Lockout hasn’t ruined it for rookies
By Barry Wilner September 3, 2011 11:00PM
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (28) runs against the Oakland Raiders in the second quarter of a preseason NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
NEW YORK — Maybe the Jacksonville Jaguars have the right idea.
Yeah, the Jags tend to be also-rans in the AFC, but in this weirdest of all NFL summers, they quickly recognized the mountain every rookie has to scale. No offseason team workouts, no minicamps, no playbooks to study — that all led to Jacksonville’s decision to eliminate the traditional rookie hazing.
No reason to add to the new guys’ problems.
‘‘It definitely helps out with the whole transition of coming in as a rookie, having these guys accept you and becoming part of the family,’’ guard Will Rackley said.
It’s been an extended family of 90 in training camp, thanks to expanded rosters because of the 41/2-month lockout. As the first cutdown came, scores of draftees and undrafted players got disowned. The ones who stuck know they still might get bad news before the regular season starts.
This sure is one tough time for a rookie to make an impact. It is not hopeless, though.
‘‘At the end of the day, you can still evaluate football talent and how quickly guys pick up the system and how they perform when the lights go on,’’ Colts defensive captain Gary Brackett said. ‘‘Obviously, you’ve got to get the most out of your reps and opportunities, and you can control the tempo with which you play.’’
Two positions where newcomers could be factors quickly are running back and receiver. A couple of first-round draft picks — the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones and the New Orleans Saints’ Mark Ingram — lead the parade, joining powerful offenses where they don’t need to be the focal point.
Ingram will share time with veteran Pierre Thomas, the starter even when Reggie Bush was in the Big Easy, and newcomer Darren Sproles. Plus, the Saints aren’t exactly a run-oriented offense, so Ingram can be used as a complement to Drew Brees’ passing.
Not a bad gig for a rookie.
‘‘I see us as a three-headed monster, like we were in ’09,’’ Thomas said, referring to Bush, Mike Bell and himself in the Saints’ championship season. ‘‘It’s a good rotation and dangerous backfield. . . . You got Sproles. He’s a fast guy, quick guy, agile guy — something like Reggie. You got Mark Ingram, who is basically both. And I think I’m both, too.’’
Jones will be counted on to spice up the Falcons’ aerial game immediately. Matt Ryan has progressed tremendously in three pro seasons despite having only one true threat at wideout, Roddy White.
The Falcons recognized the need for a game-breaker on the other side and made the boldest move of April’s draft by sending five picks, including two first-rounders, to Cleveland to get Alabama’s Jones. Ryan and Jones spent time during the lockout working out, and it opened Jones’ eyes to the challenges ahead.
‘‘Everything’s all about timing here,’’ Jones said. ‘‘The ball is out Matt’s hands before I break out, and it’s
going to be there every time. If I slip and fall, it might be an interception or something, so it’s very critical.’’
Jones could be the critical element in the Falcons defending the NFC South. Or Ingram could provide the boost to lift the Saints back to the top of the league’s best division.
Other wideouts who went further down the draft chart but who still should be watched this season are the Green Bay Packers’ Randall Cobb, the Detroit Lions’ Titus Young and the Oakland Raiders’ Denarius Moore. All could become featured targets after strong preseasons.
‘‘Every time the ball is going up, I want to be the guy who’s coming back down with it,’’ said Moore, a fifth-round selection. ‘‘So, if I can do it in practice, the coaches can depend on me in the game.’’
If a running back doesn’t have to be depended on too much in his debut season, he’ll often develop into a difference maker as he gains experience. Look for the San Francisco 49ers’ Kendall Hunter and possibly the Tennessee Titans’ Jamie Harper to get chances to grow as they back up stars Frank Gore and Chris Johnson.
‘‘As a player, I was taught that if you’re going to do something, do it the hardest you can or don’t do it at all,’’ Hunter said. ‘‘Whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do. Anything.’’
The 49ers need their offense to wake up after ranking 24th a year ago. Same for the Houston Texans’ defense, which was 30th in 2010.
The Texans hope they found one answer among the 10 defensive linemen chosen in the first round in April: Wisconsin end J.J. Watt.
Watt led the Badgers in sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles and blocked kicks last season. He didn’t play in a 3-4 defense, though, so the adjustment to Wade Phillips’ scheme could be bewildering.
‘’I haven’t been overwhelmed at all, really,’’ Watt said. ‘‘I feel really comfortable with it, and I think that just comes from studying it hard. I know that I’m penciled in as a starter right now, and that means I can’t have any mental mistakes on the field, so I’ve tried to avoid those at all costs.’’
The Denver Broncos need a massive turnaround on defense just as badly as the Texans do, and in second overall pick Von Miller, they might have found the missing ingredient. The dynamic linebacker has been unstoppable thus far, teaming with former All-Pro Elvis Dumervil. Miller already has three sacks; he had 271/2 in his last two seasons at Texas A&M.
‘‘Obviously we thought a lot of Von Miller to draft him in that spot, and getting Elvis back is huge, both in the locker room as well as on the field,’’ coach John Fox said. ‘‘So, they’re a pretty good little tandem.’’
The Buffalo Bills took Marcel Dareus third overall in the draft, and he’s been a beast in the preseason even with a nagging ankle injury.
The one place not to look for major contributions from rookies is quarterback. Sure, the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton was the top overall pick in April and is a proven winner. Yet without a full offseason of tutoring and working out with his new teammates, Newton — and every other first-year signal-caller — figures to be overmatched, especially early on.
A bunch of rookies not only won’t sway their teams’ fortunes, they likely won’t get on the field. The New York Giants lost first-round cornerback Prince Amukamara (broken left foot) and second-round DL Marvin Austin (torn chest muscle), although Amukamara should be back at some point. Also sidelined heading into the season are Lions DT Nick Fairley (left foot) and RB Mikel Leshoure (torn left Achilles tendon); Washington Redskins second-round DT Jarvis Jenkins (torn right knee ligament); and Arizona Cardinals RB Ryan Williams (torn patella tendon in right knee).
Injuries also can create opportunities. Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler’s torn-up knee could clear the way for first-round pick Patrick
Peterson to start. And star.
Of course, NFL teams often are wary of relying on rookies. The truncated offseason could make them even more leery — until one of the kids outplays all the veterans.