At Which Positions Have NFL Rookies Had the Most Success?

By Alex Koenig

The NFL draft is an exercise in patience. Unlike the NBA, it is rare for highly touted NFL rookies to make significant impacts at key positions. Sure, a player like Cam Newton will come around every now and then, but by and large draft picks are made under the reasonable assumption that the transition from the college to the pro game takes a while.

Nevertheless, talking heads and coaches alike regularly claim that players can “step in right away and make an impact.” Often these statements are made because of a players’ supernatural athletic ability or because he’s run a pro-style offense for the last five years – both pretty reasonable assumptions. But it got us thinking: is there any basis for these claims? Are there any patterns in terms of what types of players at what positions are able to step in and regularly prove effective?

It’s important to clarify how we measure quality in a rookie season. If we just look at the recipients of AP Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards, we get a jaded perception. Since the Offensive Rookie of the Year award was created in 1967, it’s been given out to six quarterbacks, eight wide receivers and 30 running backs. It’s possible that no offensive linemen have ever been worthy of the award but unlikely. On the defensive side, six cornerbacks have been so honored, six defensive tackles, eight defensive ends, 21 linebackers, and just two safeties.

But that’s just compared to other rookies; what about compared to the rest of the league? Another thing to look at is Pro Bowl appearances. Since these are allotted by position, and not limited to rookies, it can be assumed that – if rookie impact is indeed the same across positions – there will be a more even distribution of success.

Since 2000, 29 rookies have played in the Pro Bowl. Only six positions had multiple representatives in this time period. Running backs, which make up 68 percent of all Offensive Rookie of the Year awards, only had two – Chris Johnson in 2008 and Adrian Peterson in 2007. Meanwhile, the offensive line had four representatives, including three at the all-important position of left tackle. Perhaps the award system should be revised to reflect actual impact, but that’s a debate for a different time.

On the defensive end, linebackers had seven representatives (four on the inside, three on the inside), perhaps justifying their disproportionate number of Defensive ROY awards and solidifying themselves as the most readily impactful position on the defense. The most commonly occurring position for rookies on Pro Bowl rosters, however, is return man, with rookies notching eight of the possible 24 spots since 2000.

But these awards just represent the best the league has to offer each year. A better statistic for measuring cumulative impact – independent of season – is Approximate Value (AV), from Pro Football Reference. The methodology is explained here, but AV is a way of trying to equalize players’ contributions across positions.

First, let’s limit the sample size to first and second rounders. No matter what coaches and media members say, no one really expects an immediate impact from the later rounds.

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the rookie season that measured best in terms of AV was cornerback/returnman Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals in 2011. Peterson’s four punt return touchdowns and two interceptions gave him an AV of 21. For reference, the highest AV total Peyton Manning ever accumulated was 21 in 2004.

The distribution of the top 100 rookie seasons since 1970 in terms of AV is as follows:

Position

Number

Highest

Running Back

40

Edgerrin James (21) – 1999

Linebacker

16

Lawrence Taylor (17) – 1981

Wide Receiver

13

Randy Moss (17) – 1998

Quarterback

9

Cam Newton (19) – 2011

Cornerback

5

Patrick Peterson (25) – 2011

Safety

5

Ronnie Lott (18) – 1981

Left Tackle

5

Ryan Clady (13) – 2008

Defensive End

3

Jevon Kearse (16) – 1999

Tight End

3

Charle Young (13) – 1973

Defensive Tackle

1

Ndamukong Suh (15) – 2010

What is it about running backs and linebackers that make them so much more effective as rookies than players at other positions?

There’s probably a pretty simple answer. Both positions are very much reliant on instincts and reaction time. Unlike a quarterback, an offensive lineman, or a wide receiver, the playbook does not expand a whole lot for a running back in transitioning to the NFL. Certainly adjustments need to be made – new blocking assignments, an increased role catching passes out of the backfield, etc.  – but by and large running backs are relying on good blocking up front, an ability to quickly assess a situation and react to it, and their own physical gifts. Yes, the defense will be better prepared and conditioned than most they will face in college, but key attributes for running backs like speed and agility tend to peak early on in their careers.

Similarly, the linebacker position relies on an ability to react and hit the hole. The factors that contribute to making that hole may be more complex, but the reaction time is still the same. Whether it’s figuring out a blocking scheme or adjusting to play action, linebackers are forced to rely on their instincts more than almost any other position, and while experience will certainly fine tune those instincts, for the elite young linebacker, those instincts are already there.

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8 Responses to At Which Positions Have NFL Rookies Had the Most Success?

  1. Brian says:

    The major question I may want to know is what these values look like if you normalize them by the expected value. This could be determined by simple location in the draft (potentially adjusted by position). This may provide a manner of knowing if these players meet expectations stepping into the league. These analyses could provide an interesting extension.

    Furthermore, some robustness may be of interest as well: What happens if you normalize the values by the number of each position drafted? Have you also checked on the larger sample (beyond the Top 100) and those outside of the first two rounds? These may provide a more complete analysis in order to confirm the results hold broadly.

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