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NFL Rookies Are Thrown Straight into the Fire in Minicamps

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMay 19, 2015

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What's it like to report for your first day of minicamp as an NFL rookie?

It's like being tossed into the fire. 

There's no gradual climb in intensity, no time to let the rookies adjust after all the craziness of the pre-draft testing and interviews, the draft itself and the signing process. Pro coaches bring it from Day 1. 

The transition happens so fast that the overall tempo can sneak up on rookies. The sessions are high-speed and designed to test conditioning levels. Players are asked to change direction, drive on the ball, break down in the open field, etc. I'm talking about functional football movements that these guys haven't done for months, while they've been training for 40 times and vertical jumps.

The NFL combine in February is a critical part of the pre-draft process, and I'm a big fan of the event. It's a job interview, with prospects asked to perform and produce in a stressful environment. But the speed training leading up to the combine and the pro days on campus that follow in the early spring months don't translate to the actual game of football.

You have to realize that the majority of players drop weight and lean out their bodies as they prep to hopefully create pre-draft hype with a 40 time that jumps off the screen. 

But when they get on the field for minicamp, that's when backs start to tighten up, legs turn to Jell-O and some rooks will bow out of drills to go find a spot to throw up on the sideline.

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Many of these guys aren't ready just yet to go through special teams drills; individual, seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 team drills; and the two-minute sessions that will have them sucking air and dropping down to a knee between reps. Add in the natural nervousness of being rookies, and their heart rates are through the roof after three reps at full speed.

The coaches I talk to know this and expect it, but that's not going to stop them from pushing these rookies, testing them and welcoming them to the NFL with practice sessions that finish with a trip to the cold tub.

It's true rookie orientation—coaches showing these young guys the kind of conditioning it takes to make it through a practice.

It gets even harder once the veterans jump on the field. At that point, there are no more "tryout" players running around, and rookies can forget about the three-to-four basic concepts they learned during rookie camp so they could just line up. It will get tougher and more complex from a mental perspective as the team preps for OTAs and veteran camps in early June.

Are there risks to pushing these rookies in practice when they are clearly still in "workout shape?" I get asked that question a lot, especially when fans see rookies like the Jaguars' Dante Fowler and the Broncos' Jeff Heuerman out for the season after tearing their ACLs in camp.

Apr 30, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Dante Fowler, Jr (Florida) greets NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars as the number three overall pick in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt Unive
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

But a knee—or any serious joint injury—is a freak thing; bad luck, in my opinion. I played with guys who were in excellent football shape and blew out a knee; non-contact injuries, too. Sometimes the knee just decides to buckle and tear.

I do wonder if the hamstrings and muscle injuries could be somewhat prevented by starting the rookies off in the team's strength-and-conditioning program—before getting them on the field. Getting the rookies on a daily schedule allows them to start training like pro athletes. This is how they build functional strength and do position-specific conditioning drills on the field. A couple of weeks in the weight room, along with the conditioning work, could benefit the players before they're tossed on the field.

However, that's also why I don't put much stock—if any—into evaluating rookies in the first minicamp. Without the proper training, conditioning and competition on the field, those practices are nothing more than a beginner's class, a learning experience in the NFL.

And every rookie needs to be tested when he walks in the door.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.

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