Gholston, others looking to rebound
Several 2008 first-round picks eyeing better results in Year 2
Most scouts in the league still believe that a player makes the most relative progress in his NFL career between his first and second seasons.
Both empirically and anecdotally, that assessment seems valid, particularly regarding first-round draft choices.
That's good news for 2008 first-round picks such as linebackers Vernon Gholston (New York Jets) and Keith Rivers (Cincinnati); running backs Darren McFadden (Oakland), Felix Jones (Dallas) and Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh); offensive tackle Chris Williams (Chicago); defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer (San Francisco); and cornerback Mike Jenkins (Dallas), among others.
"I just think everything gets a little easier the second time around," said Tampa Bay defensive end Gaines Adams, a first-round choice in 2007 who started eight games as a rookie and 16 last season. "You maybe don't reach a real comfort zone, but the second season is a more comfortable zone. There's not as much time spent on little, incidental things. You know where the weight room is. You don't have to ask anyone directions to lunch. And you really have a chance to settle into the game."
Football is basically a game of repetition, one learned by experience but also fortified by rote, so for several players from the '08 first round, some degree of redundancy should translate into a positive step.
Arguably, no one knows that more than Gholston, a linebacker who seemed to become the poster boy last season for first-round underachievers.
Despite being the sixth overall selection in the draft, and securing a five-year contract worth $32.5 million ($21 million guaranteed), Gholston did not start a game as a rookie. The former Ohio State star, coveted for his alleged outside pass-rush skills and hybrid abilities conducive to the 3-4 defense, managed one solo tackle and no sacks.
Gholston was the only player in the top 10 who failed to start a game. He was one of only three top-10 selections to start fewer than eight contests.
First-year Jets coach Rex Ryan has lauded Gholston's work in the offseason, and even compared him (some would suggest ill-advisedly) to Baltimore defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had 12 sacks as a rookie in 2003.
Gholston might not live up to such lofty comparisons, but he agrees that his second season in the league figures to be a lot more productive for him.
"The biggest thing is that last year at this time, I wasn't here," Gholston told reporters after a recent minicamp practice. "I was back at Ohio State. Now, you get the chance to go through the defensive [installation]. You can work on it and work on your technique, and the different ins and outs of the defense. I think that's pretty big."
The Jets linebacker is hardly the only first-round underachiever from 2008, and he isn't the only young veteran banking on a strong second season.
Because of injuries, Mendenhall (broken collarbone) and Jones (toe, hamstring) played in only 10 games combined, managing just 19 and 30 rushes, respectively. Another running back, McFadden, ran for 499 yards, but was no better than third on the Oakland depth chart, and didn't demonstrate the power or speed of his college career.
A broken jaw curtailed Rivers' first season, and he played in just seven games and posted 24 tackles. A herniated disc limited Williams, who will be moved from left to right tackle this season, to 29 games. Balmer played in all 16 games for the 49ers and showed a solid work ethic, but he had no starts, was overmatched at times and finished with just seven tackles. Despite Dallas' problems at cornerback most of the year, Jenkins started just three games for the Cowboys, finishing with 19 tackles in 14 games.
Starting assignments, of course, aren't the only statistic by which the production of a first-year player should be measured.
Tailback Jonathan Stewart started no games in Carolina, but rushed for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns, and formed an estimable 1-2 punch for the Panthers along with starter DeAngelo Williams. Safety Kenny Phillips started just three games for the Giants but played extensively in nickel and dime packages, and had 67 tackles and an interception. Tight end Dustin Keller was a starter in only six games for the New York Jets, but became an integral short-range target for Brett Favre as the season progressed, ranking third on the team with 48 receptions.
Still, games started are a valuable indication of the overall strength of the first round in a given year.
And in that regard, the first-round class of 2008 was pretty average.
Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons and the Baltimore Ravens' Flacco started all 16 games for their teams in 2008, becoming only the fourth and fifth rookie quarterbacks since 1978 (when the NFL implemented a 16-game schedule) to start every game for a club. The pair became the first rookie quarterbacks to start 16 games since David Carr of Houston in 2002.
But the play of the two quarterbacks aside, there were only seven other first-round selections in '08 who started all 16 games for their respective teams. That group included New England inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. The nine rookies who started all 16 games represented the most in at least five years. That was offset, however, by 14 rookies who started five games or less, tied for the most in the period 2004-08.
There were five first-rounders who started no games in '08, and that is slightly above the average of 4.25 since 2004.
Because the Patriots forfeited a choice in the opening stanza, a ramification of the Spygate incident, there were only 31 selections in the first round in 2008. With Ryan and Flacco showing the way, the 31 first-rounders combined for 276 starts, with 17 of the players starting eight games or more. But with only 13 players earning double-digit starts, the average of 8.9 rookie starts in the first round is not markedly better than that of the four preceding drafts.
For the period 2004-07, first-round picks averaged 8.6 starts as rookies.
The good news? There is plenty of room for improvement as the 2008 first-rounders approach their second seasons. A survey of the four drafts directly before the 2008 lottery indicates an increase of 2-3 starts in a player's second season. Of the 76 first-rounders who started five games or fewer as rookies for the 2004-07 seasons, 42 of them (75 percent) realized increased starts in their second campaigns.
Given the economics of the first round, most teams would prefer to have their top picks contribute from the get-go. But as the 2008 first-round choices demonstrated, some teams won't realize a pronounced return on their investment until this season.
"You get a chance to catch up to the learning curve," said New York Giants' cornerback Aaron Ross, a first-round pick in 2007 who started nine games as a rookie but 15 in his second season. "And that means a lot [toward] your improvement."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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