Rookies getting their shots

Hey, rook, come over here and learn this encyclopedic playbook. Then get through two-a-days in the cauldron of summer training camp. See if you can beat out a veteran for his job, but make sure you're prepared for special teams duty, as well.

Don't run out of steam after Thanksgiving, when you're accustomed to winding down at school. Oh, yeah, help us make the playoffs, too.

A lot to ask of newcomers to the NFL? Sure is.

Yet it's what rookies go through every year. With salary cap restrictions, the multitude of formations being used on offense AND defense, and the frequency of injuries, those kids are getting more opportunities than ever to become a factor in the pros.

This season, it's happened everywhere — both positively and distressingly.

“We've had really good drafts the past two years, so if you look at our group out there, it's really a young team in a lot of ways,” says Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who has three key rookie contributors in tackle Michael Oher, cornerback Lardarius Webb and linebacker Paul Kruger. “We have a great mix of veteran leadership, but there's a lot of first-, second- and third-year players who are playing a lot of football for us and having an impact on games. That's really important in this league.”

Sure is. There have been freshmen starting at virtually every position, from quarterbacks Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman to Oher, Jason Brown and Phil Loadholt on the offensive line. From dynamic wideouts Percy Harvin, Austin Collie and Jeremy Maclin to aggressive linebackers Brian Cushing, James Laurinaitis and Clay Matthews.

There have been ballhawks — Buffalo's Jairus Byrd — and busts — Oakland's Darrius Heyward-Bey. First-round flops (Andre Smith) and undrafted gems (Colts CB Jacob Lacey). Sacksters (Washington DE Brian Orakpo) and stumblers (Kansas City DE Tyson Jackson).

“There's a lot of things being thrown at him and that's a tough position to play. You're not going to see instantaneous results,” Chiefs coach Todd Haley says of the No. 3 selection in the draft. “The guy has tremendous work ethic.

“Again, it takes a little time, a young player playing that position.”

But it hasn't taken much time in Indianapolis, which has been dominant with four rooks playing key roles: Lacey and fellow cornerback Jerraud Powers, Collie and punter Pat McAfee.

“It is highly unusual,” coach Jim Caldwell says of the rookies' contributions. “But I think we have a highly unusual team. One of the things that you find with teams that win and win consistently is that there is a sharing of information from the veterans to the rookies that is uninterrupted, unfiltered. And I think you have to attribute some of that to coaching, but a lot of that comes from the players showing them the nuances of what it takes to be great in this league.”

Jacksonville has started two rookie offensive tackles, first-rounder Eugene Monroe and second-rounder Eben Britton, for much of the season. All nine of their picks have played.

The Dolphins have prospered with a pair of rookies starting at cornerback: Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. Smith could become the first rookie to start all 16 games at cornerback for Miami. Davis became a starter Nov. 1.

Both impressed no less an expert than Bill Belichick.

“What jumps out is they're both big,” he says. “They're bigger than most corners. … Both of those guys are good, solid players. They cover well in short areas, they cover well downfield. You have to be careful throwing the ball around. They're usually close to their man. They're two good additions to their defensive backfield.”

Orakpo is within range of Jevon Kearse's NFL rookie record of 14½ sacks set in 1999. He tied a franchise mark with four last weekend.

“He doesn't carry himself like a rookie, doesn't play like a rookie,” middle linebacker London Fletcher said. “A lot of rookies, when they come in, they don't necessarily have the focus that you need to be successful in this league. When he is in the building, he is all about football.”

Not every newbie has made a positive impact, of course. For every sensational kick return by Harvin, there have been far too many bad throws by Stafford and Sanchez and Freeman. For all of Denver running back Knowshon Moreno's gallops, there have been Buffalo DE Aaron Maybin's gaffes.

And there have been the injuries, starting in training camp when Bengals offensive tackle Andre Smith ended a holdout and then broke his left foot during practice two days after signing. Stafford has a damaged left shoulder that has sidelined him, and Sanchez missed action with a sprained right knee.

Such first-round draft picks as Seattle LB Aaron Curry (hip pointer), Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew (left knee) and Atlanta DT Peria Jerry (left knee) got hurt, with Pettigrew and Jerry gone for the rest of the season.

“He was becoming an integral part of the offense that we knew he would and for him it's not just a matter of his missed opportunity,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz says of Pettigrew. “Missing those games affected our offense by taking a playmaker away.

“He wasn't just playing a part in the offense. He was becoming a weapon in the offense.”

Coaches try to prepare their young charges for the long haul and the possibility of such negative situations, knowing all the while it's impossible.

“When we started playing about seven regular-season games I told them you've got to make sure you get your rest, you've got to make sure you're taking care of your bodies,” Caldwell says, “because you're going through something you haven't done before.”

One thing that hadn't been achieved in 50 years was done by Byrd. The second-round pick from Oregon had two interceptions in three straight games in October, becoming the first player to do so since Dave Baker in 1960. Byrd then set a franchise record by extending his interception streak to five games. He leads the league with nine interceptions.

“Any time you can lead the league in interceptions, I think that's big,” Byrd says. “But like I've said before, with those interceptions I just wish we could've done more with them. It would've meant a lot more. But at the same time, it's cool.”

Also cool is being the last guy drafted and then becoming a regular in the pros. Placekicker Ryan Succop has gone from Mr. Irrelevant to someone very relevant in KC.

“I like a lot of things about Ryan,” Haley says. “He's got the demeanor you want from a kicker. He's calm, cool and collected, he doesn't seem to get rattled real easy.”

Now that's the kind of rookie you want on your side.