Nate Burleson was drafted in the third round in 2003 with the tag from the Vikings as being the most polished receiver entering the draft. The team believed he could step in and contribute right away.
To a degree, Burleson did. He didn't have the eye-popping numbers of some rookie wide receivers who enter the league and put in immediate Pro Bowl numbers, i.e. Anquan Boldin in Arizona.
He admitted that he came into camps last year and basically acted like the rookie he was. This year, however, things have been feeling a little different.
"This year, there's more comfortability. I'm really kind of content with knowing the playbook," Burleson said. "Last year at this time, I really didn't know what was going on. Day in and day out it was really a struggle for me to learn all the new plays coming from a college system where everything was pretty easy and pretty simple. Now I feel that the playbook is pretty simple to me and I can just go out there and I'm not thinking at the last minute what I need to do — I know it as soon as I hear a play called in the huddle."
It's a typical rookie response in minicamps, the Oh my gosh, I'm in the pros … and look, there's a superstar and there's a superstar … and how many plays am I supposed to know. Some rookies talk about the size and speed of the players being so much better than at the college level. But what overwhelms many is the size of the playbook and the speed of the game.
That was Burleson last year, when he caught 29 passes for 455 yards. He did start nine games, the most by a rookie since Moss' rookie season of 1998. He led the NCAA in receptions per game (11.5) and yards per game (135.8) as a senior, but duplicating those numbers in the NFL has become a task.
"The mental side is (more complicated). Actually, the speed and strength of the game is fairly the same," he told VU at last weekend's minicamp. "You're going to have athletes at both levels. Just adjusting to learning new plays every day is the hardest thing. If you can adjust to that quickly, you can really advance as a young player in this league.
"I think I'm going to make my presence a little bit more known. I'm going to allow myself to be open more. That's just having confidence. Last year I was a little nervous, figuring the game out and going against some of the big-name defenses. This year I'm a little more relaxed and a little more excited to go out there and prove to teams that you can't sleep on everybody except Moss. You can't just focus on one guy and let everybody else play one-on-one. I'm looking forward to the one-on-one coverage this year."
Exploiting one-on-one coverage is a statement that free-agent wide receiver Marcus Robinson reiterated during early camps as well. Robinson will be the No. 2 receiver opposite Randy Moss, while Burleson will be working mostly in the slot during three-receiver formations.
If it weren't for the acquisition of Robinson after the failed Derrick Alexander experiment the last two seasons, Burleson might have been on the field for most downs. As it stands, Robinson will be given that first opportunity when healthy.
"Marcus is a great wide receiver and he's going to touch the ball, and that's going to be great for our team," Burleson said. "But also with him there and Moss and me being in the slot, that's going to allow me to go up against safeties and some linebackers and really just take advantage of that one-on-one coverage. You're not going to be able to roll coverages to both sides of the field with Marcus and Moss and leave me or Keenan Howry or Kelly Campbell one-and-one."
One Vikings scout said he thought Burleson looked "more fluid" in last weekend's minicamp. While Burleson feels like he has gotten bigger and stronger since he first stepped on the Vikings' practice field last spring, his experience is what he hopes will help him exceed last year's numbers.
"Being young and trying to learn all three wide receiver positions fresh out of college was pretty hard for me," he said. "It was just a lot of nervousness, and I really didn't know how to handle it and it showed in my play. There was a little bit of hesitation. Now it's just fun to go out here and play ball and make plays. I feel a lot stronger, a lot faster and a lot more confident."
Is This Burleson's Breakout Year?
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