Young Players Excel As “KICKOFF ’09” Nears

Nfl Draft FootballWith the NFL regular season rapidly approaching, rookies from the highly touted to the previously unknown will be called upon to play key roles in their NFL debut seasons.

“As a rookie, you want to come in and learn as much as you can,” says Detroit Lions quarterback MATTHEW STAFFORD, the first overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. “You find out what it is like to be a professional both on and off the field. You try to study and give yourself a chance to be competitive so you can show what you can do on the field.”

Last year, several rookies made a major impact on their teams.

Quarterbacks MATT RYAN of Atlanta and JOE FLACCO of Baltimore became the first rookie QB duo in the Super Bowl era to start all 16 games and guide their teams to the playoffs. Ryan, who was named the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, led the Falcons to an 11-5 mark, while Flacco and the Ravens advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

On the ground, running backs STEVE SLATON of Houston (1,282 yards), MATT FORTÉ of Chicago (1,238) and CHRIS JOHNSON of Tennessee (1,228) became the first rookie running back trio to each rush for at least 1,200 yards.

Those were among the rookie standouts of 2008. Here are current rookies who have made their mark already and are eager to continue their production in the regular season:

49ERS OFFENSE GETS JOLT FROM COFFEE: San Francisco 49ers running back GLEN COFFEE, the club’s third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, has been one of the most impressive rookies so far.

“I’m very excited about what I’ve seen from him,” says head coach MIKE SINGLETARY. “Glen’s a tough runner and he’s going to be a great addition to our football team. He really adds a lot to what we’re trying to do.”

Coffee, who leads the NFL with 230 rushing yards in the preseason, will complement veteran FRANK GORE in the 49ers’ backfield.

“He’s doing a great job,” says Gore. “He runs strong and finds the holes. Glen is going to be a great player.”

The rookie from Alabama has relied on advice from Gore, who set a franchise record with 1,695 rushing yards in 2006 en route to the Pro Bowl.

“I take the game seriously,” says Coffee. “Frank and I have similar approaches and I try to learn from him. He knows what it takes.”

49ers offensive coordinator JIMMY RAYE likes what he sees from the rookie and is excited about what he will bring to the team.

“He has been really exceptional for a rookie running back,” says Raye. “He’s way ahead of the curve in terms of pass protection and that’s unusual for a college back. He’s a rugged player, he’s mentally tough and he plays physical football. He has vision and the ability to get fast in the hole. He has a bright future.”

SANCHEZ WINS STARTING JOB: The New York Jets envisioned MARK SANCHEZ as the club’s future starting quarterback after trading up and selecting him with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Rookie head coach REX RYAN decided the future is now for the 22-year-old, naming Sanchez the Jets’ starting quarterback on August 26.

“It takes a person with a certain confidence to play in New York,” says Ryan. “I don’t think he’s afraid of the big stage at all.”

Sanchez will become the first Jets rookie quarterback to start on the “big stage” since MATT ROBINSON in 1977. The California native says that his promotion has already boosted his morale.

“You get a little more confidence when you know your coach believes in you and has named you the starter,” says Sanchez. “Once you’re the guy, you’re the guy. You talk a little different. You walk a little different. You act a little different. That kind of feeling really helps when you’re on the field. It just helps your confidence.”

Sanchez’s poise and resolve has also won over his teammates.

“We believe in him, everybody does,” says starting safety KERRY RHODES. “The coaching staff believes in him. They made the decision. The players are behind him as well. We think we have something special with him. He has to go out and get it done on Sundays but from what we see, we have a lot of confidence in him.”

ORAKPO MAKING MOST OF POSITION SWITCH: When the Washington Redskins drafted BRIAN ORAKPO in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, the team knew it was getting an impact player on defense. The Redskins also saw a player that could play both defensive end, his position in college, and linebacker.

“We tried Brian at linebacker during minicamp to see if he could handle it,” says VINNY CERRATO, the team’s executive vice president of football operations. “Defensive coordinator GREG BLACHE was shocked at how easily he picked things up and how smooth the transition was.”

Orakpo has worked hard to adjust to his new position and wants to help the team in any way he can.

“With all the veterans, experience and talent we have on the defensive side of the ball,” says Orakpo, “this is a chance to keep me on the field as much as possible. This gives me a chance to use my versatility.”

So far throughout the preseason, the No. 13 overall pick has gotten more comfortable in the team’s defensive schemes.

“I feel good,” Orakpo says. “I’m getting much more comfortable to the positions they have me at.”

Two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle ALBERT HAYNESWORTH, who signed with Washington as a free agent, has taken notice of his rookie teammate.

“Brian creates great pressure,” says Haynesworth. “He seems to be all over the field making plays. He’s a great young talent.”

COOK IS HEATING UP: At 6-5, 246 pounds, Titans rookie tight end JARED COOK has quarterback KERRY COLLINS excited about the versatility that he can bring to the Titans’ passing attack this season.

A third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft from South Carolina, Cook aims to use his size and athletic ability to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties.

“He definitely has the potential to help us,” says Collins. “He is a big guy who can run, and he’s fast enough to get behind people. We put him outside at wide receiver sometimes, and he’s holding his own against cornerbacks. I think he’s one of those guys we can use a lot of ways and create match-up problems and help stretch defenses.”

Cook has been quick to display his receiving skills this preseason. The Georgia native leads the NFL with 17 receptions and ranks sixth with 159 receiving yards.

“I just take everything with a grain of salt, and try to learn as much as you can and just want it,” says Cook.

In an effort to speed up that learning curve, Cook has turned to veteran tight end ALGE CRUMPLER, who enters his second season with the Titans and ninth in the NFL.

“Crump is like a coach. Crump has been around the league for a long time,” says Cook. “He has a lot of wisdom to share. Every time I come off, he’ll tell me the little things that I need to correct, which is very helpful in the meeting rooms when we’re watching the film. It’s just great to have somebody like that around.”

THE REAL MC COY: The Philadelphia Eagles selected running back LE SEAN MC COY in the second round of this year’s draft to team with two-time All-Star BRIAN WESTBROOK.

“I can learn from Brian,” says McCoy, who has rushed for a team-high 90 yards this preseason. “I see the way he plays and that will make me a better player. It’s a challenge to come here and play well and help the team. If I’m going to model my game after somebody, I don’t mind modeling my game after Brian’s.”

McCoy, who is not only a skillful runner but also an adept pass catcher out of the backfield, has impressed teammates and coaches alike. He leads all NFL rookies RBs with 10 receptions in the preseason.

“When we drafted him,” says Eagles offensive coordinator MARTY MORNHINWEG, “we knew he was an excellent receiver. We believe that he could play a receiver spot in this league. He’s an exceptional receiver.

“LeSean is doing a terrific job,” continues Mornhinweg. “We ask an awful lot out of the halfback spot in our offense and he’s picked things up very well. I’ve been impressed with LeSean.”

HOOD MAKING EARLY CONTRIBUTIONS: ZIGGY HOOD’s transition with the Steelers from a defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense at Missouri to a defensive end in DICK LE BEAU’s complex 3-4 system has been a success so far this preseason for the defending Super Bowl champs.

The 6-3, 300-pound rookie is tied for second in the NFL with three sacks this preseason and has impressed mentor and teammate AARON SMITH with his ability to use his hands to shed blocks and run to the ball.

“He’s ahead of anybody I’ve seen coming in,” says Smith, who enters his 11th season. “He’s a talented kid. He’s a smart kid. He understands it more than the rest of us did as a rookie. I would have cut me my rookie year. ”

Selected No. 32 overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, Hood is the first defensive lineman taken in the first round by Pittsburgh since nose tackle CASEY HAMPTON in 2001 and is the first defensive end selected in the first round by the Steelers since AARON JONES in 1988.

“There’s a reason he’s a first-rounder,” says Smith. “Usually, a first-rounder is the complete package. He’s a big, strong kid who works hard. He is the complete package. ”