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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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Pos. Player, Team Rd. School Skinny
WR MARQUES COLSTON Saints 7 Hofstra Has as many catches (44) as Reggie Wayne, T.O.
LT MARCUS MCNEILL Chargers 2 Auburn Eight starts protecting Philip Rivers's blind side
LG DARYN COLLEDGE Packers 2 Boise State One of two Green Bay rookie O-line starters
C NICK MANGOLD Jets 1 Ohio State Has made Jets line calls since opening day
RG JAHRI EVANS Saints 4 Bloomsburg Saints have allowed fewest sacks in NFL
RT RYAN O'CALLAGHAN Patriots 5 California Second straight year Pats have started rookie OL
TE OWEN DANIELS Texans 4 Wisconsin Tied for second among tight ends with five TDs
WR GREG JENNINGS Packers 2 W. Michigan 75-yard TD catch helped beat Detroit
QB VINCE YOUNG Titans 1 Texas Led team to wins over Skins, Texans
RB JOSEPH ADDAI Colts 1 LSU Averaging 4.7 yards per carry
RB REGGIE BUSH Saints 1 USC Tied for sixth in league with 46 receptions
H-back ANTHONY FASANO Cowboys 2 Notre Dame Block of granite in Bavaro mold

The New Orleans Saints' locker room was rocking after practice last Thursday, and why not? A team no one had expected to do much was tied for the NFC South lead and heading into a game at Tampa Bay that it would win handily. And Reggie Bush, the 21-year-old cover-boy--civic-savior--rusher--receiver--return-man, fit right in with the upbeat atmosphere. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner reflected on the first half of his first NFL season, one in which he and five other fast-tracked rookies have helped catapult the 6--2 Saints into playoff contention. "People shouldn't be surprised,'' Bush said. "Times have changed, and not just in football. How old was Freddy Adu when he started in pro soccer? High school players changed the NBA--look at Kevin Garnett. Pro football's not that big of a change from college. The routine's the same, practice is the same, concepts are the same. It's been a pretty easy adjustment."

The same can be said by a host of first-year players in what is shaping up as the Year of the Impact Rookie. The San Diego Chargers, tied for the AFC West lead, start a rookie left tackle. A rookie tops the NFC North--leading Chicago Bears in sacks. The NFC East--leading New York Giants started three rookies on defense on Sunday. And the AFC East--leading New England Patriots have a rookie right tackle clearing holes for a rookie rushing phenom. The kids are all right, all around the league.

A generation ago the rookie year was a redshirt year. The first two quarterbacks picked in the 1986 draft, Jim Everett and Chuck Long, got their feet wet in seven late-season starts, combined, as rookies. The lone high-impact rookie among '86 first-rounders was Chargers defensive end Leslie O'Neal, who was ninth in the NFL in sacks, with 12 1/2. Only one of the seven first-round offensive linemen started more than four games. Playoff teams Chicago and New England drafted running backs late in the first round; Neal Anderson and Reggie Dupard's combined rookie production: 341 all-purpose yards.

Fast-forward to the 2006 season. The first two quarterbacks picked, Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans and Matt Leinart of the Arizona Cardinals, were handed the starting job for good a month into their careers. Fifth-round pick Mark Anderson, seeing significant time on the top-rated Bears defense, has 7 1/2 sacks midway through the season. All three offensive linemen drafted in the first round are starters. Two playoff teams, the Indianapolis Colts and New England, drafted running backs late in the first round; Joseph Addai and Laurence Maroney's combined rookie production: 1,766 all-purpose yards--by midseason.

"I'm a little disappointed that I haven't done more," says Maroney. What a slacker. All he's done through eight games is put up a team-high 567 combined rushing and receiving yards and a league-leading 29.7-yard kickoff-return average.

If the first half of the NFL season has proved anything, it's that teams are relying on rookies more than ever. Twenty-one players picked in the first round are starters midway through their first season, and that doesn't include Bush, seventh in the league in receptions, who doesn't start but plays on the majority of the Saints' offensive snaps and returns punts. In all, 49 rookies have started at least four games by the season's midpoint, a trend that didn't begin this year. From 1994 to '98, the first five years of free agency and the salary cap, a collective 162 rookies were regular starters by the midpoint of their first year. From 2002 through 2006, the number of rookie starters by midseason had swelled to 234.

The simple explanation is that free-agency forces teams to play rookies early to measure their potential before the kids hit the open market. But that's been going on for 12 years. Why has the learning curve been accelerated? Three factors are easing the transition from college to the NFL.

? More college coaches are playing pro-style offenses.Schemes and plays in college are gradually becoming indistinguishable from those in the NFL, thanks to the demise of the option offense at major-college programs. As recently as 1998, Nebraska ran an option offense and had a 75--25 run-pass ratio. But in 2005, with former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan directing a pro-style attack, Nebraska's run-pass ratio was 49--51. Scott Fitterer, a scouting director for the Seattle Seahawks, estimates that a decade ago only 40% to 50% of major colleges ran a pro-style offense. Now, he says, it's more like 70%.

That shouldn't be a surprise, considering how coaches move back and forth between college and the pros these days. In the Pac-10 alone, five head coaches have significant NFL experience: Oregon State's Mike Riley was the Chargers' coach; USC's Pete Carroll coached the Patriots and the New York Jets; Stanford's Walt Harris was the Jets' quarterbacks coach; UCLA's Karl Dorrell coached receivers with the Denver Broncos; and Washington's Tyrone Willingham was a Minnesota Vikings running backs coach. Even when coaches aren't changing jobs, ideas and schemes are cross-pollinating. The Patriots' Bill Belichick has visited Florida in each of the last two off-seasons, in part to learn about the spread offense of Gators coach Urban Meyer.

The Raiders admire Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's pass-happy offense so much, they tried to hire him last winter. "My hat's off to Coach Petrino for getting me ready to play pro football," says Packers guard Jason Spitz, a three-year starter at Louisville and 2006 third-rounder who stepped into Green Bay's opening-day starting lineup. "The speed of the NFL game is different, but I was never worried about the mental aspect after being at Louisville. Basically, I had no mental adjustment."

? The college workday mimics the NFL's. Off the field as well as on, there's no NFL culture shock anymore. St. Louis tight end Joe Klopfenstein, a 2006 second-rounder out of Colorado, was stunned to learn that his pro football schedule was precisely like his college schedule, except that it started one day later in the week. During game weeks at Colorado, coaches installed the base pass plays and runs on Tuesday, the red zone and two-minute plays on Wednesday and goal-line and short-yardage plays on Thursday. With the Rams it's identical, only on Wednesday-Thursday-Friday. And the parallels run to what goes on in those practices, moment to moment. "Our practices in the NFL are just like college practices," says Buffalo Bills starting strong safety Donte Whitner, the eighth pick in the '06 draft, from Ohio State. "Same drills, same techniques. We even do special teams first here, then individual drills, then team periods, just like at Ohio State. I've got to say that nothing about coming from college to the pros has been a big deal to me.''

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