OTAs, Minicamps and Off Days: How Rookies Can Thrive in Their First NFL Summer

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterMay 24, 2018

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley catches a pass during NFL football rookie minicamp Friday, May 11, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

You're wearing a helmet you've never strapped up before with an unfamiliar logo on it. Your last name is taped to the front of it in all-caps so the coaches who know nothing about you outside of the scouting report they read in April can yell instructions at you. This is OTAs—better known as "organized team activities"—but for you, it's a chance to make an impact.

Welcome to the NFL as a rookie. Now what?

Hundreds of first-year players are experiencing that very thing as teams get together for OTAs and start laying the groundwork for minicamps that will lead to full-on training camps in late summer. For the Saquon Barkleys and Baker Mayfields, this is a chance to show they were worthy of their high draft selections. For others, this is a chance to prove they belong.

How can those bottom-of-the-roster rookies—maybe the players signed as undrafted free agents or picked late in the 2018 class—prove themselves? After talking to NFL coaches and players about what goes on at OTAs and minicamps, here's what they're looking for.

"This is our first real look at these guys," one longtime player personnel executive told Bleacher Report. "For the high-round picks, we really want to see that they don't s--t the bed under the pressure of an NFL practice. I'll never forget the year we drafted this guy in the second round and first day of OTAs, the head coach looked at me and said, 'He ain't gonna make it.' We found out pretty fast who's got it and who doesn't."

The Jets think they have their guy with QB Sam Darnold.
The Jets think they have their guy with QB Sam Darnold.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

One day into OTAs might seem quick to know if a player "has it or not", but that's a familiar sentiment expressed by coaches and players. And it's not only coaches and executives looking at the high-priced rookies; it's also their new teammates, who want to see if the future of the franchise can hang.

Said one player (who asked not to be named) from a team that just selected a quarterback in the first round: "I'd tell every rookie to not come in and try too hard to win us over. We'll see right through that. Just come in and work hard. That'll lead to respect from the veterans."

And how's his quarterback looking? "Ah, man, he's nice."

Hard work, attention to detail and composure are all important traits for rookies, but one NFL linebacker coach told us that he likes to see a little fire too.

"The best way to get noticed if you're a priority free agent or camp body is to go so hard we have to slow you down," he said. "Now, don't be out there hitting the quarterback after the whistle, but bring it with a fire and intensity that makes us all see you."

Undrafted Marcell Frazier (No. 16), signed by Seattle, has the skills to crack the 53-man roster.
Undrafted Marcell Frazier (No. 16), signed by Seattle, has the skills to crack the 53-man roster.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

If you're a rookie quarterback, teams want to see a grasp of the playbook you were given and improvement every day. Said one coach who was in Cleveland for the Johnny Manziel rookie camp, "Don't come in like Johnny and not know the f--king installs."

"We give you a playbook right after the draft, and your ass better be studying it," he said. "I think that's when we all knew we were getting fired—when your star rookie quarterback shows up and he hasn't even opened the installs."

Some coaches have even gone as far as to put tests in the playbook. One longtime quarterbacks coach was famous for putting a blank sheet midway through the book that said "Bring this page to me when you see it" to make sure his players were reading their playbooks.

In the age of iPads, this has changed, but coaches still find clever ways to monitor which players are doing the work. "It's hilarious these guys think we can't track who is using their iPad," said one offensive assistant for an AFC East team. "We know when they take a s--t and when they sleep; we're for sure tracking their iPad use."

Former NFL safety Matt Bowen adds that occasional slip-ups are anticipated. "Coaches expect rookies to make mistakes on the practice field during OTAs," Bowen said. "But that leads to valuable offseason film where corrections can be made."

Matt Bowen (left)
Matt Bowen (left)Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Be on time. Do your homework. Show up ready to impress. NFL OTAs sound a lot like high school, and many players look at them with the same scowl.

"I hate OTAs," one veteran safety told B/R. "I'm a pro. I know how to work out. Our scheme isn't changing. I don't know why we need to be there for rookie installs."

When asked what advice he'd give to rookie defenders, the safety said: "Hit somebody hard early. It's like prison, where you gotta beat up the big guy Day 1. Hard hits get you noticed."

Bowen added: "Coaches want to see rookies transition from the classroom to the field. Go through the process of install in the meeting room to the walkthrough sessions and into to a team setting during practice. That includes alignment and assignment along with the pre-snap adjustments on both sides of the ball." 

Ultimately, what do coaches want?

"Hard work. We want enthusiasm and energy mixed with attention to detail and a passion for the job," one AFC head coach said. "It's cliche, but just do your job and you'll make it. We obviously like you or you wouldn't be here."

                 

Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.

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