The 2014 season is winding down, and the rookies have nearly a full pro season under their belts. I caught up with a few members of Atlanta's 2014 draft class to get their perspectives on their development this season.
Most of the rookies feel like they've adjusted pretty well to the speed of the game. Ra'Shede Hageman is just trying to make the most out of the snaps he gets, especially on special teams, where he's blocked three field goal or PAT attempts this season. "Me, just being a first year player, I don't get as many reps as I want to," Hageman said. "So I take full advantage of them especially when I'm out there blocking field goals.
Prince Shembo was drafted as an outside linebacker after playing the position throughout his career at Notre Dame, so he was not only adjusting to the speed of the pro game, but also looking at the game from an entirely different vantage point. "See, the speed of the game is a little different, because it's like I'm looking at it from a different perspective than what I was looking at in college," Shembo said. "So before I was looking from the side, so it was real simple, but now I'm looking at it from the middle, so it's like it's a complete different view. So I remember in camp, the speed of the game, I was like, "What the..." but that's because I didn't know what I was looking at."
Shembo had played inside linebacker before, but not since he was a freshman in high school. That's made for a big adjustment for the rookie, and he has managed the transition nicely. It is a big difference for Shembo, though. "In high school it's go, see ball, get ball," Shembo said. "It doesn't matter what you're doing. You have this hole, but a ball over there, go. But it's going to come with time."
Rookie safety Dezmen Southward has gotten some game experience because of injuries, and he's certainly developing. Southward relies on his work ethic to help him along. "I think I've adjusted a lot, just I think most of it comes from practicing hard and watching film and understanding what's going on from the vets," Southward said. "I think obviously it's still a work in progress. I think I've played decent, but nowhere near where I want to be. That's why you come in and work every day and work as hard as you can. So I plan to keep doing that and see where I go."
Running back Devonta Freeman feels like he's adjusted to the speed of the pro game very well. Freeman has remarkable instincts and vision, something that can't be taught, which gave him an advantage in the transition to the NFL. "Yeah, it's a little different," Freeman said about the speed of the game. "I feel like I've adapted to the speed very well, but last year around this time we were still practicing for the championship and stuff, so my season was still going, and plus...in college, practice is tougher than the NFL practice, but it's because it's more of a business here."
It's true that the NFL does place limits on padded practices that don't exist in the same way at the college level. Freeman said it has been beneficial for him. "I feel healthier now than I did in college last year because of all the banging," Freeman said. "There's not much banging."
As far as the speed of the game and Freeman's adjustment to it, though, he believes it's gone well. "But just the speed and the knowledge of the game - the knowledge part, I definitely feel like I'm coming along very well with it," Freeman said.
While the lack of padded practices is refreshing for Freeman, players whose programs had a bowl game at the end of the 2013 season and who then had to prepare for the NFL Draft really haven't had a break. "I mean, maybe next year I might feel healthier," Shembo said, "but you've got to remember, we've been going since college, so it's actually been a little bit different for us."
Southward echoed Shembo's perspective, though he did say that easing up on contact in practice allows players to be fresher for game day. "For me, I've pretty much been going two years straight and I haven't had a break, so my body is pretty banged up right now, but you definitely can tell a difference," Southward said. "You get a chance to get ready for the game, just getting a chance to get your legs back throughout the week instead of banging them up all the time."
As far as his development, Southward is pleased with how this season has gone for him, but he recognizes the need to keep working hard. "You can't be satisfied with saying, 'Oh, I've come along faster than people thought that I would have,'" Southward said. "I still have light years to go, and I understand that, and I have to take the things that are good with a grain of salt and understand I have to continue to work."
Shembo said that his understanding of the pro game and how he needs to prepare for each opponent is getting better every week, but he wants to keep learning. "I'm still learning. I'm going to be learning every day," Shembo said. "So some things are starting to look real familiar than before, and I've got to keep on studying."
Freeman said that his understanding of the game has improved, particularly in terms of keeping up in the huddle. "I feel like everybody's clicking now. It's late in the season, of course. The more you keep guys around, the more I play, the more I get under Matt Ryan, something like that, I understand what he's saying," Freeman says. "He speaks so fast in the huddle, he doesn't have time to say, "Hey, Devonta, you've got to check down, you've got that mike there." So I feel like I had to take a little extra time out and learn myself and try to help myself prepare, but I feel like we're all clicking together though."
Freeman also likes the chemistry on the team at this point in the season. "I feel like everybody's improving on our team, man," Freeman said. "I'm starting to feel like they get it now - like everybody gets it, everybody's buying into what Coach Smith is trying to get us to buy into."