With the Bills and Giants already on the field for fall camp—and the rest of the league reporting by the end of this week—it’s time for the real competition (and the hitting) to begin across the NFL.
But are the rookies ready to battle for jobs, autograph their performance with each rep and push through the daily grind of a pro camp?
Today, let’s discuss training camp from the perspective of the rookies, with a focus on some basics that can help these first-year players survive while attempting to win a job on an NFL roster.
Soft Toilet Paper and More Training Camp Essentials
When I reported for my first camp as a rookie with the Rams in 2000 at Western Illinois University, I packed light and brought some basic stuff to my dorm room.
Without a car, I flew from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to St. Louis, boarded a bus and settled in for the ride up to Macomb, Illinois, with my old man's duffel bag full of random clothes, socks, a shaving kit and some books.
I picked up my playbook when I checked into the dorms and slept on an uncomfortable twin bed with a pillow that wouldn’t pass in some state prisons.
It was similar to the first day of school once you check in and get your key and a detailed schedule of every meeting and practice time.
Rookies don’t have to be like the 10-year vet who carries in a 50-inch flat screen, a mattress, fridge, Xbox, etc.
Remember, this isn’t resort-style living when you are on a team that actually practices off-site (the best way to build a football team, in my opinion). However, you have to bring the essentials to make it through four weeks away from the comforts of your apartment or condo back by the team facility.
I’m talking about soft toilet paper (that stuff in the dorms is a nightmare), blankets, a fan, a legitimate pillow, two pairs of comfortable sandals (your feet take a beating in camp), a razor (clean up every once in a while), a roll of Kodiak or Skoal (if you chew tobacco), etc.
And stock up on that stuff—because you won’t have time to run to Walmart or Target when your days are filled with practice, lifting, walkthroughs, meals in the chow hall and meetings that run late into the night.
Plus, don’t forget something that allows you to take a mental break. You need that as a rookie with the amount of time spent in meetings watching tape and going through install.
Maybe that’s a couple of books, movies, a computer, an iPad. Find some time before you go to bed to relax—because you will forget what day of the week it is once camp starts.
And call your mom when you get a chance. She misses you.
Pass the Conditioning Test
There is no excuse for failing the conditioning test when you report for camp.
The coaching staff expects you to report in prime football shape, and a 300-yard shuttle test (three reps of 12-by-25 yards or six-by-50 yards) shouldn’t be an issue before you get on the field for the first practice.
Yeah, it hurts, and there could be rookies throwing up when this thing is over. But if you’ve trained for the test over the summer months (and kept your weight down), this should be viewed as just another workout.
Here’s a look at the test when I ran versus Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch three years ago at Levar Woods’ football camp in Okoboji, Iowa.
As you can see, when you don’t train for the test (or the change of direction), that bear can jump on your back quickly…
KVB whipped my butt.
For rookies, the last thing you want to do is give the coaches a reason to question your work ethic or professional approach to football by failing to meet the required times in a test that you’ve known about since the start of the offseason program.
The test is old school and doesn’t really tell us much about the actual game on the field. But as a rook, you can’t fail. You just can’t.
Show the coaches (and the vets) you are ready to compete.
The 'Welcome to the NFL' Moment
Every rookie has that moment when doubt can creep in or reality hits versus veteran competition.
For me, it was a joint practice session in Macomb versus Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans during the afternoon heat in the second practice of the day.
I got some reps with the first unit and lined up at safety during a nine-on-seven inside run drill versus a backfield of Eddie George and Lorenzo Neal in an offset I formation.
That’s a lot of size and power in the backfield.
With Steve McNair calling the cadence at the line of scrimmage, I started leaning forward in a quarters alignment (eight yards off the ball) and came straight downhill versus a Lead Strong (fullback leads through the hole).
By the time I realized what had actually happened, I was on the ground (and seeing stars) after Neal planted me in the hole with a shot right under the chin.
At that point, I realized I wasn’t back at Iowa playing in a game versus Indiana or Purdue, where I could run around blocks, chop down fullbacks or use poor technique/leverage and still produce.
Nah, this was no joke—and the hitting was nasty.
A couple of plays later, I threw my shoulder into George on a Counter OF, and the guy didn’t even break stride.
An arm tackle versus a young Eddie George? Forget about it.
For this year’s rookie class, the moment could be a deep ball over the head of a safety, an offensive tackle getting worked over during a one-on-one pass rush or a quarterback throwing a lazy ball on the deep comeback versus a veteran corner who steps in front to take it back to the house.
However, every rookie needs to experience one (or more) of these moments to knock them down a bit and remind them that this isn’t going to be an easy transition versus true pros.
Embrace the moment and learn something—because it’s coming.
Find a Mentor (and Copy Everything He Does)
Everything is new and challenging in the NFL.
And that’s even more of a reason to find a veteran mentor you can follow to learn how to practice, recover and act like a pro.
As I said earlier this summer when writing about the rookie symposium, I followed Rams veteran cornerback Todd Lyght during my first camp. I watched how Todd handled himself on the field, in the weight room, during meetings and with his ability to manage his body.
Remember, these vets get it. There is a reason they use the cold tub (or garbage cans filled with water and ice) after practice, lean on a stretching program, maintain their strength/flexibility in the weight room and manage their diet at the training table during camp.
Rookies need to study the vets who have shown the ability to produce (and last) in the NFL, because it consists of much more than just talent.
This stuff is hard to do on your own. Find a vet you trust, and follow his lead.
Stay out of the Training Room
The old saying “You can’t make the club in the tub” is, well, very real.
I understand there are serious injuries that occur on the field which prevent guys from competing during camp, but if you are working through some minor bumps and bruises, then find a way to push through the day.
As a rookie, you can’t miss practice time and expect to become a major part of the game plan or make the squad.
There is no question your legs will get heavy, your muscles will ache and that headache from full gear sessions will linger for days. But you can’t take time off in the NFL and expect the coaching staff to trust your ability to answer the bell.
I will talk about the value of preseason reps at a later point during camp, but in order to get those reps under the lights in August, rookies have to showcase their talent on the practice field when the tape is rolling.
Lying on the training room table with a sore ankle just isn’t going to get it done, because when you miss practice, there is someone taking your reps and using them to audition for the coaching staff.
Everyone is banged up and sore after a couple of practices in pads. Rookies have to learn how to manage the pain and stay on the practice field.
Show the Veterans Some Respect
“Rookie hazing” has taken a back seat in today’s game compared to when I came into the league. Gone are the days when rookies were taped to the goalposts (and left out there until someone came back to cut them down).
However, when a vet asks you to do something simple like carry his pads after practice or go out and buy a 30-pack of Budweiser when the head coach gives the team a night off, then do it.
This is all about respect—and the vets deserve it.
Rookies should be confident and willing to challenge the veterans with each rep on the practice field. Plus, there is nothing wrong with letting the vets know that you are coming for their job with your ability to produce during practice.
But the last thing an established veteran wants to see is some arrogant rookie acting like he is already a Pro Bowl talent before he even takes a real snap in the league. Those rookies are targeted (often) when the pads go on.
Show the vets you can play on the field, and earn their respect as a rookie. That should be the goal.
The Speed and Physicality of Camp
Throughout the offseason, I talked about the transition process for these rookies through OTAs, minicamps and coaching sessions on the field.
It’s tough on rooks to learn a new system, techniques or coaching styles while trying to process the terminology and the depth of an NFL playbook.
And now the speed on the field is going to take a major step forward with teams putting on full gear. Rookies are going to get beat, knocked down or even flat-out whipped until they adapt to pro-level speed and physicality.
That should be expected.
I couldn’t believe the tempo that Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Az Hakim, Torry Holt, etc., showed on the practice field back in Macomb to open up camp under Mike Martz.
I got beat quite a bit during that first week of camp while I tried to manage the heat and adjustments to our defensive scheme versus the multiple offenses of Martz and the Greatest Show on Turf. Everything was faster, and the hitting was much more physical than anything I had experienced playing in the Big Ten.
That took time (and reps) for me to adapt to the pro game. And this year’s class will be no different when it gets on the field for that first week of practice sessions.
Think about it this way: Rookies can struggle early in camp. But how do they respond? Can they make the proper technique adjustments? And will the game slow down for them eventually so they can play at the necessary level to produce?
Again, this is a process for rookies. Let's see how they progress during camp and who can make the jump when the pads go on.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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