It’s hard to argue the importance education has on an NFL rookie.
Whether it’s learning on the field or studying the playbook and game film, first-year players take, and relish, every opportunity they can get to better familiarize what it’s like to be a professional football player.
Thus, the reason behind Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith’s creation of a weeklong rookie camp that started Monday and featured the fields at the Flowery Branch complex occupied by only coaches, draft picks and undrafted free agents.
“This is a great opportunity for these guys because they get an opportunity to relearn what was taught in mini camp,” said Smith, who is entering his third year as head coach of the Falcons.
“I told them it’s a chance for them to get up to speed as quickly as possible,” he added. “For the next seven days, they need to try and get as much information as they can about our system.
“This is the biggest cram of their lives.”
And what better way to study for the biggest test of their lives — which in this case means training camp that opens in the summer — than to have more quality time with their individual teachers, or in this case, coaches.
“(Monday) was a very beneficial day for me,” said Shann Schillinger, a 6-foot safety drafted in the sixth round. “It was a little more one-on-one with the coaches, which was huge. I learned a lot and I’m thankful that we had (Monday), but I gotta come back (today) and correct the mistakes I made and not make them again.”
Third-round pick Corey Peters echoed that sentiment, but said he prefers the physicality of mini camp.
“I like the competition a little better because it forces you to either step up or get run over,” said Peters, a 6-3 defensive tackle from Kentucky. “Now, I enjoy the individual sessions a little bit more because in the individual periods we have more one-on-one attention with the coaches and they can really get down to coaching us and letting us know what we did wrong.”
Peters has already impressed Smith.
“Corey’s a very intelligent football player,” Smith said. “He’s got the skill set where he can come in here and compete.”
So too does first-round selection Sean Weatherspoon, who played both inside and outside linebacker again Monday.
“I’m a little bit more comfortable with the terminology and knowing what’s going on,” Witherspoon said of the difference between mini camp and the beginning of the rookie camp. “But it’s different not seeing the veterans and how they do things. That made it a little tougher for us.”
“During mini camp I was following Eric Coleman and trying to find out where he was going, but he wasn’t there,” Schillinger said. “It was different in that aspect, but it’s still football.”
The lack of any veteran presence was easier to adjust to since the rookies witnessed first hand how things are done.
“The way we did it last week, with the veterans here, gave us a visual on how to do it,” Schillinger said. “Now, to come by ourselves, slow it down, see how they did it and put it together is a great way that Coach Smith did it.”
While the experience with the veterans helped them adjust to the new game — which Peters and Schillinger both called “faster than college,” — it didn’t diminish the overwhelming thought that they are actually getting paid to play football.
“It’s something I’ll never realize until it’s over,” Schillinger said. “It’s a very fast game and you have to be extremely smart to do this. I’m learning every day and that learning process will continue forever.”
Smith hopes the education started in mini camp and increased this week will benefit the rookies once training camp opens.
“We wanted these guys to have an opportunity to see the same things they saw in mini camp before they have to come back and compete with the players who have been around here,” Smith said.
The rookies are thankful that opportunity.
“It’s definitely at an exciting time in my life and things have definitely changed,” Weatherspoon said. “Hopefully it’ll just settle down real quickly because I’m excited to be here and I’m looking forward to taking advantage of the opportunity that I have.”