- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hey rook, get in there and show your stuff.

That’s the reality of the NFL these days, when rookies, especially those selected high in the draft, not only are given a chance to prove themselves but are expected to contribute immediately. The salary cap forces it, but so do coaches eager to get more athletic skill on the field.

This year, wide receivers and the guys who try to cover them are having the most impact.

Such as Brandin Cooks of the Saints.

“He is so sharp in being able to pick things up and we use him in a lot of different ways,” Drew Brees says of throwing to the first-round pick. “He just continues to amaze me with his ability to compartmentalize those things and go out and execute it. If he makes a mistake it only happens once. He corrects it very quickly. I’ve been impressed with that.”

Perhaps equally as impressive has been the work of another first-rounder, Cleveland cornerback Justin Gilbert. He started slowly but recently has been as effective as veteran Joe Haden at the other corner.

“I think he’s really improving,” Browns safety Donte Whitner. “I think he’s going out there and not thinking. He’s going out there to make plays and not going out there not to get beat.”

That’s critical in the secondary, where Chicago CB Kyle Fuller, San Diego CB Jason Verrett, Denver CB Bradley Roby, San Francisco safety Jimmie Ward, Arizona S Deone Bucannon, and Green Bay S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix have stood out in positions where the transition from college is exceptionally difficult.

Not to mention the challenge of facing high-powered pro offenses where receivers such as Cooks, Arizona’s John Brown, Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins, Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin, Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson, and Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews have so smoothly fit in.

“It’s huge,” Packers safeties coach Darren Perry says of the learning curve, particularly for a safety in his first NFL season.

“I mean it’s just a totally different game then the college game. The offenses that you face are different. You see a little more zone read nowadays with some of the teams that we play, but for the most part it’s a different game.

“And so (Clinton-Dix) is learning, and I think every day for him is a new experience. You can see him growing, still has a ways to go. … So we just got to keep plugging, we’re taking nothing for granted, as you’ve got to be with young guys.”

The most difficult positions for rookies to make a difference usually are quarterback and anywhere on the offensive line.

While Derek Carr has been Oakland’s starter from the get-go, and Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles have ascended in Jacksonville, neither is close to producing the way Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton did in recent seasons.

But the offensive line has produced quite a few noteworthy debut seasons, ranging from centers Corey Linsley (Green Bay), Bryan Stork (New England) and Russell Bodine (Cincinnati) to tackles Ja’Wuan James (Miami) and Justin Britt (Seattle) to guards Zach Martin (Dallas) and Joel Bitonio (Cleveland).

“They are old-school offensive linemen,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett says of his young blockers, but that fits for all the rookies up front. “They don’t say a whole lot. They go out and do their job. They do it the right way.”

Not all rookies are doing things the right way, nor do they even come close to that.

Last spring’s top overall draft pick, DE-LB Jadeveon Clowney, got hurt in Houston’s opener and only just returned. Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. injured his hamstring in the first practice of training camp and only recently got into the lineup.

Falcons OT Jake Matthews has been ineffective and bothered by a sprained ankle. The Lions’ Eric Ebron, considered one of the best tight ends to enter the league in years, has been slowed by injuries.

And Johnny Manziel sits patiently on Cleveland’s bench, the most touted rookie backup since, well, Tim Tebow.

Still, this has been an exceptionally strong rookie crop, with solid work by Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon and Chargers RB Branden Oliver.

And it’s punctuated by the performances of three kickers: Washington punter Tress Way, and placekickers Chandler Catanzaro and Cody Parkey.

Way is showing the way by leading the NFL with 49.7 gross yards per kick.

Arizona’s Catanzaro set the rookie mark by making his first 16 field goal tries. Philadelphia’s Parkey is not far behind, hitting 14 out of 15 kicks.

Catanzaro was an undrafted free agent who beat out veteran Jay Feely in the preseason and has been spotless since. Even his kickoffs, something he didn’t handle in college, have been strong.

“We have some good friends at Clemson. They’ve always talked about it,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians says, adding that special teams coach Amos Jones “had worked him out and knew about him. And we kept our fingers crossed that he did not get drafted because he was a guy we had marked to get right away as soon as college free agency started.”

Nice move. One of many made by NFL teams in adding impactful rookies.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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