Impact rookies. Every NFL team would like to unsheathe one—the next Gale Sayers, the next Dan Marino—although to do so these days is to bare a double-edged sword. First, it probably means that your team is coming off a poor season, which translates into a high position in the draft. Your fans are impatient, the sporting press critical, and you have obvious needs to be filled.
Second, to sign this highly touted rookie, you have most likely had to bump up against the newly instituted salary cap (the top eight players taken in this year's draft, with prorated bonuses factored in, signed for an average of $1.93 million per year), perhaps cutting loose some well-paid veterans whose presence might have helped the young phenom's transition to the pros. "They're going to have to play these rookies," says Dick Steinberg, vice president and general manager for the New York Jets. "Which means coaches are going to have to simplify their plays to get these rookies ready."
Going, going and soon to be gone are the days when a draft choice sits and watches for a season or two, playing almost exclusively on special teams while absorbing the complexities of NFL offensive and defensive schemes. "You're going to have to find out about them sooner because of the cap," says Tom Flores, the coach and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks.
And that doesn't mean only big-name first-rounders. Brent Alexander, an un-drafted free agent from Tennessee State, could wind up starting at free safety for I the Arizona Cardinals, and the Philadelphia Eagles had counted on having second-rounder Charlie Garner split duty at running back with Herschel Walker until he fractured a rib, an injury that will keep him idle for four weeks. The NFC's two best teams, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, begin the season with rookie kickers—Doug Brien, a third-round pick, for the Niners and Chris Boniol, who was not drafted, for the Cowboys.
"You see a young player, and if you think he's going to be as good as or better than the older guy, you're going to keep him because he's cheaper," says New England Patriot coach Bill Parcells. "We may see more first-year players in the league this year because of the cap."
It adds up to pressure—on the rookies and on the men who drafted them. If lofty expectations don't weigh them down, here are the six best bets to give their teams some immediate sizzle: Marshall Faulk, Indianapolis Colts. No rookie will have more pressure on him than this running back from San Diego State, who is being asked to give the moribund Colts a ground game. The second player taken in the draft, the 5'10", 200-pound Faulk was a three-time consensus All-America who owns or shares 19 NCAA records, painstakingly chronicled in 51 lines of the Colt media guide. They're not exactly hiding this guy under a rug.
"You feel like you're under a microscope and, really, you are," says Faulk, whose arrival in Indianapolis has not been made any easier by the track records of the Colts' last four first-round draft choices—mild disappointments to epic disasters that would long ago have cost general manager Jim Irsay his job if he didn't happen to be the owner's son.
Which leaves a huge burden of proof on Faulk. Coach Ted Marchibroda, whose job is clearly on the line this season, is saying he would like Faulk to touch the ball 30 times a game. During the exhibition season, opposing defenses were already keying on the Colt rookie, whose explosive running style is being compared to that of the Buffalo Bills' Thurman Thomas. Buffalo was a team on the rise when Thomas arrived in 1988, and the Bills were already comfortable with running back Ronnie Harmon. The Colts were 4-12 last season, and the best they could do at tailback was Roosevelt Potts. "Thomas had a grace period coming into this league," says Marchibroda. "Unfortunately, Marshall gets no such grace period. It's no secret: We're depending on him right away. Sure, you'd like to bring them along slowly, but in some cases you don't have a choice."
To make room under the cap for Faulk's seven-year, $17.18 million package, which included a $5.1 million signing bonus—as well as for Trev Alberts, a linebacker from Nebraska who will miss the season with an injury—the Colts had to waive seven veterans. More pressure for the kid. While his numbers are not yet Thomas caliber, he is impressing his teammates in at east one regard. "Marshall isn't a prima donna," says Will Wolford, he Colts' left tackle. Wolford spent seven years with the Bills and says that Faulk is better at this stage than Thomas was as a rookie. "You can't be talking a lot as a rookie," Wolford adds. "I mean, you haven't even played a game yet." Faulk will try to do his talking with the ball.
Dan Wilkinson, Cincinnati Bengals.