On The Spot

The NFL's new salary structure has put added pressure on high-priced rookies to step in and perform right away
September 04, 1994

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.

The former Ohio State defensive tackle was the first player taken in the draft, and no matter how hard Bengal officials try to tell you otherwise, big things are being demanded of Big Daddy. "We expect him to be a solid player for us," understates coach Dave Shula, whose defense last season was a dreadful 27th against the run. "At times he'll stand out. At other times you won't know he's there."

That is a pretty apt description of Wilkinson's play during the preseason, hard as it might be to believe that one could somehow be oblivious to the presence of a 6'4", 313-pound mastodon who runs the 40 in 4.72 and can bench-press 500 pounds. But in the Bengals' first three exhibition games, playing with the first unit, Wilkinson made only one tackle, one assist and one sack. The Bengal coaches, though, were satisfied, terming his contributions "above and beyond" what they had expected.

Cincinnati pass rushers combined for a mere 22 sacks last season, second lowest in the NFL, and when Alfred Williams had 1½ sacks two weeks ago against the Eagles, he was quick to credit Big Daddy, who lines up beside Williams on the right side, for commanding double teams of blockers. Says first-year defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello, "We tell [Wilkinson] that he doesn't have to be Tarzan just because the media wants to hype him up." Right. And it was media hype that made Wilkinson the highest-paid Bengal of all time (six years, $14.47 million, including a $5 million bonus) before he had played a single NFL down.

So far, the even-keeled Wilkinson is unfazed by the attention. "The only pressure I feel is to be the type of player I know I can be," he says. "Basically, they just tell me to go out there and play my ball."

In Cincinnati, which finished last in the AFC Central the last three years, the hope is that Big Daddy ball is a whole new game.

Heath Shuler, Washington Redskins.

Before the implementation of the salary cap, Shuler, the first quarterback drafted this year and the third player taken overall, would have had zero chance of making an immediate splash with the Redskins, an organization that never met a veteran free agent it didn't like. Or a rookie it did. This was the franchise, remember, that wheeled out 40-year-old Sonny Jurgensen, 38-year-old Billy Kilmer and 36-year-old Chris Hanburger when George Alien was the coach, and that had Joe Theismann returning punts until he had been adequately seasoned as a quarterback. Joe Gibbs, the coach who took the Skins to the Super Bowl in 1982, '87 and '91, would have eaten slop for a month before allowing a rookie quarterback to line up behind his Hogs.

But those were the glory years, and after last season's 4-12 record, Washington's worst in 30 years, the Redskins have made wholesale changes, firing coach Richie Petitbon and slashing their payroll. Among the casualties was 1991 Super Bowl hero Mark Rypien, who balked when the Redskins tried to cut his pay from $3 million a year to a base salary of $700,000. That opened the door for Shuler, though the former Tennessee star is not apt to make a pretty entrance.

Like any number of rookie quarterbacks who started almost immediately and eventually made it big—Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw, to name two—the 6'2", 221-pound Shuler will be in for a long first season. The Redskin offensive scheme, brought from Dallas by first-year coach Norv Turner, is new. The offensive line is in that dicey "jelling" stage. And Shuler, who missed 13 days of training camp while his eight-year, $19.25 million deal was being hammered out, is still playing catch-up with the rest of his teammates.

Says Turner, "No question, it's easier on a young quarterback to have him watch for a couple of years within the system. Heath's going to face some adversity, but he'll learn from it."

Shuler's arm strength, accuracy and athletic ability have convinced the Washington coaches that they drafted the right guy, and now they're preaching patience. "People are calling this a rebuilding year," says Shuler, who doesn't anticipate anything as gruesome as the 1-15 season Aikman endured in his rookie season with the Cowboys. "But I can see progress coming. The game's starting to slow down for me. People say I don't have enough experience. Well, I don't know too many rookies that do. That's why they call us rookies."

Willie McGinest, New England Patriots.

Here's what it's like to be a rookie under Bill Parcells: McGinest was drafted fourth overall, out of USC, to provide the Patriots with a pass rush. In his first preseason game the 6'4", 255-pound outside linebacker had three sacks against the New Orleans Saints. When asked afterward about the rookie's performance, Parcells called McGinest "clueless" and complained that the sacks were the only three plays he had made all night. When McGinest chalked up his first interception, on Aug. 18 against the Redskins, the only thing Parcells noted was that after catching the ball, all McGinest did was fall down.

Deep down, though, Parcells has to be pleased with McGinest's progress. "He's trying," Parcells says. "He's determined. I'm glad I drafted him."

Stepping in right away for Andre Tippett, a veteran who hung up his cleats rather than take a deep pay cut brought about by the salary cap, McGinest has the size and explosiveness to solidify a defense that was ranked sixth in the AFC last year. Right now the rookie is being used in all passing situations, but as soon as he gets his coverages down, he may fill a role similar to the one that Parcells's favorite player, Lawrence Taylor, did for the New York Giants.

Parcells is quick, though, to dispel comparisons between Taylor, a future Hall of Famer, and McGinest. "Nothing about McGinest reminds me of LT," he says, nearly recoiling at the suggestion. "Nothing. LT was a different guy at that age altogether. They're two completely different people." Time will tell if they're completely different players.

Sam Adams, Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks allowed more passing yards than all but two NFL teams last year, a situation the coaching staff blamed, at least in part, on the lack of a pass rush. Former Texas A&M defensive tackle Sam Adams, the eighth player drafted, was chosen to help rectify that shortcoming. At 6'3" and 285 pounds, Adams, the son of former Patriot guard Sam Adams, will play alongside All-Pro tackle Cortez Kennedy in nickel situations.

Paying Adams perhaps the highest compliment he can think of, Kennedy says, "He reminds me of when I came in as a rookie." Adams has shown tremendous quickness off the ball—he had 10½ sacks last season for the Aggies—and that should make opponents reluctant to double-team Kennedy. "It's hard for those interior linemen to get a lot of sacks," says Flores, "but Sam's expected to create a lot of things. He's a penetrator."

Adams, who credits his father with teaching him all the sleazy tactics that offensive linemen have at their disposal, has already penetrated the end zone in the preseason, recovering a fumble and carrying it 17 yards for a touchdown.

Charles Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers.

The first wide receiver taken in the draft, Johnson is the one rookie in this assemblage with a chance to help take his team to the Super Bowl. The Steelers have been a playoff team each of the past two seasons, and they've done so without the benefit of a deep threat to complement All-Pro tight end Eric Green. Johnson, the 1993 Big Eight offensive player of the year for Colorado, gives Pittsburgh a bombs-away dream baby for the first time since Louis Lipps was drafted in 1984.

"When we picked him, the first words out of people's mouths were Lynn Swann and John Stallworth," says first-year wide receiver coach Chan Gailey. But coach Bill Cowher demurs. "That's not fair to Johnson, and it's not fair to Swann and Stall-worth either," he says. "They became great over a period of years. Charles doesn't have to be a star right away. He just has to contribute. He's not a savior, and we're not looking for one."

Johnson has proved that he can catch the ball over the middle. But he has really earned the respect of his teammates by simply surviving to this point in his life. Johnson's mother was a drug addict, generally oblivious to the needs of her children. As a teenager in California. Johnson lived in 15 different places in San Bernardino County and was even homeless for a spell. As a high school sophomore he tried to commit suicide but was saved by his younger sister, Christine. He saw no future for himself. Football helped change that, and Johnson wound up earning an undergraduate degree in marketing from Colorado. Says Cowher, "Here's a kid who has dealt with a lot of adversity early on in life. His demeanor has allowed him to deal with all the challenges that are put on first-round draft picks."

"I wouldn't want to be in [Faulk's] shoes," says Johnson, who signed a five-year deal for $4.6 million, including his signing bonus. "With all the money and hype, you're being set up to fail. Here, the veterans have made me feel real comfortable. I'm doing a lot of learning with really no pressure. Coming in and being a star right away in the NFL would be a tough, tough thing to handle."

Maybe, maybe not. But chances are that Johnson and the rest of this magnificent six are about to find out.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSThe Bengals hope Big Daddy will have a big impact in return for his big paycheck. PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLEWhile the Colts are leaning on Faulk (28) to revive their ground game, the Patriots are grooming McGinest to he the next LT. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above.] PHOTORICK STEWARTShuler (5) will try to endure at the helm of the Redskin offense, but the Steelers' Johnson proved himself a survivor long ago. PHOTOJOE TRAVER[See caption above.] PHOTOCORKY TREWINAdams has already scored his first NFL touchdown.

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