What NFL Coaches Want to See from Rookies in First Minicamp

Alex Dunlap@AlexDunlapNFLContributor IMay 6, 2013

NFL rookies, welcome to the first days of your professional career.

It's time to get to work. NFL teams are allowed to host rookie-only minicamps during one of the two first weekends following the NFL draft. Teams are given no restrictions regarding how many days they "use" of the allotted weekend, which obviously means every team uses all three days—Friday to Sunday. 

Nine NFL franchises got a first glimpse of their newest additions this past weekend, while the rest of the league will welcome their 2013 haul Friday.

There are numerous new rules set forth in the most recent collective bargaining agreement that have changed the structure of virtually all offseason activities, and rookie minicamps are no exception.

What has not changed is what coaches look for in their rookies during this time. We all know the importance of first impressions.

For some rookies, the most important thing is getting noticed—leaving an impression. For undrafted free agents, this is their only real chance.

At Vikings minicamp, players like Cordarrelle Patterson, Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes who were taken early don't have this worry. Their contracts are signed, sealed and delivered. If they have growing pains, so does the team. There is no cutting bait.

Free agents, though, come into camp basically assuming that bait will be cut unless they can win somebody over big-time.

But every year, undrafted players make rosters and, in some situations, go on to be contributing members of the team as a result of their hard work. What coaches look for in free-agent rookies differs from what they look for out of highly drafted prospects.

As Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier told Vikings.com:

It’s just a small window, they have to jump out early and fast. Probably the way they handle themselves in the meetings, that makes a difference. Then if they can carry some of the things they grasp from the meetings to the field, and they need to make plays. They need to do something that the coaches will look at and go, "Wow, that guy, he caught my eye." You have to find a way to make a play. Whether you’re on offense, defense, whether you’re doing something on special teams as well. It’s a tall task but it happens. Marcus Sherels is a great example of it a few years ago. It can happen.

In the same interview, Frazier spoke of his early impressions of rookie WR Cordarrelle Patterson, who is widely thought of as a developmental receiver with elite physical gifts and astronomical upside. The Vikings traded up in the 2013 NFL draft to steal Patterson before Jerry Jones and the Cowboys could pull the trigger on selecting the ex-Tennessee star.

Well you always want to know how important football is to a guy when you’re thinking about taking him early in the draft like we were with CP. Once you find out that he loves the game and has a passion for it, then you want to find out how much his capacity for learning is.

You'll notice that while these sentiments are very different regarding what an NFL head coach looks for out of varying "levels" of players at minicamp, one thing surely stays the same. 

Capacity for learning. Ability to adapt intelligently. Football IQ. Coachability. 

NFL scouting departments work through the entire NFL regular season not paying much attention to NFL football. They travel from university to university gathering intel on the next crop of NFL draft prospects. They don't just watch how the player plays either. 

Scouts like to see how players act—to teammates, to coaches, to the media and even to support staff like trainers, equipment managers and graduate assistants.

By the time the season wraps up and coaches get "caught up" on the team's evaluations of certain players, the scouting department has a firm grasp on not only the player's physical tools, but also his mindset and general "way."

Whether it's a quiet young man who sets an example with his play on the field, such as Ravens rookie LB Arthur Brown, or an outspoken locker-room joker like new 49ers WR Quinton Patton, this is the first time the staff who will coach the player gets to size him up. 

An NFL team is a business, and everyone knows that industrial psychology plays a huge part. The "chemistry" of a locker room can single-handedly make or break a season. Coaches want players who they like, players that teammates like and players who buy in.

Minicamp is an NFL rookie's time to show he is a grown-up, a professional capable of organizing his time and prioritizing his responsibilities while dealing with the daily rigors of practice, media obligations, film study, playbook install and hopefully—if there's time—his own family and personal obligations.

All before the pads get strapped on and "real" NFL life starts.

Minicamp practices are non-padded, and there is no contact. Obviously, it is hard to get a real "feel" for the player physically, which—at times—is tough for coaching staffs and players alike. One year out, SS Harrison Smith of the Vikings looks like a genius pick late in the first round of the 2012 draft, but at this time last year, Smith was a bit worried he might not be making the best first impression.

In a player like Smith, contact and physicality are an integral part of what must be evaluated, as this was his biggest asset on film. It's likely that the Baltimore Ravens may have to "wait on" Matt Elam this year in much the same way until the pads go on, as he is a player who is similarly hard-hitting and missile-like.

But as is the case with pro days and the NFL combine, athleticism can be seen and identified in prospects even when the pads are off. Coaches can watch their feet and their quickness. In receivers, DBs and linebackers, ball skills can be evaluated, and linemen can be monitored for positioning, ease of motion and overall physical condition.

Plus, some guys just pass the good old-fashioned eyeball test. Sometimes everything a player does in drills seems to exude "football player." Coaches love that. Again, we circle back to the importance of first impressions. They have a way of sticking around.

The most important first impression that a new member of any organization can make is proving they understand what is being asked of them. This is the case in any industry. Successful new employees understand that they must embrace the fact that a role exists in which they must flourish for the group to attain a shared goal.

This takes attention to detail, adherence to responsibility and, finally, the ability to actually execute the tasks you are assigned with. Establishing this baseline early on is undeniably important.  

Just like any other first day on the job.