Touch base with them again after their first professional season, and many will indicate that their rookie seasons were not what they expected at all.
That shouldn't come as a surprise — the adjustments needed to make the transition from college star to wet-behind-the-ears rookie are numerous, and extend far beyond the fact that professional players are bigger and stronger and faster.
That state of surprise carried through the entire season for rookie safety Mike Hamlin. The former Clemson University star arrived at Valley Ranch expecting to challenge for playing time at free safety or strong safety, or perhaps both. He was one of the encouraging surprises in mini-camps and training camp, making numerous plays on the ball and drawing praise from head coach Wade Phillips and teammates alike.
Then, before his rookie season really got underway, his progress was derailed when Hamlin broke his wrist in the Cowboys' exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers.
"It was a freak accident," Hamlin said. "It got caught up under somebody's knee, or shoulder pads, or something like that."
All of a sudden, the rookie some felt could spell starting free safety Ken Hamlin or strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh found himself relegated to the role of inactive observer.
"You can learn a good little bit," he said of his new role. "(Not playing is) kind of hard, but it's a learning experience. All you can do is sit back and watch. As you watch, you'll see stuff happen, and you'll figure stuff out. But once you get in, it's like, ‘OK, when I watched it, I could sort of read everything, but now that I'm in, it's kind of hard.' It's kind of a double-whammy — it's good watching, but once you get get back on the field and start to practice what you learned, that's when the real improvement comes in."
When he returned to the field, Hamlin worked mostly at strong safety in practice, but the majority of his duties during games was on special teams. He said much of his growth during the season can be attributed to the assistance he got from Sensabaugh — who, ironically might leave town this offseason via free agency, creating a void at the starting strong safety spot for which Hamlin theoretically could compete.
"I hope so," Hamlin said. "I'm going to work hard this offseason, just to do whatever I can to put myself in that position."
Hamlin admitted to feeling awkward even discussing the possibility of replacing Sensabaugh, who helped mentor Hamlin through his first professional season.
"Gerald probably had the biggest influence on me, because he always talked me through stuff," Hamlin said. "We play the same position, but if I make a mistake, he always talked me through it. It could be something in practice, in meetings … whatever. When we're watching film, he'd say ‘look for this' or ‘did the tight end do that?' he was the one who always gave me the extra feedback that I needed."
Last week's blowout loss to the Minnesota brought to a sudden end a season in which many felt Hamlin and his team had a chance to reach the sport's ultimate game. The fact that he's now a professional does nothing to ease the pain of a season that ends with a loss.
"It's pretty much the same thing," he said. "Losing a playoff game is a little worse (than losing a bowl game), because you have a chance to continue. A bowl game is your last game, and you know that going in, but when you have a chance to advance, like you do in a playoff game, and don't do it … it hurts."
Now Hamlin faces his first offseason as an NFL veteran — a hiatus that started with Friday's funeral for former Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams, Hamlin's teammate at Clemson.
"I played with him for two years (at Clemson)," Hamlin said of Adams. "That's basically who I stayed with my first summer there. He was a great player, but that's not what you think about. He played hard, and he worked hard. A lot of people are going to miss him — I do."
Following Adams' funeral, Hamlin said he plans to go home to Lamar, S.C., "for a week or two" in order to see family and friends, before beginning his offseason workouts.
Hamlin said he'll begin "just light workouts, and I'll be back at it, full throttle, Feb. 15 or 16 — something like that."
But he added that now that he has a year under his belt, and a better understanding of what it takes to be a successful professional, he's eager to get back to work.
"I thought it was kind of bumpy, but it smoothed out toward the end," he said of his rookie season. "I know I started out feeling good, but then I broke my wrist, and it kind of set me back a little bit, and made me look at things from a different perspective. I had to go from being active and playing, to just sitting and learning. It was a learning experience. I got to learn more about the game, rather than learning something and going right out there and trying to put it to work. I just had to sit back and learn, so when I got back, it was kind of hard, at first, because with the wrist situation, I was kind of scared of it — I really didn't want to do too much.
"But as I started playing more, I felt like I got used to it, and learned my role. Now I'm ready to build on that."
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