The New York Giants are now through four games of the 2022 NFL season, and we’ve had a chance to get first impressions of their 2022 draft class. The Giants had 11 picks after the Dave Gettleman trade-downs of 2021 and Joe Schoen’s trade-downs during the 2022 draft. It’s a small sample so far, but suffice to say that no Giant seems to be in the running for any NFL Rookie of the Year award at this point:
- Two of the Giants draft picks (Marcus McKethan, No. 173, and Darrian Beavers, No. 182) suffered season-ending injuries during training camp.
- Kayvon Thibodeaux (No. 5) missed the start of the season; he has looked competent and has started to get pressures in his two games plus a fumble recovery but has not really flashed yet.
- Evan Neal (No. 7) has had a very difficult start to his NFL career, especially against Dallas, where he was beaten repeatedly, but played a little better against Chicago.
- Wan’Dale Robinson (No. 43) caught one pass in the Giants’ first game, injured his knee, and has not played since.
- Joshua Ezeudu (No. 67) saw some snaps against Tennessee and Carolina, seems to have lost the competition against Ben Bredeson for the starting job at left guard, but played some against Chicago when Bredeson had to move to right guard after Mark Glowinski went out briefly with an injury.
- Cor’Dale Flott (No. 81) saw the field on defense against Carolina and Dallas, played at best adequately, then injured his calf and did not play against Chicago.
- Daniel Bellinger (No. 112) has been part of a three-man rotation at tight end but has gotten the most snaps; he now appears to be TE1 and has been productive as a receiver and blocker.
- Dane Belton (No. 114) missed the first game with a training camp injury, has played in the others as the third safety, often playing deep; he has not yet made any big plays on defense (he did have a fumble recovery on special teams) but has been useful schematically.
- Micah McFadden (No. 146) has become part of the rotation at off-ball linebacker; he’s had two pressures but has not otherwise distinguished himself.
- D.J. Davidson (No. 147) had has a few snaps in every game and made a couple of tackles but has not otherwise made a noticeable impact.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement so far for Joe Schoen’s efforts to improve the team. Is this cause for concern? Or par for the course for rookies? Earlier this month we took a look at how rookies around the NFL have played in their first years on offense and defense based on statistics from the 2017-2021 classes. The basic conclusions were:
- Overall, it is a lot harder for rookies to excel on defense than on offense
- Wide receivers and running backs are the most likely to have an immediate impact
- Quarterbacks and offensive lineman generally have a tough time their first year
- Edge defenders and off-ball linebackers have especially tough times at the start
- Of all defensive positions, only safeties have a reasonable chance of success as rookies
Let’s look at how the 2022 rookie class is doing so far for the entire NFL. Pro Football Focus did its own assessment of only the first rounders after three games, and we’ll use their scores for the first four games, almost a quarter of the season, as indicators even though they, like any statistic, are an imperfect metric of performance. As in the original study, we take a PFF score of at least 70 (above average) as a definition of rookie success, and focus only on players who have been used a decent amount over this time.
The Giants chose not to draft a quarterback this year. 2022 was considered a subpar year for QB prospects, and only one was taken in the first round (Kenny Pickett). Only three of the nine QBs drafted have seen the field. Malik Willis was the first, making six drop backs in a blowout loss to Buffalo in which he went 1 of 4 for 6 yards and a 39.7 grade. Not an auspicious debut, but it tells us nothing.
Kenny Pickett, on the other hand, replaced an ineffective Mitchell Trubisky halfway through the Steelers-Jets game on Sunday. He sparked the offense, completing 10 of 13 passes for 120 yards and running for two TDs, but threw three interceptions. The Steelers’ SB Nation website reports that head coach Mike Tomlin plans to stay with Pickett going forward.
The eye-opener was Bailey Zappe, who took over for Brian Hoyer at Lambeau Field yesterday after Hoyer suffered a head injury. (Hoyer started in place of Mac Jones, out indefinitely with an ankle injury.) Zappe went toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers, going 10 for 15 for 99 yards and a TD and forcing the game to overtime before Green Bay prevailed. If Zappe has to start more games, it should be a seamless transition from Jones in at least one respect:
BREAKING:— Cleveland Sports Fans (@CLE_SPORTS_FANS) September 27, 2022
The Patriots organization has successfully cloned the first human being (Mac Jones). They are naming him Bailey Zappe and he will be starting in place of the injured exact replica of his DNA, Mac Jones. pic.twitter.com/G82RoM8MQb
It’s much too early to know, but if Pickett and Zappe or any of the other seven drafted QBs succeed, it will buck the recent trend of only one in five QBs playing well as rookies.
Our previous analysis of five full seasons indicated that WR is the second most likely position for a rookie to excel immediately, with about half of all rookies who play a lot grading above average. The early returns for 2022 are not far from being in line with this expectation. Of 10 rookie WRs who have seen at least 2 targets per game, all but one have received at least average (60 or higher) PFF grades, and three have been above average right out of the gate. The stars have all been first-rounders, the first three WRs taken (Drake London, No. 8; Garrett Wilson, No. 10; Chris Olave, No. 11). The Giants, in desperate need of a game-breaking WR, could have had any of them, but it would have been at the expense of Thibodeaux or Neal. Wan’Dale Robinson is a different type of receiver than these three; we’ll see if he can become a viable target for Daniel Jones when he returns.
The Giants could also have had Romeo Doubs or Christian Watson, whom they will see up close this Sunday when the Giants play the Green Bay Packers. Doubs has flashed a little thus far, Watson less so.
Tight ends have become something of a devalued resource, with only three or four per year seeing significant playing time as rookies and only one on average playing well in their first year. Included below are all rookie TEs who have been targeted an average of at least once per game:
Half of the rookie TEs who have been used significantly are playing well, led by the Giants’ Daniel Bellinger, who has caught the most passes of any of them and eight of nine thrown his way, with one TD. Notably, he also leads all rookie TEs with an above-average pass blocking grade of 75.8 (on a team in desperate need of pass blocking). Jelani Woods of Indianapolis, the second ranked TE, is more a receiver - he has not yet been asked to pass block. Bellinger also has a 65.2 run blocking grade, second highest of all rookie TEs. The next Travis Kelce or George Kittle? Probably not, but the early returns indicate that Bellinger, the sixth TE drafted, was a good value pick in Round 4.
Running back is the position at which a rookie is most likely to succeed immediately, with more than half the backs who play regularly grading above average. No RBs were drafted in Round 1, consistent with the recent trend in the NFL of devaluing the running game in favor of passing and finding value equally well at this position on days 2 and 3 of the draft. The early results are right in line with the historical expectations: Half the RBs seeing the field a lot are playing above average, and two are Day 3 picks (Tyler Allegier, Round 5; Isiah Pacheco, Round 7).
Offensive tackle is one of the most difficult positions to excel at as a rookie - only one in four first-year OTs who played a lot in the past five seasons has been above average. True to form, in the 2022 class, only one OT, sixth round pick Jamaree Salyer, has graded above average to date - and that was for one game, last Sunday, when he replaced the injured Rashawn Slater. Evan Neal has been the worst of those with significant playing time, with 4 sacks and 10 total pressures surrendered already. (Fellow first-round picks Ikem Ekwonu and Charles Cross haven’t been that much better, and first-rounder Trevor Penning had foot surgery and has missed the first month of the season. Surprise first-round pick Tyler Smith has been average but better than all of them so far.) It’s been said before, but Andrew Thomas, now the No. 1 rated OT in the NFL, was not good as a rookie - he gave up three sacks and 19 total pressures in his first four games.
Evan Neal’s overall grade is distorted by his Week 3 debacle against DeMarcus Lawrence, which accounts for three of his four sacks and five of his 10 pressures. This Sunday he will get another elite edge defender: Rashan Gary, a lesson for all who would judge rookies too soon: 55.8 PFF grade in Year 1, 68.1 in Year 2, then 89.8 in Year 3 and 87.6 after four games this year. He wrecked the Patriots’ OL last Sunday:
This is flat-out rare explosiveness from Gary around the edge. Sheesh. pic.twitter.com/camhd3nCt9— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) October 4, 2022
Interior offensive line
Surprisingly, IOL positions are even more difficult than OT for rookies, with only 10 percent of those who see significant action playing above average. This year is no exception:
Not a single IOL has graded above average so far - not even Tyler Linderbaum (60.3), Zion Johnson (59.6), and Kenyon Green (53.4), first-round picks all, and subjects of much drooling among BBV fans during mock draft season. The Giants’ Joshua Ezeudu is currently at the bottom of that list, not surprising since he has lost playing time to Ben Bredeson as the season has progressed. But Ezeudu was never seen as an immediate starter. He and Bredeson have been pressed into service because of the injury to Shane Lemieux during training camp. (Not that Lemieux has proven himself yet either. We’ll see if he has learned to pass block yet when he returns.)
Rookie edge defenders have seen very limited success in the NFL the past five years, with only 15% of those seeing at least 10 snaps per game (a threshold we apply to all defensive positions) playing above average. (But remember the lesson of Rashan Gary.)
This year is consistent with that, with only two of 15 edge defenders grading above average so far. The New York Jets seem at first glance to have hit the jackpot, with first-round pick Jermaine Johnson and fourth-rounder Micheal Clemons topping the chart. However, they are only playing part-time.
Giants’ No. 5 pick Kayvon Thibodeaux is third in only two games played but seeing the majority of snaps in both of them. His grades are fairly good but not great across the board, consistent with Nick Falato’s impression from watching film. He has only five pressures so far, which don’t look impressive compared to the 14 accumulated by No. 2 pick Aidan Hutchinson and the 10 by No. 30 pick George Karlaftis. However, they have played about three times as many snaps as Thibodeaux.
Note that Wink Martindale uses his edge defenders in coverage, and only No. 1 pick Travon Walker has been used in coverage as much on a per-snap basis as Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux had a good game against Chicago and it is reasonable to expect his production to ratchet up as his knee continues to heal. Note also that undrafted Giants free agent Tomon Fox, while below average overall because of a poor coverage grade, has been solid against the run and similar to many drafted players in his pass rush.
Interior defensive line
Interior defensive line, like other positions on defense, is tough for rookies to excel at, with only one in five players who see the field significantly grading above average over the past five years. And indeed only one of 12 rookie IDLs, first-round pick Jordan Davis, has graded above average so far. Davis was a part-time player at Georgia and it was suspected that he might also be that as a pro because of his tremendous size and expected stamina issues. That has been borne out thus far, with Davis only having gotten 84 snaps in four games. (For reference, Dexter Lawrence has played 200 snaps in four games and is third overall among IDLs with a monster 90.0 grade.)
I lowered the threshold a bit to 9 snaps per game to include Giants’ fifth round pick D.J. Davidson. Davidson has played below average so far in only 36 defensive snaps, mostly because of tackling, but most of this IDL class is below average, including second-round pick Logan Hall, whose grade is lower than Davidson’s.
Similar to other defensive positions, off-ball linebackers who play significantly as rookies tend to struggle, with only about one in five grading above average. This year is a bit better than that. First-round pick Devin Lloyd leads the pack with a 72.9 overall defense grade, which is no surprise to those who saw him play in college. The big surprise is sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez, also grading above average in a starting role at 70.5.
The biggest surprise might be how few drafted LBs are even cracking the game-day lineup. 2022 seemed to be a bountiful year for LB prospects, with Giants fans making googly eyes pre-draft not only at Lloyd but other prospects such as Nakobe Dean, Quay Walker, Leo Chenal, Chad Muma, Troy Andersen, and Nik Bonitto. Walker (whom the Giants will see this Sunday) and to a lesser extent Chenal have gotten a reasonable amount of playing time so far, but with mostly subpar performance. Andersen has gotten only 39 snaps and graded 66.2. Muma, Dean, and Bonitto have hardly played. The Giants drafted none of them, opting instead for Micah McFadden and Darrian Beavers (out for the year). McFadden ranks last among the five LBs who have gotten significant playing time, but his overall grade is similar to that of the more heralded Walker.
In the increasingly pass-happy NFL, cornerback has become a high priority but scarce resource, with only about one in four rookies who see the field a lot playing well, but with a downward trend in quality over the past five years, as our previous study showed. The 2022 season has been an eye-opener in that regard:
Twenty rookies are getting a lot of playing time, more than any other position on either side of the ball, but consistent with recent years. Teams will throw any warm body out there, with increasing use of DB-heavy dime packages, to try to slow down NFL passing attacks (other than the Giants’ passing “attack”). Only about one in four of them has graded above average, but that is far better than last year, when only one out of 24 graded well for the entire season. It will be interesting to see if that holds up over a full 17-game schedule.
More surprising is the players who are succeeding the most, led by fourth round pick Jack Jones (who had a pick-6 of Aaron Rodgers last Sunday) and including other “Who are these guys?” players such as fifth round pick Samuel Womack, fourth round pick Damarri Mathis, and undrafted free agent Kader Kohou. First-round pick Sauce Gardner has played fairly well so far, while Derek Stingley Jr. has not. Many of other Day 1 or 2 draft picks have been subpar to date (Kaiir Elam, Tariq Woolen, Roger McCreary, Kyler Gordon). The Giants’ Cor’Dale Flott has been adequate in limited action other than several missed tackles, but it remains to be seen whether his slight frame will limit his ceiling.
Fewer rookie safeties play much as rookies compared to cornerbacks, but in recent years about one in three that does has had success. Thus far first-round pick Kyle Hamilton is the only rookie playing above average, although he has already yielded 2 TDs. Other highly regarded draftess such as Jaquan Brisker (who injured Daniel Jones’ ankle last Sunday) and Jalen Pitre have been average to below average (although Pitre has 2 INTs already). Two other highly rated draftees, Lewis Cine and Daxton Hill, have hardly seen the field to date. The Giants’ Dane Belton has not yet stood out on defense according to PFF but has become part of three-safety packages employed by Martindale in which he plays deep, allowing Xavier McKinney and Julian Love to play in the box against the run-heavy teams the Giants have faced so far.
That said, this traditional stat (which matches PFF’s) indicates that Belton is playing well:
Dane Belton through week 4:— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) October 5, 2022
• 72 coverage snaps
• 5 targets
• 1 reception (4 yards)
The Giants rookie safety has been SHUTDOWN pic.twitter.com/KuM3w2w5Dd
Perhaps the disconnect between the PFF coverage grade (43.0) and the fact that he has only given up one completion indicates that the passes thrown his way haven’t been accurate. Whatever the explanation, his ability to man centerfield is useful in Martindale’s scheming with McKinney and Love.
A knee-jerk reaction to the early results suggests that Joe Schoen has not been very successful in his first draft. No player has excelled, and many of them have below average grades. Daniel Bellinger doesn’t look like the next Kyle Pitts (although even Pitts doesn’t look like Kyle Pitts in the Arthur Smith offense), but he does look like a good blocker and reliable receiver who is worthy of being TE1 in the Giants’ offense. Kayvon Thibodeaux has been on the field too little to gauge yet but showed signs of coming on against Chicago. Wan’Dale Robinson hasn’t been on the field enough yet to make an impression, and Marcus McKethan and Darrian Beavers will have to wait for 2023. Evan Neal, Joshua Ezeudu, Cor-Dale Flott, Dane Belton, Micah McFadden, and D.J. Davidson have played but not flashed.
- It’s so-o-o-o early. At least every Giants’ draft pick except the two with season-ending injuries made the 53 man roster and is getting playing time. You might say that this is because the roster is so thin that Brian Daboll will try anyone, but if we take Daboll at his word, only players who earn playing time see the field, so the Giants’ coaches are seeing something in these players that pleases them.
- The situation is not much different around the NFL. Using a PFF score of 70 or higher as the cutoff, only 19 rookies have played above average thus far, out of 262 draftees (plus undrafted free agents). That’s 7 percent. Of the 105 players selected in Rounds 1, 2, and 3, 14 have yet to play at all, whether because of injury, because they just have not been used in a game, or because they didn’t make their team’s 53-man roster. It’s tough to crack the NFL, and tough to excel right away once you do.
- Only 8 of the 32 first round draft picks have played above average to date, while 8 more have been average (PFF grade in the 60s). That means half the Day 1 rookie class has been below par or injured. The 8 who have played above average were drafted in the following places in Round 1: No. 4, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 26, 27. That may change a lot after a full season, but more statistically significant information from previous drafts shows much the same thing: Great players can be found anywhere in the first round (and beyond).
Thankfully, the Giants’ rookies are under the guidance of what appears to be a top-notch coaching staff that should be able to get the most out of them as time goes on. Thankfully, the rookies are on a rebuilding team that is not under pressure to win this year. Most of all, thankfully the team is winning anyway thus far, and these players are getting a taste of what that is like and what is required to get there, unlike the past five Giants draft classes that never had that chance. In the long run, it is not unreasonable to expect half the 2022 draft class to make significant if not major contributions to the team going forward. Maybe this year, maybe not until their second or third years. If that happens, it will have been a pretty good draft.