The game is faster, and opponents are bigger and stronger. Offensive and defensive schemes are more complex and use new terminology, and opposing schemes are better-disguised. For many rookies, the changes can be daunting, even overwhelming.
Two rookies drafted in April by the Dallas Cowboys, have the added challenge of learning a new position. Victor Butler and Brandon Williams were defensive ends at Oregon State and Texas Tech, respectively. But the Cowboys drafted Butler and Williams with the idea of sliding them back to outside linebacker, where their size is a better fit and they could make use of their pass-rushing skills.
Many rookies will latch on to one or more veteran teammates to ask questions and try to learn the nuances of the NFL game. Williams and Butler have the advantage of learning from a player who went through the exact same transition when he was drafted, and has become one of the best defensive players in the entire league.
When he was drafted with the 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft, DeMarcus Ware was a little-known defensive end at Troy, a school with a fine program but hardly a factory for future professional stars. Some questioned whether he could make the leap from the Sun Belt Conference to the NFL, and whether his athletic ability, which made him an all-conference honoree and third-team All-America in college, would translate to the pro game.
Did it ever.
Ware became one of the game’s elite pass rushers, and already has made a habit of ending his season with a visit to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl. At just 26 years old, Ware is among the most feared defensive players in the league, and is poised to challenge Albert Haynesworth of the Washington Redskins as the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.
Translation: if there’s a player the wide-eyed rookies should consider emulating, it’s Ware.
“A lot of the linebackers, they’re moving from defensive end to linebacker, so they need somebody that’s been through it already,” Ware said. “So I’m just telling them to come on in and get ready to do whatever they can to help us out.
“I think the main thing is you’ve got to come in with an open mind, because the offenses are going to throw so many things at you, so you’ve got to be able to take that in, but also, be able to play fast. No matter what, just like in college, you’ve got to be able to play fast and be effective, but now it’s at a much higher level. Just listen to the older guys, because they’ve been through it.”
Many professional players were the best player — and often best overall athlete — on their college teams. That usually changes when they move up to the next level, a fact Ware said Butler and Williams will learn right away.
“Sometimes, you come in with idea that you’ve been the best guy in college,” Ware said, “but now it’s a big awakening when you go against Flozell Adams and all those guys. You’ve got to just take it with a grain of salt, and go out there and play.”
Ware said that when he made the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker, the biggest challenge was more the number of different roles he had to fill, rather than a specific skill.
“It was a learning process, being able to do so many things, he said, “being able to read run offenses, read pass offenses, being able to drop, sort of becoming a cornerback instead of just rushing the passer.”
Ware was asked if his new role as a mentor made him feel older than his age would suggest.
“No, I don’t — I actually just turned 21 yesterday,” he joked. “I’m kidding — I’m still a youngster, but I’ve been through what they’re going through now, so I’m ready to help them make that transition, and make it smoother than I did.”