"It?s hard," defensive lineman Myron Pryor said about being a rookie. "I mean, it?s real hard, tons and tons of pressure. They want you to learn more than what you can already learn. They want to put that pressure on to see how do you come out of adversity. And a lot of things like little things, somebody nicking and picking at you kind of gets on your nerves, like, ?Why you messing with me?? You know what I?m saying? But it?s all part of becoming a rookie."
Pryor has seen that process come full circle. When he showed up to Gillette Stadium in March for the Patriots' voluntary workouts, he said the veterans were much more welcoming. Pryor and the 2009 newbies had proven themselves, and they don?t have to worry as much about getting tied to goal posts or losing patches of hair. So they've got that going for them, which is nice.
To the other extreme, though, these guys aren?t waltzing into Gillette with a Hall of Fame bust under their arms and seeking revenge on everyone who made their rookie season such a grind. They know they're still only one year in, and there's a whole heaping of knowledge they've got to attain. After all, as a general rule, most players don?t really see their true potential until their fourth season in the league.
"It doesn?t necessarily mean you can do stuff like the veterans," Pryor said. "We?re still second-year players. There?s a little bit of a burden lifted off our shoulders, but we still have a lot of work to do."
Each rookie faced his own unique challenges. Pryor was a real long shot to make the team as a sixth-round pick, but he eventually leapfrogged second-rounder Ron Brace on the depth chart. Brace also had to handle the expectations of a high draft pick, and that?s something he is still dealing with.
Safety Patrick Chung, New England's top pick in 2009, was trying to grasp a position that might be the most difficult to learn for a young player in this system. Cornerback Darius Butler had to fight for playing time against Shawn Springs and Jonathan Wilhite.
For tackle Sebastian Vollmer, he might have wondered why he didn?t earn more of a role in the middle of the season despite being the team's best offensive lineman. Then, there was wide receiver Brandon Tate and Tyrone McKenzie, who suffered through serious knee injuries.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman was booed in training camp because he couldn?t catch a punt, but he soon made a successful transition from college quarterback to NFL wide receiver and turned into a huge fan favorite. And undrafted quarterback Brian Hoyer beat out Matt Gutierrez, Kevin O'Connell and Andrew Walter to become Tom Brady's lone backup.
These kinds of challenges weren?t exactly easy.
"It?s different for everybody," Chung said. "Some people might come in ready. Some people might come in scared, intimidated. Some might come in ready to go hard. It?s all about your mentality. I came in ready. The day I got drafted, I?m like, ?Yeah I got drafted.? And I?m off to years of more, harder work. That?s how I kind of thought of it. That?s how you?ve got to think of it. You can?t go in scared, nervous. You?ve got to go in like I?m going to play football."
Now, they're seeing the huge advantages of being a second-year player. They could report to Gillette in March for workouts, which gave them a gigantic head start from a year ago, when they were dealing with pro days, combines, organizational interviews, draft parties and the rush that comes with each form of preparation. By the time each player comes back to earth and signs his first contract, it's already well into May at the earliest.
"This offseason has been a big help because my head is not turning in cycles," Edelman said. "I can actually focus on becoming a better football player instead of trying to impress the coach always. Now I can sit down, and I have a lot more time where I can watch film, work on certain little things that I need to work on, work on hands. I didn?t have that last year."
Since Edelman is at the facility for much of the day, he can finish his weight lifting session and cardio work, and then he can ask a coach or teammate to work on route running or catching punts. The second-year guys have also noticed how much stronger and more explosive they've become due to the emphasis on pro-style drills that are more specific to their individual needs. It's a fact of life that colleges just don?t have the luxuries of those elite NFL trainers.
"It?s a different kind of training, and already, I feel like I?m in the best shape I?ve ever been," Hoyer said. "Getting up here and working out before that program started kind of gave me a little bit of a head start, so I?m just trying to stay ahead of the curve."
The pressure to perform doesn?t subside in their second season. A handful of these players remain in some fierce positional battles, and their jobs are on the line over the next three months. And for each of these guys who were active for at least nine games last season, the practice squad is no longer an option. That safety net has been ripped away, and there's a super fine line between a 53-man roster and a 9-5 job at home.
But, at least they've gotten through their rookie year, and for the first time ever, they can watch others deal with it.
"It?s always going to be like that for every rookie because [the veterans] had to go through it," Pryor said. "Everybody?s going to go through it, so I mean, it?s a heck of an experience, but it was painful. Very painful."