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All eyes on the rookies

The offensive stars will get their share of publicity, but watching the linemen may be just as exciting this season.

September 02, 2007|From the Associated Press

The first-year runners, passers and receivers tend to get all the attention, star in highlights packages and earn the big salaries.

So what if NFL fans turned their focus to the trenches this season? Would they get any thrills?

They could if they watch Joe Thomas and Adam Carriker.

Those guys won't be doing end zone celebrations the way Adrian Peterson or Greg Olsen might. They don't figure to be battling downfield for any long throws, as Calvin Johnson, Jacoby Jones and Anthony Gonzalez will against LaRon Landry and Darrelle Revis. They won't be ranging wide areas of the field as linebackers Paul Posluszny and LaMarr Woodley will.

But they will have an impact, perhaps more than any other newcomers to the league.

Thomas, the third overall selection in April's draft, will start at left tackle in Cleveland. Carriker, selected 13th overall by St. Louis, will play some tackle and some end on the Rams' defensive line.

The 6 foot 6, 315-pound Thomas, of Wisconsin, already has made a big impression on his teammates.

"He comes every day ready to practice and get better," Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley says. "He's like a professional already even though this is his rookie year; he's approaching the game the way he's supposed to.

"Joe can be as good as he wants to be. He has the tools and intelligence and ability to be one of the best."

Indeed, Thomas was considered by many the best offensive lineman coming out of college since Orlando Pace a decade ago.

"I don't think a team picks you with the No. 3 pick without having high hopes for you," Browns receiver Joe Jurevicius says. "I think the city, the team, the organization, everybody has high hopes and I think he's the kind of guy to take on that challenge and be a pretty good one."

So is Carriker, who like Thomas joins a maligned unit. If the Rams can upgrade their defense, they could be a title contender in 2007, because their offense is dangerous.

They are counting on Carriker to make a difference, and he could be up to the task. Already, he's shown an understanding of pro schemes, a strong work ethic and the sort of versatility the Rams have lacked on defense for too long.

"He's handled it great," Coach Scott Linehan says. "He's come in and listened and done his talking with his play and his improvement and hard work. He has it figured out, he's just got to get the snaps under his belt."

Carriker was an end in college, but is projected as a tackle by the Rams. That's not an easy transition, but Linehan says Carriker's efforts have been "excellent, probably one of the best parts of this entire preseason."

"Once we put the pads on, he's really improved and sewn up the middle of our defense. . . particularly at nose [tackle]. He's seen three different schemes in the first three games where you have to get that background a little bit and understand what people are trying to do to you inside, if you haven't played in there. He's really played well."

Linemen rarely compete for top rookie honors, but Thomas and Carriker could be exceptions.

If they don't draw the headlines -- not many people spend a lot of time examining line play -- then the rookie receivers figure to. Particularly Detroit's Johnson, the second overall selection in April; Chicago's Olsen, a tight end adding another dimension to the Bears' attack; Gonzalez, who would seem to fit the Colts' offense perfectly with his ability to gain first downs; and Jones, a third-rounder from an obscure school (Lane) who has a knack for kick returns, too.

Johnson is expected to be so good as a pro that the Lions aren't ridiculed for taking yet another first-round wideout. The 6-5, 239-pound playmaker has the advantage of playing for a creative coordinator, Mike Martz, and with productive receivers Roy Williams and Mike Furrey.

Olsen brings the kind of pass-catching skills at his position that Chicago hasn't had, well, since Da Coach was Da Tight End.

"He's a great player, he's fit in real well, he's a smart guy," quarterback Rex Grossman says. "He's picked up the offense real well, and he's got unbelievable athletic ability. He's a weapon that we're going to use."

Gonzalez might be the perfect slot receiver for Peyton Manning -- as if the star quarterback doesn't have enough weapons. If Gonzalez gets open in anything like the fashion he did at Ohio State, Manning will throw to him.

"I feel like I know what everything is, it's a matter of processing it quick enough," Gonzalez says. "If you give me five minutes to do it, I can probably figure it out. But obviously you don't have that much time. You have maybe a second. The challenge for me is recognizing things quick enough."

Jones didn't start playing football until his junior year of high school and got a track scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana before transferring to Lane. He was only 5-7, 165 pounds when he graduated from high school; he's now 6-2, 210.

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