The NFL Combine is teeming with college football's top prospects who dream of becoming the next impact rookie at the professional level.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, who was selected 18th overall by the Ravens last year, was that player. He defied his rookie designation when he led his team to an 11-5 regular-season record and an AFC Championship berth.
Will the Ravens be able to find a rookie to outplay his label in 2009, like Flacco did in his first year?
Flacco didn't perform like a rookie for all of Baltimore's 2008 season, just ask Ray Lewis:
"No," he stated when asked in early December if the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder was still a rookie. "Anytime you come into this business, expectations being what they are and him playing the way he's playing, I don't even think he looks at himself as a rookie. I think he's along for the ride as a teammate, and is just going with the flow."
Flacco didn't perform like a rookie for all of the 2008 season, just look at the statistics:
In the last 11 games of the regular season, the Ravens went 9-2, and he completed 167 of 284 passes, throwing 13 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Flacco even totaled a 90.2 quarterback rating during that span.
In addition, his quarterback rating for road games was 91.7, putting him third in the NFL behind veteran signal callers Chad Pennington and Phillip Rivers.
Those certainly aren't rookie-like numbers.
" … He's even better today than he was yesterday," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron observed of Flacco's growth midway through the season. "I think he's continued to improve."
In the postseason, the quarterback became the first rookie at his position to win two playoff games in league history. Flacco is also the only rookie quarterback to ever win a playoff game on the road.
While his play on the field would like to speak for itself, Flacco can't allow it to stand alone. His numbers and awards this past season will always be connected with "rookie," whether they look like they should be or not.
The designation isn't always unwelcome though, like when Flacco was selected to be the NFL's Rookie of the Week twice in Weeks 8 and 17 and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for November, or when 1,002,500 fans contributed to vote him the Diet Pepsi Rookie of the Year.
But the league also recognized the quarterback with a non-rookie award in the month of November. He was the AFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 9, after he led the Ravens back from a 14-point deficit at Cleveland and finished 17-of-29 for 248 yards and two touchdowns – a performance that foreshadowed Lewis' December comments.
What contributed to Flacco's growth out of first-year status was the amount of playing time he received. His teammates wouldn't let him act like a rookie for long when he was starting every game at quarterback. They needed him to step up and be a leader to win games.
"If you watch the kid, he has a calm, humble spirit about himself," Lewis said of Flacco. "Then when he steps on the field, good or bad, Joe is always Joe. … Once one good play or bad play is gone, let it go. A lot of guys can't do that. Joe has the capability of doing that. And Joe is one of those gifted ones. Joe is going to be a special kid.
"He has every athletic attribute to play the quarterback position the way he plays it, and you can see that in his demeanor when he's on the football field, the way he directs his troops on offense and really gets guys going. And just the way he plays the game, Joe is really one who's special."
Flacco's dedication to sharpening his skill contributed to his development as well. From the very first day of training camp, the signal caller committed himself to practicing like a starter should, with quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson constantly at his side. Neither man was going to let being a rookie limit Flacco's growth.
"I'm going to go out there and act like I am [the starter], just like everybody else should do," Flacco said in July when asked if he could be the starting quarterback by the end of training camp. "I want to go out there and play the way I've always played football, and expect myself to play. I want to go out there and prove to everybody, prove to the coaches most importantly, and myself and my teammates that I can play.
"Obviously, at the end of training camp we're going to find out."
Obviously, the Ravens feel that Flacco has proved himself over and over from training camp to the season finale. He now has a 19-game resume to back those findings.
Few athletes in their first year shape the image of their team like Flacco did, but general manager Ozzie Newsome, along with the Ravens' personnel and coaching staffs, will be probing around Lucas Oil Stadium for other players with that same potential.