FOXBOROUGH -- Funny P.K. Sam should choose "robotic" to describe his play during the Patriots' rookie minicamp, for as Sam and fellow rookie Cedric Cobbs learned this past weekend at Gillette Stadium, one could use a computer for a brain to upload, process, and apply all the new instructions that come with upgrading to pro football's more sophisticated program.
Sam, a receiver out of Florida State, and Cobbs, a running back out of Arkansas, already know what to do with the football in their hands. The difficulty for most backs and receivers new to the NFL is learning what to do without it. It's not enough to know how to run the plays. They have to be run properly.
"Football is football; your talent eventually shows," said Sam, the Patriots' fifth-round pick. "But right now I feel robotic. I'm thinking too much right now. I'm listening in the huddle and then when I get to the line, I want to make sure I'm lining up properly with my splits. I'm reading coverage a lot more. That's important, because we change routes for certain coverages. It's a new aspect of the game for me, but I'll catch up."
Before Sam can make the kind of acrobatic catches for which he was known at Florida State, he first must learn how to make himself available. During one practice last weekend Sam did not run an out as precisely as offensive coordinator Charlie Weis would have liked. Weis reminded Sam and his fellow receivers, first-year free agent Michael Jennings and tryout Ricky Bryant, to drive off the line, to keep their weight down when breaking down, and not to veer toward the sideline before their break, or else a defender will jump the route.
Sam, 6 feet 3 inches and 210 pounds, also got a lesson on how to use his size from receivers coach Brian Daboll. As the receivers were practicing fade routes, Daboll pulled Sam aside and showed him how to knock down a defender's arm, then how to slow down and use his timing and body to shield a defender from the ball as he's about to make a catch.
"The little things are more important now," Sam said. "Little things you could have gotten away with in college, you can't get away with here."
NFL coaches sweat the small stuff because it makes a big difference. Cobbs made the mistake of drifting ever so slightly on a check-down route over the middle and immediately was made aware of his error by running backs coach Ivan Fears. "You can't lollygag," said Cobbs, the team's fourth-round pick. "Some routes you have to start slow; some plays you have to start fast. You have to know when to do what and how to do it."
Running comes naturally for Cobbs, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection as a senior last year. Running routes, on the other hand, is breaking new ground. The Razorbacks' offense wasn't as complex as the Patriots' and didn't ask as much of its running backs in the passing game. "Most running plays are similar, and they're self-explanatory," Cobbs said. "The passing game is a lot more difficult. In college, we only had two or three different routes we had to run. Here, I don't know how many we have, probably 20. And then you get into different names, numbers, and colors."
"The problems coming from the [backfield]," coach Bill Belichick explained, "are in the passing game, in terms of protection, route running, and handling different coverages so the flow of control is distributed underneath to open up the pattern and not congest it. Backs that don't have a lot of experience with that, that's a big step for them."
Another big part of an NFL running back's job is pass protection, in which awareness is as important as aggressiveness, what with all the moving parts. "A lot of colleges don't have a lot of blitz pickup," Belichick said. "A lot of drop-back blitz pickup type of responsibilities, a lot of times it's play action, and a lot of times, when they do have pickup, the whole line goes one way and the backs go the other. It's pretty well defined. `You go that way and you have the first outside and I have the first guy outside of you.' It's pretty simple.
"In the NFL it's a lot different, it's much more assignment oriented. `You have the Mike [middle linebacker] or the Will [weakside linebacker].' And when the front changes, then you may have a new Will. Or the guy that was a lineman in the new front, he becomes a linebacker, and he's my responsibility, whereas in another position he isn't, even though it's the same guy."
The Patriots have their first passing camp in two weeks. Perhaps by then, Sam and Cobbs, having had two weeks to study the playbook, will look less mechanical and more like the guys New England drafted. . . .
The Patriots announced the signing of two rookie free agents, Hofstra's Bryant, a transfer from Ohio State, and Michigan tight end Andy Mignery. Both were among the five players invited to minicamp for tryouts, along with Harvard linebacker Dante Balestracci, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute quarterback Dan Cole, and Bentley College safety Ryan Ferguson.