By Steve Silverman
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NFL teams spend a lot of time analyzing talent and personality traits, but when it comes right down to it, there's not a lot of time to prepare players for the demands of competition against the best players in the world.
That's why it's so tough for rookies to make a positive impact in the early part of their career. Some rookies have a chance to learn as they go and start making a consistent contribution by the time they reach the second half of their rookie season, but for most it takes longer.
Players who get drafted, attend minicamps and other team activities before coming to their first training camp are usually overwhelmed in the early part of their professional career. There are exceptions who adapt quickly and start producing at a high level right away, but they are few and far between.
While preseason games as a whole are often underwhelming and wins and losses are usually quite meaningless, rookie performance is important. With the second full week of preseason heading into high gear, here's what we have learned about five of the highest-profile rookies at this early point in their NFL career, including Leonard Williams of the Jets and Ereck Flowers of the Giants.
QB Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Bucs -- The No. 1 pick in the draft last spring needs to hit the ground at full speed when Tampa Bay opens its season next month against Tennessee. The days of a first-round rookie quarterback getting two to three years to develop his talent are long over, and when the team was as poor offensively as the Bucs were last season, the pressure is that much greater.
Winston was fairly average in his opening preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings and he has been fairly average in camp as well. He was 9-of-19 and he hit wideout Vincent Jackson with a well-thrown 40-yard pass. He also ran the ball fairly effectively.
However, Winston missed some open throws and was not quick enough in his decision making. If he is going to be successful early in his career, he has to be decisive when he reaches the line of scrimmage, call signals and start the play.
Winston has a long way to go before head coach Lovie Smith can feel confident about him.
QB Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans -- The No. 2 choice in last spring's draft was getting some positive reviews before the Titans played their first preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons. Mariota had nearly a full understanding of the playbook, a fairly commanding presence at practice sessions and a high degree of confidence. He didn't have a turnover in more than a week of practice sessions, but that changed against Atlanta.
Mariota threw an interception and also lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. However, he showed excellent accuracy and good velocity on a third drive in which completed 7 of 8 and led the Titans into the end zone.
Mariota bounced back from some of his early difficulties and showed poise, recognition and the desire to overcome adversity. That should mean quite a bit as the Titans move toward the start of the season.
The season opener against the Bucs will have important psychological ramifications as Winston and Mariota will face each other.
WR Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders – The talk prior to the start of training camp was that Cooper had the talent and the ability to become a dominant star quickly for this long-struggling franchise. The Raiders wasted no time in putting Cooper to work in his first preseason game, as he caught three opening-possession passes and he also showed off his skill as a runner.
It's clear that Cooper knows how to run pass patterns, pick out the weaknesses of defensive backs and exploit them. However, will he be on the same page with starting quarterback Derek Carr? On Carr's final throw of the game against the St. Louis Rams, Cooper ran an out-and-up pattern when the quarterback was expecting him to come back to the ball.
The result was a poor interception that was just as much on the quarterback as it was on the rookie receiver.
While that play hurt in the short run, it could help in the long run if it improves the communication between the receiver and the quarterback.
DE Leonard Williams, N.Y. Jets – When the Jets drafted Williams with the sixth overall pick, many scouts and general managers thought he was the player who was the most ready to step in and play, regardless of his position.
The former USC star has not gotten off to a flying start. In his first preseason game against the Lions, he did fairly well as a pass rusher against Detroit's Manny Ramirez, twice getting past him and putting pressure on quarterback Kellen Moore. However, when he didn't win the battle with strength, Williams did not show enough in the way of moves to be impressed with his pass rushing.
He also struggled against the run, as he could not hold his ground when blockers tried to move him sideways. The Jets don't expect Williams to have a high tackle total as a defensive lineman, but he needs to show he can anchor and not get pushed around.
OT Ereck Flowers, N.Y. Giants – While the scouts and executives loved the Jets' selection of Williams, they did not like the Giants' choice of Flowers with the No. 9 pick.
While Flowers has nearly the perfect size and build for the position at 6-foot-6 and 328 pounds, he did not display great consistency as a college player at Miami (Fla.), and many thought it would take time for him to develop.
That may still be the case, but he had a standout first game for the Giants against the Cincinnati Bengals. The left tackle looked quite good in pass protection and more than held his own as a run blocker.
Many rookies display nerves or fear in their first game, but Flowers looked quite comfortable. That bodes well for the upcoming season.
He was penalized once for grabbing the facemask, but that's the kind of mistake that can be corrected fairly quickly. He showed excellent feet and surprisingly good instincts.
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