Ahead of draft, ex-NFL players share what they wish they knew as rookies

A new crop of players await the start of their NFL careers with the 2018 NFL Draft kicking off Thursday. The prospects have spent countless hours getting as prepared as possible, yet they're about to learn a whole lot more.

We asked our NFL.com analysts to reflect on their own football careers, asking them this question: What did you learn later in your career that you wish you knew as a rookie?

Film study is everything. A lot of players get by on athleticism and physical attributes early on in their careers, just as I did through Year 2, but I realized that my athleticism wasn't enough in my third year. I learned how to study tape and apply that to my game from Jeff Graham. And I continued to work on this throughout my career, learning the most in my 10th NFL season with Marty Schottenheimer, who taught me that the smallest detail could be the biggest difference in the game.

When the physical gifts go away, film study is the only way a veteran can keep pace with younger players. Ray Lewis, who played 17 seasons in the league, said it best late in his career: "Guys like us slow the game down." Although players will inevitably lose a step as they get older, knowing their opponent's tendencies allows them to get to the ball more quickly because they're reacting not thinking. Those small fractions of time saved on each play add up on game day. My perception when I first came into the league was that I needed to put on weight to match the physicality and size of NFL players. I thought It was all about being able to take the pounding and hard hits. But I learned in my second and third seasons that I didn't need to be that way to play my style. I just needed to be quick and fit. So, in my third or fourth year, I changed my diet by hiring a chef to cook dinner every night for me. I really feel like that change allowed me to have some of my best years on the field. I wish I would have made football the main priority. Put all of my effort into being the best football player and worry about the other stuff later. The extra stuff is a distraction, including relationships that aren't designed to make you the best person and football player. Your football years are a small time in your life and it takes a lot of focus to be great.

If I could go back, I would set bigger goals for myself as a player to become one of those all-time greats. I'd try to find people to help me get there, including trainers, coaches and support staff, to really go all in and see how far I could really take my career. The whole idea of health was foreign to me when I look back. Coming into the league, "health" was work out and stay in shape. Some of the things we did in training back then wouldn't even be considered today. It makes me wonder, whether it's performance-based or from a longevity standpoint, had I treated my body the same way with food that I did with exercise, mentality and preparation, what would that have meant while I was playing, or even now in retirement? I wish I would have paid more attention to daily meetings from the get-go. Coaches spend countless hours -- day and night -- preparing game plans to present to the players, and there are a lot of players who don't take these meetings seriously, especially if the coach isn't talking directly to you. Matter of fact, this is when a lot of players get their naps in.

These meetings focus on something different each day. For example, Monday could be about first- and second-down plays, Tuesday is third down, Wednesday is red zone and Thursday is short yardage and so on. They feel tedious because we as players have learned the playbook, but there's a lot more that I could have learned that would've helped me later on in my career. I wish I would have known the proper way to take care of my body from the start. It wasn't until my fourth season that I really dedicated my time, energy and money into doing what was best for my body. If I would've learned what I know now about keeping up with health, I might have had a longer career.

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