Rookie Impact: Edge Defenders
Narrowing the focus to just the rookie season, Ben Stockwell kicks off the next set of articles in Position Progression series with a look at edge defenders.
Rookie Impact: Edge Defenders
Last week when we took you through the career progression of top picks we saw that first-round edge defenders tend to pan out pretty well over the course of their first five seasons. But as the preseason comes closer into view we’re narrowing our focus to just that rookie season. What do prior performances from rookies suggest your expectations should be for this incoming crop?
Expectations are always high at this time of year; with little to be drawn from OTA’s there is no reason yet to doubt that your rookies won’t light it up. But based on prior displays are such expectations realistic or fanciful? It certainly won’t pan out that way for everyone, but with rookies often playing situational roles, that positive impact can come in a variety of ways.
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Staking Your Claim
Athleticism: teams love getting it for the edge of their defense and it tends to go high in the draft. Those two truths combine to see the majority of the rookie playing time given to top draft picks — of the 51 rookie edge defenders to play at least 350 snaps since 2007, 38 were selected in the first two rounds. Even if they are considered raw prospects, teams will still try to get them on the field in some capacity early on. Only seven first-rounders in the last seven years have failed to play 320 snaps in their rookie seasons.
So if your team selected an edge defender high up in the draft, expect him to get on the field early and expect him to get on the field often. He went high for good reason, often because of his athletic ability as well as his collegiate production, and that wasn’t to sit on the bench and learn for next year. Raw he might be, but teams will want to find ways for him to use his athletic ability from Day 1 while they build the rest of his game around that athletic base.
The lower down the draft your rookie edge defender was selected the more of an uphill struggle he’s going to face to see the field. Even a player like Greg Hardy only just topped 400 snaps in his rookie season for the Panthers. Whether it is due to a perceived lack of talent or simply being too raw and teams feeling the need (or having the luxury) to develop that talent off the field, if you top 200 snaps from outside of the first three rounds you’re ahead of the curve on playing time.
Making Your Mark
As much as it is always nice to talk up talent that can be molded, examples of really positive rookie-year impacts from the later rounds are few and far between. Extended playing time straight away for a late-round pick tends to be by necessity rather than desire. A rare example of a great success even on limited snaps would be Cameron Wake’s debut season.
Passed over the first time around and coming back to the NFL via Canada, Wake tore things up in Miami back in 2009 registering 33 total pressures on just 130 pass rushes. He made the most of the niche the Dolphins forged for him and earned an astounding +23.6 overall grade on a mere 167 snaps.
Heading back up to the top of the draft we find that hitting the ground running wasn’t so easy even for players that have since developed into some of the league’s best players. The Rams’ defensive end pairing of Robert Quinn and Chris Long might be one of the best in the NFL right now, but their rookie seasons were a real struggle.
Long was merely average as a pass rusher and struggled badly in run defense (-12.3) while Quinn struggled to get up to speed having been ruled ineligible for his final season in college. Though these were two high picks projected to do great things in the NFL, and they have both done just that, if you are expecting your rookie edge rusher to come in and be the veteran Long or Quinn from the outset, you will almost certainly disappointed…
That is unless you hit on the rare outlier and find a player like Von Miller. Settling immediately, Miller not only performed well but forged a unique position in the Denver defense that their opponents were slow getting to grips with. Playing as some freakish blend of a 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 outside linebacker, Miller entered in the same season as Quinn and simply blew us away with amazing displays week in and week out.
His raw athleticism and repertoire of pass rushing moves saw him translate immediately into a consistently productive pass rusher. In 2011 Miller earned a positive grade as a pass rusher 11 times and in a four-week spell from Week 9 to Week 12 earned a pass rush grade above +5.0 every week.
In that span Miller recorded almost as much pressure (30 total pressures) as Quinn did in his entire rookie season (36). But he was so much more than just a pass rusher for the Broncos. Right away he also demonstrated that he knew how to use his strength and agility to devastating effect as a run defender as well. In that rookie season Miller only graded negatively in run defense three times and in that aforementioned month-long spell he added 10 stops in run defense.
But for a late season lull that saw him grade -2.0 or below in each of the Broncos’ final three regular season games (only registering one pressure in that time) you could barely hope to have a better season from a veteran pass rusher, let alone a player in his first season.
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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.