NFL teams in recent camps — with exhaustive scouting and drafting complete — gained a first hands-on, up-close look at their rookies. Those initial moments can generate utter ecstasy or grave anxiety.
NFL coaches past and current will tell you there is nothing more vexing that plopping a rookie in their system for the first time and walking off the field worrying, "What in the heck have we done? This guy can’t play!"
It happens. It is a dreadful feeling.
New York Jets coaches told me in 2008 after the Jets used their first-round pick, No. 6 overall, to select defensive end Vernon Gholston that they knew there were issues and buyer’s remorse after his first handful of practices. Gholston lasted three inconsistent seasons with the Jets. Philadelphia Eagles coaches said the same about defensive end/linebacker Mike Mamula, who in 1995 was selected in the first round, No. 7 overall, and lasted five bumpy Eagles seasons.
It happens. Teams scout and select and surmise one thing and quickly upon arrival in practices, in the classroom, and in the locker room fret that they have something else.
Chicago Bears head coach John Fox said that was not the case with the practice debut of rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Fox said Trubisky "had a great camp." Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer offered on rookie running back Dalvin Cook: "He showed acceleration, good feet, good vision, a lot of the same things we saw on tape."
The draft’s No. 1 pick, defensive end Myles Garrett, strolled into the Cleveland Browns’ den and turned heads and raised eyebrows when he said that Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith told Garrett he was slow off the ball.
Not the type of stuff you want to hear about the top pick. Fortunately for the Browns, head coach Hue Jackson did not label Garrett a bust after initial workouts.
"He’s athletic, fast, big, fun," Jackson said. "He has to earn the right to be what we think he can be. He’s got to put his head down and work."
Bruce Smith heard the furor over his analysis.
Smith delivered a more comprehensive examination in a Tuesday morning phone interview.
He said Garrett’s mother, Audrey, is from the Hampton Roads area near Smith’s home. He said she reached out to him via the NFLPA to counsel her son.
So, Smith traveled to the Garrett home in Arlington, Texas, on draft day.
"I met a quality young man," Smith said. "He had a thirst for knowledge. He was like a sponge. We studied film for about an hour and a half. I could see that he is ready to play in the National Football League from a simple playing perspective. The conditioning, nutrition, proper study habits, those things must come. But nobody, I mean nobody, comes into the league being a polished pro. It takes a year or two and sometimes longer. But the ones that develop faster make a quicker impact and more meaningful contribution to the team and its success.
"To that end, where I tried to give him meaningful advice, I said he was slow off the ball at times, and what I meant by that term is you have to come off that edge in simultaneous movement with the ball. The word slow is not as important as saying he is a little late, a little hesitant at times at the snap. I encouraged him to use that advantage where he knows tendencies, he knows formations and he has the ability to get a quicker jump, especially playing in his own stadium when the crowd noise makes it difficult for the offense to hear signals. A fraction of a second can make a difference in getting a quality hit on the quarterback. And we know that maybe the most valuable play for a defense is the sack/fumble."
Smith said Garrett "has a bright future."
And he thinks his pairing with Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Jackson, one of Smith’s former NFL coaches, places Garrett in a good place.
Smith said he gave Garrett more important advice than seeking an increased burst off the edge.
In 1985, Smith was the draft’s No. 1 overall pick. The Buffalo Bills in the season prior were 2-14. The Browns last season were 1-15.
"He is going into a similar situation, the first player picked, a team statistically the worst in the league," Smith said. "Big shoes to fill. He needs to hit the ground running but not ignore the process. There are going to be frustrations. There are going to be times he needs to talk to someone with experience who can help in his ability to grow. That type of maturity must take place each and every day and in it he must become more confident each and every day. I understand he will be spending most of his time in Cleveland this offseason. That is smart. Get acclimated to the job."
When Garrett’s name was called on draft night, Smith was in the room and saw the joy and relief of the entire Garrett family. It reminded him of 1985, that wondrous feeling of a dream fulfilled with realization that it is only a beginning.
"These young players have access to so much, and that’s great," Smith said. "When I came out, football was not necessarily a year-round job. Look at the weight rooms today, the nutrition programs, the tablets and technology they use now. We had projectors. But these young men still have to work. I know the safety of the game is important, but putting on pads and hitting is a necessary evil and if you don’t, the quality of the game, the execution and fundamentals are compromised.
“The NFL should use former players and Hall of Famers more. It is our duty to help these young men. There are invaluable lessons to be taught. I wish I had a Deacon Jones in my first or second year in the league. I hope the time spent with Myles will help him become an impact player faster in the league."
Slow motion has its place in the NFL learning curve.
But the Browns urgently need rapid contributions from Garrett that endure.