Among the many reasons for hope among New York Giants fans as the 2022 NFL season gets underway is the large crop of draft picks who made the final 53-man roster. Nine of General Manager Joe Schoen’s 11 draftees made the opening day roster, and the only two who didn’t, Darrian Beavers and Marcus McKethan, would likely have made it as well if they hadn’t suffered season-ending injuries. Many of the draftees could play significant roles on a roster lacking depth at many positions.
For perspective, 20 of the 259 players drafted by NFL teams (8 percent) in 2021 did not play a single down, either because they were cut or injured, while another 60 players (23 percent) didn’t play enough to even register a non-zero Approximate Value according to Pro Football Reference. That’s almost one-third of the draft yielding almost no value in players’ rookie seasons. It includes two Round 1 picks, two from Round 2, seven from Round 3, and 14 from Round 4.
What should the expectations be for the Giants’ young players? At this early stage we have no knowledge of Schoen & Co.’s prowess in identifying talent, or the ability of head coach Brian Daboll and his staff to mold and scheme that talent into production in NFL games. After all, Schoen and Daboll are rookies, too. Nonetheless, anticipation runs high among fans.
Since we have no track record on Schoen and Daboll yet, we can look at the NFL as a whole and ask: How likely is it for rookies who do play a lot to succeed during their first NFL season? To do so, we’ll look at the past five drafts and use Pro Football Focus first-year grades as a guide. To qualify as an “instant” success, we require two things: The player must have played a significant fraction of his team’s snaps, and he must have scored at least 70 (PFF’s threshold for above-average performance) on his overall offensive or defensive play.
This post will look at the offensive side of the ball. A following post will do the same for defense. Different positions have different degrees of involvement in a game. Quarterbacks and offensive linemen often play most or all offensive snaps and affect every play. Wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs are rotated in and out more often and are sometimes not actively involved in plays when they are on the field. We use the following thresholds for “significant” amounts of snaps or usage on offense per game averaged over the season:
- Quarterback: 10 drop backs (i.e., 170 for 2021, 160 for earlier years)
- Wide receiver: Three targets
- Tight end: Two targets
- Running back: Five carries
- Offensive tackle: 10 snaps
- Interior offensive line: 10 snaps
These thresholds are somewhat arbitrary, as is the 70 PFF score threshold, but they allow for players who did not immediately crack the starting lineup or who missed some time with injury but played notably well when they were there. Modest changes to the thresholds don’t have much effect. In the end, I used the eye test to decide whether important players were being left out for each position. So take the results as a general guide to addressing the question posed in the title of this post.
The results are summarized in this table:
|Number of players||2021||2020||2019||2018||2017||# per yr|
|Number of players||2021||2020||2019||2018||2017||# per yr|
|Interior offensive line||15||14||13||10||8||12.0|
|Number with PFF grade ≥ 70|
|Interior offensive line||2||1||2||1||0||10|
Overall those numbers add up to 187 players, a bit less than 30 percent of offensive players drafted (if we assume the draft to be evenly split between offense and defense), who saw significant playing time. Below we discuss each position group.
The table above shows that on average five QBs receive significant playing time in their rookie year, but that only one (20 percent) has a very good rookie year. The chart below shows the specific players for 2021:
Before the 2021 draft, most of the speculation was about how many would go in the top 10. For most of that time Mac Jones was ignored until 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan started mentioning his name, yet come draft day he selected Trey Lance, who wound up hardly playing. Jones was clearly the best of the rookies, outperforming his more ballyhooed brethren Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Justin Fields, none of whom had good rookie years. Meanwhile Davis Mills, on no one’s radar, had a decent rookie season.
In 2019 also, only one rookie quarterback graded well. Not No. 1 pick Kyler Murray (64.2 PFF grade), but sixth-rounder Gardner Minshew (70.5), who took the league by storm for a while before Minshew-mania ran its course. In 2017, no one stood out (Patrick Mahomes sat most of the season). All of which reminds us that what a player does as a rookie may or may not be predictive of his future performance, in either direction. It’s not always like that: Joe Burrow (75.1) and Justin Herbert (79.9) were as advertised as rookies and only got better as sophomores. On the other hand, 2018 No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield (83.2) has seen his star fall, while Josh Allen (65.3) and Lamar Jackson (58.6) have seen theirs rise.
Does it depend on draft position? For quarterbacks, most definitely. Minshew is the only high-performing rookie QB in the past five years not selected in Round 1. Going further back, we have examples like Russell Wilson (Round 3, 89.7 rookie grade) and Dak Prescott (Round 4, 81.5), but these are the exceptions.
If you’re looking for a rookie to have an immediate positive impact on your offense at a position of high value, draft a wide receiver. About 10 WRs per year have gotten considerable playing time as rookies. About half of them have performed well as rookies, with the number of rookie stars seeming to rise the past few years (e.g., seven of nine who got significant playing time in 2021, as the chart above shows). This will be no surprise to fans: CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase immediately come to mind as rookies who excelled right out of the gate.
Is it the increasing emphasis on the passing game in the NFL that has better realized the talents of these athletes? Is it that great high school athletes are more often deciding that they want to make their career as NFL wide receivers rather than playing other positions or going into other sports? Whatever the explanation, we seem to be in a golden era for wide receivers.
Rounds 1 and 2 (nine in each round) are the most common places to find good rookie receivers, but seven of the 25 high-performing rookies came from later round picks. Giants 2021 second-round draft pick Wan’Dale Robinson was as under-the-radar as could be, but in training camp we began to get an idea of what he could be. In the Kafka-Daboll offense, it’s not unreasonable to think that Robinson could have an impact on the Giants’ offense right away as similarly undersized WRs Rondale Moore and Elijah Moore did for their teams in 2021.
The story is exactly the opposite for tight ends. Very few see much action as rookies, and if anything the trend is downward in recent years. Even fewer have much positive impact - in three of the past five years not a single TE has burst onto the scene as a productive rookie with significant playing time. The five who have produced as rookies are evenly spread through draft Rounds 1-4. So, don’t expect Giants’ rookie Daniel Bellinger to be a star right away, but not because he lasted until the fourth round.
This is mostly just a reflection of the draft itself. In 2021, only 11 TEs were drafted, as opposed to 35 wide receivers. It was a bit more balanced in 2022 (19 TEs and 28 WRs drafted), which seems more typical of recent years.
Of course, tight ends aren’t just receivers. Blocking is an important part of their game. In the chart above showing the two impact TEs from the 2021 draft, Kyle Pitts is the marquee name. But Pat Freiermuth had the better pass blocking score (an excellent 81.2). If Bellinger’s rookie year blocking score looks like that, Giants fans will not be disappointed.
Running backs are the increasingly forgotten players of NFL offenses, many of which now emphasize passing over rushing. The good news is that if your team does get a rookie running back onto the field with a decent number of carries, there’s a good chance he’ll produce. Six of seven rookie RBs who rushed an average of five times a game in 2021 had above-average PFF scores, and the seventh wasn’t far behind. For the period of 2017-2021, 60 percent of rookie running backs who saw the field a lot played well.
In the modern NFL running backs are sometimes as important in pass receiving as in rushing (2021 Saquon Barkley, anyone?). Here are the 2021 rookie RBs who were targeted as receivers at least two times per game, ranked by pass receiving score:
Only one, Kenneth Gainwell, had an above-average receiving score, but Najee Harris and Javonte Williams had adequate receiving scores while garnering above-average overall offense grades. Of note to the Barkley critics is that two of the top five receiving backs also had very subpar pass blocking scores, so Barkley is not unusual in that regard.
Other than quarterback, is there a more premium offensive position in today’s pass-happy NFL than tackle? Unfortunately, many are called but few are chosen. On average, 10 rookie offensive tackles have gotten significant playing time in the past five years, but only about a quarter of them have been successful as rookies. Only four of the 12 who saw the field a lot in 2021 had above-average PFF grades, and only one of those four had an above-average pass blocking grade.
Of the 12 rookie OTs who played a lot as rookies and succeeded overall, eight were selected in the first round, three in the second round, and one in the sixth round (Michael Onwenu). So there’s every reason to use high draft picks on offensive tackles. The Giants of course did that with Evan Neal this year, but the lesson is not to expect the world from him right away - just like his line mate Andrew Thomas. Thomas was the sixth-ranked rookie OT in 2020 overall (62.4), and eighth-ranked in pass protection (54.7). In 2021, he was second-ranked of the 2020 draftees overall (78.9) and in pass blocking (82.9).
Interior offensive linemen
The most surprising result of this study is the abysmal performance of rookie guards and centers. On averag 12 of them played a lot as rookies, and the number looks to be rising steadily over time. Only 10 percent of them, though, performed well in their first season. 2021 was no exception, with only two drafted IOLs out of 15 who were on the field a lot playing well, as the chart above shows. Seven of them even had subpar scores for run blocking, which is supposed to be easier than pass blocking. Isn’t off a harder position to play than guard or center? Can’t you just stick one of those “Big Uglies” (H/T to the late legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson) in there and be done with it?
It’s tempting to explain this as the result of teams waiting until after Round 1 to draft IOLs. But over the 2017-2021 period, of the six who played well, only one was taken in the first round, two in the second round, one in the third round, one in the sixth round, and one was undrafted. The two high-performing 2021 rookie IOLs were a second-rounder (Creed Humphrey) and a sixth-rounder (Trey Smith), while first-rounder Alex Leatherwood was moved to guard after failing at offensive tackle and was released by the Raiders this summer.
We don’t know as of this writing who the Giants’ starting left guard will be against Tennessee. There’s a chance it could be Round 3 draft pick Joshua Ezeudu. If so, Giants fans will need to resist instant judgement. It won’t be a shock if the third-rounder succeeds as a rookie, but it won’t be a surprise either if Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry teach him some lessons.
The overall message this study conveys about the state of NFL offenses is:
- The draft is like being a kid in a candy store for NFL general managers who need wide receivers or running backs - just pick one you like when it’s your turn and there’s a decent chance you’ll get instant gratification.
- Tight ends are becoming something of an afterthought in today’s NFL - you have to put one on the field most of the time, sometimes two or even three, but more often than not they’re nothing to get excited about and nothing to prioritize.
- Offensive linemen, like quarterbacks, are a scarce resource - everyone is looking for “the guy,” not just at QB but at tackle, guard, and center, too, and they don’t grow on trees (or at least the ones that do are often not ripe yet).