Camp stories: How rookies prepare for their first taste of NFL football
Walking into my first minicamp as a rookie with the Washington Redskins in 2001, I was already overwhelmed simply by the thought of being a member of an NFL team.
Then Darrell Green and Bruce Smith walked into the room.
The sight of the future Hall of Famers and a host of other veteran players was intimidating. But sitting in that meeting room, I was also struck by the fact that these guys were no longer legends that I watched during my youth; they were now my co-workers.
Minicamps represent the first real step on the field for NFL teams as they begin their preparations for the 2008 season. New coaches are able to implement their way of doing things and install their playbooks on both sides of the ball. Veterans begin to knock off the rust after a well-deserved break following the culmination of the previous season. Most importantly, rookies are given their initial taste of life as an NFL player and have their first and only chance to make a positive first impression.
Every team in the league, other than Denver and Jacksonville, either held a minicamp last weekend or will be holding one this weekend. Though some of these minicamps include veterans, more and more teams are electing to make these weekend practice sessions rookies only, for two reasons.
First, it eases the transition by allowing rookies to get all of the repetitions and learn the scheme, playbook, and practice format and drills, before the veterans arrive. Second, it allows the coaching staff to better evaluate the rookies, especially how quickly they are able to process the information they are being given.
Here's a few things both rookies and veterans with new coaches must be aware of while taking part in or preparing for the NFL's version of spring football.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression
We've all heard that saying many times, and it's very appropriate in the NFL. Though most of the coaches and scouts will likely have formulated some preconceived notion of the players before they set foot on the field, minicamp is the first time the players have an opportunity to either affirm or dispel those beliefs. After that first impression is made, however, it can be very difficult to change it.
Everything a rookie does once he arrives is being evaluated. Organizations want to know how important football is to a given player and how he will act now that he has gotten to the NFL. Who is the first player to arrive in the morning? Who is the first player to leave the building and go back to the hotel at the end of the day? What players stay after practice to work on the new techniques they are being taught? Which players look like they are treating this as a profession and are hungry to thrive? Which guys look like they are just happy to be here or are more interested in acting like they belong among their peers? Which players are picking up the new offense or defense the quickest?
These are all critical questions in the minds of the coaching staffs.
Pulling a hamstring, like the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall and the Bucs' Dexter Jackson did this weekend, is disappointing but somewhat excusable. Missing a practice because you overslept, like the Redskins' Fred Davis did, is much less so. Though it was a classic rookie mistake on Davis' part, a first impression has been made.
Don't believe the hype
The coaches will likely tell the rookies they want them to protect each other on the field and to be smart about their tempo during practice. There will be signs up in the locker room that recite the purpose of minicamp practices and mention the level of intensity should be conducive to learning and not a situation where it becomes a physical contest between two players.
I have three words of advice for rookies: Don't buy it.
Though players only wear helmets and do not have on pads, minicamp is most definitely a competitive endeavor that is being fully evaluated by the coaching staff. Defensive linemen try to physically beat their counterparts along the offensive line. Offensive linemen try to get off the ball and create a push in the running game. If drills weren't being evaluated, the Atlanta Falcons would not have held a pre-draft minicamp to better gauge the talent on its roster.
Despite the fact that no pads are involved, minicamp is very physical, and the sooner a rookie realizes that, the better. Invariably, one side of the ball increases the tempo as a result of the feeling that the other side is going too hard, and the intensity escalates. San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis was involved in a number of fracases over the weekend. Scuffles don't happen unless guys are competing physically against one another.
The coaches want to see the effort that the players put forth and want to see a rookie going full speed, even if they have made a mistake. I always tried to push the envelope of intensity in every drill and every team period in which I participated, especially my rookie year. I always felt like I was doing my job once a coach told me to "calm down" or "chill out". That was my first indication that I was getting noticed.
The Next Level
One of the most difficult adjustments for any rookie, and even more so for a player from a lower level, is the increased size and speed of the players around them. For most rookies, minicamp is the first time in their lives they aren't head and shoulders above everyone on the field. Some rookies have a tough time coming to grips with that fact and are unable to adjust to no longer being the best athlete on the field.
Perhaps more important than the increase in the size and speed is the skill exhibited by the veteran players. Rookies realize right away they will have to hone their craft to have any chance to succeed. I was amazed by how much I didn't know in terms of hand placement and technique once I arrived at minicamp. I had been playing football for 10 years and didn't realize how much I still had to learn. Much like other professions, the guys with more experience often have a better feel for the tricks of the trade than do the rookies.
I was fortunate in that I was able to stop looking around the room in awe at faces and names that I recognized. I was determined to prove that I belonged at that level and I decided to treat every player like just another jersey number once we hit the field. The impression that I made at my initial minicamp went a long way towards me eventually securing a roster spot. I studied my plays diligently and had no mental mistakes. I practiced as hard as I could, no matter who I was blocking, and tried to incorporate the techniques that my position coach was teaching me. This was my one opportunity to make a first impression and I was not about to let it slip.
Hopefully every rookie is getting this advice as they take their first steps towards a successful pro career.
Ross Tucker played for five teams in his seven-year NFL career. He has joined SI.com as a regular contributor on the NFL beat. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.