There’s a two-step process to learning a new position in the NFL: 1) Study it. 2) Do it. Rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan’s transition to the NFL has hit an early snag somewhere between the two.
One week into his first contract, Kerrigan is learning a new city, trying to figure out his new employer, digesting a new defense and hoping to master a new position. It’s a daunting to-do list, the sense of urgency compounded by an early bone bruise. Since he suffered the knee injury in his first practice as a Redskin last Friday, Kerrigan, the team’s first-round draft pick, has been unable to participate in drills.
“He’s got what, one day of work?” said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. “He’s got a lot of catching up to do.”
The Redskins play their first preseason game next Friday against Pittsburgh, and so far, Kerrigan’s NFL education has come mostly in film sessions, in meeting rooms and by watching his teammates practice.
“There’s always a big difference in doing it and watching it,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “He’s biting at the bit to get out there. He wants to do things. Just afraid if we put him out there too quick, we’re going to set him back.”
Shanahan said Wednesday he might not see his rookie linebacker fully participate in practice until this weekend.
Despite his injury, Kerrigan is fully invested in making the adjustment from a defensive end in Purdue’s 4-3 scheme to an outside linebacker in the Redskins’ 3-4. When he met with coaches during the NFL draft, they told him of their plans and gave him a playbook, some 300 pages that detailed foreign formations and new techniques.
“It was pretty much a daily thing,” Kerrigan said of his offseason studies. “I would look it over, or look over a different install each day and try to learn that.”
His education has accelerated since he reported to Redskins Park last week. While his knee heals, Kerrigan watches teammates run the plays. It doesn’t hurt that he has a pretty knowledgeable tutor. Brian Orakpo also was a first-round pick and also was asked to convert from defensive end to linebacker. He reached the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years in the league.
“What I learned my first year, I try to give that to him,” Orakpo said. “He’s learning as we go on, but he has to learn on the fly.”
The lockout kept Kerrigan from offseason workouts, organized team activities, minicamps and months of access to coaches and film. Instead, he gets a crash course that leaves him little time to catch his breath. Kerrigan is expected to start Week 1 opposite Orakpo, which means he has barely a month to learn all the intricacies of playing linebacker — standing up, dropping into coverage, reading a quarterback, blitzing, moving laterally.
His job as a defensive end at Purdue: When the ball was snapped, race forward.
“From what I seen so far, he’s a quick learner, man,” Orakpo said. “He learns on the fly. He’s very smart, an intelligent kid, humble and hard-working. . . . I seen him take notes. He’s asking questions all the time in the meeting rooms.
“You don’t see a lot of that sometimes. You see a lot of first-rounders come in and they already think they know what they’re doing. With him, it’s something different.”
Coaches have noticed it, too. Even though he can’t practice, Kerrigan is standing near his teammates, listening to instructions and taking "mental reps." He undergoes treatment on his knee three times a day, including an evening session back at the hotel. In recent days, he has been able to run, stretch and participate in walk-throughs, but he has skipped position and team drills.
“It’s not fun watching practice,” Kerrigan said. “It’s what I’m faced with right now. I can’t get flustered or frustrated by it. Like coach has been saying, I’ll take mental reps and make practice count the best I can."
The Redskins are heavily invested in Kerrigan. While his knee heals, coaches have lined up Rob Jackson, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, with the first team. They’re counting on a healthy Kerrigan to bolster their pass rush. Last season, the Redskins ranked 25th in the NFL with 29 sacks.
Orakpo tallied 81 / 2 sacks, but the other outside linebacker position — occupied chiefly by Lorenzo Alexander and Andre Carter last season — accounted for only four. Carter has since been released and Alexander has been working as an inside linebacker in camp.
While the knee injury has prevented Kerrigan from practicing, he says it hasn’t kept him from learning the position. Most of that, after all, is done indoors, studying film, digging through the playbook and chatting with coaches and teammates.
“He’s a young professional,” said linebackers coach Lou Spanos. “What I mean by that, he’s detailed in his work, he’s studying, asking questions and taking advantage of the veteran leaders around him.”
The early frustrations aren’t easy, but Kerrigan realizes the team has a deliberate plan in place for both his recovery and his development.
“At the same time, I’m a football player — I’m itching to get out there and play football,” he said.
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.