Without the benefit of a traditional offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been understandable concerns regarding how NFL rookies will handle their first-year transition. As veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant summed it up last week, there’s no substitute for the lost on-field reps after the league moved the early stages of offseason programs to a virtual setting.
Talking to local reporters earlier this week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn’t mince his words when talking about the current and anticipated future struggles of his team’s rookie class.
“They’re in deep water — turbulent water — and it’s going to get rougher, just in terms of the volume and the level of competition, becoming a professional athlete, and the full day and consecutive days that get strung together with very high demands both physically, mentally and rest and recovery and all that,” Belichick said.
With that in mind, the Detroit Lions’ current crop of rookies have managed to make a strong impression during the first two training camp practices, blending in almost seamlessly, despite having eyes fixated on their every move each day.
During Tuesday’s practice, several rookies noticeably shined. Jonah Jackson spent a second consecutive day taking first-team reps at right guard, running back D’Andre Swift thrived in one-on-one receiving drills and stepped into some first-team reps with the team taking it easy with Kerryon Johnson’s workload, and wide receiver Quintez Cephus made plays both in individual and team segments of practice.
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“I’m comfortable out there,” Swift said after practice. “Been away from the game for a minute, just had to get out there with the new team, build communication and create relationships out there. Just felt good to be out there. Been playing football for a minute, so any time I step foot out there, I’m comfortable.”
First and foremost, Lions coach Matt Patricia credited the players for being prepared to meet the moment. But he also explained these early practices have been designed to focus on fundamentals, giving the younger players a better chance to succeed out the gate, while building a strong foundation.
“I totally agree,” Patricia said. “I think that the guys have been able to really kind of showcase what they do in a skill set sort of manner and kind of been put into situations where they can maybe just isolate their specific position and go out and show us what they can do.
“A lot of camp right now is some fundamental stuff, so we do kind of have those guys in isolated, maybe one-on-one situations. Or it’s a very small scale football stuff, just so that we can see what their skill set level is, if it’s competitive and what needs to improve.”
For Swift, the focus has been processing the copious amount of information he’s being fed. He’s learning a new playbook, verbiage and techniques. Players often compare the process to learning a new language and the young running back said it’s required him to take his study habits to another level from his days at Georgia.
“You got to make your reps count up here, I can see that already,” Swift said. “I don’t want to put anything bad out there. Just make sure I’m prepared for the day, for the install we have, that I’m on my Ps and Qs for everything that’s that day.”
And while Patricia didn’t put it in the same harsh terms as his professional mentor Belichick, the Lions coach did warn that more challenging times are ahead for the team’s rookies.
“Certainly, as things pick up here, and we get into more game-situational things — down in distance, red area, third down, two minute — those sort of mental bricks that get added on that’s where you see those guys slow down a little bit,” Patricia said. “Hopefully, we can build those in the right way and they can keep showcasing that performance on the field that we’ve seen, that production, along with trying to learn the intricacies of what’s happening in the game.”