Feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed is part of the routine for an NFL rookie.
For linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, running back Evan Royster, tight end Niles Paul and other members of the Washington Redskins’ class of second-year pros, that feeling was worse than usual a year ago, after the NFL shut down for 41 / 2 months during a labor dispute. The lockout robbed those rookies of the offseason practices and tutoring by coaches that can help make a player’s acclimation to pro football a little smoother.
So as the Redskins’ second-year players go through their first “normal” training camp, with a full offseason program finally under their belt, some say they are much more comfortable and expect better production this season.
“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Royster said this week, “and we’ve done a pretty good job this offseason in preparing ourselves for that.”
NFL players were locked out by team owners in March 2011, but that April’s draft took place as scheduled. The Redskins selected a dozen players, led by first-rounder Kerrigan, and hoped the infusion of young talent would help lift an organization that spent years giving away its draft choices in pursuit of big-name veterans.
But the draftees had no access to team facilities or coaches until late July, when the lockout ended. Rookies were quickly signed to contracts, veteran free agents scurried from team to team and players hastily reported to training camps.
“It was very tough,” Paul said this week. “The playbook that we have, it was hard to pick up on. I was talking to [wide receiver Leonard Hankerson] about it last year. It was very difficult for us to do that. We came in and they kind of threw us in the fire. There were times out there when I didn’t know what the play was. I was just trying not to make a mistake.”
Last year’s rookies had no offseason practices, known as organized team activities. They had no minicamps. They did have a chance to receive their playbooks, thanks to a lifting of the lockout that lasted only days, but coaches were prohibited from contact with players during the shutdown.
“We got the playbook,” Paul said. “But it wasn’t like there was anyone there to explain. I didn’t know the concepts or anything like that. It was a struggle.”
Last season was not a washout for all the Redskins’ rookies. Kerrigan had a solid season, ranking second on the team with his 71 / 2 sacks. Roy Helu, a fourth-round draft pick from Nebraska, stepped in for the injured Tim Hightower at running back and led the team with 640 rushing yards. Royster, a sixth-round selection out of Penn State, began the season on the practice squad but was promoted to the 53-man roster in November. He had consecutive 100-yard rushing performances in the last two weeks of the season.
Even so, nothing came easily. Some of the players said it was well into the regular season before they had a good grasp of what was going on around them.
“About the third or fourth game of the year, I started to feel like I was getting more comfortable with the playbook,” said Paul, who played wide receiver as a rookie and had two catches.
Asked when he started to feel settled in, Royster said: “Week 16? I mean, it was a long way along. There’s a huge learning curve. . . . Before I started Week 16 or whatever, I got about four weeks under my belt and I was able to get comfortable with it. I think that’s when I finally got the point when I felt comfortable playing.”
More is expected now.
“I just need to play faster,” Kerrigan said earlier in training camp. “I think knowing the defense better and having OTAs and minicamp under my belt will help me to do that. I know my assignments better. Hopefully that will allow me to play more consistently. . . . I knew my assignments last year. But I wasn’t as confident as I am in them now.”
Royster and Helu are part of the Redskins’ competition this summer for the starting job at tailback. Hankerson could become a starter at wide receiver after a 13-catch rookie season, during which his not-quite-seamless adjustment included no playing time until October, followed by offseason hip surgery.
Jarvis Jenkins could be a major contributor in the defensive-line rotation after a rookie season ended by a preseason knee injury. Gomes is competing for playing time at safety. Hurt has been practicing with the starting offensive line in place of injured left guard Kory Lichtensteiger. Paul was moved to tight end and is trying to fit into a mix at the position that includes starter Fred Davis and veteran Chris Cooley.
“I feel like I started all over because now I’m a tight end, but I’m getting more comfortable,” Paul said. “Thank God we had OTAs and minicamp.”
Coaches have told Royster he appears less nervous this year, he said.
“You can see it in the rookies that are here: They’re so much further along than we were at this point last year,” Royster said. “We were just getting into our playbook at this point. They’ve had 10 days of OTAs and everything. They’ve learned fast.”
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