Draft Metrics: The Impact of Rookies
By: Tony Villiotti
July 27, 2011
In a recent Sports Illustrated interview, Eli Manning was asked about the lockout and said, "For the rookies it's going to be like a redshirt year because
they're going to come into training camp and everything is going to be brand new." Manning expresses the general expectation that the 2011 crop of rookies will be a step behind their predecessors because of the absence of offseason workouts and access to their new coaches. This certainly seems to make perfect sense as the transition from college football to professional football is as much mental as it is physical.
But what is the normal contribution from a rookie class? In this brief article, Draft Metrics will review "normal" in terms of games started by rookies. That barometer is not perfect but it is quantifiable and facilitates discussion. The years from 2002 through 2010 were reviewed because all 32 NFL teams were in existence for the entire time period and there is no need to consider any anomalies caused by differences in the number of teams.
The data, which is shown in the table below, indicates that rookies, on average, started just over 7 percent of all games from 2002 through 2010 with practically all the starts made by drafted players. Stated another way, on average an NFL team will get 25 starts from its rookie class. The number of games started tends to vary by year due to the opportunistic nature of rookie starts (e.g., injuries, etc.). It will be interesting to see how the 2011 data plays out and whether it tells us anything regarding the importance, or lack thereof, of the offseason workouts.
The following table shows the data by year. The total of all starts (11,264) represents 22 starters per game for 16 games for 32 teams each season.
Year Starts by Rookies   Year Starts by Rookies
Drafted Undrafted Total   Drafted Undrafted Total
2002 756 70 826   2007 670 68 738
2003 704 78 782   2008 656 68 724
2004 777 76 853   2009 713 81 794
2005 774 36 810   2010 771 107 878
2006 831 60 891  
Draft Metrics also looked at whether there was much variation by playing position and found that were some differences as illustrated by the following chart. Starts by rookies were most frequent at tight end and least frequent at defensive line.
Percentage of Starts by Rookies: 2002-2010
Earlier in this article it was stated that, on average, each NFL team would receive 25 starts from its rookie class in its rookie season. In actuality, though, there is significant variation among the teams as illustrated by the following table.
Total Games Started by Rookies: 2002-2010
Above Average Starts Below Average Starts
Significantly Above Somewhat Above Significantly Below Somewhat Below
Texans 362   Cardinals 258   Vikings 227   Bears 196  
Lions 325   Chiefs 242   49ers 221   Jets 189  
Colts 300   Bills 240   Panthers 219   Browns 188  
Rams 278   Bengals 239   Ravens 219   Giants 177  
Raiders 277   Titans 235   Bucs 218   Seahawks 171  
Jaguars 274   Cowboys 233   Broncos 214   Eagles 155  
Chargers 267   Dolphins 232   Saints 202   Redskins 148  
Packers 266   Patriots 229   Falcons 200   Steelers 95  
Some of the variation is obvious and due to circumstances (e.g., more opportunities to start on an expansion team like the Texans, etc.) while some seems contrary to logic. The Texans and Lions seem logical to have the most starts from rookies, but the number of starts from rookies seems high for the Colts. Good drafting? More willingness to give rookies a shot? Good luck or skill in signing undrafted free agents? It is probably some combination of all.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Steelers have far fewer starts from rookies than any other team. Their reputation, supported by facts, is that of a good drafting team, so wouldn't you expect more starts from rookies? Two factors seem to be at play. First, the Steelers have been a successful team during the study period so there are fewer opportunities for rookies to move right in. (Although other successful teams like the Patriots have had many more starts from rookies). Second and probably most significant, the Steelers have been historically slow to move rookies into the lineup. Troy Polamalu, for example, didn't start as a rookie. Ben Roethlisberger did, but only because of an injury to Tommy Maddox. Last year Steelers President Art Rooney II commented on this saying, " I do think that one of the things we have to do is probably get better at developing our younger players. That's something we have to think about and make sure we're doing what we need to do to have guys being able to step in maybe a little earlier."
The other somewhat surprising team is the Cleveland Browns. With their lack of success on the field it would be logical to expect more opportunities for rookies but that obviously has not been the case. The Browns got only a total of 53 rookie starts from their 2002-2005 rookie classes but have done considerably better since (expect for 2008 when they got only 3 starts from their rookie class).
Note: This article was originally published on Tony Villiotti's website, DraftMetrics.com and is being reprinted here with the permission of the author. Draft Metrics was established in 2010 but its roots were planted long before. Villiotti's obsession with the NFL Draft began in 1969. Over the years, his interest shifted from predicting draft choices to trying to better understand the draft's importance by examining its eventual outcomes.
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