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Werner eager for next step in rookie initiation

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He’s survived hazing, the first two weeks of training camp and the grind of learning a new position.

Now, Bjoern Werner is ready for the next rite of passage in his fledgling NFL career: playing in a preseason game.

Not surprisingly, the rookie outside linebacker can’t wait for the opportunity.

“Yeah, that’s awesome,” said Werner, who will make his Indianapolis Colts debut in Sunday’s exhibition opener against the Buffalo Bills. “I just try to do my best, and hopefully I (can) get as much playing time as I can.”

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, Werner — the Colts’ first-round draft choice — likely will see extensive action when the Bills visit Lucas Oil Stadium at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Moreover, he’ll do so in a dramatically new role.

An All-American defensive end at Florida State, Werner has transitioned to outside linebacker, where he’ll menace ball-carriers and quarterbacks from an “up” position instead of a three-point stance.

Although the mechanics are new, the path he’s taken is not. Teammate Robert Mathis and former Colts star Dwight Freeney made the same transition last year.

So far, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Werner has had few problems adjusting.

“Whatever the coaches think is best is going to be the best,” said Werner, the 24th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. “They brought me here for a reason, and if I’m going to have to learn, I have to learn. I love being in that position. It’s a lot of fun.

“And I have Robert Mathis there. I can learn a lot.”

Werner has leaned heavily on Mathis, an 11-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowler, who made the Pro Bowl last year after his first season at outside linebacker.

The moral of the story: You’re never too old to learn — and master — something new.

“He always tells me, ‘I was there last year,’ and he was a 10-year veteran last year, so he had to make that big jump, too,” Werner said. “It’s not easy, but you just want to do it and keep working. It’s going to be fine. You’re going to improve every day, if you want to.

“And never look back. Just look forward, even if you have bad days.”

Coach Chuck Pagano insists Werner hasn’t had too many of those. Though Werner is a work in progress, Pagano has no complaints about the pace of the rookie’s learning curve.

“He’s got a long way to go, as we know, going from a guy that played with his hand in the dirt and very rarely stood up at outside linebacker. We know that,” Pagano said. “We did it with two guys (Mathis and Freeney) that played with their hand in the dirt for a long, long time last year. The transition is never easy, but Bjoern’s a very smart guy.

“We said back in the offseason program, the OTAs and minicamp, he adapted pretty quickly. But just the technical things, the fundamental things, he’s doing well, but he’s got work to do.”

Werner doesn’t mind the work, especially now that football is his full-time job.

“The first week of NFL training camp, it’s really physical, longer days, a lot of meetings. It drains you, but it’s a lot of fun,” Werner said. “This is a job right now. In college you’re like, ‘Oh, I have to train and have to go to school.’ I’m going to keep going, just football, football, football, and that’s awesome.

“Like you can focus on only one thing. I love it so far.”

Defensive end Cory Redding, a 12-year veteran, is impressed by Werner’s progress and is, like the coaches, eager to see how the rookie performs in his preseason debut.

“I’m expecting to see what I’ve been seeing the last week in practice,” Redding said. “Being very physical on the edge, demanding some presence in the pocket whenever he’s pass-rushing, covering guys on the back end and doing a good job with that. He’s learned a lot, and he’s improved so much, has a lot of talent and skills.

“Can’t wait to see Bjoern go out there and tear it up.”

Werner, too, looks forward to the next step in his NFL initiation. During camp, he’s cheerfully endured the rookie tradition of carrying veterans’ jerseys — primarily those of Mathis and Redding — to the practice field each day and serenading the team with the German-language 1980s new wave hit “99 Luftballons.”

He took solace in the fact teammates didn’t boo, and he has no problems hauling the gear for the elder statesmen.

“If that’s hazing, I’ll take it,” Werner said. “It’s not that bad, really not that bad.”

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