In his 12 seasons as an NFL assistant coach, Kim Helton has learned something important about rookie debuts.
“When you go into a game for the first time, you don’t play as well as you do the second time,” the Washington Redskins’ offensive line coach said. “You just want to get him through the first time, be able to say, ‘We did OK,’ and then grow from there.”
It’s a delicate matter, deciding when and how to put a rookie on the field for the first time. And it’s a matter the Redskins want to make sure they handle just right tomorrow when their top two draft picks — wide receiver Taylor Jacobs and offensive lineman Derrick Dockery — make their professional debuts against the New England Patriots at FedEx Field.
The circumstances that have delayed Jacobs’ and Dockery’s first appearances differ. Jacobs, a second-round pick from Florida, has been cleared to play after suffering a bruised pancreas in the preseason finale four weeks ago. Dockery, a third-round pick from Texas, is healthy but has been unable to work his way into the Redskins’ veteran offensive line.
How much each rookie will play tomorrow remains uncertain. According to coach Steve Spurrier, Jacobs will be Washington’s No.5 receiver behind starters Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner and backups Darnerien McCants and Patrick Johnson. His snaps could be limited.
“He’s practiced well this week and he’s fresh,” said Spurrier, Jacobs’ college coach at Florida. “But if he plays 10 to 15 plays, that would be a lot with the other four receivers very healthy also.”
Dockery will see some action at left guard, but his playing time will depend on the status of starter Dave Fiore’s swollen knee. Fiore did not practice for the third straight day, and the Redskins plan to wait until shortly before game time before making a decision on him.
“With the situation the way it is, I’ve got to wait and go to the park on Sunday and see how Dave is,” Helton said. “If Dave can warm up and go, then we’ll put him out there, see how it goes, and then get Derrick in there for the third or fourth series.”
Whether they get in for one play or 20, Jacobs and Dockery share the same enthusiasm for making their debuts.
“I’ve really been looking forward to this,” Jacobs said. “It’s been a long time, being out a month. I don’t know how much I’m going to play, but whatever I get I’m going to try my best.”
Said Dockery: “I’m excited. This is what I’ve been dreaming about ever since I was a little kid.”
The Redskins spoke glowingly about both players upon drafting them in April. Club officials had Jacobs and Dockery rated as mid-first round picks on their draft board, and they were surprised both were still available when their first two selections (Nos.44 and 81 overall) came up.
Despite the team’s high hopes for each player, neither was projected to crack the starting lineup as a rookie. The 6-foot, 190-pound Jacobs has some of the traits of a top NFL receiver, but he’s not in the class of Coles or Gardner, at least not yet. Dockery has the size (6-foot-6, 345 pounds) to be an imposing NFL lineman, but he lacks the experience of the current veterans at tackle (Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels) and guard (Fiore and Randy Thomas).
Jacobs showed signs during the preseason that he could be ready to complement Coles and Gardner as the Redskins’ No.3 receiver. But that all changed late in the fourth quarter of the Aug.28 exhibition finale at Jacksonville, when Jacobs dived for a pass and landed awkwardly on a defender’s foot.
The team originally thought Jacobs merely had the wind knocked out of him. But he began to feel serious stomach pain the next morning, was sent to the hospital and later was diagnosed with a bruised pancreas that was leaking digestive enzymes into his bloodstream.
Jacobs returned home five days later and slowly worked his way back into practice. But doctors were reluctant to let him take a hit until a final round of tests was completed this week. The waiting process, which dragged on for nearly a month, was excruciating for him.
“I didn’t think it was serious at first,” he said. “I’d never hurt an organ before, I had only hurt muscles or maybe a bone. So it was tough. I’ve never been out of games like this. But I’ve got to play the cards that were dealt to me.”
Given his lack of experience in relation to his teammates on the offensive line, Dockery figured it would take some time before he worked his way into the huddle. But the Redskins made sure he saw considerable action during the preseason, anticipating they might need to call upon him before long.
They’re just not sure what to expect from him in his pro debut.
“I don’t know that I have evidence that he’s ready or not ready, either way,” Helton said. “You assume that his skill level will make him be successful, but you don’t know how successful in his first NFL game. I’m sure he’ll have some plays that he won’t like, but I think he’ll have more good plays than bad ones.”
The differences between the college and pro games are surprising to Dockery, who said he had no idea how mentally tough players must be to succeed.
“I mean, this is a physical game,” he said. “But it’s not for the weak or timid either. It’s a lot higher level of intensity than it is in college. You’ve got to bring it every time, I mean every play. I got a lot of reps during preseason, so I got to see a lot of different things get used to the game. Now when I get in there, I’ll be ready for it.”