KANSAS CITY — A common assumption is that the biggest difference between college football and the NFL is between the white lines. The game is faster, and the players bigger and stronger.
Well, Dontari Poe has the physical part down already.
The biggest difference for the Chiefs' first-round draft pick has been mental.
"It's a steep learning curve right now. It's the NFL," Poe said after the Chiefs practiced on a blistering Tuesday morning. "There are certain ways to do things, certain steps, certain places to be at certain times, and I'm just trying to get that part of it."
At least he's had that chance.
Second-round pick Jeff Allen, fifth-round selection De'Quan Menzie and sixth-round choice Cyrus Gray all missed the contact portion of practice Tuesday.
Allen is out with a hurt left ankle, even though the offensive guard walked around without the boot that he was wearing last week. Gray joined fellow running back Jamaal Charles off to the side with a hamstring injury, and Menzie is also out with a hamstring injury.
The time they've missed has given others an opportunity to shine.
Third-round draft pick Donald Stephenson has been working with the backup offensive line, while wide receiver Devon Wylie — the Chiefs' fourth-round pick — has been working out of the slot in a similar capacity to the Patriots' Wes Welker, to whom he's often compared.
But the biggest impression made by the rookies has been Poe, and not just because he stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 346 pounds — the heaviest player on the roster by more than 10 pounds.
The No. 11 overall pick has been already spent time working with the starting unit, and on Tuesday he was a staple of sub packages, getting a big push up front. Several times he was able to get his hands on Matt Cassel before the Chiefs' quarterback got rid of the ball.
"As a defensive lineman, you work so hard to get there, but not being able to hit them is a let-down," Poe said with a smile. "But you have to practice."
Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said that Poe has been receptive to what the coaching staff has been trying to get through. Kansas City runs a 3-4 defense and two-gaps with its defensive tackle, which means Poe has had to learn an entirely new technique from what he used at Memphis.
"He's trying to do what we're coaching him to do," Crennel said. "The thing is, if you remember what I told you after we drafted him, him being able to assimilate into our program is critical. It looks like he's more than willing to try to do it the way we want to do it, so I think he'll pay dividends in training camp."
Poe's draft stock rose considerably at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where he ran a sub-5-second 40-yard dash and bench pressed 225 pounds an astonishing 44 times. Scouts were sent looking for more game tape of him, and were left to decide what the fluke was: the numbers that he put up at the combine or the relatively modest numbers he put up during his college career.
His physical attributes made many presume that Poe would be a run-stuffing defensive tackle, but the Chiefs have already tried to use him to rush the quarterback during practice.
"In the situation that we're in right now, we've lost a couple guys, particularly (Wallace) Gilberry, who was our sub rusher, so now we have to plug somebody in there," Crennel said. "He's got the ability that you might want to plug in there."
Wylie has made a few impressive grabs during the opening week of organized team activities, and has shown no ill effects from the litany of injuries that plagued him at Fresno State.
Like Poe, he said the biggest adjustment to life in the NFL has been mental.
"Picking up the offense, knowing the details of your assignment, getting on the same page as the quarterback," Wylie said. "We've been here two weeks and we've learned an entire new offense, and then you have to learn details of your routes. It's getting to the point where you know what you can do so you can do it fast and do it to the best of your ability."
Most of the rookies have been relying on veterans for help.
Poe's locker in the corner of the Chiefs' locker room sits next to Tamba Hali, the Chiefs' best pass rusher and one of the league's top outside linebackers. Wylie is often chatting with wide receiver Steve Breaston, who has also played a bit at slot receiver.
"We're trying to win games and go to the Super Bowl," said Charles, who still hasn't been cleared to practice after tearing his ACL last season. "That's what we're trying to tell the young guys."