NFL rookies usually stink in Year 1. This season might be especially brutal if virtual workouts don't stick.

Terez Paylor
·Senior NFL writer
·7 min read

Good luck finding a head coach who has taken more criticism over the past eight months than the Houston Texans’ Bill O’Brien.

Through every fault of his own, he has an uncanny ability to unite the football world in questioning his trades. O’Brien has managed to make everyone feel so bad for Deshaun Watson that no one blames him for the Texans’ divisional round playoff collapse to Kansas City

However, while O’Brien was defending his most recent array of trades Thursday, including the polarizing decisions to deal DeAndre Hopkins and trade a second-round draft pick for Brandin Cooks, he made a good point that could be prescient as we charge head-first into the weirdest NFL season in decades.

“In my opinion — again, it's just my opinion — I think that this year, with the unique position that we're in, I truly believe that this is a veteran type of year,” O’Brien told reporters. “I think it's going to be really difficult for rookies, without offseason practicing on the field and being able to do all the things that you do during that five-week stretch after the draft and then training camp.”

Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien, right, talks to cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. (32) during an NFL football training camp practice Thursday, July 25, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien expects a rough season collectively for rookies across the NFL. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

There are no ‘pro ready’ rookies

O’Brien might be onto something. This is my eighth season covering the NFL, and one thing I’ve learned is that the overwhelming majority of rookies stink in Year 1. They simply aren’t good professional players that first year. Blame it on the transition to playing with and against grown men, or the time it takes to learn how to approach the job like a pro. If a rookie plays OK his first year, that dude is basically killing it.

That’s what makes the rookies who come right in and make All-Pro so special. And it’s no coincidence that several who have done it — like Barry Sanders, Randy Moss, Gale Sayers, Lawrence Taylor — went on to be Hall of Famers.

“If you think you're taking someone who is ‘pro ready,’ what all of these rookies find out the second they step in the building is none of them are pro ready,” New York Giants coach Joe Judge said. “That’s why they need the spring program, that’s why they need training camp, that’s why they go through growing pains as rookies. There’s really no short-term fix or Band-Aid. You’re not going to pick someone in this draft and say, ‘OK, we answered an issue there.’ ”

Especially now because of the chaos and uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed in the world. The NFL is proceeding as if games will be played in the fall, and the league is building its contingencies, but the truth is no one knows exactly when players will be allowed to practice together on the field again. And no one figures to suffer from that more than rookies, most of whom need most of their first year to learn the playbook, acclimate to the turbo speed of the league and figure out how to be a pro.

FILE - In these April 28, 2011, file photos, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, left, the No. 1 pick overall selected by the Carolina Panthers, and Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, the second overall pick selected by the Denver Broncos, hold up jerseys at the NFL football draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Five years later we have the first-ever matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Super Bowl.  (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)
Cam Newton and Von Miller adjusted nicely in a challenging offseason in their rookie seasons of 2011. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Some rookies shined in 2011 lockout

Here’s the bright side: We’ve already seen a situation similar to this unfold fairly recently, thanks to the 2011 lockout. The labor-management strife kept rookies from having any contact with their coaching staffs from the draft until a deal was struck in training camp.

And, as new Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry pointed, several rookies seemed to fare just fine that season.

“At that point, there were zero offseason programs, the teams were starting free agency in August and then it is like you hit the play button and you are in camp two days later — teams navigated that fine,” Berry said. “In fact, I think that was the year where we had a number of rookie quarterbacks who really hit the ground running that season. It creates a different environment, but it is not like it is the first time that organizations or teams have had to deal with it or deal with adversity.”

It’s true that in 2011, Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick for Carolina, stuck it to his detractors by winning Rookie of the Year. Newton was among a few rookies who killed it that season, a group that included the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller and Cincinnati Bengals wideout A.J. Green.

Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph was also a rookie that year. He caught 26 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games (eight starts). He said the lack of communication forced rookies to step up.

“It definitely spikes the learning curve, if you would,” Rudolph said. “When we showed up, we had to essentially make up for 13 lost practices, three lost rookie minicamp days and nine weeks of in-classroom learning. And the league wasn't going to slow down for us, other teams weren't going to slow down and just say, 'Oh well, these rookies didn't have an opportunity to get in their playbook or to practice with other NFL players, so we'll have to slow down for them and get them to speed.' ”

Expect Bill Belichick, Andy Reid to have ‘virtual workout’ edge

There seems to be significant hope that the deal the NFL and the players union struck this week to allow “virtual workouts” as a means of replacing the on-field work that would have taken place throughout OTAs may provide better opportunities for coaching staffs to teach players than the lockout year did.

Take notice that New England’s Bill Belichick, one of the league’s smartest and most forward-thinking coaches, is a proponent of this line of thinking.

“If you compare this year to the lockout year, everybody had a lot of facilities available and they could work out wherever they wanted [in 2011],” Belichick recently said. “That’s more limited this time, but we weren’t allowed to have any contact with the players [then]. We couldn’t talk to the veteran players, we couldn’t talk to the first-year players, and in fact we couldn’t even sign the players that weren’t drafted until right before training camp. So, the opportunity to communicate and teach was very, very limited then.

“Now, I’d say we’re looking at a situation where the opportunity to train for some players may be more limited, but our opportunity to communicate with them and teach them, even though it’s remote, is infinitely better than what it was during the lockout. I do think that from a teaching standpoint, we can get a lot of teaching done that we weren’t able to do nine, 10 years ago in a similar but different situation. I think with the teaching part, that we’ll hopefully be OK.”

Belichick can remain optimistic because he’s already thought of ways to maximize “virtual learning,” just like another one of the league’s best coaches, the Chiefs’ Andy Reid.

“Coach [Reid] and I joke about it all the time,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said Thursday. “It will really test coaches’ ability to really effectively communicate through Skype and Zoom and what have you, and that’s the big unknown.”

It’s probably not a stretch to think that the Patriots and Chiefs, with their two uber-detailed, Hall of Fame-bound coaches, are in better hands than other franchises who are facing the same predicament. But even Veach noted that despite the valid comparisons to 2011, we’re still in uncharted territory, noting that “it’s really hard to predict” how rookies will fare this year.

O’Brien was not scared to do that Thursday. And after trading away an All-Pro receiver in Hopkins and essentially replacing him with a pair of veterans with lower ceilings in Cooks and Randall Cobb, all while essentially eschewing a receiver-rich draft, it’s safe to say that he’d better be right.

“I think this year being different than any other year,” O’Brien said, “that's part of our building of the team also.”

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