Half of the NFL season has revealed that coaches and general managers continue to vary on what roles rookies should play, how much trust they should be given and how best to groom them for, at least, late-season dividends.
While some rookies sit idly by and wait for their chances, others have already been given the ball. And know what to do with it.
On the fast track
The top tacklers are New England linebacker Jerod Mayo (59), Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton, Jets cornerback Dwight Lowery (43), Kansas City cornerback Brandon Carr (39) and Kansas City cornerback Brandon Flowers and Washington safety Chris Horton with 37 apiece. Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers had 37 tackles before breaking his jaw against the Steelers in Week 7.
Some rookie contributions are more hidden and overlooked.
Tackle Jake Long in Miami is becoming the anchor the Dolphins expected. Receiver DeSean Jackson gave the Eagles' offense an early-season jolt and looks for more in his first action against the Giants on Sunday. The Giants in their victory over the Cowboys offered three rookies -- safety Kenny Phillips, cornerback Terrell Thomas and linebacker Bryan Kehl -- who were prominent throughout. And Arizona's Tim Hightower (22 carries, 109 yards vs. St. Louis) is pushing veteran back Edgerrin James further down the bench. Hightower leads all rookies with seven rushing touchdowns.
Oftentimes in this league you have coaches and general managers who are at odds over rookies. Often, coaches are reluctant to play them, preferring to rely on veterans' experience and knowledge of schemes. If they are eventually going to be fired, they would rather it be with players who know where to line up and what they are supposed to be doing. General managers often want young players immediately on the field to justify their selections.
It can be a push-pull that colors teams' entire seasons.
Baltimore at Cleveland on Sunday showed that fresh, young faces have a place in the Ravens' offense right now.
When you turn your offense over to a rookie quarterback (Flacco) and a rookie running back (Ray Rice), courage is required.
Flacco all season has shown he is up to the test.
Rice showed that he could run the football inside with power, bounce it outside with verve and pick up blitzes in pass protection. He gave Baltimore's offense extra juice.
He showed in training camp that the job was not too big for him. And the Ravens' staff remembered that.
"There were a couple of days in training camp where we had injuries at running back and he was the only healthy one available," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "He took every rep in practice for two days. That showed maturity and resilience. We all said, 'OK, we've got something here.' "
That something is a 5-foot-8, 200-pound back who plays bigger than that. Who accepts challenges. Who enjoys a full workload.
"The first thing he has is maturity; very mature for his age," Newsome said of Rice, who is 21. "The other thing is he has a strong lower body, which allows him to finish every run. He also has that thing that Brian Westbrook has -- Ray can face up a defender, get right up on him, and then shake and make him miss. We see what he is doing as a great thing for our offense and team. When McGahee comes back healthy, we hope to have two backs we can benefit from. You really need depth there."
The Giants helped push along rookie value over the last couple of seasons with an open-door approach to their involvement and contributions. Nearly every Giants draft pick over the last couple of seasons has created an avenue into playing time. The Giants are among the most fruitful teams in the league at grooming rookies to step forward, especially late in the season. Play them as much as you can early so that they can make a difference late is part of the Giants mantra.
The longer NFL season compared to the shorter college one tests rookies' stamina. They learn to gain a second wind, to stretch themselves in their first pro season. This is an important assist that coaches must give them in the weight room, the classroom and on the field in developing staying power.
"Sometimes rookies don't know when they are going to get their shot," Newsome said. "Sometimes they get discouraged, but they have to be prepared for opportunity. It comes."
He was a second-round selection from Michigan State in last April's draft, the 34th player chosen overall. He has five catches for 49 yards with a long grab of 16 yards. He is too valuable a weapon to remain relatively dormant much longer for Washington.
"So far I have been waiting my turn, waiting to see how things go, doing what I can to help us and looking to become more of a threat," Thomas said via telephone before Monday night's kickoff against the Steelers. "Sure, there is a learning curve. And around here, you have to earn your keep. I see other rookie guys around the league getting their opportunity and making the best of it. I can be that kind of threat."