Tennessee Titans receiver Kenny Britt was one of the 2009 draft picks featured in a preseason show called, Hey, Rookie, Welcome to the NFL. The TV show was fine, but it was nothing compared to the real learning experience Britt and his Titans draft classmates went through as the season unfolded.
To say the least, it was an eye-opening welcome, and it goes far beyond Britt's 42 receptions and a team-best 701 receiving yards.
Britt and his fellow rookies had to learn everything in a hurry — from the Titans playbook all the way to how to treat your newfound lucrative career as a professional.
"I learned so much, everything like time management, and the things that I put first in my life, especially coming in from college as a 20-year-old with millions of dollars," Britt says. "All you want to do is have fun. It's like I get out of practice and I want to go play games, or go to the mall and run around, and things like that.
"But you learn fast that that's not going to happen, especially in camp when you've got to learn a whole new system and a whole new offense — the playbook. You've got to be a professional."
The team's first-rounder also learned he had to polish and protect his hottest commodity: himself.
"When you get through with practice, you've got to get in the ice tub and take care of your body. You've got to do this for several weeks, because that's something you don't do in college. You don't go 16 games and then the playoffs," he says. "So I've learned to rest my body and take care of my body."
Britt showed enough for the Titans to believe he has a bright future, and that his upside is high.
"Kenny had a productive year. He's got a long way to go and a lot of room for improvement," Titans coach Jeff Fisher says. "He showed flashes throughout the year of why we drafted him. I think he's got the potential to be a good receiver."
One of the toughest things for any rookie, sometimes even a top draft choice like Britt, is simply getting the opportunity to take that knowledge acquired on the practice field and apply it in game situations. For Britt, the opportunity was readily available. As a first-round pick, he quickly settled in as the Titans' third receiver, but also made six starts — including the season opener at Pittsburgh — because of injuries to Nate Washington and Justin Gage.
As he settled in, Britt says his confidence, and the feeling that he really belonged in the NFL, grew.
"I made enough plays to get my confidence up. I've got coaches that stand behind my back and give me another confidence boost," Britt says. "It lets me know I belong here. Consistency is everything, and that's what I'm going to be working on next year – catching balls and running the right routes, and getting in and out of my breaks."
As simple as that might sound, confidence is one of the key traits the rookies talk about in their evolution process from college standout to professional contributor.
Linebacker Gerald McRath, a fourth-round pick from Southern Miss, saw his confidence grow as he was thrust into the lineup starting five games for an injured David Thornton. It was McRath who sealed the season finale at Seattle for the Titans with a fourth-quarter interception.
"You hate the circumstances that caused you to play, but the experience has allowed me to almost grow up and kind of get your confidence up," McRath says, speaking of injuries to Thornton and Keith Bulluck. "That's the biggest thing. You can practice as much as you want, and it's good — practice makes you better — but getting in the game and actually being able to carry over the stuff in practice is real big for a guy's confidence and self-motivation."
Britt and McRath were the Titans' two biggest contributors as rookies, and they enjoyed their fair share of early success. Not all Tennessee rookies were so fortunate. Especially cornerback Ryan Mouton, a third-round pick, whose tumultuous first season included such lowlights as two fumbled kick returns that cost the Titans a win against the New York Jets, and getting a fiery baptism (along with fellow rookie cornerback Jason McCourty) as David Garrard, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady took turns shredding the Tennessee pass defense as the team sank to 0-6.
Certainly it was the low point of the season, but Mouton remains optimistic that he is on the right track long-term, despite his rookie problems.
"We got thrown into the fire early. We learned a lot, playing Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Now, we're just preparing for the next time we're thrown in there," he says.
Even the hurt of his role in the loss to the Jets is something Mouton has been able to put into perspective.
"Of course, it was tough in the Jets game. But guys here told me, 'You've got to put that behind you and get ready for the next play, really,' " he says. "I've learned a lot from that, and hey, hopefully, I can get another shot to return, because I still feel like I'm capable of doing that.
"I definitely grew up. It helped me grow up, when the pressure is on you like that, and the heat is on you. You have to grow from it. I've taken it for what it was and I moved on."
Fisher says he is pleased with how his rookies dealt with the unexpected 0-6 start. And of course it helped to win 8 of the last 10 games.
"Each one of them has dealt with some kind of issue, but for the most part, they've done a nice job. They don't act like rookies," Fisher says. "They had a unique experience to start the season, and they did not expect that. You can imagine a rookie stepping in the door with high expectations [with us] coming off a 13-3 season, but they hung in there and paid close attention to the vets, and did a nice job."
Another rookie who struggled through the growing pains, but for a different reason, is tight end Jared Cook, who had just nine catches this year after being the hit of training camp and preseason.
The Titans, having forfeited their 2010 second-round pick to land Cook last year, are hopeful of bigger things from him in the future. They did see a glimpse of it in perhaps the Titans' most impressive victory of the year, a 20-17 win over Arizona. In that game, Cook caught two key passes for 29 yards in the final Vince Young-engineered 99-yard drive to win the game. Britt stole the show at the end with his leaping touchdown grab as time expired, but Cook's role offered reason for hope.
"He improved over the last month. Those two plays in the two-minute drive showed us what he is capable of doing," Fisher says.
Cook was bothered by injuries, first an ankle near the end of preseason and later a concussion. He says that was the only drawback to his first year.
Sen'Derrick Marks, the team's second-round pick from Auburn, is hoping an off-season regimen with coach Jim Washburn and some time in the weight room will help him improve on a quiet first year. Marks was barely noticeable as a rookie, and more is expected of him. He came on later in the season, getting more playing time after Jason Jones was lost to a shoulder injury and finished with two sacks.
The biggest off-season goal for all the rookies is to do more now that they are no longer rookies. That mission will begin soon.
"I feel like I didn't do as well as I would have liked to do. I want to be a person that can change a game, that can contribute even more than what I did," McRath says. "That being said, I'm ready to work. I know the off-season is where you make your gains, and I plan to live in the weight room and I plan to come back stronger and faster."
Britt agrees, and says he is ready to build on his first year with his sights set on being the Titans' first true No. 1 receiver since Derrick Mason left after 2004.
"Whatever I did this year, I took it as a stepping stone for me. I just wanted to make it a learning year and do better next year," Britt says.
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