Blocked out by the lockout
With limited preparation, rookies will be hard-pressed to make an impact in 2011
Rookie offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo knows he's fortunate to be the first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts this year. He has spent the past two weeks working out with Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning and listening to tips from veteran offensive linemen, such as center Jeff Saturday. He has gotten a jump on learning a playbook that is about as easy to master as a course in nuclear physics. Castonzo even saved money by staying with Colts wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez after arriving in town for team workouts.
Castonzo clearly realizes that the current NFL lockout could be stifling his development at this very moment. Instead, he's gaining some advantages that other first-year players might not have.
"It is a great situation for me because I'm so close," said Castonzo, who played at Boston College and grew up three hours away from Indianapolis in Hawthorn, Ill. "But I have talked to other guys and I know they're frustrated. I talked to James Brewer [an Indiana offensive tackle who was the New York Giants' fourth-round selection] and it's hard for him to get to his team for workouts. I know Mark Herzlich [an undrafted linebacker from Boston College] and he's frustrated because he can't sign with anybody yet. It's not an easy thing."
That's definitely an understatement. Of all the questions hovering around the lockout -- the biggest being when it actually will end -- one of the least mentioned and most compelling involves how rookies will be affected by the ongoing squabbles between players and owners. It's one thing for veterans to be stuck in limbo while the drama plays out in courtrooms or at negotiating tables. They understand what it takes to keep a job in this league. As for many first-year players, they've gone from the jubilation of being drafted to trying to prepare themselves for a level of competition they've never faced.
That task is even harder given the roadblocks to their development. Rookies have no access to coaches, film or the very training facilities that they will call home for the next few years. Most don't even have playbooks, unless they were lucky enough to be first-round picks. Those players were able to get playbooks when they visited their teams on the second day of the draft, the only period when the lockout was temporarily lifted following an injunction granted to players by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson on April 25.
So the league now is looking at a group of young players who may have little or no impact if the lockout runs into August or later. As one NFC personnel director said, "It's like telling kids to sign up for a college course and then not having a single class before they take the exam. You have to be pretty special and mentally tough to handle that kind of scenario once you start playing. Because if a kid starts to fail without time to grow, things could pile up on him in a hurry."
All In Same Boat
"The one good thing about this is that everybody is in the same boat," said Giants general manager Jerry Reese. "My take is that you have about 250 kids who get drafted every year and out of that group 100 or so players end up contributing right away. Everybody else is developmental, and that's really because of the playbook. It's become so big on every team that most rookies are overwhelmed by it. They don't really grasp what a team is trying to do until the games start."
As proof, Reese referenced his first-round pick from 2010, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Reese said Pierre-Paul didn't really feel comfortable in the Giants' defense until midway through last season, when he was able to understand his role based on how the team was scheming for specific opponents. Cleveland Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown said that he was similarly confused when he began his career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002.
"I didn't know what we were doing on defense until we were three games into my rookie season," Brown said. "And I consider myself to be pretty smart."
Though the overall numbers back up the belief that first-year players don't have a huge impact -- over the past two seasons, only 273 rookies started in at least one game and only 24 started all 16 during that time -- many are still counted on for contributions. For example, five rookies in each of the past two seasons have made the Pro Bowl, with immediate stars such as Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews and New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty heading that list. The chances of rookies having that kind of success this season lessens with each passing month during the lockout.
Here are five positions in which rookies will struggle if the lockout runs deep into the summer or early fall:
1. Quarterback: Without ample time to prepare during the offseason, there isn't a quarterback in this draft who can develop fast enough to have the kind of impact Sam Bradford had in St. Louis as a rookie last season.
2. Middle linebacker: The quarterback of the defense, this player will have a hard time reading offenses and putting his teammates in the proper positions.
3. Safety: Like the middle linebacker, the safety is responsible for the calls that put his fellow defensive backs in proper coverages. Big pass plays can erupt if he doesn't know what he's doing.
4. Center: Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey was good enough to make the Pro Bowl at this position as a rookie last season. It won't be easy finding a first-year player who can read blitzes and make line calls without much offseason practice time.
5. Wide receiver: Players at this position usually need at least three years to find a comfort zone. The ones with the best chance at developing during the lockout will have veteran quarterbacks guiding their way.
In fact, most people interviewed for this story agree that certain positions will be more hampered by the lockout if it ultimately interferes with training camps. The players who stand a chance will make their living at spots where athleticism and instincts can trump knowledge (such as running back, wide receiver or cornerback). Those in positions to make reads and calls are a different story.
"If you're a middle linebacker playing in a complex system, then I pray for you," Brown said. "Safeties are going to have the same kinds of problems as well. The only people I can see not having huge problems are defensive linemen. When they screw up, most people won't even know it."
The position that ultimately stands to be most hurt by a long lockout is obvious: quarterback. Six signal-callers were chosen in the first 36 picks of this year's draft, and nearly all are joining teams that easily could have planned on starting them in a normal season. By this point in the offseason, players such as Carolina's Cam Newton or Tennessee's Jake Locker would be hunkered down with their quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators, sifting through tape and digesting their new systems. Instead, they're still doing many of the same drills they used to prepare for their pro days while hoping to pick up their new offenses on their own.
When asked about the challenges a long lockout would create for quarterbacks, Minnesota's Christian Ponder, the 12th overall pick in this year's draft, summed up the potential frustration. He joined a team loaded with playoff-caliber talent and yet he's unable to do much to put himself under center quickly.
"The biggest things you do as a quarterback [at this time of year] are learn the playbook and get acclimated with your teammates," Ponder said. "If this thing is going on for a long time, you really can't do that."
Ponder has tried to prepare by studying the Vikings' playbook with fellow quarterback Joe Webb and former NFL signal-caller Chris Weinke. Ponder also set up workouts with Vikings receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin and he'll be joining 10 to 15 teammates in a three-day "minicamp" this week.
Locker, the eighth overall pick, has been working out with another former NFL quarterback, Ken O'Brien, and San Francisco 49ers second-round pick Colin Kaepernick was hoping Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck could help him. Luck played in the same offense being installed by new 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and he has been willing to tutor Kaepernick on its complexities.
But as ambitious and industrious as these quarterbacks are, the reality is that they are falling behind in their development.
"It would have a major impact on these quarterbacks if they lost an entire summer," said former NFL quarterbacks coach Terry Shea, who spent this winter training Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert for his pro day. "Look at a guy like Sam Bradford [the St. Louis Rams quarterback who won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors last season]. He had three minicamps plus an entire training camp to get ready for last season. When you eliminate that time, you create real issues. Players at a lot of other positions can absorb information quickly, but the quarterback can have his leadership potential jeopardized if he doesn't know what he's doing."
Added an AFC quarterbacks coach: "Any time you draft a quarterback, you have to have a plan for him because he has a bull's-eye on his back from day one. Normally, you'd have them come in by May 15 for a rookie minicamp and then you'd have about 15 more OTAs to work with them. That allows them to get timing down and to deal with a lot of issues that can affect development, like where he's going to live and how he's supposed to deal with the media. Having that time to settle in is vital to development."
The potential loss of minicamps and offseason training also will have a huge effect on players' ability to adjust to the speed of the NFL. That usually is one of the hardest transitions for college players making the jump to the pro level. In fact, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward has paid close attention to former Ohio State teammates and current NFL veterans such as Malcolm Jenkins and James Laurinaitis when they've returned to campus for offseason training.
"I watch those guys working their butts off every day and they tell me that teams are going to be paying attention to what kind of condition guys are in," Heyward said. "They're going to want to know who was working hard and who was treating this time like a vacation."
"I really just hope that these guys show up in shape," Reese said. "What happens to rookies is they get so excited to be in camp and make an impression that they use up all their energy really fast. That's when they end up cramping or suffering soft-tissue injuries, because they're trying to please."
To avoid that possibility, agents such as Tom Condon made sure to return their clients to the same trainers who handled them before the combine. Condon had many of his top picks train together after the draft, both for the chance to do football-related drills and the camaraderie. He wanted his clients to stay connected in a group setting because, as he said, "If you're on your own, you're not likely to have the same kind of intensity that you would have from direct supervision and competing with somebody next to you."
Buffalo Bills cornerback Aaron Williams, a second-round pick, said that he has noticed a significant difference in being told where to be and what to do throughout his entire career and working out as a professional. When he trains with former teammates at the University of Texas, he is free to come and go as he pleases.
"It's definitely a lot harder to push yourself when you don't have somebody pushing you or telling you where to be," Williams said. "That's why it comes down to how much you care about your craft now and how much you want to get better."
Finances A Challenge
Still, there are plenty of challenges to those players who understand that mindset. Many players drafted in the lower rounds can't afford the cost of staying in a hotel or buying airfare to attend workouts that veteran teammates have been holding in various cities this spring. Others don't have the luxury of being exposed to elite talents like Manning, who called Castonzo and asked that he join the Colts during their sessions. In short, plenty of rookies are just trying to find their way until they have a chance to show their worth.
It's not a fair situation and it certainly isn't one that a lot of first-year players focused on when they were preparing for the draft. Now that they find themselves neck-deep in the realities of the lockout, their chances of overcoming this hurdle come down to their collective attitudes.
"It is something new for all of us," Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Da'Quan Bowers said. "But we can't handle all of that. We are going to have to continue to train and whenever the teams call, we'll be there ready to work."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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