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Jaguars, Dolphins follow growing trend in NFL rookie minicamps

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JACKSONVILLE and DAVIE, Fla. -- Inside the underbelly of EverBank Field, along a dimly lit hallway that serves as the main corridor for the Jacksonville Jaguars' day-to-day football operations, new linebacker Myles Jack and head coach Gus Bradley walked together after a workout Saturday, making general small talk.

Suddenly, Jack stopped in front of a door that he thought to be his destination.

"Is this the locker room?" he asked Bradley.

It wasn't -- he'd overshot it by just a few feet. But that's not the point. This is: Despite all of the public chatter about the NFL's newest crop of players, all of the expectations and wonders and projections, all of the exposure, there is still one important point that we often overlook about the future of every rookie.

It has to start somewhere.

"The foundation is being set," Bradley said later, speaking with NFL.com.

This is among the myriad reasons why many teams, like the Jaguars and the Dolphins this weekend, decided to take an altered approach to their rookie minicamps, one that more closely mirrors what the Rams have done under Jeff Fisher for the last several seasons. No longer are they pressing the pedal to the metal.

In a league that often feels like an arm's race -- where a weekend with the rookies has long meant an opportunity to jump-start their careers with more practice and more workouts -- the Jaguars and Dolphins decided to turn the last few days into an orientation that loaded new charges with mental fuel rather than overwhelming them with physical exertion.

No doubt, it would be absurd to call it a mere coincidence that Jacksonville is changing its approach one year after No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler Jr. tore his ACL just a few minutes into his first practice of rookie minicamp. This clearly has something to do with that. So in some sense, yes, it is a reaction.

But Jaguars staffers, including Bradley, were careful this past weekend to define this decision as a proactive one, as well, something that likely was on the horizon regardless of Fowler's harsh setback.

"We saw it happen," Bradley said of Fowler's injury. "So we addressed things and we said, 'Alright, what would we do differently?' But this was more of a bigger picture that we were looking at. We actually talked about changing things before last year's rookie minicamp.

"So I think this is just a natural progression. We felt like, You know what, let's try this."

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The Jaguars actually still put their players on the field to a greater degree than the Dolphins. Jacksonville still ran through certain football drills, just without any of the intensity, contact or time devotion of past years.

"This year, we really decided to really slow things down, kind of anticipating that the rookies have been really fast-paced the last three months, really," Bradley said. "So we took this opportunity to slow things down, get a little bit more one-on-one teaching, kind of show them the Jags' way, how we do things."

The Dolphins are subscribing to a similar mindset -- one that was indeed inspired by Fisher's Rams, first-year head coach Adam Gase acknowledges. While Gase's rookies might not be able to compare this new approach against anything else -- they are, after all, new to the NFL -- the decision clearly made sense to them.

"It's been a tedious process," Dolphins rookie running back Kenyan Drake said. "After the national championship game, I hit the ground running. I started training for the combine at IMG in Bradenton, and after the combine, I had to get ready for my pro day [at Alabama]. From there, I had to start flying around to different teams."

In other words, if you think the rookie season sounds like a grind, it pales in comparison to what they've endured for the past six months.

"This weekend gives our bodies a chance to recover from the grind up to this point," Drake said. "We can focus on the playbook, recover our bodies and get ready for when the veterans do come in."

So what did the days entail? Well, it isn't exactly a vacation. Rookies in Miami still endured everything from one-on-one meetings with assistant coaches to blood testing to installation of the playbook to stretching sessions. But it also included the little things, like learning about the strength and conditioning program.

Gase also scheduled speakers to provide messages to the group. For instance, on Friday, former All-Pro linebacker Zach Thomas spoke to the rookies about what it means to be an NFL player and how to be successful on and off the field.

No doubt, though, the most important aspect of this weekend remains preparing the rookies for what to expect when the veterans report.

"I've got to know what I'm doing on the field before I can actually do it," Dolphins rookie cornerback Xavien Howard said. "Preparing mentally is going to be very important. I don't want to be lost when the veterans get here, so I'm glad they're getting us ready this way."

From avoiding injuries to orientating players to team facilities, it certainly makes sense to give rookies a full weekend to adjust. So what is the potential downside? It seems fairly minimal. Among the discussions that the Jaguars had, they realized they probably wouldn't get a great look at the players invited to rookie minicamps on a tryout basis.

"In the past, you bring in so-called tryout players, and you may find one or two players that you can bring on to your team through that," Bradley said.

Cold as it might sound, protecting the major investments certainly seems to outweigh the ability to sift through a batch of tryout players. Plus, there will be other opportunities to get glimpses of tryout players in veteran minicamps, given the 90-man rosters that teams can carry in the offseason.

So ultimately, it appears the Dolphins and Jaguars came out of the weekend satisfied with the orientation their players experienced. It shouldn't surprise anyone if other teams pick up a similar philosophy going forward. After all, the rookies stayed healthy, got some much-needed rest and learned more about the playbook in the classroom than they might have learned on the field.

And of course, Jack picked up one other valuable lesson of his own.

He found the locker room.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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