Ready or not, rookie offensive linemen set to start

Cam Cameron was talking about Samson Satele, but he could have just as easily been discussing Joe Thomas or Joe Staley or Levi Brown or Tony Ugoh or Justin Blalock or Aaron Sears or Jacob Bender.

"Like some young guys, he gets overly aggressive sometimes," the Miami Dolphins' first-year coach said of his rookie center. "What happens is, you get overextended and that's what defenses want. You need to play with leverage and patience at times. He's a physical guy, almost like a boxer who comes out and starts flying that haymaker in the first round. Then you have nothing left in the fourth quarter.

"He has to be cautious and more patient. There's a lot of blitzes he hasn't seen yet. He has a lot to learn."

The same is true for the Cleveland Browns' Thomas, the San Francisco 49ers' Staley, the Arizona Cardinals' Brown, the Indianapolis Colts' Ugoh, the Atlanta Falcons' Blalock, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Sears, and the New York Jets' Bender.

Besides the rawness of their youth, these rookie offensive linemen share another distinction that isn't necessarily good news for their respective NFL teams: They will likely be part of the opening-day starting lineup.

Call them the "Ready-or-Not Eight."

The offensive line can be a very unforgiving place for a rookie. What he doesn't know can hurt him -- and especially the quarterback he is supposed to protect.

Rookie linemen miss blocks, draw penalties and generally drive their coaches crazy. Sure, veterans will do the same, but if they've been around long enough to become veterans, they generally keep their errors to a minimum. Rookies make mistakes because they're rookies, because they haven't seen all of the elaborate trickery that defenses and defenders are going to show every week, and because they don't know all of the techniques to help avoid being called for holding penalties and other blunders that make their coaches scream and curse.

Ideally, teams would prefer to break them in slowly, but that isn't always possible. And this happens to be one of those seasons when, for various reasons, a significant number of rookie offensive linemen are being pushed into duty from the outset.

Satele, the second of the Dolphins' two second-round picks, appears to have secured Miami's No. 1 center spot. The former Hawaii standout took over the position after Rex Hadnot, the Dolphins' starting center for 16 games in 2006, moved to guard.

The Browns' offensive line was a mess after last season, and they made Thomas the third overall pick of the draft. On that basis alone, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound former Wisconsin Badger was destined to start immediately. The Browns had him working with their first-team offense on the second day of training camp, and then officially made him their starting left tackle after Kevin Shaffer was moved from that spot to right tackle in place of suspended Ryan Tucker.

Staley, the second of two first-round picks of the 49ers, won a preseason-long battle for San Francisco's starting job at right tackle. The former Central Michigan standout unseated Kwame Harris, who had started all 32 regular-season games at the position the last two seasons.

Brown, the Cardinals' first-round choice from Penn State, suddenly became Arizona's starter at right tackle after Oliver Ross suffered a season-ending triceps injury.

Ugoh, the Colts' second-round selection from Arkansas, suddenly became Indianapolis' No. 1 left tackle after three-time Pro Bowler Tarik Glenn shocked his teammates and coaches by announcing his retirement right before the start of training camp.

Blalock was the Falcons' first of two second-round picks. The former Texas standout was promptly inserted as Atlanta's starting left guard at start of training camp.

Sears was the first of two Buccaneer second-round choices. The former Tennessee Volunteer quickly convinced the Bucs' coaches that he was ready to be a starter at left guard. Sears recently suffered an ankle injury in practice, but is expected to be ready for the season-opener at Seattle.

Bender, the Jets' sixth-round pick from Nicholls State, suddenly became the front-runner to start at left guard after disgruntled Pete Kendall was traded to the Washington Redskins.

"At first my eyes were big, like a deer in the headlights," Satele told reporters in Miami. "I didn't know where to go, didn't know what to call. Now I'm getting it down to a T, although I'm not all the way. I need to get faster."

On the other hand, Thomas looked right at home as an NFL starting tackle from the beginning of camp. Still, he has had his rookie moments, such as when he was twice called for holding in the Browns' preseason-opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"It's a learning process," said Thomas, who was penalized only three times in 2,571 snaps in college. "There's a reason you have four preseason games. You have a lot of things to sharpen up after the first preseason game."

After informing Staley he had beaten out Harris to become San Francisco's starting right tackle, George Warhop, the 49ers' offensive line coach, had a simple but unforgettable directive for the rookie: "Prove us right!"

Life in the line

Offensive linemen in past five seasons who have started a significant number of their teams' games as rookies:

2006
Chargers OLT Marcus McNeill: 16 starts

Jets C Nick Mangold: 16 starts

Jets OLT D'Brickashaw Ferguson: Started all 16 games

Saints OG Jahri Evans: Started all 16 games

Packers OG Daryn Colledge: Played 16, started 15

2005
Saints OT Jammal Brown: Started all 13 games in which he played

Patriots OG Logan Mankins: Started all 16

Buccaneers OG Dan Buenning: Started all 16

2004
Cardinals C Alex Stepanovic: Started all 16

Titans OG Jacob Bell: Played 15, started 14

Raiders OT Robert Gallery: Started 15 of 16

Chargers OT Shane Olivea: Started all 16

2003
Panthers OT Jordan Gross: Started all 16

Bengals OG Eric Steinbach: Started all 15 appearances

Giants OG David Diehl: Started all 16

Jaguars OG Vince Manuwai: Started 14 of 15 appearances

2002
BillsMike Williams, OT: Started all 14 appearance

Saints LeCharles Bentley OL: Started all 14 appearances

Steelers Kendall Simmons, OG: Started all 14 appearances

Bengals Levi Jones, OT: Started 14 of 16 appearances

Cowboys Andre Gurode, C: Started all 14 appearances

Texans Chester Pitts, OL: Started all 16

It won't be easy. The jump from Central Michigan to the NFL is a quantum leap, although Staley has looked mostly comfortable since the start of camp practices.

"I got all the jitters out of the way in minicamp," Staley told reporters in San Francisco. "It was definitely an eye-opener in terms of talent compared to Central Michigan. I knew what I had to do in training camp. Training camp for a rookie can be a tough time, but you have to keep improving. It's about taking every rep with the mindset that you have to improve on something, in some area."

First-year Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt hasn't exactly been effusive about Brown's progress since he entered the starting lineup. When an Arizona reporter asked Whisenhunt if the rookie was "settled in" at right tackle, the coach said "holding his own" was a better way to put it.

On the other hand, the Colts have been pleasantly surprised with Ugoh, who faces enormous pressure trying not to be the weak link of a unit that played a major role in a Super Bowl victory last February. He has done a consistently good job of protecting Peyton Manning's blind side, although he is still adjusting to a quarterback who frequently changes plays at the line of scrimmage. During a preseason game against Detroit, Ugoh didn't hear Manning switch from a run to a pass on the opening play.

The result: Manning was sacked for a 13-yard loss.

"I think (Ugoh's) done quite well," Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd told the Indianapolis Star. "Is he a finished product? No, not by a long ways. But some of the other people who have played for a long time aren't finished (products), either."

Bender had an inauspicious starting debut in the Jets' preseason game against the Giants. He allowed one sack and was responsible for at least two quarterback pressures.

Yet, Jets quarterback Chad Pennington likes what he has seen of the youngster's performance and attitude. He insists he is comfortable having Bender in front of him.

"I know what type of player he is, I know how physical he is and I know that he has the eagerness to learn and get better," Pennington told reporters in New York. "You can't teach a guy to get off the football, and this guy knows how to get off the football. He knows how to strike his opponent. You can't teach that, it's just God-given."

For now, that is mostly what the "Ready-or-Not Six" will have to rely upon.

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