History is the best predictor of future results, so today's mission is to understand last year's rookies in order to better understand expectations for this year's rookies. Get it, get it? Got it? Good. I'm only focusing on first-rounders, because I grew lazy. Maybe more later, maybe not.
Ideally, we're trying to answer whether or not these guys can be expected to start. The idea is that if they're likely to start, then you may as well target one of your primary needs. If they're unlikely to start, then it doesn't matter which position you take and there's no sense in targeting needs. BPA v Need in the first round, ya dig? This is the cage match!
I was told that only staffers are allowed to use sortable tables, so this post has three tables since you can't sort them. But thank you to Joeseph Mahoney for helping me figure out how to post these tables in the first place!
The first table here is just the basics for you to skim and get accustomed to. I included their snaps to give you an initial look, and then their PFF grade as a bonus bone to chew on. But don't lose too much focus...
|Name||Draft Rank||Position||Team||Snaps||Snaps Rank||PFF Grade||PFF Rank|
|Eric Fisher||1||T||Kansas City||810||13||-17.30||30|
|Lane Johnson||4||T (RT)||Philadelphia||1127||1||-0.30||13|
|Tavon Austin||8||WR||St. Louis||434||25||2.40||8|
|Dee Millner||9||CB||New York Jets||747||15||-2.10||18|
|DJ Fluker||11||T(RT)||San Diego||1075||3||0.40||11|
|Sheldon Richardson||13||DT/DE||New York Jets||906||12||30.40||1|
|Kenny Vaccaro||15||S||New Orleans||803||14||1.90||9|
|Eric Reid||18||S||San Francisco||1003||11||4.20||7|
|Justin Pugh||19||T(RT)||New York Giants||1042||6||6.60||6|
|Datone Jones||26||DT/DE||Green Bay||263||31||-8.00||28|
|Alec Ogletree||30||LB||St. Louis||1055||5||-4.40||22|
On to the next chart. Now we focus on snaps per game, and the list is ordered from highest to lowest. The idea here is that without differentiating between healthy/available games, a guy like Luke Joeckel (280 snaps) would look very similar to Datone Jones (263 snaps). Except, they're not, in fact, similar at all. Luke started all of his five games before injury, and basically played all the snaps, while Jones never started a single game and played very few snaps in each game as a minimal role player instead.
Being the great friend to you that I am, I even went through to verify every game that a player missed to determine if it was indeed due to injury. Wouldn't want any mistakes, ya know? Interestingly enough, Sylvester Williams was the only player who missed games while healthy. Why? We'll get into that a bit later.
Snaps Per Game.
|Name||Rank||Position||Team||Snaps Per Game||G||GS||Available|
|DJ Fluker||11||T(RT)||San Diego||71.67||15||15||15|
|Lane Johnson||4||T (RT)||Philadelphia||70.44||16||16||16|
|Alec Ogletree||30||LB||St. Louis||65.94||16||16||16|
|Justin Pugh||19||T(RT)||New York Giants||65.13||16||16||16|
|Eric Reid||18||S||San Francisco||62.69||16||16||16|
|Eric Fisher||1||T||Kansas City||57.86||14||13||14|
|Dee Millner||9||CB||New York Jets||57.46||13||12||13|
|Kenny Vaccaro||15||S||New Orleans||57.36||14||14||14|
|Sheldon Richardson||13||DT/DE||New York Jets||56.63||16||15||16|
|Tavon Austin||8||WR||St. Louis||33.38||13||3||13|
|Datone Jones||26||DT/DE||Green Bay||16.44||16||0||16|
We're often told not to expect much production from rookies, even the early-rounders. The above table essentially tells those people to shut up. Yo, don't hate.. I'm just playin'! Er, sort of...
- Overall, the players combined to average 51 snaps per game so long as they were healthy, and that's probably about 80% or so of their team's snaps (snap counts change for each team in each game and also depend on the side of the ball you're on).
- There were only five players who played less than 30 snaps per game, and that's roughly half the snaps. All but eight rookies played more than 40 snaps per game, roughly 2/3rds of the snaps.
- Sylvester Williams was the only healthy scratch, which essentially means that if you're healthy, you're in the game 99.33% of the time.
- These rookies were actual starters in 71% of their games (320 of 448).
The basic takeaway from the above chart is that your next first-round rookie is expected to play 80% of the snaps for his unit, and he'll be an actual starter 70% of the time. If you find yourself towards the bottom end of the spectrum, it's still pretty unlikely that he'll play less than half the snaps.
And that brings me to the next and final chart. We need to find out how big of a swing there is as it relates to good teams and bad teams. Do rookies produce on playoff teams, or just for teams like the Raiders? Well, let's find out...
Good Teams vs. Bad Teams.
|Name||Rank||Position||Team||Team?||Wins||Snaps Per Game||Started||Available|
|DJ Fluker||11||T(RT)||San Diego||Y||9||71.67||15||15|
|Lane Johnson||4||T (RT)||Philadelphia||Y||10||70.44||16||16|
|Eric Reid||18||S||San Francisco||Y||12||62.69||16||16|
|Eric Fisher||1||T||Kansas City||Y||11||57.86||13||14|
|Kenny Vaccaro||15||S||New Orleans||Y||11||57.36||14||14|
|Datone Jones||26||DT/DE||Green Bay||Y||8||16.44||0||16|
|Alec Ogletree||30||LB||St. Louis||N||7||65.94||16||16|
|Justin Pugh||19||T(RT)||New York Giants||N||7||65.13||16||16|
|Dee Millner||9||CB||New York Jets||N||8||57.46||12||13|
|Sheldon Richardson||13||DT/DE||New York Jets||N||8||56.63||15||16|
|Tavon Austin||8||WR||St. Louis||N||7||33.38||3||13|
We're often told that rookies on good teams can't be expected to start. This table essentially tells those people to shut up, too. There's really not much difference between the good, the bad and the ugly. Early rookies start, and are, somewhat surprisingly, drafted to actually play immediately - rather than, say, taking a redshirt year while they practice blowing bubbles and taking selfies.
- Rookies on losing teams (14 of 31 players) averaged 52 snaps per available game, while rookies on winning teams averaged three snaps per game fewer with 49. But rookies on losing teams actually started fewer games (67%) than rookies on winning teams (74%). Hmmm.
- Rookies on non-playoff teams (21 of 31 players) averaged 53 snaps per game, which was seven more snaps per game than rookies on playoff teams (46). But again in this scenario, rookies on non-playoff teams actually started fewer games (71%) than rookies who were on playoff teams (73%).
The rookies received more snaps on bad teams, but they actually started fewer games than if they were on good teams. It's probably just sort of balancing out and should probably be viewed as being roughly even. The sample size is essentially 31, so there would be some fluctuations if we extended it out, but it is a big enough sample size to stay fairly consistent over a five-year period. That's my guess, but maybe one of the statisticians will weigh in.
Sorting out the Under-Performers.
Three rookies on playoff teams ( Datone Jones, Bjorn Werner and Sly Williams) combined to start just 5 of 45 available games, while the other seven rookies on playoff teams started 105 of 106 available games. So, those are the Bad News Bears we'll be focusing on. The question we're trying to answer is whether their lack of production was due to their team not needing them to produce, or whether it was due to their poor performance. We're trying to find out if teams really do just draft a dude even if they don't have a need. So, let's start with a name..
Bjorn Werner was an edge rusher taken 24th overall by the Colts. He earned a -6.7 PFF Grade, which ranked him 27th of 31 rookies. He only produced 24 snaps per game. So, did the Colts not have a need? Actually, the exact opposite is true. The Colts drafted Werner as an immediate replacement to Dwight Freeney. Unfortunately, as judged by his PFF grade, he played pretty poorly, and thus he became one of the three Bad News Bears with limited snaps.
And just for the record, the Colts don't have a problem starting or playing rookies, so don't get any wise ideas. Their rookie LG who was also drafted for an immediate, glaring need, Hugh Thorton, played 868 snaps as the starting LG.
Datone Jones was an edge-rusher taken 26th overall by the Packers. He "earned" a -8.0 PFF Grade, and only Mingo, EJ and Fisher had worse grades than that. Must we go on? He played only 16 snaps per game despite being healthy all season and being active each week. That's even less snaps per game than Sly received.
Let's not over complicate this one either: Jones sucked pretty bad in his first year, and that's why he didn't play much. But are we sure that the Packers aren't one of those mythical beasts who just don't like to draft for need and don't play their rookies?
Eddie Lacy was taken in the second-round, started immediately, played in a majority of the snaps and was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. David Bakhtiari was taken at OT in the third-round, started immediately at RT and played all but three snaps (1119). Even their fifth-rounder, DB Micah Hyde, played half their snaps.
So, again, why didn't Jones get more snaps? Because he sucked. They drafted him to play, like all teams do, but his play quickly showed that he was incapable of doing so. Pfft. I never liked the guy anyway.
And then there was one: Sylvester Williams. One last chance to find a player whose team drafted him without need, and without expecting him to produce immediately. One more chance to find the BPA Unicorn. Step on up, Mr. Sly. Tell us it ain't so!
Leading up to the draft last year, MHR's Tim Lynch kept a running tally of mock drafts sorted by positions and players, and he updated it each week. Thanks Tim! On March 28th, Defensive Tackle was the #1 most mocked position to the Broncos, with Defensive End coming in at second-place. On April 3rd, Defensive End overtook Defensive Tackle - coming in 1st and 2nd place respectively. The same results on April 13th and also in the final post a few days before the draft. Translation: Defensive Tackle was seen as a major need, and they were mocked to us more often than any position other than DE.
DT was a major need, and there was an empty chair waiting for Sly. Are we really sure he was just drafted as BPA and not expected to produce immediately? Rodney, if the Broncos had such a major need for a DT then why didn't Sylvester get more snaps? Well, Pot Roast happened. Neither the Johns, nor Rio himself could have projected Pot Roast would have an All Pro caliber year. Long tenured starter Big Vick isn't very easy to move out of the way either. The Broncos were elite in run-defense the year prior, and they were elite most of last season as well. Sly wasn't able to play as much as our next two rookies did, and certainly not as much as we would have liked, but that was never the plan. John Elway took value when it fell, but make no mistake, it was a major need.
Draft picks are cheap labor for four years. Maybe you re-sign him in four years, maybe you don't. All that matters right now is that you only have him for four years on the cheap instead of 5 and 6 like the old CBA allowed for. You don't have time to bring guys along slowly, and early-rounders are especially expected to produce. They can't produce where there is no need, so teams target positions of weakness, especially in the early rounds.
Even the great teams use the draft to shore up immediate weaknesses and as cheap labor. It works hand in hand with free agency, as no team has enough funds to just buy everything they need on the open market. San Francisco needs to replace Dashon Gholdston? No biggie, just draft Eric Reid and plug him in for a thousand snaps. Uh oh, Ed Reed left Baltimore? Don't worry, just plug in Mat Elam for an immediate thousand snaps as well. Having major problems in the run-game GB? Draft a 2nd rounder and plug him in as the OROY. Need a new receiver something awful and have plenty of money like the Seahawks did? No problem, just spend your current first-round pick on Percy Harvin while concurrently backing up the Brinks truck.
Sometimes drafting a guy like Werner to replace Dwight Freeney doesn't immediately work out. The Colts failed in that quest, but at least they didn't fail to try. The Packers also drafted a first-year dud. The Broncos simply found themselves in position where they had too much talent to get their rookie much playing time. Those were the three Bad News Bears, while the rest of the rookies on playoff teams started virtually every available game. And the rookies on non-playoff teams certainly got a ton of time as well.
For the Broncos, 25% of Sly's contract is over now, yet he contributed less than all of his healthy first-round peers with the exception of Datone Jones. No matter how good he is in the future, that's not a desirable or sustainable model going forward. Would a player like Alec Ogletree have produced more of an impact? Probably, but there's still some gray area in deciding whether it was a mistake or not. And that's not really the point anyway. Sly will be fantastic in the future, just don't expect such a small amount of production to be a forward trend. It's an exception, not the rule. Expect instead for the Broncos to continue using early picks to draft players at positions of need, just like all teams do. And expect those players to be on the field instead of being off blowing bubbles on the bench and taking selfies on the couch.
BPA is a myth. And if I had a MIKE I would drop it.