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NFL PREVIEW

Unheralded Rookies Will Get Chance

Plenty of first-year players will have breakout seasons, but it's not usually the highly touted first-round choices who make a sudden impact.

August 31, 2003|Barry Wilner | Associated Press

Onterrio Smith was the ninth running back selected in April's draft, far behind Willis McGahee and Larry Johnson.

But Smith might be the most important rookie at that position in the NFL.

Same for Pisa Tinoisamoa, the fourth linebacker chosen. And Brandon Lloyd, the 14th wide receiver picked.

While most everyone focuses on the high first-rounders and how much impact they might have during the season, it's often the guys chosen far lower who are bigger factors as rookies.

None of the last three offensive rookies of the year -- Clinton Portis, Anthony Thomas and Mike Anderson -- was a first-rounder. Several of the top picks in 2003 will be lucky to get on the field regularly, and if they do the pressure to succeed can be overwhelming.

So while Carson Palmer, the first player chosen this year, and Byron Leftwich learn from the sideline about playing quarterback in the pros, don't be surprised if less-hyped rookies steal the spotlight.

Smith has an excellent opportunity in Minnesota, which first lost starting halfback Michael Bennett to offseason surgery. His backup, Doug Chapman, is hurt, so the Vikings might have to turn to Smith, who has had a strong summer.

"I think we learned Onterrio is what we hoped he'd be," Coach Mike Tice said.

"I think he might have been the best running back in the draft," Lions President Matt Millen added. "I love the kid."

Smith, of Oregon, dubbed himself "S.O.D." (Steal Of the Draft) after going 105th overall, and now must justify his precociousness. He certainly should get the chance.

So should Tinoisamoa, the 43rd overall pick from Hawaii who has solidified a starting berth in St. Louis. The Rams struggled mightily at linebacker in 2002, but Tinoisamoa's quick grasp of the defense has allowed Robert Thomas to move inside.

"I think he's got the speed, and intensity and fire," Coach Mike Martz said. "I think he can make plays for us on defense, but he still has to do that."

Lloyd figures to get the chance to do that in San Francisco, which selected the Illinois wideout 124th overall. The 49ers are thin at wide receiver and still are searching for a complement to All-Pro Terrell Owens.

While preseason stats should be regarded warily, quality playing time in exhibition games is the best way for low-round rookies to get noticed. Lloyd has made the most of it this month.

The injury to tight end Eric Johnson could provide more opportunity for Lloyd.

"He looks like he's going to be a wonderful player in the future. But he has a lot to learn, and he knows that," 49ers General Manager Terry Donahue said.

No one is ruling out the touted newcomers from having an impact, too. Quarterbacks, tackles and middle linebackers rarely do, but receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and guards often are productive.

Watch for Charles Rogers in Detroit and, even more so, Andre Johnson in Houston, the second and third overall choices in the draft. The David Carr-Johnson pitch-and-catch combination could be dynamic if the Texans can protect Carr -- that's a huge if.

"He's a hard worker, a very coachable guy who wants to learn, and usually those guys do make improvement quite quickly," Houston receivers coach Kippy Brown said.

On defense, tackle Dewayne Robertson should be a full-timer with the Jets, who are thin at the position. Cornerbacks Terence Newman of Dallas and Marcus Trufant of Seattle could slide right into the lineup.

Still, the rookie who could have the biggest impact won't be making any tackles or catching any passes. He'll be running the Cincinnati Bengals.

Marvin Lewis is changing the mind-set and atmosphere around the NFL's worst team of the last dozen years. While counting on Cincinnati to contend is a stretch, expecting the Bengals to be more professional, more intense and somewhat successful -- a half-dozen victories, perhaps -- isn't ludicrous.

Even better, Lewis, one of the best defensive coaches in the sport, has a group of, what else, rookies who could be steady contributors in Year 1 of his regime. Palmer might sit, but guard Eric Steinbach, receiver Kelley Washington and defensive back Dennis Weathersby probably won't.

"The biggest thing is the attitude from the head people," veteran tackle Willie Anderson said. "That attitude has changed. When players see it's a different attitude at the helm, players think different."

They think like veterans. And maybe play like them, too.

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