ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Ever feel lost, in over your head or invisible? Welcome to the life of an NFL rookie.
Swimming, surviving and struggling are a few words used to describe the difficulties of what it’s like during the first year in the NFL as players make the transition from college.
While the NFL Draft is one of the biggest weekends in all of sports each and every year, it gives a false hope to fan bases around the country about the caliber of player that each team is drafting, at least during their rookie season. Fans hope and pray that their first, second and even third-round draft picks will be able to turnaround their favorite team immediately when in reality this rarely happens.
Although organizations, coaches and the rookies themselves rarely admit it during that painful rookie season, once they start their second year, they are more comfortable opening up on the struggles they had the year before — as was the case with second-year safety Justin Simmons.
“When we were midway through the season—obviously as a rookie, you have a lot going on, from preseason all the way into the postseason—one of the vets told me, in college you really just play football, but in the league, you learn football,” Simmons said during his first full offseason in the NFL.
It’s not his position, or even his side of the ball, that Simmons learns the most about, either.
“Here, I’m actually learning [opposing] offenses,” he explained. “I’m learning tendencies. I’m learning offensive coordinator's likes and dislikes when they’re at a certain yard line on the field; if they’re at the plus or the minus. If it’s 2nd-and-10 or 2nd-and-7. It’s things like that [veteran players] all know, which makes them so successful on the field, instead of just going out there and playing the coverage that’s called.”
The learning curve is monumental, even before stepping on the field. In college, Simmons, as well as most college athletes, watched film “just to check it off my list,” however, in the NFL players must master the film room in order to find success at the highest level.
“That’s why [the Broncos’ veteran secondary is] so successful because of their study of the game,” Simmons said. “For myself, that’s the level of competitiveness that I want to be at. I want to be at that level.”
The real hype and excitement surrounding younger players should come in the offseason after their rookie year. With approximately eight months in the league under their belt, the game slows down for the former rookies, and they can finally breathe, thus raising expectations.
“When we do get in there, with it being our second year, we should be able to execute at the same level efficiency that [Darian Stewart] and T.J. [Ward] are executing at. I know Aqib [Talib], Chris [Harris Jr.], and [Bradley] Roby, even [Derek] Wolfe, all the veterans on the defense expect and demand that out of us,” Simmons said. “That’s the goal, to make sure that while we’re in there, especially speaking for myself, that there is no beat missing.”
It’s often said that during a player’s rookie season they are too caught up in thinking about the game instead of playing it. Simmons said this is exactly what he experienced, and a major reason why 2017 can be a completely different story.
“Especially as a rookie last year, looking at what I know now compared to the middle of the season last year, there are so many things that I just missed because I was trying to, for lack of better words, survive throughout that time,” he said. “I was just trying to make sure that I was just at the right place at the right time instead of stepping up and making plays and really executing what was being called.”
All of these differences from year one to year two will all boil down to the most important step that second-year players take: a boost in confidence.
“Just to put plainly, I think going into year two, I’m just looking to be more confident. I’m in the defensive system now, going into my second year,” Simmons said. “I think, all in all, going into the second year, we’re obviously looking for a lot of improvements just off of confidence alone.”
No matter how much more comfortable players become in their first offseason in the league, what they really need is valuable playing time, according to Simmons. All of the time in the film room, studying and confidence won’t actually matriculate to their game if they can’t put it to practice on game day.
“It’s just like the term that is used: being thrown in the fire,” Simmons said. “We definitely learned a lot [from our playing time last season]. We watched a bunch of film on things we could improve on and work on. That tape is still valid today. It’s just been a great opportunity. We’re looking forward to this season.”
People shouldn’t be judged on how fast they can run before they can even walk. As a rookie in the NFL, players are merely learning how to walk. By the time they enter their second season, according to Simmons, players should be ready to race.