Rookie Impact: Safeties
Gordon McGuinness highlights examples of rookie safeties stepping in and succeeding and shows what a typical first season looks like.
Rookie Impact: Safeties
Last week we took you through how the average player’s career progresses after being a top pick in the NFL Draft. Progression is all well and good but right now there are more important matters in the minds of fans league-wide. Years 2 to 5 are all well and good, but right now Year 1 is what counts and for all of the rookies on your roster, not just the high picks.
If your sixth-round pick might be pressed into action at right tackle, how have previous players in similar situations fared? I’m expecting big things from our first-rounder off the edge of the defense, how have other such vaunted drafted picks delivered and performed in year one?
Well that’s our focus this week as we once again go position-by-position and check out expectations for the incoming rookies. You might be expecting big things from your rookies but how realistic are those expectations based upon prior performances? Am I expecting my rookie to do something that no-one before him his done or am I setting the goal low for him to over-achieve?
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Staking Your Claim
Obviously, the first hurdle for rookies to get over when arriving in the NFL is to actually make the final roster, something that not every drafted player can manage, but then comes the battle for playing time, with just 21 rookie safeties since 2007 seeing upwards of 700 snaps in their rookie years. Not surprisingly, safeties selected higher in the draft tend to see more snaps early in their careers, with 15 of those players drafted in either the first or second round.
It’s not impossible for a late round rookie to see significant playing time in his rookie year, however, with Al Afalava playing 834 snaps as a rookie after being drafted in the sixth round by the Chicago Bears back in 2009, though he was the only safety drafted in the sixth round or later to see such a high snap count in his first year.
Interestingly, of the 13 safeties drafted in the first round since 2007, only Kenny Phillips, Malcolm Jenkins and Brandon Meriweather have seen less than 800 snaps as rookies, with teams more likely to trust them with a bigger role than at other positions.
Making Your Mark
Getting as many reps as possible is important for the development of many players, hence why teams aren’t always quick to bench a disappointing rookie early in their careers, but are they playing with fire by giving so much playing time to inexperienced players at the back end of their defense?
Well, based on how rookie safeties have performed since 2007, it’s tough to say that team’s are taking a big risk, with the 141 safeties drafted in that span finishing their rookie year with an average grade of -0.4. Now obviously that includes a lot of players with marginal grades based on playing little or no snaps as rookies, but even looking at just the 21 players who played more than 700 snaps the average grade is just -0.3.
There haven’t really been many poor seasons from rookie safeties in the time we’ve been grading, with just 11 players finishing their debut seasons with a grade of -5.0 or lower. In that time the lowest graded safety has been Jacksonville Jaguars 2013 second-round draft pick, John Cyprien, but even that comes with something of an asterisk. While his -17.0 shows a player who struggled heavily as a rookie, when you break it down game by game you’ll see that he actually graded at +2.1 over the final seven games of their year, showing a massive improvement from the first half.
The Dream Scenario
So it’s unlikely that your team’s rookie safety is going to be too much of a liability in his first year, but how high should your expectations really be? Well, the highest grade we’ve ever seen from a rookie safety came from the Oakland Raiders’ Michael Mitchell back in 2009. His +9.5 grade came on just 217 snaps, though the positive grades came against the run and from generating nine total pressures from 20 blitzes as a pass rusher as opposed to his work in coverage.
On a much larger snap count we saw the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, Kansas City Chiefs star Eric Berry, impress with an +8.5 grade in the regular season as a rookie and add an excellent performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs where he had his highest grade of the year in coverage (+2.6). Berry found success against the run from get-go, but grew in coverage as the season went on, allowing just 228 yards in coverage from Week 3 onward after allowing 190 in his first two games in the NFL.
Another success story was the 29th selection in the 2012 draft, Harrison Smith of the Minnesota Vikings, who finished his rookie year with the fifth-highest grade in coverage of any safety that year. His work against the run wasn’t as impressive, with a grade of -3.2 in the regular season but he started his career so strong in coverage that it more than made up for it.
Outside of those three there aren’t any grades that jump off the chart at you, but from what we’ve seen it’s more than acceptable to expect your rookie safety to be fairly average in their first year in the league. Will Calvin Pryor, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the rest of this year’s group continue that trend in 2014? Well, thankfully we’re only a few weeks away from beginning to find that out.
Follow Gordon on Twitter: @PFF_Gordon
Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.