At this point, rookies are 14 games into their first season and have a pretty good idea of what the NFL is all about. They've adjusted to the speed and the routine, and in most cases have accrued the proper experience vital to taking the next step in this league.
Lions rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai has played in all 14 games for the Lions and taken part in roughly 59 percent of Detroit's defensive snaps (582) as both a starter and key rotational player throughout the year.
After a little over four months of football, including August's training camp, how is Tavai a better player now than he was when the Lions kicked off camp?
"I think me seeing things with a bigger picture, instead of me locked in on certain things," Tavai said when asked that question this week.
"My biggest thing that I was struggling with in training camp was play action, because I was locked on o-linemen and I guess I got too attached to trying to come downhill. As the weeks came over – these (veteran linebackers) helped me out – just seeing the bigger picture, like, 'OK, don't just get locked on the center. See what's over here. See if there's a tight end coming around.' Seeing the bigger picture and having better vision."
It was something Tavai was conscious of improving even before he got to Detroit. He says landing on a team with veteran linebackers like Jarrad Davis and Christian Jones to help him along the way in that regard has been a huge benefit for him through the course of his first season.
With Davis placed on IR last week, Tavai got the start at the MIKE vs. Tampa Bay and played the most snaps he's played all year (70 of a possible 75). Tavai's expected to get the start Sunday in Denver, and should finish the year getting a ton of playing time right in the middle of the Lions' defense.
"Every game is important," Tavai said. "I have to put good film out there, regardless. Nobody's job is ever secure. I have to keep proving to the coaches and the other 10 guys on the field that I belong out there and I'm going to work my tail off to earn their trust every play."
Coaches and teammates have certainly taken notice of the second-round pick's progress through the year.
"I really believe that the game is slowing down for him," defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said of his rookie linebacker. "He's doing a really, really good job of making adjustments and alignments, and trying to help the front get lined up when we do have to adjust a little bit.
"I think he's really growing. He's doing a good job with the speed of the game, and like a lot of great players, as they get older and they mature, things slow down for them, and they are able to play at a fast pace."
Tavai is the only rookie in the NFL to post at least 50 tackles, five tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and one interception this season, the latter coming on the Bucs' first drive of the game last week. He's the first rookie linebacker in team history to post that stat line.
Tavai will continue to grow and develop these last two weeks, as he's expected to get plenty of playing time. He's come a long way since August, and the Lions are hoping he finishes the year strong as a starter and uses it as a springboard heading into the offseason and 2020.
SOMEWHAT FAMILIAR FOE
Denver is an AFC West team, and only get into the Lions' playing rotation every four years. When teams face an unfamiliar opponent like this, there's more work that goes into the prep week.
Detroit does have the benefit, however, of Denver being a Vic Fangio-coached squad. The Lions are familiar with Fangio, who spent the last four years as the Chicago Bears defensive coordinator. Lions quarterback David Blough said Fangio's defense in Denver is very similar to the one he ran in Chicago, with the difference obviously being the personnel running it.
"Yeah, based on what we've seen on tape, it looks pretty similar," Blough said. "Some of the same pressures, some of the same coverages and styles they play in the coverage. We'll be looking forward to the opportunity – kind of familiar with him although we haven't seen Denver very much."
Denver's defense ranks 10th in points allowed (20.3) and 13th overall (337.4).
THIN ON D
Linebacker Devon Kennard (hamstring) and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson (shoulder) sat out their second straight day of practice for the Lions on Thursday, which puts their availability for Sunday into question.
Add Kennard and Robinson to a long list of defenders who are either currently battling injuries or have had their seasons ended due to injury.
Detroit's already lost linebacker Jarrad Davis, defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand, defensive tackle Mike Daniels, defensive tackle Darius Kilgo and defensive tackle Kevin Strong to IR.
Linebacker Christian Jones missed last week's game and is limited in practice this week with a shoulder injury.
Of the 11 players that started on defense Week 1 in Arizona, Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Darius Slay, Justin Coleman and Tracy Walker are the only ones not on the injury report.