Rookie Impact: Defensive Interior
Moving to the interior of the defensive front, Ben Stockwell inspects rookie-season output.
Rookie Impact: Defensive Interior
Last week we took you through the average career progression for top picks in the NFL Draft. Progression is all well and good but in the forefront of fans’ minds right now is how their rookies are likely to perform in year one. Years two to five are all well and good and the long term has the bigger impact but at this point why wouldn’t you be optimistic about what all of your rookies, not just your top pick, can produce?
If your sixth round pick might be pressed into action at right tackle, how have previous players in similar situations fared? You might be expecting big things from your top pick edge rusher but have even the best edge rushers in the league come in and performed from day one? Starting with the defensive line that is our focus this week as we once again go position by position to look at how prior performances might suggest this year’s debutants will fare.
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Staking Your Claim
Making the roster is target one for most rookies while registering snaps is another level beyond that. As you can see from the clusters here if you’re getting beyond 300 snaps as a rookie then you’re doing well for playing time. As a position subject to rotation teams will find ways to get players on the field in favorable situations, managing their snaps in their debut season. Whether that be run defense specialists like Dan Williams or Akiem Hicks, or pass-rush specialists like Geno Atkins and Pernell McPhee, teams will find ways to get players on the field to gain experience early.
Only a select few get through a heavy workload in their rookie seasons. Just 23 rookies in the last seven seasons have played more than 600 snaps. Of those 16 were first rounders and only five players from outside of the top three rounds have topped that mark, two of whom were pressed into action for the Patriots this season (Chris Jones and Joe Vellano).
Making Your Mark
Getting on the field and gaining experience is one thing but your rookies are still part of unit that is trying to win now, so performance counts. You will accept that the less experienced parts of your roster might be weaker areas, but you don’t want them to be an Achilles heel. As you can see from the rookie scatter there are far more players below the line than above it. Even taking 0.0 to -10.0 as an acceptable level, there are still as many below -10.0 overall for their rookie season as there are above +1.0. So clearly the expectation, even for a first-rounder, has to be that if your rookie player on the defensive interior is average then he is likely ahead of the curve.
Much as you might wish for your new defensive tackle or 3-4 end to be a plug-and-play starter, that just isn’t the case performance-wise. He is the extreme example, but Tyson Jackson was seen as a good fit for the Chiefs’ defense when he entered the league in 2009, but instead produced one of the worst seasons we have ever seen from a defensive lineman. As a high pick he had to play early and play a lot, and by registering 700 snaps, he did just that. However, the other part of the equation is reasonable performance and Jackson couldn’t have been further from it.
A non-factor in the passing game (no sacks, one hit, seven hurries) Jackson was also persistently woeful in run defense earning a negative grade in all but one game and below -2.0 in half of them. The extreme outlier he might be, but Jackson is one of seven first-rounders since 2007 to notch a debut season grade of -10.0 or worse on the defensive interior.
The Dream Scenario
So after all the doom and gloom to lower the expectations for your rookie defensive linemen, where’s the glimmer of hope? Surely it’s not all bad news? Well it’s not and there is certainly a track record of the likes of Atkins and J.J. Watt offering indications of the amazing things that were in store.
However, for the dream scenario we only need wind back 12 months and look at the rookie season that Sheldon Richardson had in New York this past season. Some questioned whether another defensive lineman represented the best use of the 13th overall pick for the Jets, but Richardson’s debut season repaid his new team in spades. Immediately thrust into a full-time starting role, Ndamukong Suh has been the only rookie to top Richardson’s 906 snaps and none have bettered his +21.3 overall grade.
While his work as a pass rusher may have been nothing more than average for the position, his run defense was stifling as he trailed only Watt among 3-4 defensive ends with 41 stops. As consistently poor as Jackson was as a rookie run defender, Richardson was consistently good. Only once did he earn a negative run defense grade (against the Bengals in Week 8) while he topped +2.0 five times.
That a player finding his way in the NFL as quickly as Richardson was even unable to earn positive grades in run defense and as a pass rusher serves to reinforce the point that players on the defensive interior don’t come into the league already among the league’s elite.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.