Telltale Signs of NFL Rookies Bound for Greatness

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Telltale Signs of NFL Rookies Bound for Greatness
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These four traits are ones possessed by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and all the best players in the NFL.

Being drafted to an NFL team is the end of a long collegiate journey full of hard work, a bit of luck and of course, football. But that journey's end marks the beginning of a new one, one in which there are no guarantees that any player will end up taking the field in their rookie season—or ever.

Of course, there are success stories every season, players who begin their careers looking every bit as though they belong in the league and who continue to improve every year until they become one of the NFL's premier players.

Though every successful NFL player and the path he takes there are different, there are some common traits among those whose career ends up being long, productive and rewarded.

Here are the four biggest signs a rookie will become a household name in the NFL.

College Production

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Newly-drafted Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert was a beast in college which is one step towards him being successful in the NFL.

While success in college football doesn't guarantee the same success in the NFL—take Tim Tebow, for example—it certainly helps.

Having impressive stats for at least two or, more ideally, three seasons, especially at a school known for its football program and against top-tier opposition, only helps a player's draft stock and his chances to eventually be a starter at the professional level. 

The more playing time a draft prospect gets in college, the more information teams are able to gather on him. The better-known a player becomes, the higher the chances that teams will want him and will make room on their roster for him to compete for a starting spot. 

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College success isn't the only thing that helps a player succeed in the NFL, though—just ask Tim Tebow.

Granted, there are rookies in this year's draft class who played few snaps in a support role or started for just one season who will break out in the NFL and become stars.

There are also instances where high college production can hurt a player once he hits the NFL—such as a running back who consistently got nearly 300 carries per season for three straight years, who may not have much tread left or is perceived that way.

But generally speaking, the better a player performs on the field in college—especially if he was on a high-profile squad or one that ran pro-style offenses or defenses—the better chance he has to take to the speed and demands of the NFL and excel.

The more NFL-ready a rookie is, the less work he'll take to prepare. And, oftentimes, positional battles come down to not the most talented player but the one who combines talent with immediate readiness.

Roster Holes

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Linebacker Jarvis Jones is now on a Steelers team that needs a starting outside linebacker, raising his chances of making a rookie-year impact.

Generally speaking, most top 10 draft picks and a majority of those selected in the first round will have roster spots magically open up for them even if they were a "best player available" pick rather than one that also happens to fill an immediate need. For those who aren't so lucky, the existence of a bona fide roster hole can be a ticket to quick success.

If a team needs a running back because they lack a workhorse back, then the back they draft in, say, Round 2, has a greater chance to make an impact his rookie season then another rusher taken in the round to a team that already has an established veteran but lacks youth or depth.

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Geno Smith has David Garrard and Mark Sanchez to contend with in New York before he can be the Jets' starting quarterback.

Take, for example, linebacker Jarvis Jones, whom the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted in Round 1. While he may have been their target for months—pre-dating their release of longtime veteran James Harrison after he refused a pay cut—the absence of Harrison gives Jones a higher chance of starting in 2013 than if Harrison was still there.

When a rookie gets the opportunity to take significant training camp snaps with the first team because they lack anyone else capable of doing so, his odds of taking starting snaps once the season begins rises exponentially, more so than his analog on another team who has to outplay an established veteran to get the same chances. 

Proper Expectations

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Cordarrelle Patterson had a great college career, was drafted in the first round to the Vikings, and will fill a major roster hole—he can't let those expectations go to his head, though.

Self-confidence is an important component to rookie year success in the NFL, but it needs to be a healthy degree of it. There's a fine line between a player who expects a lot from himself and one who expects to be an instant starter and league MVP in just a few months' time. 

The expectations for any given player vary based on his draft positioning and college pedigree. More is expected out of wide receiver Tavon Austin because he was a top 10 selection than for Aaron Mellette, who was taken in the seventh round, but both probably expect the same things out of themselves—to make a positive impact for their respective teams as quickly as possible. 

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Mellette was taken in Round 7; the expectations about him are far different than those for Patterson, though his expectations for himself may be the same.

Of course, realistically speaking, Austin has a better chance of doing this than Mellette, though both are quite talented. How both of them handle these expectations for themselves requires them to balance that with how they are expected to perform by others. A successful player knows how to be realistic about his own talents and limitations while pushing himself to become better.

Wanting to become league MVP is different than thinking one absolutely will. A sense of hunger and a set of goals are necessary, but presuming they'll be instantly achieved is a way for a rookie to get caught up in the idea of playing in the NFL but not the act of doing so.


Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Quarterback EJ Manuel has a lot of work ahead of him; his first-round pedigree doesn't change that.

Though there are exceptions to every rule, no player who makes a 53-man roster in the NFL does it without work—hard work, and lots of it. 

Yes, being drafted is a reward in itself, doubly so if the player is drafted in the first two rounds, but it cannot be an end in itself. It's a milepost on a football journey and to get to the next one requires more work than it took to get to the last. 

Rookies who understand this and embrace it immediately take the leap from being successful in college to successful in the NFL more fully and more quickly. While there may be the temptation for drafted players to rest on the laurels of that achievement, especially those taken in early rounds, there's no way for them to live up to their draft billing without hard work.

It took a ton of work for 2012 sixth-round pick Alfred Morris to become a rookie-year starter and all-around offensive sensation.

After all, they are no longer competing with college teammates who have varying levels of football skills—they're competing with other NFL players, all of whom are the very best at what they do. There are hundreds of college football teams but only 32 in the NFL, each with no more than 53 players on their active game-day rosters.

Earning one of those spots doesn't come automatically by being drafted—and even if it does, such as a first-round quarterback taken by a team with no clear starter, it's better to avoid that mentality all together. Being drafted early helps, but without working hard in the months leading up to Week 1, there will be no success in the first year, no matter what they did in college.


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