Heavy legs, poor technique and maybe a little vomit on the side. That’s rookie minicamp in the NFL. It’s an introduction to pro football, really, complete with playbook install, lightning-quick tempo on the field and tough coaching.
Today, let’s take a deeper look at what these rookies are experiencing in the meeting rooms and practice sessions during their first pro camps. Hey, the draft-day parties are over and combine testing doesn’t mean much anymore. It’s time to compete and play some ball.
The first playbook I received as a rookie with the Rams in 2000 was the size of a college textbook. And it might as well have been written in a different language. The terminology? Intense. And all new. That thing was handed out on a Thursday night and we were expected to line up and run this stuff on Friday morning. Huh? What do we do versus motion, again? What’s the adjustment? Dang. The ball already has been snapped. I’m toast.
These coaches are going to throw a ton at the rooks. Offense, defense and special teams. Can they handle the concepts that were installed in meetings and then show the ability to line up correctly when the speed picks up on the field? Yes, coaches understand that there will be busts in practice when a bunch of rookies are on the field. It can turn into a circus — quickly. They take notice of the players who can make the proper adjustments, run the routes at the correct depth or carry out the scheme on the field. That’s how you make an impression in rookie camp. It’s more about accountability now.
Training for the combine is a necessary evil for rookies. I understand that. Speed sells. And 40 times are a moneymaker in the evaluation process. Every draft prospect wants to produce great testing numbers and showcase their athleticism in Indianapolis or at pro days on campus. Hey, a 4.4 40 time will open up some eyes with pro scouts. And so does a 40-inch vertical. Improve your draft stock and climb up the board, right?
But when these rooks show up for camp, many of them are still in testing shape. And that can lead to heavy legs throughout practice, poor conditioning on the field and even some soft tissue injuries. Plus, with the number of pre-draft visits these prospects take during April, their workout routine stalls, or even comes to a complete stop. There is a big difference in terms of functional conditioning that can be used on the practice field versus the training to run a 40-yard dash. Just look for the vomit, or the guys who fall out of practice at rookie camps. That’s usually a good indicator of who needs to be put on a new strength and conditioning plan. Part of the transition to the league.
What’s the first thing to suffer when your conditioning slips? Technique. Tired bodies (and a tired mind) force players to get sloppy with their footwork, hands and eyes. And to top that off, these young guys are being taught new techniques at every position by pro coaches. Maybe it’s as a simple as your stance as a defensive back or your release as a wide receiver. But when your legs feel like Jell-o and you are trying to remember a playbook adjustment based off the pre-snap look, you begin to lose focus on the core fundamentals that allow you to compete at this level. And you don’t make plays.
Do the coaches know this? Of course they do. But they also want to see which rookies can still play with technique when they are dead tired. Plus, the coaches are looking at what they have to fix. Think about it: Many of these draft picks were able to produce at the college level because they have top-tier talent and athleticism. But once the vets show up, they will get smoked unless they start playing with pro technique. There is a big learning curve here and rookie camp is just the start. It’s going to be sloppy at first.
There is no downtime in an NFL practice. No standing around. You go from drill to drill — competitive team periods and individual sessions with position coaches. That can be a big adjustment for some rookies and the tempo catches up with them. These guys haven’t been on a practice field since December or January. And once that bear jumps on your back, it’s over. You start moving in slow motion.
My first pro camp in St. Louis? It was a full team session. All the vets. I was gassed after special teams and defensive back drills. That meant I was out there dragging versus the Greatest Show on Turf: Warner, Faulk, Bruce, Holt, Ricky Proehl, Az Hakim. Mike Martz’s fast-paced offense. Speed all over the field. And Hall of Fame talent. Yikes. I looked like a high school junior varsity player compared to those guys. And I also felt like throwing up because of the tempo of practice. My legs? Done. Finished. Get me some water. And some help over the top versus the deep ball.
Remember, these rookies will improve, hopefully develop and start playing with high-level technique before Week 1 rolls around this fall (if they make the team). But during that first camp, many are going to struggle. You aren’t on scholarship anymore, son. It’s time to get to work.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.