Young Players Excel As Kickoff ’08 Nears

(August 28, 2008 – Throughout the preseason, rookies have tried to make their mark at the NFL level. Now, with the regular season just around the corner, rookies from the highly touted to the previously unknown will be called upon to play key roles in their NFL debut seasons.

“This is a job,” says Chicago Bears running back MATT FORTÉ, who was drafted in the second round this year out of Tulane. “As a rookie, you’ve got to put time in on the books, study film, come out on the practice field and give more than 100 percent every day. Learning is a big part of the game as a rookie.”

Last year, an impressive number of rookies made a successful transition into the NFL and had a major impact.

The 2007 rookie class produced four Pro Bowl players – Dallas kicker NICK FOLK, Minnesota running back ADRIAN PETERSON, Cleveland tackle JOE THOMAS and San Francisco linebacker PATRICK WILLIS.

Folk, a sixth-round selection out of Arizona, ranked second in the NFC with 131 points and was the first Dallas rookie chosen for the Pro Bowl since EMMITT SMITH in 1990.

Peterson, a first-round pick from Oklahoma, rushed for an NFC-best 1,341 yards and set the NFL single-game record with 296 rushing yards (November 4 vs. San Diego). He earned Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and also was named the Pro Bowl MVP.

Thomas, a first-round selection out of Wisconsin, started all 16 games and became only the fourth rookie offensive lineman in history to be named to the Pro Bowl.

First-round pick Willis, from Mississippi, was credited with 226 tackles to unofficially lead the league, and was named the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Those were among the rookie standouts of 2007. Here are rookies in 2008 who have made their mark this summer and show promise of continuing to do so in the regular season:

RYAN TO LEAD FALCONS FROM START: With the No. 3 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons were faced with an important decision.

“We’re not starting a new chapter here,” said Atlanta owner ARTHUR BLANK in the days leading up to the draft. “We’re starting a new book.”

Atlanta’s choice was Boston College quarterback MATT RYAN, who has been so impressive during training camp that the Falcons have named him the team’s starter.

“We feel that Matt has earned this opportunity to start,” says new head coach MIKE SMITH. “We feel like he gives us the best chance to win.

“Matt is very astute. He’s picked up our system. He’s got a very good outlook about the game of football and a good understanding of how to play quarterback in the league. He’s prepared for it. He’s mature beyond his years. It will be a great season for him to come in and be our leader.”
Ryan is looking forward to the opportunity but knows that it will not be easy.

“Everything that you get in this game, you’ve earned,” he says. “It is satisfying, but trust me, there is a lot of work ahead and I know that. There are going to be ups and downs, but I’ve got to stay mentally tough and grind through it. I’m in a good situation with a lot of talented guys on offense and defense. I’m excited to be part of that and to get the season going.”

Ryan’s teammates have also taken notice of the rookie’s work ethic and mindset.

“He’s done everything right,” says veteran wide receiver BRIAN FINNERAN. “From day one, he’s come in with the right attitude. He hasn’t done anything in a negative way. He’s worked hard, knows what he’s doing in the huddle, and knows how to run the offense. He’s composed and confident in himself. He’s ready to go. We’re ready for him to be the leader of this team.”

LOWERY IN THE MIX: New York Jets fourth-round selection DWIGHT LOWERY has inched his way up the club’s depth chart and is vying for a starting cornerback spot on Kickoff Weekend.

Lowery displayed the knack for being around the ball in college, recording 13 interceptions in 25 games at San Jose State. The California native leads New York’s preseason defense with a team-high 17 tackles, with one interception, three passes defensed and reached the end zone on a 62-yard punt-return TD.

“When you make plays, especially as a young guy, you just get more confidence,” says Lowery.

While his confidence is soaring, the 5-11, 201-pound cornerback has impressed New York’s coaches with another key element of the game that young players need for continued development.

“What I like about Lowery is that he’s a technician,” says Jets head coach ERIC MANGINI. “He is a very methodical person. He wants to know what the exact steps are, then you’re going to coach him on those steps and he’s going to practice them during practice. He’s going to practice them after practice. He’s one of those guys that’s going to rep it and train his body until he gets it right.”

Lowery believes that the more you put into your craft, the more you will reap the benefits.

“The more you know, the more you are going to be prepared, the more confident you are and the more you can just go out and play,” he says. “The more you study, the more you see yourself doing something because you understand what is going on around you.”

BEARS HOPE RUNNING GAME IS THEIR FORTÉ: Second-round pick MATT FORTÉ has burst onto the scene and is aiming to become the first rookie since Pro Football Hall of Famer WALTER PAYTON to open the season as the Bears’ starting running back.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” says Forté, “and I’m going to take full advantage of it. Hopefully, I can earn a spot on the team where I can be in the game at all times.”

Forté, who finished his career at Tulane as the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards per game (99.2) and touchdowns (44), has worked hard both on and off the field, opening the eyes of his coaches.

“Each day we see something else he can do,” says Bears head coach LOVIE SMITH. “He’s a guy who can run inside and out and he can also catch the ball out of the backfield.”

Offensive coordinator RON TURNER has been impressed with the rookie running back.

“He’s very mature for his age, very intelligent, very instinctive and even-keeled,” says Turner. “He’s got a tremendous amount of pride. He does not like to make mistakes. He’s got a great focus about him. He’s picked up the offense very well. When he’s in there, I don’t have to worry about what I call. I have confidence he knows what to do.”

ROYAL SHOOTS FOR BIG STAGE: Since arriving in the Mile High City, Denver Broncos wide receiver EDDIE ROYAL’s goal has not been just to make the team, but to earn a starting job.

The 5-10, 182-pound shifty receiver thrilled fans at Virginia Tech while setting the school record for career all-purpose yards (4,686). In the preseason, the second-round pick has started all three games for Denver, hauling in four receptions for 80 yards while impressing Broncos coaches and players in practices and games.

“He’s got exceptional ability, great speed and great quickness,” says Broncos head coach MIKE SHANAHAN. “From the first day, he wanted the starting role, and he embraced the challenge. He has been very consistent in practice, and done well in the games.”

Fellow Broncos wide receiver BRANDON STOKLEY agrees with Shanahan’s assessment. Stokley, who played with All-Star receivers MARVIN HARRISON and REGGIE WAYNE in Indianapolis, knows a good receiver when he sees one.

“Certain people just have it,” says Stokley. “They have it and he has it. It’s been fun to watch him get better every day. And he just brings it over to the game from practice, which is hard for a rookie to do. I just think he’s going to be a special player in this league for a long time.”

PHILLIPS HOPES TO BE SUPER: The Super Bowl XLII champion New York Giants used the NFL Draft to add talent to their defense. With the team’s first pick at No. 31 overall, New York selected safety KENNY PHILLIPS from Miami.

“I’m going to the reigning Super Bowl champions, who have a great defense,” said Phillips after being chosen by the Giants. “They want me to come in and be a playmaker. So, I’m going to come in, learn and I’m going to make a statement.”

Phillips has lived up to his word, making a positive impression so far this preseason.

“He’s right on the money,” says head coach TOM COUGHLIN. “What he’s been doing in practice, he’s also showed in the games. He’s making good progress.”

Defensive coordinator STEVE SPAGNUOLO also has been pleased with the play of the young safety.

“He plays fast,” says Spagnuolo. “He’s been making some big plays and hopefully he continues to do that.”

While Phillips has gotten off to a great start, he knows there is a long season ahead of him.

”I am just taking it one day at a time,” he says. “You’ve got to respect the fact that the veterans have been here and they know the system. The biggest thing in this league is experience. These guys have played in the big games, in the Super Bowl and I want to learn from that. I want to take everything in that I can from them and listen to everything they tell me.”

ANOTHER RAY OF HOPE IN B-MORE: The Baltimore Ravens selected running back RAY RICE in the second round of this year’s draft and envisioned him joining starter WILLIS MC GAHEE to form a 1-2 punch.

Rice became Rutgers’ career rushing leader in yards (4,926) and touchdowns (49). He has filled in solidly in the starting role this preseason with McGahee sidelined with a knee injury.

“I was thrown right into the fire,” says Rice. “One day, I’m working with the ‘twos’ and ‘threes,’ and the next day, all of a sudden, I’m working with the ‘ones.’”

The New Rochelle, New York native has used his 5-8, 205-pound frame to shed defenders and leads the Ravens with 19 carries for 109 rushing yards (5.7 avg.) with one touchdown.

“We like the way he runs,” says Baltimore general manager OZZIE NEWSOME. “He has a very low center of gravity, so he doesn’t take a lot of hits. He mainly delivers a blow instead of taking one.”