Especially for us fantasy football nuts:
YOUNG PLAYERS EXCEL AS KICKOFF 2010 NEARS
With 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, I didn’t want to waste any time learning," says Oakland Raiders linebacker ROLANDO MC CLAIN, the eighth overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft from the University of Alabama. "The day after I got drafted, I called looking for a playbook. Obviously, the team expects a lot so I’m going to fight to be perfect every day. I expect to be perfect. I’ve got a lot of veterans helping me and since I take pride in my job, I’ve been doing a lot of extra studying."
Last year, several rookies made a major impact on their teams.
Quarterback MARK SANCHEZ led the New York Jets to the AFC Championship Game, becoming just the second rookie QB to start and win two playoff games – Baltimore’s JOE FLACCO accomplished the feat the previous season. Quarterback MATTHEW STAFFORD of the Detroit Lions started 10 games and set the NFL single-game rookie record with 422 passing yards while also becoming the youngest player to throw five touchdowns in a game (Week 11 vs. Cleveland). And Minnesota Vikings wide receiver PERCY HARVIN set a club record with 2,081 combined yards en route to being named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Those were among the rookie standouts of 2009.
Some current rookies who have made their mark already include:
EAGLE SOARING IN PHILADELPHIA: Philadelphia Eagles defensive end BRANDON GRAHAM, the team’s first-round pick (No. 13 overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft, has made an immediate impact with his new team.
After the Eagles’ second preseason game, Graham was moved to the starting lineup.
"It was exciting," says Graham. "I just know now I have to keep it up. I can’t be going back and forth. I want to just go out there and compete.
"I feel like I’m progressing just from knowing how to practice to going out there and feeling comfortable. Knowing that I already know the plays, I can stop thinking and go out there and do it. It’s made me faster."
In Philadelphia’s second preseason game, the rookie from Michigan had three tackles, including two for a loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry versus the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I see greatness," says TRENT COLE, who will line up at the other starting defensive end position, about Graham. "I see us having a great time this season, flying around the ball, making plays and getting sacks. I see it all. I can picture it right now."
SPILLER FULL OF BIG PLAYS: After finishing second in NCAA Division I history with 7,588 career all-purpose yards, Buffalo Bills running back C.J. SPILLER was taken No. 9 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft to inject big plays into the Bills’ offense.
"This guy gets the heart pumping," says former NFL head coach and ESPN analyst JON GRUDEN. "You make one mistake with this guy and he is gone. He has great vision. And he can run in short-yardage and goal-line situations."
Spiller, who is tied for first in the NFL with three rushing touchdowns this preseason, has impressed Bills coaches and players in practices and games with his blazing speed and elusiveness.
"When he touches the ball, he has a chance to go 60 or 80 yards or how far you’re away from the goal line," says Buffalo head coach CHAN GAILEY. "You never want to discount a guy that can have that kind of impact on a game, especially in today’s game because we’re a game of big plays.
"We’re going to ask him to do a lot. He’s going to have to be very involved in the offense this year."
Spiller is certainly on board with Gailey’s approach.
"I can split out wide," says Spiller. "I can do the return game and run the ball. I think the more a running back can do the more value he has and the more advantages he has against the defense."
UNDRAFTED WR ON CRUZ CONTROL: In the first football game ever played at New Meadowlands Stadium, New York Giants undrafted rookie wide receiver VICTOR CRUZ stole the spotlight in front of a national TV audience.
Facing the New York Jets on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, Cruz caught six passes for 145 yards and scored three touchdowns.
"He’s not a longshot any more," says Giants quarterback JIM SORGI about the undrafted rookie free agent out of Massachusetts. "He’s definitely an NFL player. He’s a guy that’s going to make plays for you. He knows what he’s doing on the field. He’s smart. He runs great routes and he just gets open. You’ve got certain guys in the NFL that just have a knack for getting open, and he’s one of those guys."
Cruz, who hails from nearby Paterson, New Jersey, grew up a Giants fan.
"I got a chance to show what I can do and just show that I’m a pretty good player," says Cruz, who leads the NFL with 251 receiving yards and four touchdowns in the preseason. "It’s definitely a surreal feeling. Growing up watching the Giants, seeing blue all my life, I feel like I’m dreaming.
"I came here just wanting to work hard and I have worked hard all camp. I wanted to come in here and show what I could do on the main stage."
After Cruz’s debut performance, Giants head coach TOM COUGHLIN praised the rookie wide receiver who originally had been just an invite to the team’s rookie camp.
"Justice has been served," exclaimed Coughlin. "That young man Victor Cruz really has had an outstanding camp. He works his tail off every day. He’s made a lot of plays."
GRONKOWSKI CATCHING ON: Patriots rookie tight end ROB GRONKOWSKI has showcased his versatility in New England’s offensive system so far this preseason.
"I like this offense a lot," says Gronkowski. "I like blocking. I like receiving. That’s what they’ve got me doing. It’s a fun offense. I’m really enjoying it."
A second-round pick (No. 42 overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft from Arizona, Gronkowski ranks second in the NFL this preseason with three touchdown receptions.
"He’s such a big kid, and it’s hard to tackle him because he’s so strong," said Patriots quarterback TOM BRADY after Gronkowski’s two-touchdown performance against the St. Louis Rams in Week 3 of the preseason.
At 6-6, 265 pounds, Gronkowski uses his imposing size to present problems against opposing defenders.
"He’s big, he plays big and he has a big frame," says Patriots head coach BILL BELICHICK. "A lot of times he just boxes them out and they stuff it in there to him and he’s just a hard guy to cover."
SIMPLY BEST: Detroit Lions running back JAHVID BEST, the team’s second first-round pick (No. 30) in the 2010 NFL Draft, has been one of the most electric players in the NFL this preseason.
In just six offensive series, Best has rushed for 129 yards on 15 carries (8.6 average) and caught four passes for 49 yards. In Detroit’s Week 3 contest against the Cleveland Browns, Best set the tone early with a 51-yard run on the Lions’ first offensive play.
"He’s a pretty good player," says head coach JIM SCHWARTZ about his rookie running back from California. "And he hasn’t blinked at all the things we’ve put on his plate.
"It’s a lot of different stuff, playing running back, wide receiver and being the Wildcat quarterback. He understands things. We knew he was smart and a quick study, but he’s been very impressive when it comes to all the different things other than just running the ball."
With the regular season right around the corner, the Lions have high hopes for Best.
"Jahvid’s a great addition for us," says Detroit quarterback MATTHEW STAFFORD. "Not only is he a great runner, but he’s very valuable in the passing game because you can get him isolated on a linebacker and he’s got great instincts as a receiver. We’ve got a lot of talented receivers, and he gives us another one."
For Best, he knows what is expected of him and his role in the offense.
"My main goal is to be assignment-perfect," says Best. "I want to make sure I do the right things on every play. The rest will come."
ATKINS MAKING AN IMPACT: Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle GENO ATKINS, the club’s fourth-round pick (No. 120 overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft has been a success this preseason for the defending AFC North champions.
"Geno has come in and been very productive in his opportunities," says Bengals head coach MARVIN LEWIS. "He just goes about his business, does what you ask him to do, and gets things done."
The 6-1, 293-pound rookie leads the NFL with 4.5 sacks this preseason. He has impressed by being equally adept at rushing the passer and defending the run.
"He just takes to doing everything you ask him to do and has been able to just do the things a good player does," says Cincinnati defensive line coach JAY HAYES. "He’s good at keeping his pads level and for the most part has his hands in the right spot."
Atkins’ transition to the NFL has been eased by his father GENE, who played 10 years (1987-1996) in the league as a safety with the New Orleans Saints (1987-93) and Miami Dolphins (1994-96).
"Stay in the playbook and work hard," says Geno Atkins on the advice his father passed along. "I’ve just been working hard in practice and concentrating on the little things. I just try to go out there and create havoc."