Rookies in for harsh season
It didn’t take much for St. Louis Rams rookie tight end Lance Kendricks(notes) to realize that Jacksonville Jaguars safety Courtney Greene(notes) suffered a severe brain cramp on Thursday night in Jacksonville.
As Kendricks ran his blitz read, taking off on a slight angle to the right of the Rams’ offense, he caught Greene looking in the backfield, perhaps wondering how the blitz would turn out.
Greene received a rude answer as St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford(notes) lobbed a pass over Greene’s head into the wide-open arms of a galloping Kendricks. The tight end took the short throw and turned it into a 44-yard touchdown in the first quarter of the exhibition finale.
“The guy just blew the coverage,” Kendricks said, shrugging his shoulders as he tried not to take too much credit. “I don’t think he was supposed to do that.”
The odd part is that as the NFL counts down to the start of the season, more often than not people are going to be saying that about guys like Kendricks. Around the league, it appears that rookies will once again take up their usual number of spots on the rosters despite predictions to the contrary. Many observers of the league thought large numbers of veterans would be kept over rookies because of the lockout-shortened offseason.
But it’s not like those rookies are going to be trusted right away.
“I think it’s going to be really hard to put some of those guys out there in the first half of the season,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “It’s pretty simple; they’re not going to have enough reps for the coaches to trust them. It’s going to be a long process.”
With that in mind, here’s a look at how rookies at different positions figure to suffer, in order of difficulty, from an unusual offseason that was thrown off kilter because of the league’s labor strife:
• Quarterbacks – This one is obvious as 11 executives and coaches unanimously agreed. With more to learn and less time to do it, expect any rookie quarterback to suffer a lot this season.
“I feel bad for [No. 1 overall pick] Cam [Newton] because they just don’t have a choice,” Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) said, referring to Carolina’s starter. “They don’t have a veteran like Matt Moore(notes) on the roster who they can put out there while Cam learns the offense and learns the speed of the game. All the guys on their roster are young, so it doesn’t matter who plays.
“I think Cam, from what I see, has the confidence to handle it. Physically, he can take some hits and run around to make some plays. But he’s special that way. You just hope he doesn’t get one of those really bad blindside shots where all of a sudden he starts thinking about when he’s going to get hit next.”
That’s a major concern in Cincinnati, where Bengals rookie Andy Dalton(notes) is slated to start. This week, Bengals sources have leaked their hope that veteran Carson Palmer(notes) returns. Those close to Palmer say that’s not happening. The underlying message in all of this is that the Bengals are concerned about Dalton.
• Offensive line – Browns president and former NFL coach Mike Holmgren was direct in his feelings about what position would suffer most after quarterbacks.
“So much has to be learned up front with those guys that it’s really hard for an offensive lineman to just walk in and play,” Holmgren said. “You can do it at left tackle more than most positions because that spot is more about physical ability. The left tackle is usually in a one-on-one matchup with the best pass rusher, so it’s pretty easy to know. But it’s still about learning to read what’s going on and then read the same thing as the guys who line up next to you. Offensive line play is about pretty intricate teamwork.”
Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik agreed, putting an emphasis on centers. “The old theory is that it’s that vertical line starting at the ball in the center of the field,” Dominik said. “The smartest guys have to generally be the quarterback and the center on your offense and then the middle linebacker through the safeties on defense. They have the most to learn and the most to communicate. They have to let everybody else know what’s going on.”
Coaches and players around the league fear that mistakes up front could prove devastating.
“If we have to play two rookies from the start of the season, our quarterback is going to get killed,” a player with one AFC team said. “I know what we’re going to see coming against those guys when the defense really gears up. The rookies we have right now, they’re treading water trying to learn the basics. If they have to play 60 or 70 plays a week for four straight weeks, it’s going to get ugly. Really ugly.”
• Linebackers and secondary – Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, a former defensive coordinator for the Giants, put in his vote for the “back seven” players on defense, including the linebackers and secondary.
“Playing defense is reactive, so you have to see a lot of things before you really understand how to deal with it,” Spagnuolo said. “On offense, you’re the one making the decision on what the play is going to be and the defense has to adjust. The farther you are from the line of scrimmage, the more you have to react to and understand, so I think it’s really tough on the guys in the secondary. If you make one little mistake, it’s over.”
(The play by Greene, who is in his third season, is a prime example of what Spagnuolo is talking about. That play destroyed what had been a solid defensive first half for Jacksonville.)
Of course, that goes against traditional thinking regarding cornerbacks. Most people in and around the NFL consider cornerback on par with running back as being one of the simplest positions to play.
“I think that was some of the thinking and it’s probably still true in most cases. You can line somebody up at cornerback, put them in man coverage and keep it pretty straight forward,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. “But that makes you pretty susceptible to some things on defense. Eventually, you have to get more sophisticated with all the different coverage schemes.”
• Wide receivers – As the NFL has become more pass happy, wide receiver has become an even more difficult position to play.
“It’s not just about being on page with the quarterback, which you better have coverage,” St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney said. “With the way coverages change from pre-snap to at-the-snap to post-snap, there’s a lot that the receiver has to recognize very quickly. Even with the first-round guys, as talented as they might be, you see a lot of them really struggle getting comfortable and being able to play at full speed.”
For many coaches, the remedy is to give rookies a small amount of plays early and then add on from there.
“If you can give a guy a package or four or five things he does well, that gives you an option where he can play in certain situations, at least,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “Now, you have to work hard to get him up to speed as fast as you can, but I think what you’re going to see a lot of this season is [rookie] receivers who come in during certain situations where they’re comfortable and the coach is comfortable.”
If those rookies aren’t comfortable, expect to see busted plays and stalling offenses.
“A lot of those plays where the people in the stands go, ‘Who the hell was the quarterback throwing to?’ ” Payton said.
This is not to say that any position is easy to play. Defensive tackle has become increasingly difficult over the years, particularly as more teams play more 3-4 scheme or use that as a base. Running back has become harder with more and more movement to the passing game.
“Sure, running back is really easy if the other team promises not to blitz,” Devaney said.
The bottom line is this: Having a rookie perform well this season is going to be a testament to not only his talent, but his intelligence. Bradford agrees, while simultaneously pointing out that Kendricks could be the exception to the rule.
“I know for me, if I had to do what I did last season, playing right from the start, without all the offseason work, there’s just no way,” Bradford said. “With Lance, to be as far along as he is without the OTAs and mini-camps and all the other work, it’s really impressive.”