Coach John Fox has a reputation for only grudgingly playing rookies. Not necessarily true. What is true is that even high draft picks are virtually never handed a starting job from day one, as wide receiver Kevin White is discovering.
Under Fox, Denver Broncos top picks Bradley Roby (2014, No. 31) and Sylvester Williams (2013, No. 28) each played 16 games as rookies but rarely started. Julius Thomas (2011, fourth round), who became a two-time Pro Bowl tight end, started just one game as a rookie.
The Bears invested the No. 7 pick of the 2015 draft in a wide receiver who has not cracked the starting lineup on a team with significant needs at the wideout position.
This is not a bad thing. Handing a starting job to a rookie based on draft investment is.
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When the Bears drafted Brian Urlacher No. 9 overall in 2000, he was announced as starting linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day. Disaster. Halfway through the preseason, Urlacher was beaten out and didn’t return to the starting lineup until an injury at middle linebacker let him back on the field.
White hasn’t been handed a starting job, consigned to the No. 2 unit behind Alshon Jeffery (who did not wrest his starting job from Devin Hester until three games into 2012), Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson. To his credit, White hasn’t expected to be handed a job just so the organization could justify his draft status.
“Oh yeah, yeah, I'm ready, I just have to get better, and everything will take care of itself,” White said during this week’s OTA’s. “I'm not looking too far ahead, though."
The only rookie who has spent appreciable time with the No. 1’s has been nose tackle Eddie Goldman, taken in the second round. And nothing definitive should really be taken from pad-less practices in June, regardless of position.
Goldman and White are expected to secure starting jobs before the end of the preseason. But as bad as the 2014 Bears were, they were perhaps not so bad that any highly regarded high-pick rookie can just show up and start. Predictably, the worse the team, the sooner the high draft pick starts.
After a 2-14 season with Tampa Bay, Lovie Smith has had No. 1-overall Jameis Winston working with both the 1’s and 2’s but is expected to lock in behind Winston at No. 1 for training camp, if not sooner. The 2-14 Tennessee Titans installed Marcus Mariota as the day one starter after selecting him No. 2.
Fox is not averse to starting rookies early. He put one at the top of the day one depth chart when he took over the Carolina Panthers, who were coming off a 1-15 season in 2001. Von Miller was an opening-day starter for Fox and the 2011 Denver Broncos.
“I can’t recall at the receiver position, right off the top of my head, but there’s been other positions,” Fox said. “When we drafted Julius Peppers [No. 2 overall at Carolina in 2002] early in my head coaching career, he was a starter from Day 1.”