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The Rookie Revolution
Peter King
November 13, 2006
First-year players have made an instant impact this year--a well-schooled army of NFL-ready newcomers who are forcing their way onto the field and taking the league by storm
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November 13, 2006

The Rookie Revolution

First-year players have made an instant impact this year--a well-schooled army of NFL-ready newcomers who are forcing their way onto the field and taking the league by storm

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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 offensive-line meetings.

"From the 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."

Thanks to 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.]

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