Sitting in a window seat on a short flight from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to St. Louis just four days after the 2000 NFL draft, I felt like a young kid, or a freshman, on the first day of class.
I was just another late-round rookie, a possible backup. One of those guys that would have to earn a spot on Mike Martz's squad—and a paycheck—running into the four-man wedge on kickoff coverage.
Once we landed, I waited at baggage claim inside Lambert International Airport along with fellow rookie draft picks Trung Canidate, Jacoby Shepherd, Brian Young, etc., for our ride to the facility.
The talk on the way to Rams Park was loud, confident, almost arrogant to a point. Expected, really, coming off the hype of draft weekend we had all just experienced.
However, once the shuttle bus pulled into the parking lot of the facility, you could hear crickets inside. Silence. A sense of nervousness that engulfed us all.
And when we walked into that locker room for the first time to start the weekend minicamp, every veteran (the ones with the Super Bowl rings from the ’99 season) looked us up and down as they checked out their competition.
I was issued No. 27 after trying on my new helmet and picking out a facemask in the equipment room.
After grabbing my gear, I asked one of the assistant equipment guys if he could show me where my locker was.
“Sure,” he said while pointing to the left side of the room. “Your locker is right over there—next to Marshall Faulk.”
Welcome to the NFL
The playbooks are deep, the terminology is new and the coaching is hard for rookies during their first NFL offseason program.
Multiple schemes, coverages, alignments, adjustments, etc, etc.
These coaching staffs will throw a ton of new terminology at these rookies in meetings and expect to see a high level of execution when they get on the field for OTAs or minicamps.
I can remember sitting in the Holiday Inn (where we stayed as rookies during the offseason program) across from the Waffle House and Bob Evans (where we ate dinner almost every night) trying to take notes on coverages and blitz schemes that made no sense to me because of the unique terminology.
Everything was different (or new), and I was expected to learn this stuff while also showing the ability to adjust on the field to motion, slot formations and bunch looks the next day.
Man, that was brutal.
And once these rookies get on the field, the coaches will test them, push them and find out what they can handle when they are tired during practice sessions.
Do they respond well to coaching? Or harsh criticism? And can they make corrections from one rep to the next when their legs feel like Jell-O after the amount of running in a pro practice?
Remember, there are no free passes for rookies when they get into town to start the offseason program—regardless of what round they were drafted in.
Workout Shape vs. Football Shape
NFL practices are fast, uptempo and they will beat up rookies during the spring until they get into football shape.
After training for months to lean out and test well in the 40, short shuttle, three-cone drill, etc., these rooks now have to change directions in a competitive environment and try to match NFL speed on the field.
I remember being absolutely gassed during my first minicamp, trying to keep up with Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az Hakim and Ricky Proehl in Martz’s offense.
It doesn’t matter if you played in the Big 10, Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 or even the SEC. The speed in the college game just doesn’t compare to the pace of the pro game.
I experienced it back in 2000, and I saw it for the next six years I played in the NFL when rookies would have their hands on their hips or drop to a knee between snaps to grab some air.
That’s when hamstrings get tight and the bear jumps on the back of a rookie toward the end of practice, forcing him to play with poor technique and footwork for the rest of the day.
It takes time in the team’s strength program along with reps on the practice field to build up the conditioning level necessary to play (and compete) with the pros.
The speed of the game—plus the tempo of practice—is a major adjustment that these rookies will experience this offseason.
And it can be a rough experience during that first minicamp.
The Veterans Are Watching
There is no such thing as “true” competition in the spring. And no one is going to win a job based on what they did in shorts and helmets during a week of OTAs.
I’ve seen players flash all over the tape during spring practices only to disappear during camp when it's time to put on full gear.
You want to win a job in the NFL? Then do it in August with padded practices and preseason games to grade out.
However, that doesn’t mean the vets aren’t watching during the offseason to see if the rookies can act like pros and display some accountability.
Do they show up on time? Can they line up correctly? Will they make it through a conditioning run? Can they execute the basic schemes on the field? Do they work hard during lifting sessions? Are they prepared for meetings? And can they stay out of the training room while displaying the talent that was hyped up throughout the draft process?
The veterans understand what’s at stake for their careers after the draft. And they know if a rookie is selected at their position in the first couple of rounds, well, then they are eventually going to be replaced.
That’s life in the NFL—because first- and second-round picks are drafted to play.
But those vets won't go down without a fight.
While that will be played out on the field this August when those rookies are tested (or targeted) during camp, the offseason gives the veterans a feel for their competition.
To quote some old coach speak I heard for years in the NFL, this is a “show, don’t tell” kind of league.
And it starts in the spring.
The Transition to the NFL Doesn’t Happen Overnight
This league is tough, it’s demanding and it forces rookies to play catch-up during the offseason after going through the draft process.
Heck, some rooks can’t even find the bathroom in the facility during the first week of the offseason program, let alone figure out the playbook and the new techniques being taught on the field.
And that’s why some rookies will struggle during competitive settings this offseason while the vets play at a faster, more controlled speed during practice.
However, it’s a starting point, a place to build in terms of understanding the game, the conditioning level they need to be at and the pressure to produce as professionals.
That applies to the top picks such as Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack, Johnny Manziel and Sammy Watkins, along with the seventh-rounders and undrafted free agents.
And in the eyes of coaches—and especially the veteran players looking to hold on to their jobs—everyday is an interview for the rookies.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.