The New OrleansSaints' locker room was rocking after practice last Thursday, and why not? Ateam no one had expected to do much was tied for the NFC South lead and headinginto a game at Tampa Bay that it would win handily. And Reggie Bush, the21-year-old cover-boy--civic-savior--rusher--receiver--return-man, fit right inwith the upbeat atmosphere. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner reflected on thefirst half of his first NFL season, one in which he and five other fast-trackedrookies have helped catapult the 6--2 Saints into playoff contention."People shouldn't be surprised,'' Bush said. "Times have changed, andnot 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 notthat big of a change from college. The routine's the same, practice is thesame, 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 asthe Year of the Impact Rookie. The San Diego Chargers, tied for the AFC Westlead, start a rookie left tackle. A rookie tops the NFC North--leading ChicagoBears in sacks. The NFC East--leading New York Giants started three rookies ondefense on Sunday. And the AFC East--leading New England Patriots have a rookieright tackle clearing holes for a rookie rushing phenom. The kids are allright, all around the league.
A generation agothe rookie year was a redshirt year. The first two quarterbacks picked in the1986 draft, Jim Everett and Chuck Long, got their feet wet in seven late-seasonstarts, combined, as rookies. The lone high-impact rookie among '86first-rounders was Chargers defensive end Leslie O'Neal, who was ninth in theNFL in sacks, with 12 1/2. Only one of the seven first-round offensive linemenstarted more than four games. Playoff teams Chicago and New England draftedrunning backs late in the first round; Neal Anderson and Reggie Dupard'scombined rookie production: 341 all-purpose yards.
Fast-forward tothe 2006 season. The first two quarterbacks picked, Vince Young of theTennessee Titans and Matt Leinart of the Arizona Cardinals, were handed thestarting job for good a month into their careers. Fifth-round pick MarkAnderson, seeing significant time on the top-rated Bears defense, has 7 1/2sacks midway through the season. All three offensive linemen drafted in thefirst round are starters. Two playoff teams, the Indianapolis Colts and NewEngland, drafted running backs late in the first round; Joseph Addai andLaurence Maroney's combined rookie production: 1,766 all-purpose yards--bymidseason.
"I'm a littledisappointed that I haven't done more," says Maroney. What a slacker. Allhe's done through eight games is put up a team-high 567 combined rushing andreceiving yards and a league-leading 29.7-yard kickoff-return average.
If the first halfof the NFL season has proved anything, it's that teams are relying on rookiesmore than ever. Twenty-one players picked in the first round are startersmidway through their first season, and that doesn't include Bush, seventh inthe league in receptions, who doesn't start but plays on the majority of theSaints' offensive snaps and returns punts. In all, 49 rookies have started atleast 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, acollective 162 rookies were regular starters by the midpoint of their firstyear. From 2002 through 2006, the number of rookie starters by midseason hadswelled to 234.
The simpleexplanation is that free-agency forces teams to play rookies early to measuretheir potential before the kids hit the open market. But that's been going onfor 12 years. Why has the learning curve been accelerated? Three factors areeasing the transition from college to the NFL.
• More collegecoaches are playing pro-style offenses.Schemes and plays in college aregradually becoming indistinguishable from those in the NFL, thanks to thedemise 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 forthe Seattle Seahawks, estimates that a decade ago only 40% to 50% of majorcolleges ran a pro-style offense. Now, he says, it's more like 70%.
That shouldn't bea surprise, considering how coaches move back and forth between college and thepros these days. In the Pac-10 alone, five head coaches have significant NFLexperience: Oregon State's Mike Riley was the Chargers' coach; USC's PeteCarroll coached the Patriots and the New York Jets; Stanford's Walt Harris wasthe Jets' quarterbacks coach; UCLA's Karl Dorrell coached receivers with theDenver Broncos; and Washington's Tyrone Willingham was a Minnesota Vikingsrunning backs coach. Even when coaches aren't changing jobs, ideas and schemesare cross-pollinating. The Patriots' Bill Belichick has visited Florida in eachof the last two off-seasons, in part to learn about the spread offense ofGators coach Urban Meyer.
The Raidersadmire Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's pass-happy offense so much, they triedto hire him last winter. "My hat's off to Coach Petrino for getting meready to play pro football," says Packers guard Jason Spitz, a three-yearstarter at Louisville and 2006 third-rounder who stepped into Green Bay'sopening-day starting lineup. "The speed of the NFL game is different, but Iwas never worried about the mental aspect after being at Louisville. Basically,I had no mental adjustment."
• The collegeworkday mimics the NFL's. Off the field as well as on, there's no NFL cultureshock anymore. St. Louis tight end Joe Klopfenstein, a 2006 second-rounder outof Colorado, was stunned to learn that his pro football schedule was preciselylike 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 runson Tuesday, the red zone and two-minute plays on Wednesday and goal-line andshort-yardage plays on Thursday. With the Rams it's identical, only onWednesday-Thursday-Friday. And the parallels run to what goes on in thosepractices, moment to moment. "Our practices in the NFL are just likecollege practices," says Buffalo Bills starting strong safety DonteWhitner, 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 aboutcoming from college to the pros has been a big deal to me.''
Crazy as itsounds, for most rookies the NFL season opener is little more than just theirnext football game. The Bills opened at New England, and with the Patriotsahead 19--17 and driving for insurance points, Whitner picked off a Tom Bradypass to keep Buffalo alive. He didn't even keep the ball as a souvenir.
• From January toSeptember, a rookie's preparation for the pros is nearly a full-time job. Evenfor the small-college guys, playing early isn't the long shot it once was.Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith estimates that with all theoff-season practices and camps that NFL teams run, rookies get more than 2,000on-field practice plays before they even get to the regular season."Basically, a rookie will have two full seasons of snaps under his beltbefore his first real game," says Smith.
That training canget even the rawest rookie ready for the NFL, as long as he's talented andwilling to work. Saints rookie guard Jahri Evans broke his leg before hissenior year in high school in Philadelphia and matriculated at Division IIBloomsburg; by the end of his college career he'd taken out $30,000 in studentloans. But even at that level, 6'4", 318-pound three-year starters withquick feet are intriguing to the NFL, and enough scouts came through Bloomsburgthat Evans, a bright and studious kid, realized he might have a future in profootball. "I knew I had to catch up with the other [prospects] before thedraft," Evans says, "so I went to a training center in Florida calledPerfect Competition. I worked out for six weeks, twice a day, six days aweek." Having dropped 22 pounds and added muscle and some speed, Evans wasa standout at the NFL combine in late February. The Saints made him afourth-round pick in April, then put him on the same fast track as every otherlineman in new coach Sean Payton's offense: two minicamps with five practicesapiece, 12 full days of Organized Team Activity practices (meetings, noncontactdrills, etc.), 66 training-camp practices, four preseason games and about 80offensive-line meetings.
"From thetime he came in," says Saints offensive coordinator and line coach DougMarrone, "I saw an athletic player and a very hungry player, but he was sotechnically 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 everymeeting, taking notes."
Thanks toPayton's clean-slate policy (the coach said no job was guaranteed) and someinjuries to other players, Evans was inserted at starting right guard the firstweek of camp. Once there, no one could move him out. Marrone told Evans thatwhen watching film, he should stand up and practice the correct footwork so itwould become automatic for him; one morning last week, Marrone said, Evans wasdoing exactly that in the team's offensive-line meeting room. A proficientdrive-blocker whose quickness makes up for the occasional mental error, Evanshas played every snap of the Saints' first eight games. He has surrendered onesack (to Baltimore's Trevor Pryce), a big reason why the Saints have allowed aleague-low eight sacks of quarterback Drew Brees. "I'm being deadhonest," Marrone says. "I don't think there's a guard in the NFL I'drather have. He's got a chance to be very special."
From playing inthe Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference one season to facing Ray Lewis thenext--Evans's story would be incredible except that it's being repeated, in oneform or another, all across the league.
The 2006 All-Impact Team
The NFL's rookierevolution is so wide-ranging this season that there are three top 10 draftpicks 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)--whodidn't make SI's squad of first-year standouts.
TENNESSEE TITANS offensive coordinator Norm Chow wasencouraging rookie quarterback Vince Young to run more one day recently whendefensive coordinator Jim Schwartz happened by. "Hey, Jim," Chow said,"how hard is it to defend a scrambler?" All three men knew the reasonfor the question. In his first five NFL starts Young, probably the best runningquarterback in college history, has scrambled only 24 times for 113 yards. TheTitans want Young to be more of a thrower than a runner--but they also want himto remember his roots.
At Texas, Young averaged 12.4 rushes per game andscored 37 rushing touchdowns in 37 games. But his predraft tutor, NFL offensiveassistant Jerry Rhome, emphasized time and again: Stay in the pocket. Make yourreads. Don't scramble at the first sign of trouble. "He's a littletimid," running back Travis Henry said of Young's reluctance to run."He wants to be a quarterback first."
Before the Titans played Young's hometown Texans onOct. 29 in his fourth start, Chow had given him another use-your-legs-morespeech. Young heeded it early in the second quarter--seeing all his receiverscovered, Young, from the shotgun, sprinted to his left and beat the Houstonsecondary to the corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown. "That'swhat we want to see," Fisher said after the game. Despite Young's growingpains, no one in Tennessee regrets making him the third overall pick in April'sdraft. He just has to run more and throw better. Odds are he'll do both intime.
Bush is the biggest name among a half-dozen rookies who've propelled NewOrleans into playoff contention.
First-rounder Maroney has made the most of his chances, leading the thePatriots in rushing and all-purpose yards.
Hawk is thriving on speed, instincts and smarts.
Young is still in search of the right run-pass mix.
The more the college game mimics the pros, the more ready players like Whitnerare to step right in.