Under construction: Chiefs' 17 rookies learning the hard way

Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards jokes with Glenn Dorsey, one of the team's first-round draft picks and one of 17 rookies on the roster. "I always have a list of four or five guys to keep an eye on when I get to work," Edwards said. G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY -- Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards spent most of last week imploring his players to believe in the powerful combination of passion and energy. It was a message he had to impart to a team that had lost its first three games, but it was one that especially needed to be heard by his 17 rookies. Edwards sensed that the abundance of second- and third-year players on his roster would understand his orders. It was those first-year guys whom he had to keep pushing in the right direction.

This is essentially how life works when you're the head coach of a rebuilding franchise. Edwards knew this season would be difficult when he encouraged general manager Carl Peterson and owner Clark Hunt to blow up this veteran-dominated team during the offseason. Now he's realizing just how much is involved in developing so many rookies.

"I always have a list of four or five guys to keep an eye on when I get to work," Edwards said. "They need to feel like they're getting better because sometimes they don't feel that way when they're making mistakes."

Although it's far too early to know what the Chiefs have in a rookie class that was highly touted on draft day -- Kansas City had 12 selections, including two first-round picks that were used on defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and left tackle Branden Albert -- there are indications that this group might have a bright future.

Heading into this weekend's game against the Carolina Panthers, six rookies will be starting while a handful of others will be contributing as backups or on special teams. Yes, Kansas City's 1-3 record appears ugly at this point. But Edwards can find solace in knowing his youngsters are gaining valuable on-the-job training.

In fact, the Chiefs had a number of key contributions from rookies in their 33-19 win over the Denver Broncos in Week 4. Cornerback Brandon Carr intercepted a Jay Cutler pass, recovered a fumble and added three pass deflections. Fellow cornerback
Brandon Flowers added a fumble recovery of his own that set up a Chiefs touchdown. Albert was a valuable member of an offensive line that helped spring running back Larry Johnson for a season-high 198 yards.

That victory was critical for Kansas City because it broke a 12-game losing streak dating back to last season. It also was a valuable opportunity for those rookies to see what it takes to win a game in the NFL. As Edwards told his team during practices last week, success in this league boils down to consistency. The good teams understand that. The bad ones continually find ways to miss the lesson.

So far, Edwards and his older veterans are realizing that these rookies are quickly learning the keys to finding their own way. Albert, in particular, has impressed teammates with the athleticism and intelligence he has brought to the left tackle position. "They're starting to figure out who they are as professionals," said Chiefs guard Brian Waters. "When they first got here, they were looking to the veterans to see how they were supposed to act on this level. Now they're learning to be who they are, which is all we really want them to do."

That developing self-awareness has plenty to do with the hard knocks this team has already faced. Some of these players -- like Dorsey, Albert and wide receiver Will Franklin, a fourth-round pick -- have had to overcome injuries sustained in the preseason. Others have had to find ways to deal with disappointment. For example, Edwards said he actually had to lift the spirits of running back
Jamaal Charles midway through a 38-14 loss to Atlanta on Sept. 21, shortly after Charles had dropped two passes.

Edwards admits that is a common occurrence. He actually spends more time this season hovering around the bench during games than ever before in his head-coaching career. Instead of constantly monitoring the action on the field, he needs to keep his finger on the pulse of his rookies' psyches.

"They're putting a lot of pressure on themselves because they have to help this team win," Edwards said. "It's not like I can go into a drawer and pull out a veteran player when a young guy makes a mistake. These are the guys we're counting on."

Edwards believes that the Week 4 victory over Denver was an important step for his team because he also sensed their energy waning after that loss to the Falcons. Though the Chiefs had been in relatively close games in their first two losses -- they trailed the New England by four points at halftime and the Oakland Raiders by six points after two quarters -- the Atlanta game was 24-7 by the half and Edwards said, "They didn't know what to do." So when Edwards walked into the locker room prior to the Broncos game, he sensed the tension and anxiety wafting through the air like cheap cologne. And he responded by telling his players to relax.

The point Edwards made that day is one he hopes will resonate with his rookies the rest of the season -- that this is simply a game and they're just learning to play it at the highest level. The key is that they play it with high emotion and unbridled passion. That, according to Edwards, is the only way to get through the mistakes that inevitably will be made by first-year players. He's also hoping that approach will give the NFL's most-celebrated draft class of this year a chance to be something special in the years to come.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.