The NFL Rookie Class of 2011: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been
Few NFL rookie classes will ever be able to hold a candle to the strange and bizarre occurrences that highlighted the offseason for the 2011 rookies. From the labor lockout, elimination of OTA's, cancellation of mini-camps, this class of rookies had the misfortune of joining the NFL at one of the worst possible times ever.
As if receiving just above bare-bones time with the coaching staff weren't bad enough, then we think about the reality of watching the new CBA come to fruition, and all these first-round draft picks watch in horror as their rookie compensation packages were drastically reduced.
What about those players that were good enough to make NFL rosters, but just weren't fortunate enough to be drafted?
They had to endure even more pain and hardships, as they were forced to wait for the NFL offseason to officially begin, when they could hopefully scramble to find a situation where they had a half-way decent chance of cracking a NFL roster.
Now that we are preparing for the new season to begin, we will take a look back at the wacky 2011 offseason, and what still lies in store for the rookie class of 2011.
The Rookie Undrafted Free Agents of 2011
Does any player better exemplify the undrafted rookie free agent class of 2011 than New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich?
He was surprisingly passed over by all 32 NFL teams at the draft, as many teams were probably fearful as to how strong his leg would be, and could it hold up to the rigors of NFL football. Herzlich had a metal rod inserted into his leg, due to being affected by cancer.
Herzlich underwent treatment to fight off the disease, and has been steadily marching back toward regaining his health, strength and self-confidence in his ability to play the game he loves.
Herzlich to his credit, stuck to his guns and bided his time until the New York Giants were allowed to call him and extend an offer. Herzlich gladly accepted and felt like his decision to wait things out was justified.
You may recall that Herzlich actually had an offer to join the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, but he decided to hold out for the NFL. Luckily for Herzlich, he made the Giants' 53-man roster.
The 58 URFA's That Beat the Odds
Here is a link to the list of the 58 URFA's (undrafted rookie free agents) that beat the odds, and made opening-day NFL rosters (as of now), listed in order by team. 29 of the 32 teams kept at least one URFA.
Denver: Chris Harris, CB.
Just the Facts on the 2011 Rookie Class Courtesy, of John Clayton
Thanks to ESPN's John Clayton for uncovering the following golden nuggets via Twitter, which were all placed between the time frame of 9/3 - 9/7. For a link to Clayton's Twitter account, click on this:
There were 208 draft choices who made rosters as of Saturday from this year's draft. A few have and will be cut before opening day.
In the cut down to 53, 62 undrafted players made the rosters. That's surprisingly high. Last year, 51 made opening day rosters.
The Redskins led the league by cutting three draft choices, but that was expected because they had so many sixth- and seventh-round choices.
There were 29 draft choices who were released league-wide, with the the highest being three in the fifth rounds.
The Cardinals and the Titans didn't keep any undrafted free agents in their final cuts.
Green Bay had an interesting roster development in that Ted Thompson of the Pack continued his philosophy of building through the draft. He added 10 new players: 7 drafted and 3 undrafted rookies.
But, of the 15 Packers who were on the injured reserve at the end of last season, only six made the team, including starters Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and Mike Neal.
The Saga of Jonathan Baldwin
Perhaps no rookie in the 2011 NFL Draft class has had a worse start to their NFL career than Kansas City Chiefs first-round pick, wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin.
It didn't take long for the Chiefs to realize first-hand that all of the rumors coming out of college was that Baldwin had an attitude and he acted like a diva were shockingly correct.
But what the Chiefs didn't bargain for was that the cocky rookie would actually have such a chip on his shoulder that he would disrespect the veteran players. The Chiefs players let it slide for a little while, until it became obvious that something had to give.
Thomas Jones stepped up and confronted Baldwin, which led to a locker-room fight. Baldwin suffered a thumb injury in the brawl, and had to have surgery to repair it.
As of the opening week, there is still no word on when Baldwin will be ready to play. One thing is for sure, everyone is aware of him, but we just don't know who wants to go anywhere near him.
The Best Quarterback of 2011 Draft Class Is ?
When it was time for the 2011 NFL Draft to finally begin in late April, the basic thought was that the top six or seven quarterbacks would be a threat to go anywhere from the first to the second round, but nobody knew in what order they would go.
The one thing that was pretty sure was that Jake Locker was the least accurate passer of all the quarterbacks in question, and anyone that took him was going to have really work on that part of his game.
Well, now that the exhibition season is over, we can safely say that out of the entire rookie class, Locker looked like one of the best, if not the best quarterback of the whole group. Sleeper QB candidate Colin Kaepernick looked like anything but, as he threw five interceptions and no touchdowns.
Cam Newton had some very good flashes and was able to throw for a touchdown and run it in for a touchdown during the preseason, but he still needs more experience to become more consistent with his passing.
Andy Dalton has looked horrendous for the most part, and Ryan Mallett looked great in his first game, but had trouble keeping up his play at that high of a level. Christian Ponder got some needed experience, but has really taken a back seat to Donovan McNabb.
Even with David Garrard's surprising release, Blaine Gabbert is not ready to take over the reins in Jacksonville, but he might see starts later in the year.
Expect Rookies to Make More of an Impact Later in Year
There he was for the entire NFL to see. Mark Ingram, Heisman Trophy winning running back of the New Orleans Saints is handed the ball by Drew Brees on the one-yard line with a chance to score a touchdown to bring the Saints back to within a two-point deficit on the final play of regulation, and he is stuffed by the Packers defensive line.
Chances are that if that play was to be called from Week 10 on, Ingram would have been experienced enough in those situations to know what his options are, and could make a better read on where to go with the ball.
But, with only about six weeks of NFL coaching to date, his time with the Saints coaches has been limited, not to mention that he is just one of a number of running backs that they are working with.
Special teams appear to be an area of the game that will be needing work due to the shorter practices and inability for coaches to have sufficient time to work their special teams.
As a result, 2011 rookies might find that the special teams area is going to be one of their quickest paths to gain some fame in the early part of the season.
That certainly worked for Randall Cobb, the second-round draft pick for Green Bay. Patrick Peterson may also find special teams is the way for him to make the fastest impact for the Arizona Cardinals.
Curious to See How 2011 Rookies Survive Next Year or Two
This is just one small situation as part of the big picture, but it will illustrate my point just fine. The Buffalo Bills determine that they need to shore up their run defense, which makes sense because they were last in the NFL in that category in 2010.
The Bills take the first step in fixing their deficiencies along the defensive line by drafting Marcell Dareus.
Bills general manager Buddy Nix determines that the Bills need to get bigger and more physical at inside linebacker, so the Bills invest two more draft picks to help out the run defense, taking Kelvin Sheppard in the third round and Chris White in the sixth round, so the Bills appear to be set with these additions.
Because the draft was ahead of the free agency period in 2011, (normally they are reversed), the Bills really don't know what they will be able to land in free agency, so they took the safe route with the picks.
Free agency then finally starts when the new CBA is completed, and Bills free agent LB Paul Posluszny gets a huge offer from the Jacksonville Jaguars that the Bills know is way more than they were willing to pay, so they let Posluszny walk. Things are looking better for both Sheppard and White.
Then mere days later, the Bills wind up signing ex-Packers LB Nick Barnett at a bargain rate (relative to the Posluszny deal) and then surprise themselves weeks later that they can sign another veteran in Kirk Morrison for a very reasonable deal as well. Now all of a sudden, things aren't looking so great for the two rookie linebackers.
Both Sheppard and White miss key portions of training camp due to injuries, and as a result their learning curve will be a challenge for the rest of the year because they will be playing catch up all year long.
Then there is another twist. The only undrafted rookie free agent that makes the Bills 53-man roster, is linebacker Robert Eddins. Eddins is 6'3" and weighs 248. He played ball at Ball State. Eddins never missed any time, and impressed the Bills coaches all summer long, so he makes the team.
To the extent that they receive a significant number of snaps in 2011 is very much unknown. Taking it a step further, if they don't make much impact in 2011, the Bills may opt just to keep the veterans and let the rookies take their act to another team in 2012 or 2013, which all stems from their limited rookie season.
Then there is the possibility that Eddins could overtake one or both of them and stays on the roster long-term. You can probably find similar situations on every NFL team, but that is life in the NFL.
What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been
At this point, I think it is fair to state that the rookie class of 2011 over the span of history will have its share of stars, surprises and busts. That happens every year. But there will only be a certain number who can take their limited opportunities this year and take advantage to make a name for themselves as rookies.
Some of these guys will need a strong sophomore year in training camp to cement their roster places. But some of these guys will just plain fall out because they lost the confidence of their head coach. We have heard of rookies being overwhelmed by the playbook or the schemes that they were asked to learn.
An example of this was Arizona Cardinals tight end Rob Housler, who is now on the fourth-string. Rookie lineman Danny Watkins had to be replaced on the starting line with the Philadelphia Eagles because he has been overwhelmed, according to Philly.com.
With labor peace likely for the next 10 years, we will look back on this year with some curiosity and wonder about what could have been.
For NFL teams, they will tell you that it is just part of football, and we learn to play with who we have and make the best of it. But for some of these rookies, they will have to look back and think to themselves what a long, strange trip it's been.