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Rookie Revolution Has NFL Looking

Rich McKay likes what he sees among today's NFL rookies.

Sure, they're bigger, faster, stronger, even brasher. But they're also better prepared to make a quick impact.

Once considered a veteran-dominated league, the NFL has gradually been transformed by increasingly talented rookie classes into a league more affected by today's younger players.

"For a scout, mini-camp used to be the worst three days of the year," said McKay, the Atlanta Falcons' general manager. "You'd show up after spending all this time working on the draft, and a guy would come in out of shape or struggle to pick up a scheme. But you don't really see that any more."

McKay is among the dozens of NFL front office officials, coaches and scouts that will spend the next five days in Indianapolis grading this year's college prospects at the league's annual scouting combine.

They'll evaluate heights, weights, speeds and even seemingly innocuous details such as vertical jumps and mobility. While the names and faces have changed, the trend has not.

Over the past five years, McKay acknowledges he's consistently seen rookies arrive at training camp with more knowledge, in better shape and more prepared to make the transition to the NFL.

The results have been just as dramatic. In 2004, Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went from the Mid-American Conference to within one win of the Super Bowl. He eventually won it in 2005.

The 2006 class even outdid Roethlisberger.

Quarterbacks Vince Young of Tennessee and Jay Cutler of Denver almost led their teams to the playoffs. New Orleans' dynamic duo of running back Reggie Bush and receiver Marques Colston helped the Saints reach their first NFC championship game. Chicago kick returner Devin Hester got the Bears all the way to their first Super Bowl in two decades, and Indianapolis running back Joseph Addai played a key role in the Colts' championship.

It may go down as one of the NFL's best rookie classes ever.

While matching that productivity will prove difficult in 2007, league insiders expect the trend to continue.

"I know that the coaching at the college level is getting better every year," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "A lot of the guys that have coached at our level are going back to college, and I think that's helping them."

Not everyone agrees on the explanations.

Detroit president Matt Millen attributes the changes to rule modifications that have forced teams to rely more on speed than bulk, which places a higher premium on young players.

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis credits the players themselves for selecting better college coaches to play for.

Others believe it's the intense offseason conditioning programs that start at the prep level and run through the pros, and, of course, there's that pesky salary cap which also forces NFL teams to rely more frequently on younger, cheaper talent.

"I think the salary cap does put you in position to make an impact quicker," Lewis said. "Teams need to provide those opportunities and give players a chance to find their niche."

Yet the biggest factor may be the evolution of the college game.

With coaches such as Southern Cal's Pete Carroll, Alabama's (and formerly LSU's) Nick Saban, Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey, Nebraska's Bill Callahan and Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom going from the NFL to college football _ and in no apparent hurry to return _ college players are getting tested in different ways.

Players, such as Young, who may have been asked to run an option offense in past years, are now getting a chance to demonstrate their versatility by throwing more frequently. Receivers are catching more balls and running backs are picking up more blitzes.

And the ramifications are also being felt on defense.

"That's putting an emphasis on skill players beyond the running backs, which was the traditionl thing," McKay said. "That helps those players transition better, and I think that's made the defenses and coverages more complicated, and that helps, too."

Whether the roughly 330 players in Indianapolis this week continue the recent pattern won't be known for months.

But McKay, who declined to compare this year's draft to last year's, expects it to continue and he hopes to find a few diamonds before departing early next week.

"I didn't get the impression that people were ranking last year's group that high, but it was a very productive group," he said. "You have to realize that at the end of the day, we're still picking human beings and you never know how they'll react to the two things they've usually never had _ free time and money."