When he was head coach of the Buffalo Bills, general manager Marv Levy used to refer to rookies as "coach killers." Very few started for him in their first year, running back Thurman Thomas, linebacker Shane Conlan and guard Ruben Brown among the exceptions.
Clearly, Levy's thinking has changed.
The first four players the Bills selected in the college draft this off-season were underclassmen and all four will be expected to contribute as rookies as Buffalo rebuilds with youth.
Because of free agency, NFL teams no longer have the luxury of providing long developmental periods for their draft picks. Levy understands that.
"I don't think it precludes them from coming in and playing," he said of his underclassmen. "Another year of experience would've been helpful. Maybe if you asked the question five or six years ago, I might have responded more in the vein, 'Gee, that's right.' But I was right then and I'm right now; I guess they don't have to be that old once they've reached a certain age of development. I've seen it basketball with some great stars coming out."
While it remains to be seen how Buffalo's underclassmen compete physically against NFL competition, they should have no problem handling the mental pressure of performing before big crowds.
Each played at a major college with Whitner and Yobouty starring at powerhouse Ohio State where the home crowds were 105,000 each Saturday. Youboty said the competition in practice prepared him well for the NFL.
"This season I practiced against two of the top receivers in the NCAA (Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr.)," Youboty said. "Going back to my freshman year, I played against (Atlanta Falcon and former Buckeye) Mike Jenkins, (ex-Michigan star and current Cleveland Browns receiver) Braylon Edwards, all the guys that are playing in the league right now. I think Ohio State has prepared me for (the NFL) and I'm looking forward to getting better and helping the team."
Simpson played at South Carolina, which is also known for its rabid fan support. And like the Big Ten, the SEC is a regular pipeline for NFL talent.
"I think it prepared me well," Simpson said. "I played in one of the best conferences in college football and we practiced against good players every day. I hope that translates to the next level.
"I felt I made the right decision (declaring for the NFL draft) and I'm going to prove it," Simpson added.
--The Bills added a punter to give Pro Bowler Brian Moorman's golden leg a break during the long days of training camp, signing free agent Joshua Brazen. He was a three-year starter at Kent State where he ranks second in career average at 41.2 yards. He is a native of Ada, Ohio.
--After scrimmaging the Browns or Packers during the past several training camps, the Bills will be keeping to themselves this summer. New coach Dick Jauron isn't a fan of traveling beyond the two scheduled road preseason games during camp and scrimmaging usually takes a reciprocal agreement. "Camp compared to what it was years ago is relatively short," Jauron said. "I like the fact of keeping our guys together in one spot and staying focused on ourselves. You really don't mind sometimes when another team comes to you but I'm not inclined to go visit anyone else and it's hard to find that kind of relationship every year. I'm comfortable with just keeping our guys and working our own stuff to get ready."
--QB Kliff Kingsbury, Buffalo's fourth QB heading into camp, is a football mercenary. This is his fifth NFL team in four years following stints with New England, New Orleans, Denver and the New York Jets. Kingsbury was a late edition to the Bills roster after Craig Ochs was injured in NFL Europe. "I've been in this situation before, you just have to buckle down and learn as much as you can and hope it translates on the field," he said of learning a new offense on the fly.
--OT Brad Butler, 6-7, thinks his background on the basketball court has helped him on the football field. Then again, all the sports he's tried have played a role. "I played a variety of sports in high school," he said. "Baseball helped my eye-hand coordination, I played basketball, ran indoor track, played indoor soccer. Whatever sports you play when you're younger it helps different aspects for whatever game you settle on playing."
--Jauron continues to insist he doesn't have any buyer's remorse when it comes to the draft. The Bills passed over former Heisman Trophy winning QB Matt Leinart for Ohio State SS Donte Whitner with the No. 8 overall pick. Jauron said the team is content to stage a three-way battle for its starting quarterback between J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall. "We went into it (the draft) feeling like we have our guy here and he has to surface from these three," Jauron said. "It's going to be a battle, it's going to be a contest. They'll compete. Hopefully they'll push each other. One will elevate his play and he'll play to the level we need from the quarterback for us to have a chance to win."
"This is a lot better. I like Cleveland but I don't want to be here all of my life. I'd rather go somewhere different to play football. I know the Bills have a great organization up there and I'm looking forward to getting up there and winning some games. Whenever there is a new head coach, everybody in on an even playing field. There are no favorites. I expect to be able to come in and compete right away." - Bills No. 1 pick Donte Whitner, a Cleveland native who played at Ohio State, talking about whether he hoped his hometown Browns would draft him.
Veteran CB Nate Clements, who was retained as Buffalo's franchise player, will earn $7.2 million this season on a one-year contract. And in Buffalo's new "Tampa Bay" scheme, he'll be earning every dime.
Cover 2, in which there is safety help over the top, is the base coverage Buffalo will employ and in theory the Bills could get by with a less costly and accomplished player than Clements.
But defensive coordinator Perry Fewell doesn't want to be limited in his calls and Clements, who already has 20 career interceptions, will be asked to play his share of man to man.
Buying that kind of flexibility doesn't come cheaply but the Bills feel the short-term investment in Clements is worth it. They still hope to sign him to a long-term deal.
"I talked to the coaches during the off-season and they've assured me this defense is very simple," Clements said.
"I feel with my ability I can fit into any scheme. I'm not limited to cover 2 or zone, I feel I can play it all. Cover one, fire zone, blitz, whatever."
Manny Wright is getting a long look at nose tackle as a potential replacement for the aging Keith Traylor. The 6-6 Wright played Miami's other interior defensive tackle position for most of his rookie season.
"I've been doing it for almost two months three months now, playing at (nose tackle) and zeroing in on that one position instead of moving me around like last year," Wright said at Miami's recent minicamp. "I'm getting real comfortable with it.
"Me and Keith's game are two different games because I'm a little faster. Keith has been here. He knows a lot. I take things from here all the time."
A 2005 supplemental fifth-round draft choice from Southern California, Wright showed tremendous potential at times as a rookie when receiving extensive playing time late in the season. But he also battled weight issues and maturity issues, with the low point coming when Wright cried on the practice field during training camp after being verbally undressed by Dolphins coach Nick Saban.
Wright weighed 343 pounds at the team's minicamp earlier this month, which is roughly 15 heavier than when the 2005 season ended,
"I feel better than I did last year," said Wright, who was forced to turn pro last year after failing to qualify academically to play for the Trojans in 2005. "I didn't work out at all last year (in the offseason). I'm in better condition and better shape. I feel I'm a step ahead. I know what's about to happen and I'm taking the proper precaution this time."
Wright, who is one of Miami's youngest players, said Miami's coaches weren't happy that he reported to off-season workouts overweight, especially considering how much that issue was emphasized during his rookie campaign. Wright, though, has tried to make amends by working out on Saturdays along with Miami's usual weekly routine.
"Anybody who is overweight is a concern, but it is what it is," Saban said. "We put him on a diet, we do what he needs to do, we run him extra ... He's made some progress. He knows he needs to lose weight. But that's a part of the maturity of a player knowing what it takes to be successful."
Said defensive lineman Kevin Carter: "(Wright) has a very good opportunity. We all want him to do well. He's part of our team. But consistency is not the easiest thing to achieve in the NFL. You've got to come in and do it every practice, every time you come out there on the field. That's a hard thing to do. Mental toughness over time is the kind of thing that we'll have to see from him."
--Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller reportedly attended the pre-draft workout of Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who is entered in the July 13 supplemental draft after being banished from the Cavaliers' program. Brooks could draw strong consideration as a pass-rushing outside linebacker, which is an area the Dolphins didn't strongly address in the offseason.
--The Dolphins have hired Ron Brockington as a scout focusing on the Southwest U.S. Brockington spent the last nine years in the personnel department of the New York Jets, including the seven as a scout.
Brockington replaces Johnathon Stigall, who left for a scouting position with Philadelphia.
--Former Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler had a workout last week with Tampa Bay. Fiedler, who started in Miami from 2000 to 2004, spent almost all of last season on injured reserve with the New York Jets because of a shoulder injury.
"This is a whole new year. What we did last year means nothing now. We won six (consecutive) games, but after the New Year I was home watching everybody else. ... You can't lean on what you did last year. You can learn from it and take some confidence from it that the system works." - Dolphins defensive end/linebacker Jason Taylor.
Changes to the Patriots roster could have a major impact on how the team fares in their hunt for a fourth consecutive division title. The departures of David Givens, Willie McGinest and Adam Vinatieri have forced the team to adjust it's approach to the offseason.
Receiver David Givens left via free agency:
Ever since 2002, his first full season as a starter, the Patriots have opened up their offense and have ridden QB Tom Brady's strong right arm. Opting not to pay top dollar for Givens, especially with No. 1 receiver Deion Branch headed for a contract squabble, was a predictable development. However, it does diminish Brady's arsenal, especially come playoff time. Givens caught a touchdown pass in his last seven playoff games for the Patriots.
With Branch holding out of minicamp, the receiving corps was a shell of its former self. The good news is that second-round rookie Chad Jackson looks like a keeper. The bad news is that no one knows for sure whether free agent Reche Caldwell can be any more than the part-timer that he was in San Diego.
The departure of Adam Vinatieri via free agency:
For a team that has relied so heavily on winning the close ones over the past five seasons -- including playoffs, the Patriots are 29-8 over that span in games decided by seven or fewer points -- losing a clutch, big-game kicker like Vinatieri is a major blow. Remember, the Patriots have won each of their three Super Bowls by three points.
The two would-be replacements come from different ends of the spectrum. There's rookie fifth-round pick Stephen Gostkowski and 30-year-old veteran Martin Gramatica, whose promising career was sidetracked by injuries. Gramatica hasn't attempted an NFL field goal since he was released by Tampa Bay midway through the 2004 season. He was out of the NFL last year. In the recent minicamp, Gostkowski (6-1, 212 pounds) seemed to have a stronger leg than Gramatica (5-8, 170), but the competition won't begin in earnest until training camp.
The departure of Willie McGinest via free agency:
McGinest was a stalwart on the Patriots Defense for the last twelve seasons. A defensive end in college, McGinest made the transition to outside linebacker early in his career and has thrived from the change. His size and speed have enabled him to set the NFL postseason career sack record at 16, surpassing Bruce Smith (14.5) and Reggie White (12). Key sacks in the postseason have only been part of McGinest's contributions to the team, but likely will be one of the biggest contributions missed by the former first-round pick.
The team's solution to replace McGinest with Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel may be sufficient on the outside. Both players have demonstrated the ability to create pressure on the corners while also containing the run. Moving Vrabel back to the outside opens up a void on the Patriots interior where they had trouble defending the run last season. Monty Beisel is slated to move back to the inside role he worked on last year alongside Tedy Bruschi. The real test for the team will be stopping the run with Beisel in the lineup. The rush defense ranked near bottom in the league (27th overall) before Brushi's return.
--Third-year tight end Benjamin Watson was Tom Brady's favorite target throughout the team's three-day June mini-camp. After missing most of his rookie season with a knee injury in 2004 the former first-round pick caught 29 passes for 441 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Brady has already said he expects a breakout season from his ultra-athletic tight end, and if the recent camp action is any indication the duo is already building a very strong relationship heading into the new season.
"It's one of those things where you have to spend time with him," Watson said of his ever improving relationship with his two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback. "He has to have confidence in you that you are going to be where he wants you to be. Tom knows where everybody is supposed to be at all times. If he expects you to be somewhere you better be there if you want the ball. So I'm just getting used to doing those things."
--Confident Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs might be just a year removed from his own rookie status, but that hasn't stopped him from sharing some pretty pointed thoughts on rookies with New England's 2006 crop of newcomers.
"I told the rookies that right now you do not play for us, you practice for us," Hobbs said. "Nobody has gotten into a jersey. Nobody has stepped on the real game field for us so they don't know what it's like.
--The Patriots waived a pair of rookie free agents just after the completion of the team's mandatory mini-camp on June 16, parting ways with defensive lineman Remi Ayodele and wide receiver Jakari Wallace. Interestingly, the two players got their walking papers not long after Bill Belichick said in a press conference that mini-camp action was about teaching, not evaluation, and that it would be hard to lose a job wearing shorts in June.
"I guess if it was bad enough you probably could (lose a job)," Belichick said. "To me, the real competition starts in training camp."
--The Disney move "The Game Plan", staring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, that was supposed to start filming at Gillette Stadium this week has been postponed after Johnson ruptured his Achilles tendon preparing for his role in film. In the movie Johnson plays the beloved quarterback of a football team, although no league or Patriots logos will actually be used in the film because the studio couldn't reach a deal with the NFL, who suddenly finds himself caring for a seven-year-old daughter he didn't even know existed.
The delay in filming, scheduled to take place at both Gillette Stadium and Boston College's Alumni Stadium, could throw a wrench in the production schedule as the professional and college football seasons get underway. Disney hopes to get the project going again sometime this fall after Johnson rehabs from surgery to repair the rupture and filming could take place in late October when the Patriots have a bye week and two consecutive road games that would free up Gillette for a taste of Hollywood glitter. The Patriots have already said they will work to accommodate the rescheduled filming, and the former WWE star of movie vows to make a quick recovery to get back into action.
"I know many people of this city depended on this movie for work," Johnson said in a statement, "and I promise that after surgery, I'll work my butt off in rehab to make this movie happen and make this city proud."
"If I give you that information I got to whack you. That's top secret stuff." - RB Corey Dillon when asked what he'd done differently in workouts this offseason in an effort to improve on a disappointing, injury-slowed 2005 campaign.
It's rare for teams to begin the season with two rookie starters on the offensive line -- especially at such pivotal positions as center and left tackle -- but in the long run, it's a situation that could work out well for the New York Jets.
First-round pick D'Brickashaw Ferguson -- selected fourth overall -- was slated to start on the left side the second he was drafted. But the Jets had planned to play veteran Trey Teague, signed as an unrestricted free agent, at center while rookie Nick Mangold developed over the next few seasons.
Now that Teague is sidelined through training camp and possibly the start of the season with a broken ankle, Mangold, picked late in the first round, has been thrust into a starting role sooner than expected.
Inexperienced, yes, but both players were graded the best at their positions going into the draft. Some scouts even rated Ferguson and Mangold the top two offensive lineman in the draft overall. While both are getting an early start to their careers, the two are expected to anchor the line for years to come.
"I like their progress, both guys are working as hard as they can," coach Eric Mangini said. "But at the end of the day they're rookies."
Mangold, a superior blocker technically with more athleticism than most centers, may still get bumped down the depth chart once Teague returns. Signed as a veteran presence to replace Kevin Mawae after he was let go for salary cap reasons, Teague, 31 will give the Jets re-built line some leadership as well as a tough blocker inside and the ability to make blocking calls on the line. Teague could even start the season if his rehab progresses quickly.
Teague, 31, started his career with Denver as a left tackle but spent his first three seasons hampered by injuries before starting all 16 games for the Broncos in 2001. Signing with Buffalo as a free agent before the 2002 season, Teague started 60 games over the past four seasons, proving to be a durable commodity.
--New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer intimated recently that Curtis Martin's days as a 300-carry per season are likely over. While Martin has been one of the most productive and classy players in the league over the last decade - and a sure Hall of Famer - at 33 he's at and age when running backs are in quick decline.
Martin has carried the ball at least 316 times in six of his eight seasons as a Jet, but carried the ball just 220 times last season and missed four games due to an ankle injury that required surgery. Look for the Jets to get backup Derrick Blaylock, along with Cedric Houston and rookie Leon Washington, into the mix - with one of the latter two to be groomed as Martin's successor.
"It's way too early to decipher if Curtis can do that," Schottenheimer said. "If we have four running backs we think can play, we're going to be flexible enough to play all four."
--Freeport High School in Long Island will have a rooting interest for the Jets this season and not just because the team trains in Long Island, N.Y. close to where the school is located. First round pick and starting left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson is an alum and his return to New York was celebrated by a 20-foot banner donated by the Jets that will hang at the entry of the school this year.
"There's only one home, and Freeport's it for me," Ferguson said. "This is big-time. I don't think there's anything else I can get that's as big an honor."
--New coach Eric Mangini went a little old school with the Jets during a recent minicamp. Any player who drops a pass or jumps offside is required to run a lap around the field and Mangini has also revived an old motto used by former coach Weeb Ewbank, "Green and Growing."
"What I'm looking for, with anything that we do, is to teach, to help everybody understand what we're looking for in terms of players and what we're looking for and what we're looking for organizationally. Teaching comes in a lot of different forms." - Jets coach Eric Mangini on why he has brought in several speakers to address the Jets during a recent minicamp.