A third-round draft pick in 2003 who went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL, Nate Burleson knows the pressures of being a rookie in this league. The NFL.com and "Good Morning Football" analyst racked up 29 receptions for 455 receiving yards and two touchdowns in 16 games (including nine starts) during his rookie campaign with the Minnesota Vikings. This week, many members of the 2018 rookie class will be making their professional debuts, some of them while facing huge expectations. In this piece, Burleson discusses the blessings and potential curses of being an NFL starter as a rookie.
1) Learning from early mistakes and getting better from the start. I used to feel that rookies -- quarterbacks and, in some cases, players at other positions -- should sit or play sparingly and be allowed (or encouraged, rather) to learn behind veterans. That was until Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy came on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football" in early August, changing my mind during the course of one TV segment. "The best thing for the quarterback is to play," Dungy said. "That's how you get better. That's how you learn." As head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 1998 season, Dungy watched first-year signal-caller Peyton Manning, whom he'd later go on to coach in Indy, throw more interceptions (28) than any rookie quarterback in league history. Manning took his lumps, learned from mistakes and, as we all know, went on to become one of the greatest to ever play. This can be a tough call to make, considering a quarterback could play a major role in the rise and fall of an organization. Thrusting rookies onto the field may not always be in the best interest of the team, depending on its current state. Then again, doing so has the potential to pay off exponentially in the long run.
2) Establishing value to your unit. We see it every year: A rookie comes in, surprises with his play and influences the organization to make big decisions about his position group. Take Tyreek Hill, for example. The Chiefs' 2016 fifth-rounder was one of the NFL's most explosive rookies that year, contributing 12 total touchdowns (six receiving, three rushing, two punt returns and one kickoff return). It was clear the following offseason that Kansas City intended to center the passing attack around Hill, given that the team released WR1 Jeremy Maclin. A rookie who performs well early on can play an enormous role in the financial decisions of the organization and the upcoming contract situations of other players.
3) Keeping your career on track/getting you started on the road to a second contract. The sooner you establish yourself as a legitimate player, the easier it is to earn another contract, even if you're not up for one for a few years. If you lock in some top-notch game tape in Year 1, it's also less likely that subsequent injuries or down years will have a major effect on your second contract. There will be at least one team interested if the player turns heads at all early on. Look at receiver Keenan Allen, for example. The Los Angeles Chargers wideout racked up 1,046 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns as a rookie in 2013. A great first year was followed by a down '14 campaign (783 receiving yards and four receiving TDs) and a highly productive '15 (725 receiving yards and four receiving TDs) before a lacerated kidney ended his season after eight games. But he still got paid in June 2016, signing a four-year, $45 million extension with the Chargers.
1) Playing before you've become fully acclimated to the speed of the game. NFL playbooks are much more complex than in college and unless you spend countless hours studying each day, it's likely that you won't know everything. It's easy to see which players around the league know the playbook like the backs of their hands -- guys like Tom Brady, Luke Kuechly and Larry Fitzgerald. These guys aren't actively thinking during a play; instead, they react, allowing them to play faster. It's like driving a car. When teenagers first get their licenses, they check all mirrors and look carefully before making any move, have their hands positioned at "10 and 2 o'clock" on the wheel and keep their distance from other drivers. As adults, drivers are still alert and check the necessities, but they don't have to consciously think about each step. It comes naturally. It's the same thing on the football field. When I was a rookie in Minnesota in 2003, it took me a couple of months to really grasp the playbook, and that was after studying every day. You have to put in the time to exercise your mind, because the physical attributes can only set you apart so much.
2) Dealing with the toll of training for a full calendar year. It seems like young players should feel physically better than veterans. Yet, it's almost the opposite (with some exceptions, of course). Rookies have trained nonstop since the start of their last season in college, going from the college regular season to bowl games and continuing on to the Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine, pro days and private workouts. Once drafted, the rooks head right to the team facility for rookie camps, minicamps and, finally, training camp. As a veteran, you take breaks where you can get them and understand how much your body can handle. It's important to stay in shape without beating your body up and that's something rookies don't understand right away. We see the 16-game regular season take a toll on young guys every season (this often manifests in a dip in production late in the year).
3) Becoming a millionaire overnight. High draft picks are often used to being in the limelight, given that they tend to come from high-profile situations in college. But what most aren't used to is having millions of dollars. This almost happens overnight and comes with a ton of attention. People come out of the woodwork asking for help, whether that means family members looking at you to provide, relatives or friends asking for financial assistance or businesspeople wanting you as a client. Some come to you with good intentions; others are snakes in the grass.
Your lifestyle can change quickly when you're able to afford the fancy car or the house in the hills, and players often buy luxurious things because they never had the money before. Spending lavishly can set players back financially and get them caught up with the wrong crowd. You can enjoy expensive things without forgetting what got you there in the first place. That said, most players are affected by the sheer amount of money they earn -- and careers have been cut short from off-the-field decision making -- but not everyone gets lost in the shuffle.