A disturbing trend of rookie injuries continued in May when third-round pick Brock Williams suffered an ACL injury during passing camp.
Williams, who had to wait for the swelling to go down before he could undergo surgery at the end of June, is expected to miss at least the majority of the season, if not the entire year. He is the second Day One draft pick in two years to go down during non-contact, offseason practices.
In the last two years, New England has been particularly snake-bitten by injuries to draft picks during non-contact workouts. Last year tackle Adrian Klemm was lost for most of the season after suffering a knee injury on the final day of mini-camp. Running back J.R. Redmond missed the final day of mini-camp and the start of training camp with a groin injury.
The problems didn't stop there. Tight end Dave Stachelski hurt his knee during rookie orientation, which limited him during mini-camp. He then missed much of training camp with a foot problem. Finally, defensive lineman David Nugent missed mini-camp with a leg injury. This year tight ends Arther Love (groin) and Jabari Holloway (hamstring) were both limited because of minor problems.
With these examples and more available, why would rookies risk anything without a contract in place?
From a mental standpoint, the players to a man say they can't even let thoughts of injury into their mind. The attitude is that workouts and mini-camp come with the job, and players, especially rookies, generally can't afford to miss any time with the team for any reason.
"Playing the game is natural, and this is what I would be doing if I was still in college," said first-round pick Richard Seymour. "However, at this level this is how you bring home the bread right here, and it's not a laughing matter. I'm not going out thinking that I am going to get hurt, and I just have to hope only the best things happen."
Even still, rookies without a contract stand to lose a lot if they get seriously injured before they see pay dirt. How can they safeguard against such circumstances? With the help of their agents, rookies set up insurance policies to protect themselves.
"My agents did a good job, and they will take care of the contract," Seymour said. "They already have a structure in place for insurance as far as mini-camp and the other workouts. I'm not really concerned about that stuff right now because I have to worry about going out and competing for a job."
The Patriots also showed they were fair with Klemm, inking him to a deal comparable with the other second-round picks selected near him in 2000. Despite their injuries a year ago, Stachelski and Nugent were signed before training camp, and a deal was made with Redmond after a brief holdout. The Patriots have every intention of giving Williams a fair contract.
There is also more to it than the money. Players also want to be there for their teammates. During last year's training camp, Ty Law's shoulder wasn't fully healthy, but he put surgery off. By the midpoint of the season he knew he had to get something done immediately after the season, but he wasn't going to sit because of the injury.
"I went to war with my guys, even though a lot of people on the business end told me to sit out," Law said. "They said playing wasn't going to do any good. I've been told to sit down, but I just can't do it. My attitude was that we were losing and we weren't doing well, but I was going to be there for my partners. I was going to stick it out. It is just a cop out if you sit out, leave or not play."
Beyond the financial issue, rookies are already behind the eight ball on the learning curve. The reality that professional football is now their full-time job provides a wake-up call.
"Not only do you have to know your position, but you have to know and recognize what the offenses are doing," Seymour said. "You need to know the defensive philosophy in order to understand what the team is trying to accomplish. In college you just had to worry about yourself. At this level you have to know what everyone is doing at their positions around you."
Klemm knows firsthand how difficult that first season is after missing time with injury. After he was activated off the physically unable to perform list on Nov. 1, he practiced with the team for a couple weeks before making his NFL debut at Cleveland in Week 11. He started four of the final five games of the season, but his play was rusty and he admitted feeling lost at times.
"I feel a lot better from the mental standpoint this year because I feel like I am catching on faster because I have been with the program for this whole offseason," Klemm said. "Last year when I was finally healthy, it felt like I was playing catch up the entire time. I had studied film and the playbooks all along, but there is so much you can't learn until you are on the field doing it."
For the rest of the team, there is nothing they can do when teammates get hurt except pick up the pieces and move on.
"I don't really know Brock yet, but obviously they think pretty highly of him if they took him in the third round," Lawyer Milloy said. "But this is football. You can't worry about injuries. You go out and you play hard. Injuries can occur in everyday life. As a team we have to be able to rally around the person who gets hurt, but we still have to move on. We have to help somebody else step up, especially if it is a later round pick who may have been on the bubble before. That person needs to understand that he has a better opportunity now to go in and do the job."