Crazy as it
sounds, for most rookies the NFL season opener is little more than just their
next football game. The Bills opened at New England, and with the Patriots
ahead 19--17 and driving for insurance points, Whitner picked off a Tom Brady
pass to keep Buffalo alive. He didn't even keep the ball as a souvenir.
? From January to
September, a rookie's preparation for the pros is nearly a full-time job. Even
for the small-college guys, playing early isn't the long shot it once was.
Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith estimates that with all the
off-season practices and camps that NFL teams run, rookies get more than 2,000
on-field practice plays before they even get to the regular season.
"Basically, a rookie will have two full seasons of snaps under his belt
before his first real game," says Smith.
That training can
get even the rawest rookie ready for the NFL, as long as he's talented and
willing to work. Saints rookie guard Jahri Evans broke his leg before his
senior year in high school in Philadelphia and matriculated at Division II
Bloomsburg; by the end of his college career he'd taken out $30,000 in student
loans. But even at that level, 6'4", 318-pound three-year starters with
quick feet are intriguing to the NFL, and enough scouts came through Bloomsburg
that Evans, a bright and studious kid, realized he might have a future in pro
football. "I knew I had to catch up with the other [prospects] before the
draft," Evans says, "so I went to a training center in Florida called
Perfect Competition. I worked out for six weeks, twice a day, six days a
week." Having dropped 22 pounds and added muscle and some speed, Evans was
a standout at the NFL combine in late February. The Saints made him a
fourth-round pick in April, then put him on the same fast track as every other
lineman in new coach Sean Payton's offense: two minicamps with five practices
apiece, 12 full days of Organized Team Activity practices (meetings, noncontact
drills, etc.), 66 training-camp practices, four preseason games and about 80
time he came in," says Saints offensive coordinator and line coach Doug
Marrone, "I saw an athletic player and a very hungry player, but he was so
technically raw. His feet would get twisted, but somehow he'd never fall over.
His recovery ability was rare. He kept working at it. He sat in front of every
meeting, taking notes."
Payton's clean-slate policy (the coach said no job was guaranteed) and some
injuries to other players, Evans was inserted at starting right guard the first
week of camp. Once there, no one could move him out. Marrone told Evans that
when watching film, he should stand up and practice the correct footwork so it
would become automatic for him; one morning last week, Marrone said, Evans was
doing exactly that in the team's offensive-line meeting room. A proficient
drive-blocker whose quickness makes up for the occasional mental error, Evans
has played every snap of the Saints' first eight games. He has surrendered one
sack (to Baltimore's Trevor Pryce), a big reason why the Saints have allowed a
league-low eight sacks of quarterback Drew Brees. "I'm being dead
honest," Marrone says. "I don't think there's a guard in the NFL I'd
rather have. He's got a chance to be very special."
From playing in
the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference one season to facing Ray Lewis the
next--Evans's story would be incredible except that it's being repeated, in one
form or another, all across the league.
The 2006 All-Impact Team
The NFL's rookie
revolution is so wide-ranging this season that there are three top 10 draft
picks from last April now starting in the league-- D'Brickashaw Ferguson (No. 4,
Jets), Michael Huff (No. 7, Raiders) and Matt Leinart (No. 10, Cardinals)--who
didn't make SI's squad of first-year standouts.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]