception in the season opener against Cincinnati and has been a fixture in the secondary. He's third on the team in tackles (44), first in pass deflections (seven) and also has a pair of picks.

Joining the New Yorkers in the secondary are Chicago's Nathan Vasher and Houston's Dunta Robinson.

Vasher (three interceptions, five pass deflections) could have made the team based almost solely on his outing against the Giants on Sunday. Not only did "The Interceptor" -- his college nickname which has been picked up by Bears coach Lovie Smith -- pick off Kurt Warner in the first half, but he also batted away a pass to Amani Toomer in the fourth quarter as the Giants attempted to rally.

Robinson (35 tackles, three INTs, 10 pass deflections) had an equally impressive outing against the Raiders last month, recording his first two picks and also knocking down a pair of passes.

The impressive play among rookies hasn't been restricted to offense and defense.

Baltimore's B.J. Sams, who was undrafted, returned punts for touchdowns in consecutive games against the Chiefs and Redskins. He's second in the AFC with a 12.6 punt return average.

San Diego's Nate Kaeding is tied as the league's third-leading scorer (68), having converted all 32 of his PATs and 12 of his 13 field goals. And Cincinnati's Kyle Larson is averaging 42.1 yards a punt.

James C. Black is NFL Editor II for ESPN.com and may be reached at james.black@espn3.com.

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