Rookie Class has Looked Good Thus Far

Posted Oct 29, 2009

Head Coach Jim Schwartz talked this week about rookie defensive tackle Sammie Hill and the hope of getting him back in time for Sunday’s game against the Rams.

Hill, who has been out since the Lions’ win over the Redskins with an ankle injury, has been practicing for the first time since suffering the setback and is listed as “limited” on the injury report.

“He was making really good strides every week and had a setback with the ankle,” said Schwartz. “He needs to get back on track. He didn’t experience a setback as far as technique or production; it’s just been injury. It’s a critical time for him.”

When the Lions drafted Hill in the fourth round out of Stillman College, their expectations weren’t high in regards to his early contributions. The coaching staff knew he would have more to learn than others based on the fact that he went to a small school.

But Hill surprised the coaches with his ability to pick everything up and was in the starting lineup for Detroit’s Week 1 game at New Orleans.

“From the rookie mini-camps to the OTAs to the mini-camps to training camp, every hurdle we put in front of him, he passed,” said Schwartz. “He adapted quickly, learned quickly and he didn’t get any smaller – he stayed as big as he is.”

If Hill is able to play this week, he will be a welcomed sight – particularly with St. Louis running back Steven Jackson to contend with.

“He’s a big guy that can play,” said linebacker Larry Foote. “It was a good draft choice for us. He’s a force inside and he’s just going to get better. He’s just a rookie and we missed him when he was gone, no doubt about it – just like other injuries we had on the team. But Sammie is proving to be a good choice so far.”

The Lions have at least one rookie contributing in every facet of the game so far this season with the exception of those who have been out with injury.

At quarterback, tight end, receiver and running back are Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Derrick Williams and Aaron Brown. At defensive line, linebacker and defensive back are Sammie Hill, DeAndre Levy and Louis Delmas.

On special teams is linebacker Zack Follett and tight end Dan Gronkowski is on the practice squad. With the exception of tackle Lydon Murtha, who was signed by Miami from the Lions’ practice squad last week, every player drafted in 2009 is contributing in one way or another.

“Let’s wait 10 more games before we talk about being pleased or not because there’s a long way to go,” said Schwartz. “But I think we drafted well. I think the guys fit what we do, they’ve been productive and those guys who are out there playing – they’re not just playing because we drafted them and because they’re rookies.

“They’ve all earned their way into those spots, they’ve all been productive when they’ve been out there and they’ve gotten more to do as they’ve gone along.”

Each of Detroit’s top six draft choices – Stafford, Pettigrew, Delmas, Levy, Williams and Hill – have started or are starters (Williams as the team’s kick returner).

Schwartz is pleased to see those players contributing because success in the draft is what will ultimately create the foundation for a successful team.

“I’m real impressed with the rookies,” said center Dominic Raiola. “I’m excited because they care about their job and if they have a mess-up or a hiccup they know what they need to do to get it better – they’re pretty hard on themselves. I’m excited about that.

“Obviously they’re talented and I think it’s the most rookies we’ve had playing since I’ve been here.”

Is there a downside to having so many young contributors on a team?

The answer is probably yes. Though first-year players are talented enough to play in the NFL, it is a new environment to adjust to.

“I think they know that (there’s an adjustment) just from a college and high school standpoint,” said Foote. “At every level, your first year you’re not going to be as good as your last year there. I think those guys know they’re just going to get better.”

Another element to being an NFL rookie is the fatigue that can develop over the course of the year. These players finish up their college seasons and go right into training for the NFL Combine and personal pro days. From there it is the NFL Draft, mini-camps, OTA days and a short break before training camp begins.

By the time the regular season starts, rookies have been in the grind for a full year.

“There’s a physical nature to it, but there’s also a mental aspect to it of just keeping concentration level for that long,” said Schwartz. “It’s a tiring thing. It’s running a marathon; you need to stay on pace and make sure you’re hitting all your ball marks.

“We do a lot for those guys. We talk to them a lot, we do a lot of stuff for them – manage their off-the-field stuff – because you’re going to rely on those guys to play.”

The Lions will continue to count on their rookies this week and are hoping to get a couple back. In addition to Hill, the hope is to see Stafford back under center.

Stafford has been limited in practice this week and the team is prepared for any of Detroit’s three quarterbacks to start against the Rams.

“I think they’re all capable of playing, that’s why you keep players on your roster that are capable of doing it,” said Raiola. “The important thing is the snap count and all that, they all are pretty true to that, so that helps me. They’re all ready to go I think.”

Stafford and his fellow rookies have shown abilities to play at the NFL level and, as the season goes on, are continuing to show that the Lions made good decisions in April.

“They are out there helping us make plays,” said Foote. “Those guys are learning the system out there. When you’ve got rookies out there they must be doing something right.”