Welcome, rook, here's your helmet and pads -- now get in there
By Daniel Brown
Mercury News

Kids these days. They grow up so fast.

Vernon Davis scored the first time he touched the ball for the 49ers. Marques Colston has touchdown catches in his first two games for the surprising New Orleans Saints. Haloti Ngata intercepted a pass in his debut, joining Pro Bowl players Ray Lewis and Chris McAlister as the only Baltimore Ravens to do so.

This is an NFL youth movement with an emphasis on movement. Rookies are on the field more than ever, according to a study by Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys executive turned senior analyst for NFL.com.

``I think colleges are doing a much better job of preparing players for the NFL,' Brandt said from his Dallas office Tuesday.

Rookies started a record 750 games last season, said Brandt, who began tracking the numbers as the Cowboys' director of player personnel in 1960-89. The previous rookie record was 719 starts, in 2004. The record before that was 713, in 2003.

Anyone see a trend?

``Players today are playing football year-round when they're growing up,' Brandt said. ``There is no off-season at the high school and college level, between the lifting and voluntary practices. When they arrive at an NFL complex, you're getting a more complete player.'

Of the five running backs taken in the first round of April's draft, four scored touchdowns Sunday. The one who didn't, the Saints' Reggie Bush, is a safe bet to reach the end zone soon.

Bush leads NFL rookies with 120 receiving yards. Just 13 yards behind him is Colston, a seventh-rounder whom the Saints took 250 spots after taking Bush at No. 2.

In all, 34 rookies started in Week 1 (not including three kickers). According to Brandt, that is the second-highest total since the arrival of the salary cap in 1995. The high was 35, in 2001.

The salary cap, of course, helps explain the presence of so many young players on NFL rosters. This year's cap is $102 million, so on cut-down day a team might prefer the player making the rookie minimum ($275,000) rather than the 10-year veteran ($810,000 minimum).

Then again, there is a flip side to a very expensive coin. Not every rookie makes a pittance. Davis, the No. 6 overall pick for the 49ers, is the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, with a contract of five years and $23 million. That comes a year after the 49ers gave quarterback Alex Smith a five-year, $49.5 million contract as the No. 1 overall pick.

``A high-round draft choice has got to play,' 49ers Coach Mike Nolan said. ``They make a lot of money and they need to be on the field. You like to think it's because they are better, but it could also just be because of your team's need.'

So rather than waiting behind a veteran in hopes of a big break, a rookie sometimes serves an apprenticeship that lasts as long as the national anthem. Of the 255 players drafted last April, 215 made opening-week rosters, according to Brandt.

The Buffalo Bills started four rookies on defense against Miami in Week 2, and the unit limited the Dolphins to six points in a surprise victory. Manny Lawson, the 49ers' other first-round pick, had two sacks in an upset of the St. Louis Rams.

Offensive lineman Ryan O'Callaghan, a fifth-rounder from Cal, started for the New England Patriots and helped block for Laurence Maroney, a first-rounder sharing running-back duties with Corey Dillon. Maroney's first career carry (in Week 1) went for 27 yards, longer than all but two of the Patriots' rushes in 2005.

In recent years, rookie exploits have become so common that it's hard to raise eyebrows. When Davis scored the first time he touched the ball in the NFL, he became the first 49ers rookie to do so since . . . a year earlier, when Otis Amey did it.

Davis had five catches in Week 1. Only one other rookie tight end since 1970 had five catches and a touchdown in his first NFL game. It happened . . . way back on Jan. 2, 2005, when the Chargers' Ryan Krause did it.

Brandt credited the surge to improved weight-room facilities at colleges, as well as the sophisticated schemes used at many top programs. Pass protection, in particular, has taken a quantum leap in recent years, which is why many offensive linemen are now capable of starting immediately.

The question is whether being thrown into the NFL fire -- at any position -- is good or bad for a player's development.

``It's good for their development. I don't know it's necessarily good for your team,' Nolan said. ``In a perfect world, if you're a really good team, all of your rookies are backups.'

The 49ers, like every other team, hope that their productive rookies grow into even more productive veterans, which is how Pittsburgh home-cooked itself a Super Bowl victory. The Steelers had 19 starters last season who were either drafted or signed as rookie free agents, the highest total by any of the past 10 Super Bowl winners.

In a copycat league, it doesn't take long for others to catch on. The Bills, Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs kept their entire draft class. The Green Bay Packers kept 11 draft choices and three undrafted free agents.

``The trend of increasing rookie games is not going away any time soon,' Brandt said. ``If your best player is a rookie, you're going to play him because he's going to help you win.'

Contact Daniel Brown at [email protected]