Can NFL Rookies Really Be Locker Room Leaders?
When you hear the term "leader" in relation to the NFL you immediately think of players like Ray Lewis, Tom Brady, Brian Urlacher and Aaron Rodgers. Amongst league circles, leaders are seen as particular men who rise above the rest in the most adverse situations.
A leader is one person who organizes or rallies a certain group of people to achieve a common goal. Moreover, leaders in the NFL not only put their team first, but they live their lives in a way that can be used as an example for society as a whole.
When one glances around the league and looks at leaders from all 32 teams, you realize a majority of NFL locker rooms are led by veterans. It's rare to to see a younger player, especially a rookie, be the leader of 53-men.
The lack of non-veteran leadership inside an organization ultimately leads me to this question: Can NFL rookies really be locker room leaders? Or do they simply lack the experience required to navigate a team through the ups and downs of a grueling 16-game season?
Let's do a little research and take a look at some past examples so we can draw our own conclusion.
Even though the Baltimore Ravens were considered an expansion team in 1996, they retained a Cleveland Browns roster that Bill Belichick had been building since 1991. As we all know the Browns weren't very good in 1995. They finished third in the AFC Central at 5-11 and took a major step back from where they had finished in 1994.
The poor finish netted the Ravens the No. 4 overall pick in 1996 NFL Draft, and a trade with the 49ers from the 1995 draft garnered them the 26th pick as well. UCLA left tackle Jonathan Ogden was selected at No. 4, and Miami middle linebacker Ray Lewis was picked at No. 26.
Ogden was an absolute no-brainer considering the Browns offensive line from 1995 was nothing to write home about, but Lewis was far from a no-brainer at the time. Most analysts had him pegged as the fifth-best linebacker prospect in the draft.
Coming out of college Lewis was viewed as an undersized player who was too slow to play in the NFL. Scouts loved his tackling ability and intensity, yet they felt his lack of size was a potential liability that would ultimately derail his career.
So what did Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens organizations like about Lewis prior to the draft in 1996? First and foremost they liked the way he approached the game, but more than anything they liked the way Lewis made everyone around him better.
Here's what Phil Savage (Ravens' director of college scouting from 1996-2004) recalls from a conversation he had with Lionel Vital (Ravens scout) before the 1996 NFL Draft (via Bob McGinn of jsonline.com):
Lionel came up that afternoon and said, 'This guy is an absolute stud and is going to be an incredible leader. He's going to take over the whole program. Mark my words.' First day on the job.
Vital couldn't have been more right. Lewis stepped in Day 1 and became the emotional leader of a first-year franchise. At the time Baltimore had no voice. They were a team that had been put through a heart-breaking move from one city to another.
Since being installed as the team's inside linebacker in May of 1996, Lewis went on to lead Baltimore to two Super Bowl titles, he appeared in the Pro Bowl 13 times, he was an NFL All-Pro selection 10 times and he set multiple NFL records over the course of his 17-year career.
The former first-round pick should become a first ballot Hall of Fame selection in 2018.
When the Indianapolis Colts were officially on the clock in 1998, they had a choice to make. Did they want to draft one of the most knowledgeable and successful quarterbacks in SEC history, or did they want to draft a stronger-armed quarterback who had greater potential?
According to Mike Chappell of The Indianapolis Star, Colts team scouts favored Ryan Leaf, but team president Bill Polian favored Peyton Manning. Polian felt Manning was a more mature player after he impressed Indianapolis' front office during a private pre-draft interview.
Aside from Manning's talent on the gridiron, the Colts were looking for a player who would not only be a leader on the field, but off it as well. Make no mistake, the 1997 Maxwell Award winner was not an overly vocal leader like Lewis, but he did expect greatness from himself and everyone around him.
He was a competitor—plain and simple. This trait festered inside of him at a young age. As a child, Manning once chewed out his dad (Archie Manning) for stacking his youth basketball team with his friends instead of the best players (per JockBio.com).
Indianapolis liked that competitive fire. They felt it would be good a thing for a team who had won a measly three games in 1997. Additionally, the Colts felt Manning had the leadership skills to elevate the play of players around him and hold them accountable.
This notion rang true when Leaf was a no-show for his pre-draft visit. Here's what Polian told Mike Chappel: "When you're comparing two people and you're looking for a guy that's going to lead your franchise, what people do and how they approach things tells you an awful lot."
Manning went on to lead the Colts to 11 playoff appearances in 14 seasons. The organization won a Super Bowl in 2006 and No. 18 was named the Super Bowl MVP of Super Bowl XLI.
Even though Manning is still playing in the NFL with the Denver Broncos, the Colts retired his jersey number in 2012.
Rookies Can Be Locker Room Leaders
Lewis and Manning are arguably two of the best historical examples of rookies rising up to the challenge of becoming great rookie locker room leaders. Yet not every rookie has what it takes to do what these two players were asked to do.
For some, the pressure of leading a franchise becomes to overwhelming, just ask Jeff George, David Carr and JaMarcus Russell. Those three players were asked to do the same things Lewis and Manning were asked to do.
Unfortunately for them, they failed.
Not every NFL player has what it takes to be a leader of men. Researchers, over the years, have found that leaders are naturally born with a characteristic to lead. You either have it or you don't, there's no middle ground.
While doing the appropriate research necessary for this article, I came to the conclusion that rookies are being asked to do less leading in today's NFL. Teams enjoy having core veteran leadership inside their locker room for the sole purpose of experience.
People are more apt to listen to a guy who has been a part of a successful team and the grind of an NFL season. No one wants to listen to a 22-year-old kid who hasn't even taken a single snap in the league. It takes a special person to defy the norm of veteran locker room leadership.
However, as I mentioned above, it can happen in the NFL and it has happened in the NFL. The odds are just not in the rookies' favor.
Over the next couple of years, I'm intrigued to see which rookie will build his legacy and be anointed as the next great leader.
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