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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Never mind a scorecard, it's hard to tell the rookies without a playbook

Many draftees, particularly those taken after the first two rounds, are finding their new teams' playbooks hard to come by, thanks to the lockout. Like a good quarterback, they're having to scramble.

May 21, 2011|Sam Farmer
  • Lions rookie receiver Titus Young, left, listens to veteran receiver Nate Burleson during an informal workout on Tuesday at Country Day School near Detroit.
Lions rookie receiver Titus Young, left, listens to veteran receiver Nate… (Carlos Osorio / Associated…)

For NFL rookies, football has become a game of haves versus have-nots.

Do you have a playbook or not?

With team facilities shut and no contact with coaches allowed, players are left to improvise in order to prepare for the season — whenever that may come.

Chances are, if a player was drafted in the first or second round, he has a playbook. But with later-round picks — selected after the briefly-lifted lockout was put back in place — all bets are off.

Consider Jamie Harper, a Clemson running back taken in the fourth round by Tennessee. He attended the NFL Players Rookie Premier in Los Angeles this week, an annual event at which trading-card photos are shot, and was hoping to take a glimpse of the playbook given to quarterback Jake Locker, the Titans' first-round pick. Alas, Locker didn't bring it.

"It's kind of like blind man's bluff, not knowing when the lockout is going to be over," Harper. "You're just trying to get as prepared as you can before you get thrown in the fire. You've just got to trust each other right off the bat and hope that everybody can get on one page somehow, some way."

Harper said the plan is for Locker to get him a copy soon "and we're going to get in touch with a couple of veterans and just attach ourselves to them, try to get as much knowledge as possible. We're going to try to latch on and trust what's in the system very quick."

Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder, taken 12th by Minnesota, said he's one of only two Vikings offensive players with a playbook, seeing as Bill Musgrave was hired as offensive coordinator after last season. Ponder intends to distribute copies to his new teammates when they meet in Tampa next week for a player-run camp.

"The good thing is, a lot of stuff that we did at Florida State is the same stuff, concept-wise, that we're doing in Minnesota," he said. "For me, I'm used to the reads and everything. It's just getting used to terminology."

That playbook is seldom out of reach.

"I keep it in my backpack," he said. "So when I get bored on the plane, I'll pull it out and study it. I've brought it everywhere I've gone. Hopefully I don't lose it."

Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a second-round pick by San Francisco, will be running a completely different offense under new Coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, both of whom were at Stanford last year. Kaepernick has a 49ers playbook and has been trying to get hold of Stanford game tapes to be as prepared as possible.

"I want to be able to know exactly what's going on, so I don't have to think about it out there," Kaepernick said. "Once you get on the field, you don't have a lot of time to think about, 'All right, this route combination means this, this is my progression. . . .' You just want to go out and play."

Riding it out

The NFL Players Assn. has long advised players to save their money in case of a protracted lockout, something that looks much more realistic in light of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling last week favoring the owners.

The Titans' Harper, for one, is watching every dime. First, he doesn't have much to spend because no team can sign its rookies, but he's also grown accustomed to a very simple lifestyle.

For the last few weeks, he's been living with his family — 10 people sharing a three-bedroom trailer in Jacksonville, Fla. He doesn't have any wheels, either.

"I've never had a car, and I still don't," he said. "If I can't catch a ride somewhere, I'll get up and walk. . . . Everybody asks me what's my first car going to be, that's usually the first thing guys get. But I'm not in too much of a rush to get something I've never had before."

Whether he changes his mind when those checks eventually start rolling in remains to be seen, but he sounds as if he's taking an eyes-wide-open approach to his future.

"Everybody knows the NFL stands for Not For Long," he said. "The average career is like 3 1/2 years. That money goes out as fast as it comes in."

From hunter to the hunted

Larry Fitzgerald is still south of 30 — he turns 28 in August — but the Pro Bowl receiver is, in a sense, already starting to hear footsteps.

"When I was younger I was hunting; I'm being hunted now," he said. "Every year guys are coming in that are younger, faster, quicker, more athletic, and hungry to take my job. I'm feeling now like I'm being chased and I have to improve. I'm working on nuances and things to be a better route runner and learn the game conceptually. There's always room for improvement."

Fitzgerald has caught at least 90 balls in each of the last four seasons. With the Cardinals' quarterback carousel last season, though, he caught just only touchdown passes, after reeling in a total 35 over the previous three years.

"I'm at that point in my career where I feel my athletic ability has reached its apex, and my mental knowledge is right there," he said. "I feel like the time is now. That's why I'm so anxious to get to free agency so we can really address our needs. There's only a certain amount of years you have when you're that way before the balance tips."

Last season, the NFC West became the first division in the modern era to send a losing team to the playoffs. Seattle made it at 7-9.

So, Larry, seeing as three teams have uncertain quarterback situations, is the NFC West the league's most fluid division?

"Yes," he said. "Fluidly bad."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesfarmer

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