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How likely is it for NFL rookies to play well? Part II

Defense has become harder to play, and it shows in rookie performance

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Giants
Giants 2021 first round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux rushing the quarterback in the pre-season game against Cincinnati
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2022 NFL season begins, it is tempting for New York Giants fans to look forward to the play of their nine rookie draft picks who made the 53-man roster. The question is what we can expect of draft picks in their rookie years. We examined this question for the offense in Part I. This post does the same for the defense.

As a reminder, we use thresholds for significant playing time to create a subset of rookies who made a difference to their teams over the period 2017-2021. Unlike the offense, for which skill position players such as wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs are only targeted a small fraction of the time they are on the field, players on defense are often involved at some level in the majority of the plays they participate in, more akin to offensive linemen, and so we just set a threshold of 10 snaps per game at all positions to define our rookie pool. A Pro Football Focus grade of at least 70 is used to determine which of them played well as rookies.

The results are shown in the chart below:

Rookies (defense)

Number of players 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 # per yr
Number of players 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 # per yr
Edge defender 15 13 17 17 18 16
Interior defensive line 12 15 13 16 15 14.2
Off-ball linebacker 12 15 14 15 15 14.2
Cornerback 24 23 17 24 16 20.8
Safety 9 12 15 10 16 12.4
Number with PFF grade ≥ 70
% good
Edge defender 1 3 2 2 4 15
Interior defensive line 0 2 4 6 3 21
Off-ball linebacker 3 2 1 4 3 18
Cornerback 1 3 4 7 9 23
Safety 4 1 4 4 7 32

Overall, 388 defensive rookies saw significant playing time over the 2017-2021 period, about twice as many as on offense. Partly this is a result of the target thresholds we use for offensive skill players, which limits the number of them who made important contributions. But the numbers for defense at each position are higher, other than at safety, than for offensive linemen, who are selected according to the same 10 snaps per game threshold as for defensive players. This presumably reflects the many different sub-packages that modern defenses run as a function of down and field position, which give more defensive rookies opportunities to get into games.

The total number of players who played well on defense as rookies (78) is almost identical to the number that played well on offense (81), however. There are several possible explanations, all of which may be true to some extent:

  • The draft is producing similar quality on offense and defense at the high end
  • The constant shuffling of defensive players into and out of the game as coordinators switch from 4-3 to nickel to dime defenses, and from man to zone or single-high to double-high safety alignments, means that less capable players spend more time in games on defense than on offense
  • It is just getting harder to play defense well in the NFL with rule changes over the years that favor offense

Whatever the reason(s), there is no position on defense for which rookies who play are very likely to excel: The number of “good” rookies on defense ranges from 15-32 percent, while it exceeds 50 percent for several skill positions on offense. We explore the individual position groups below.

Edge defenders

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Plenty of edge defenders get a good amount of playing time as rookies (on average 16 per year), but surprisingly for what has become such a high-profile position, hardly any of them shine as rookies, a mere 15 percent. In 2021, there was a run on edge defenders in the bottom half of the first round (Jaelan Phillips, Kwity Paye, Payton Turner, Gregory Rousseau, Odafe Oweh, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka), and as the chart above shows, most of them played a large number of snaps, but only Rousseau’s overall grade was above average.

That having been said, Round 1 is the place to find a good edge defender. Of the 12 that played well as rookies over 2017-2021, seven were taken in Round 1, one in Round 2, three in Round 3, and one was undrafted.

The stakes are high for Giants’ No. 5 pick Kayvon Thibodeaux. Regarded by many as the best edge defender in the draft, the expectations for him are similar to those for Nick Bosa in 2018 and Chase Young in 2020. But history says that a Bosa- or Young-like first year is the exception rather than the rule.

Interior defensive linemen

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The odds of good rookie interior defensive lineman play (21 percent) are a bit better than for edge defenders, but not much. 2021 was especially bad, with no rookie IDL coming close to an above-average PFF grade. Only Christian Barmore excelled in any category (pass rush), and the class was very poor in run defense and tackling, two things one would think any IDL has to do well to stay on the field.

Like running back, IDL has become something of a devalued position in the NFL. The 15 better-than-average rookie IDLs from 2017-2021 were drafted about equally between Rounds 1 and 6, in addition to three who were undrafted free agents. These players make considerably lower salaries than their counterparts on the edge of the line unless their name is Aaron Donald.

Are big men in college with football talent discarding IDL and setting edge defense as their goal? That certainly seems to be the case with the 2022 No. 1 draft pick, IDL-in-edge’s-clothing Travon Walker. But perhaps the tide is turning, with six impressive IDLs having been drafted in the top 100, led by No. 13 pick Jordan Davis.

Until that changes, though, all that will be asked of Giants’ fifth-round draft pick D.J. Davidson is that he provide adequate run defense and tackling when called upon.

Off-ball linebackers

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Rookie off-ball linebackers have had about as little success in recent years (18 percent) as rookie edge defenders and IDLs. The position of off-ball linebacker is evolving in the NFL. The Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus days are over. Linebacker now demands skill in four areas: Not only the run defense and tackling that defined the stars of yesteryear, but now also pass coverage of more athletic tight ends and running backs and the ability to rush the passer.

That makes for an interesting evaluation of linebackers. In 2021, Micah Parsons compiled an amazing 89.8 PFF grade as a rookie. The chart above, though, shows that it was all due to his pass rush ability (93.0 grade). His run defense (59.9), tackling (66.0), and pass coverage (69.4) were only average. Indeed, Parsons played many of his snaps at edge defender as the Cowboys tried to exploit his one strength. Pete Werner, the second-highest rated rookie LB (79.9), had the opposite profile, more that of the traditional linebacker.

Off-ball linebackers can be found throughout the draft: Of the 13 top-performing rookies in 2017-2021, three each were selected in Rounds 1 and 2, two each in Rounds 3 and 4, one in Round 5, and two were undrafted free agents.

There is thus no reason to rule out Giants fifth-round draft pick Micah McFadden as one of the linebackers who can succeed as a rookie, even though the odds are not favorable. McFadden had a good pre-season in all four areas of responsibility. With Blake Martinez released and sixth round pick Darrian Beavers out for the season, McFadden will get a chance to show he can fit the bill of the modern, more versatile off-ball linebacker.

Cornerbacks

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

No position comes even close to cornerback when it comes to NFL coaches giving rookies chances to play a significant number of snaps - on average, about 21 per year. Against modern offenses, defensive coordinators seek any possible solution to the enigma of how to limit explosive passing plays.

But something’s happening in the NFL. Rookie cornerbacks have been somewhat more successful than their counterparts at the first and second levels of defenses, 23 percent of them succeeding over the 2017-2021 period. Look more closely, though. The number of CBs seeing significant playing time has fluctuated from year to year but remained fairly steady long-term. The number of successful rookie CBs? That went from 9 to 7 to 4 to 3 to 1 from 2017 to 2021.

And it gets curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland said. Where have the successful rookie CBs come from? Anywhere and everywhere: six from Day 1 of the draft, seven from Day 2, seven from Day 3, and four undrafted free agents. And the six Round 1 successful CBs? All of them from the 2017 and 2018 drafts (including Giants CB1 Adoree’ Jackson). There hasn’t been a cornerback chosen in Round 1 who has played above average as a rookie in the past three years. The best rookie CB in 2021? According to the chart, that was fifth-round pick Nate Hobbs, not first-rounders Jaycee Horn (who was injured), Patrick Surtain, Caleb Farley (also injured), Greg Newsome II, or Eric Stokes.

The reason is not clear, but who cares about top four picks Derek Stingley Jr. and Sauce Gardner? Give me third-round draft pick Cor’Dale Flott, who, according to the statistics has as good or better a chance of succeeding this season than Stingley and Gardner. For that matter, give me Justin Layne (a Round 3 pick in 2019) or Nick McCloud (an undrafted free agent). The Giants might as well give opportunities to all of them, since it seems that NFL scouts and general managers no longer have the least idea who will make a good NFL cornerback.

Safeties

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Safety is the position at which the smallest percentage of rookies (12 percent) have made a significant contribution. But it has also been the position on defense at which the highest percentage of these players (32 percent) has played well.

Unlike cornerback, safety shows no noticeable long-term trend. Since safeties are valued less in the NFL than cornerbacks, they are less often drafted in the first round. Only one of the high-performing rookie safeties from 2017-2021 was drafted on Day 1. The greatest number were drafted in Round 2 (think Xavier McKinney, the highest-rated rookie S in 2020 though in a limited sample). Seven were drafted in Rounds 3 and 4, and the other four were taken in the later rounds or were undrafted.

Thus, the fact that the Giants passed up the most highly touted safety prospects in the 2022 draft and selected Dane Belton in Round 4 does not mean that he won’t make a significant contribution as a rookie. For that matter, the Giants’ other backup safety on the depth chart, Jason Pinnock, was the fourth-ranked rookie S in the league in 2021 with a 70.4 PFF grade, as the chart above shows.

Summary

The small percentages of successful rookies on defense the past five years at all positions may be a symptom of how the NFL has developed an imbalance between offense and defense. There is no such thing in the NFL as a shutdown defense any more. In the short term it makes the NFL more fun to watch. (See the Buffalo-Kansas City and Tampa Bay-Los Angeles playoff games last season as Exhibits A and B.)

In the long term, though, such an imbalance poses a problem if not rectified. Perhaps the difference between the college and pro rules for illegal contact (contact with a receiver is legal up to five yards beyond the line of scrimmage in the NFL vs. anywhere beyond the line of scrimmage in college) is giving top college CBs an advantage that they cannot carry over to the NFL. Or maybe it is the pass interference penalty (at the spot of the foul in the NFL vs. a maximum of 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in college) that is downgrading the performance of CBs at the NFL level.

Whatever the explanation, the dramatic decline in good rookie cornerbacks, especially highly drafted ones, over the past five years should raise a red flag for general managers and for NFL rules officials alike.

No matter the reason, it is clear that Giants fans should temper expectations for the five 2022 draftees the Giants will put on the field on defense beginning this Sunday. The deck is stacked against their immediate success compared to several of their offensive counterparts.