Rookie Impact: Linebackers
We’ve spent a week looking at the career progression for players in the NFL over their first few seasons, but what about Year 1? We’re watching NFL training camps get underway which means we get to see the first glimpses of this season’s rookie crop go up against seasoned NFL veterans.
Rookies bring the air of promise and potential with them, but how much is that realized out of the gate? How much time can you reasonably expect from your rookies and how much of an impact will they make in those snaps? Fortunately, PFF has the numbers that show how every rookie has performed since 2007 and how much playing time they received, so let’s take a look.
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Staking Your Claim
For most rookies just making the roster is an achievement, never mind seeing meaningful snaps on offense or defense during their first season. Low round players, undrafted free agents – these guys make up the majority of each rookie crop but are, in most cases, just battling for their NFL survival. The higher you move up the draft board the more is expected out of rookies and consequently (in general) the more they play in their first season.
There are factors that affect that – how needy a team is in a given position can force lower round guys into contributing roles they wouldn’t have on another roster, and of course there are usually a few surprise players in the lower rounds each year who the draft community simply missed on that end up outperforming their draft status.
Linebacker is a spot where teams have thrown rookies in to start from lower down in the draft. There are six linebackers who played more than 1,000 snaps during their rookie seasons – three each from the first and second round – but lower down, Mason Foster played 886 snaps as a rookie from the third round and Miles Burris played 893 as a fourth-round pick.
Though linebacker is seen as one of the easier positions to step into and contribute immediately, it doesn’t seem quite as easy to do so as an every-down player. Only 22 players over the past seven seasons have played 600+ snaps their first year, and all bar four of those were selected in the first two rounds of the draft.
Only Patrick Willis and Kiko Alonso have played every defensive snap as rookies.
Making Your Mark
Getting on the field is one thing, but playing is only half the job. Teams need their rookies not just playing, but playing well if they are to win now and not just build for future championships. The best rosters are those that build throught the draft to be sure, but they are also the ones that get positive contributions from their rookies rather than just get them the painful rookie experience of taking their lumps.
Like most positions, the average rookie linebacker performance is below the league average for the position, albeit barely. In their rookie seasons linebackers average -0.1, or more or less average. This changes if you look at just first and second rounders, though; the players getting the majority of starting snaps among the group. Both of those average positive campaigns with first-round linebackers averaging a +3.3 grade and second-rounders not far behind with a +2.2 average.
Players like Jon Beason show the expected rookie campaign for a high-round linebacker. He played just under 1,000 snaps — essentially an entire campaign as a starter — but graded just above average.
Linebacker is a spot, though, where a select few talented rookies can make a big impact. There are four linebackers that earned a grade of +15.0 or higher in their rookie year and six more that made it into double-digits; very respectable seasons overall for the position, let alone for rookies.
The Dream Scenario
In order to get the dream scenario for linebackers we need to rewind all the way to 2007, the first season of data PFF has in its entirety. Here we find the San Francisco 49ers, fresh off a 7-9 season, sitting with the 11th pick in the draft. They had a major hole at linebacker and selected Willis in the first round. Problem solved.
Willis played every snap of his rookie season and notched a +22.2 grade, which isn’t only the best mark we have seen from a rookie but was the best grade in the NFL that year among inside linebackers, three full grading points ahead of DeMeco Ryans. Willis has led the league in PFF grade in three of his seven seasons of play and has ranked outside of the Top 2 just once – 2013 when he missed games injured and finished third, 0.1 grading points below second-placed Stephen Tulloch.
The 49ers struck gold with Willis and got a player who was able to step in Day 1 and be the best player in the league at his position. That doesn’t happen often, but linebacker is one of the positions where it is at least possible.
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