This season’s NFL rookies ‘as good as any group’

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Above all, players are coming into the league better prepared, mentally and physically, for the professional game.

Colleges have more serious weight training and nutrition programs these days. Pro-style offenses get quarterbacks up to speed in college _ and force players at various other positions to adjust, too. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier traces it all the way back to increasing sophistication in high school football.

“Everything is evolving to a higher level,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who was an NFL head coach in the 1990s, then was at Southern Cal, before returning to the league in 2010. “The quarterback position is so unique and it has taken just a quantum leap here in the last 10 years, with guys understanding what’s going on and being exposed to great coaching so early. … I do think it has affected everyone; certainly receivers, corners, defensive backs and everyone who has to rush the passer, as well. They’re all much more aware of the game than they were in years past.”

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett pointed to that as one of the reasons for Claiborne’s early success at cornerback despite missing offseason workouts while recovering from wrist surgery and then losing time in training camp with a left knee injury.

“He came from a big-time program and had played a lot of big games,” Garrett said, “so I don’t think at any point we feel like he’s been in awe.”

Browns general manager Tom Heckert made a point of drafting players who played a lot in established college programs, making the move to the NFL easier.

Cleveland is 2-7 as it rebuilds and counts a lot on rookies _ 17, nearly a third of the 53-man roster. The Browns have four first-year players starting on offense: Weeden, Schwartz, Richardson (whose 815 yards from scrimmage rank fifth in the AFC) and receiver Josh Gordon (who leads NFL rookies with 417 yards receiving and four TD catches). Defensive tackle Billy Winn, a sixth-round pick, has started every game, and linebacker James-Michael Johnson, a fourth-rounder, started the past four.

Johnson moved into the lineup after a veteran was lost for the season to injury, the way a lot of rookies often get their chance.

But whereas they used to play primarily because they needed to, now rookies play because they can. Coaches believe they can handle it.

“That’s why they drafted us,” said Bucs safety Mark Barron, the No. 7 overall pick. “To come in and contribute early.”

His teammate Martin, taken 31st overall, is third in the NFL in rushing with 794 yards. Second-round pick Lavonte David, a starting linebacker, and Barron are two of Tampa Bay’s three leading tacklers.

David, credited with 16 tackles in last weekend’s victory at Oakland, has handled and relayed defensive play calls all season.

Bobby Wagner, who tops Carroll’s Seahawks defense with 72 tackles, also makes those calls from his middle linebacker spot. Carolina’s Luke Kuechly is another linebacker making noise as a rookie.

Not every rookie _ even the high draft picks _ pans out right away, of course. Some never do.

Among this season’s disappointments has been Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who hurt his left knee while working out over the summer and didn’t even get into a game until last Sunday, and that was only on special teams. Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd hasn’t lived up to expectations, and Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon has shown a knack for dropping passes.

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