The Jacksonville Jaguars ponder if rookie running back Leonard Fournette and a revitalized running game can indeed maximize quarterback Blake Bortles. The Chicago Bears wonder if rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky can blast their expectations and convince them that he instantly deserves to be their starter. The New Orleans Saints want rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore to hastily help heal a stale defense. The Dallas Cowboys need rookie defensive end Taco Charlton to do more than sell tacos from his fresh Taco Bueno restaurant endorsement deal and create a nasty edge pass rush. The Baltimore Ravens view rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey as restoration toward their old-school defensive aptitude.
On Wednesday, these five teams are the NFL’s first to open training camp.
They share the same championship goals but enter from diverse conditions.
Jacksonville was 3-13 last season, last in the AFC South. Chicago posted the same record and the same finish in the NFC North. New Orleans was 7-9, third in the NFC South and within that division chases the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.
Dallas was 13-3, won the NFC East, but lost its only playoff game at home against the Green Bay Packers. Baltimore was an 8-8 bunch that finished second in the AFC North behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only team in that division with a winning record.
For all five teams, rookies report Wednesday and veterans a few days later.
For each, the entire rookie draft class has a role to play, a spot to earn, a method to follow in blending into their new teams’ work culture, concepts, and locker rooms.
Not to mention absorbing the enormous impact of their novel, professional NFL lives.
“It’s excitement,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “A lot of optimism based on all the work that has been done since the last game played and now setting the foundation, setting the tone for what you hope to be like. I imagine every single team starting today feels this way and so do the rest that start soon.’’
NFL teams routinely open training camps with rookies reporting first. The rookies desperately need this.
Teams assess how much knowledge the rookies retained after the draft from those minicamps that followed. They assess where the rookies are in conditioning after some time off. The rookies are taught more about weight training and nutrition. More install of the playbook is given. And they are guided on the mentality of a college athlete switched to that of a pro — there is little easy about that transformation.
NFL teams have found that a player that comes from, say, Delta State University has a different exposure than a player from, say, Alabama. But the NFL goal is to mesh, merge, and mold these rookies into their fold.
Giving them a training camp head start helps.
More time is spent on the classroom in these first few days than on the field. More time is spent in life skills seminars and in player programs than on the field to help give the rookies a stronger foundation.
But there is a pure football element of anticipation and gratification for teams derived from getting their hands on their rookies without offseason interruptions. It’s new blood. Teams are a little younger from this injection of youth. Are these the pieces that can help put us over the top? Fill holes and woes from last year? Are we stronger? Are we faster?
That may be the biggest contribution NFL teams look for in rookies. The youthful speed they must provide.
The NFL is a speed game, a fast game constantly evolving into a faster one.
The Ravens believe in what they call AACT during this rookie reporting time — alignment, assignment, communication, and technique. This is the emphasis of their coach, John Harbaugh. These are the traits that he wants his rookies and all of his players to use on every play in every practice and in every game.
The Ravens spent their first four 2017 draft picks on defensive players and five of their seven total picks on defensive players.
“Now, had there been a No. 1 receiver available when we picked in the first round (16th), we would have drafted that No. 1 receiver,” Newsome said. “We draft on what is presented to us as well as on need. You want to be strong in all three phases of the game, but this draft did allow us to make a strong defense stronger. We’ve added some defensive playmakers and depth. We do know here what defense can do for you in this league.”
This is the beginning for the Ravens, for the other four teams that open today and soon for the rest of the league to begin fitting pieces, sharpening bodies and minds, and creating a temperament, mentality, and identity.
“Every day in training camp and starting with these rookies, I look for one thing most,” Newsome said. “Who is willing to compete? And who is willing to compete every day?”