Impact Rookies: What Position Makes the Easiest Transition to the NFL Game?


 

By Sex Panther

“And Tom Brady if you’re listening, take off the skirt and put on some slacks, toughen up.”-Rodney Harrison

The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that the players closer to the line of scrimmage have an easier transition to the pro game. In the past this has been true because they are allowed to do less thinking and rely more on instinct and physical ability. However, as we saw last year, the recent rule changes in the NFL have shifted the advantage so far to the offensive side that it became much easier to play quarterback, which is widely regarded as the most difficult position in sports. Consider the fact that four teams started a rookie quarterback last year, two of them with great success . In fact, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton looked like two of the better quarterbacks in the league as rookies. Receivers also had it easier, and in the process made running backs less relevant. In the same vein, it became much more difficult to play defensive back or pass rusher. Naturally, this leads us to two questions: 1. Did the speed at which certain positions adapt to the NFL change? 2. What rookies can we expect to start in 2012 because of these changes?

In order to answer these questions and to predict which positions (and players) from the 2012 draft will make an immediate impact, we will look at some data from the 2009-2011 drafts. I chose these three years because they most closely approximate the passing rules we have in place now. Before the 2009 season the NFL instituted the “Brady Rule” that penalized defenders from hitting quarterbacks below the thighs, in addition to not being able to hit them in the head. The NFL continued to protect the offense in 2010 and 2011, making it illegal to hit the quarterback after the ball was released, and also created defenseless receiver and helmet-to-helmet penalties. To give us a reasonable sample size, we will be evaluating players from the first two rounds of each year, as these are the players that teams generally expect to be NFL ready.

Quarterback             8/13= 62%

Notables: Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Jaaaash Freeman.

With so many young quarterbacks flourishing, the days of sitting you high round draft pick quarterback and letting him “develop” behind a veteran seem to be gone. Of course, it becomes much easier to play quarterback when defenders aren’t really allowed to hit you, but I digress. Unlike other positions, it is incredibly rare for late round quarterbacks to become stars, much less earn a starting job in the NFL. So, in contrast to all other positions, this list of quarterbacks, while not complete, is the only one worth looking at. From the history we can assume that that a little more than half, or 3 of the 5 quarterbacks from the 2012 draft will be starters.

Here are the quarterbacks we have to choose from: 

  • Andrew Luck- Colts
  • Robert Griffin- Redskins
  • Ryan Tannehill- Dolphins
  • Brandon Weeden- Browns
  • Brock Osweiler- Broncos

It is pretty likely that Luck and Griffin will start, as they have pretty much been giving the keys to the mansion already. Choosing from among Tannehill, Weeden, and Osweiler is trickier. If you believe Peyton Manning can stay healthy for a season in Denver, Osweiler is unlikely to see the field. Both the Browns and the Dolphins want Weeden and Tannehill respectively to start, although neither seems particularly ready.

Wide Receiver                  12/20= 60%

Notables: Percy Harvin, Jeremy Maclin, A.J. Green.

Having an almost equally high percentage for wide receivers as quarterbacks is a bit surprising. I’m not sure if this can be attributed to more college teams running pro- style offenses, NFL teams simplifying the playbook for particularly athletic rookies, or the change in contract rules, but it is clear that the mythical 3-year developmental period for receivers might have something in common with Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, and Scientology. Looking at the 2012 class, we can expect 5 or 6 of the following 9 receivers to start this year.

  • Justin Blackmon- Jaguars     
  • Michael Floyd- Cardinals
  • Kendall Wright- Titans
  • A.J. Jenkins- 49ers
  • Brian Quick- Rams
  • Stephen Hill-Jets
  • Alshon Jeffrey- Bears
  • Ryan Broyles-Lions
  • Ruben Randle- Giants

Strictly based on who these players will be competing against, we can assume Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, and Brian Quick will start. Kendall Wright will have to battle Nate Washington, but may get playing time if Kenny Britt isn’t healthy and/or out of detention. This pick may even be a way of replacing Britt if he continues in the wrong direction. I’m guessing the 49ers don’t agree with my research, because drafting A.J. Jenkins to compete with Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and Michael Crabtree sure sounds like he’ll be on the bench to me. Stephen Hill of Jets, Alshon Jeffrey of the Bears, and Ruben Randle of the Giants may see time as a 3rd receiver, but neither is likely to start unless Santonio Holmes gets suspended, Hakeem Nicks gets re-injured, or Brandon Marshall does Brandon Marshall things. Are there gambling odds on which of these three will happen first?  I hope so. Ryan Broyles’ playing time depends on what kind of a player Titus Young is this year. On the whole, this class of receivers may end up waiting longer than the stats say.

Tight End                  5/6= 83%

Notables: Rob Gronkowski, Jermaine Gresham, Brandon Pettigrew

Other than quarterback, no player’s role has been more positively correlated with rule changes than that of tight end. More and more teams are involving tight ends in the passing offense, and many are even employing two TE sets like the Patriots combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. That said, we have a small sample size of only 6 tight ends in from 2009-11, but 5 of the 6 started as rookies. This makes a lot of sense. Most tight ends come out of college with a pretty solid understanding of blocking formations techniques, and assignments, and because they can’t get hammered on passing routes anymore, their big bodies over the middle help quarterbacks enormously. This is all good news for the only 2012 tight end that qualifies, Coby Fleener of the Colts.

Running Back          3/15=20%

Notables: Ryan Matthews, Jahvid Best, Knowshon Moreno

If the news for tight ends was good, the news for running backs is horrible, and for many of the same reasons. A measly 3 out of 15 running backs started as rookies. When we look at the three—Ryan Matthews, Jahvid Best, and Knowshon Moreno—the list looks even worse. However, it makes a great deal of sense. As almost every team in the NFL (sans Jaguars, Vikings, Jets, Ravens, and 49ers) is a pass first team, the primary duties of a running back are to pass protect and run pass patterns. Odds are, very few backs are ready to read a NFL defense’s blitz scheme, and very few coaches trust a rookie to protect the most important player on their team from Clay Matthews, Terrell Suggs, or Mario Williams. If C.J. Spiller, Beanie Wells, and LeSean McCoy didn’t start as rookies, do the Rams trust someone named Isaiah Pead to protect the already injury-prone Sam Bradford? Chances are the only player below to see significant starts will be Trent Richardson.

  • Trent Richardson-Browns 
  • Doug Martin- Bucs
  • David Wilson- Giants
  • Isaiah Pead- Rams
  • LaMichael James- 49ers

Offensive Line

Notable Tackles 17/25=61%

Nate Solder, Anthony Castonzo, Orlando Franklin, Trent Williams, Russell Okong, Anthony Davis, Bryan Bulaga, Roger Safford, Eugene Monroe, Michael Oher, Sebastian Vollmer

Notable Interior Linemen  9/10= 90%

Mike Pouncey, Mike Iupati, Maurkice Pouncey, Alex Mack, Eric Wood, Andy Levitre

The contrast between offensive tackles and interior linemen was great enough that I felt they should be differentiated. As you can see, 2.5 times as many tackles are selected in the early rounds as interior linemen, a testament to their value and the difficulty of that position. However, interior linemen had the highest success rate of any position in terms of starting in year one. The lesson seems to be that because of the degree of difficulty (tackles face both complex blitz schemes and the best pass rushers), and margin for error (they are responsible for the safety of the team’s quarterback), it is much harder for them to be ready right away. Lets take a look at the 2012 class of linemen before discussing what this means for them.

Offensive Tackles

  • Matt Kalil- Vikings
  • Riley Reiff-Lions
  • Mitchell Schwartz-Browns
  • Cordy Glenn-Bills
  • Jonathan Martin-Dolphins
  • Jeff Allen-Chiefs
  • Mike Adams- Steelers
  • Kelechi Osemele- Ravens

Interior Linemen

  • David DeCastro-Steelers
  • Kevin Zeitler-Bengals
  • Amini Silatolu-Panthers
  • Peter Knoz-Falcons

Based on the past few drafts, we can expect 5 of the 8 offensive tackles to start this year. As for the four interior linemen, they should all be expected to start. Great news for the Steelers, Bengals, Panthers, and Falcons, they are basically getting a guaranteed starter.

Defensive Line   12/46= 26%

Notables: Marcell Dareus, JJ Watt, Adrain Clayborn, Cameron Jordan, Ndamuknog Suh, Gerald McCoy Tyson Alualu, Brian Orakpo, Tyson Jackson, Lamarr Houston.

Hmmm, this one is very surprising. Why is it so difficult to make the transition to defensive line, a position that would seem to rely on raw strength and size? Well, maybe players on the line don’t quite have the strength and leverage techniques we believe that they do.

A more likely reason is that with NFL offenses trending toward a spread style, the traditional defensive end or defensive tackle is fading away, and two other positions are emerging. First, the hybrid DE/OLB position for players like Von Miller and Brian Orakpo, where your role becomes rush the passer or drop into coverage on the tight end or running back. The other being the hybrid DT/DE much like Richard Seymour and Ndamukong Suh, where your role is to stop the run or rush the passer depending on the down and distance. In other words, this is a much more cerebral position that people think. We can expect 3 of these 13 players to be starters this year, a pretty sad amount. With that in mind, lets look at the 2012 draft class, for which I will not project starts, because with this many players and such a lower percentage, they would be pure shots in the dark.

  • Dontari Poe NT Chiefs
  • Fletcher Cox DT Eagles           
  • Michael Brockers DT Rams
  • Bruce Irvin DE Seahawks
  • Quinton Coples DE Jets
  • Shea McClellin DE Bears
  • Chandler Jones DT Patriots
  • Derek Wolfe DT Broncos
  • Andre Branch DE Jags
  • Kendall Reyes DE Chargers
  • Jerel Worthy DE Packers
  • Devon Still DT Bengals
  • Vinny Curry DE Eagles

Linebacker    15/24= 63%

Notable: Von Miller, Brooks Reed, Pat Angerer, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, James Laurinaitis, Rey Maualuga, Aaron Curry.

Ahh, back to what we expected. However, this is just as confusing at fist. Don’t outside linebackers and defensive ends do a lot of the same things, just at a little bit of a different angle and with a little bit different body type and size? Yes and no. It has become clear that the NFL game has moved to speed instead of size over the last few years, and these quick outside linebackers are clearly better at getting to the quarterback than defensive ends, which may be a result of the difference between a offensive tackle and a running back trying to block you.

Also, many linebackers have different assignments at different times. On one play they might rush the passer, another they may be shooting a gap to stop a stretch run, and another they may be dropping into pass coverage on a tight end, running back, or slot receiver. It is much better to be smaller and faster than bigger and slower when trying to cover a receiver, and the gang tackling often employed means that a slight outside linebacker may be expected to just get there and put in the first hit. We should expect 6 of the 10 linebackers from the 2012 draft class below to start based on the past three years.

  • Luke Kuechly Panthers        
  • Melvin Ingram Chargers
  • Don’t’a Hightower Patriots
  • Whitney Mercilus Texans
  • Nick Perry Packers
  • Courtney Upshaw Ravens
  • Mychal Kendricks Eagles
  • Bobby Wagner Seahawks
  • Zach Brown Titans
  • Lavonte David Bucs

With the Panthers defense so horrible, Luke Kuechley (his last name is begging for a good nickname) is sure to start. Melvin Ingram and Don’t’a Hightower should earn their spots and give the Chargers and Patriots a boost respectively. Whitney Mercilus should slide into the rotation with Brian Cushing DeMeco Ryans, and Brooks Reed. Beyond that, we’ve got six guys fighting for the last two spots on some good defenses. The Packers were down last year but still talented, the Eagles and Ravens are relatively stout, but aging at linebacker, and the Seahawks, Titans, and Bucs are defenses on the rise.

Defensive Back       

Notable Cornerbacks  7/28= 25%

Patrick Peterson, Kareem Jackson, Devin McCourty, Vontae Davis

Notable Safeties 4/5=80%

Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Jarius Byrd

Much like offensive linemen, the contrast between players who are drafted as cornerbacks and generic defensive backs is so far below those who are drafted specifically to play safety that I had to split them up. It’s clear that players who are drafted to play safety often jump right in and play, while those who are drafted at corner or at defensive back don’t. Why?

Well, lets start with the fact that players drafted at safety out of college probably understand how to run most of the basic zone plays that NFL defenses use, along with being able to cover a receiver or provide run support in a pinch. Their job doesn’t seem to change much, which makes the change easy.

Corners are a completely different game. With the change in contact rules, its damn near impossible to play cornerback in the NFL effectively. Your job is to stay as close as possible to a man who is bigger and faster than you, has better hands, and knows exactly where the ball is going, and oh yeah, you’re not allowed to touch him at all. As a result, a great deal of players drafted at corner end up in nickel and dime packages, and are not counted as starters (even if they play starter snaps) because most NFL lineups list a 3-4 front with two corners and two safeties in their starting lineup, while the game is actually shifting to a 3-3 or 4-2 front with three starting corners and two safeties as the base defense. In addition, a great deal of college corners find out they just can’t stay with NFL receivers give the coverage rules, and they transition to safety. While cornerbacks are sometimes shifted to safety, safeties are almost never switched to corner. Learning a new position on the fly at the NFL level means that most do not begin as starters. With this in mind, lets look at our 2012 defensive back class.

  • Morris Claiborne Cowboys
  • Mark Barron Bucs            
  • Stephen Gilmore Bills
  • Dre Kirkpatrick Bengals
  • Harrison Smith Vikings
  • Janoris Jenkins Rams
  • Casey Hayward Packers
  • Tavon Wilson Patriots

Only Tavon Wilson of the Patriots was drafted as a straight safety, and even he has played some college cornerback. Chances are he might see a good deal of playing time, and work up to being a starter.

As for the cornerbacks, 25% of 7 means that almost two of them will be starters this year. Yikes. The sneaky part here is that Mark Barron and Harrison Smith are both listed as defensive backs but actually will play safety, and odds are they will start. This is really bad news for Morris Claiborne, Stephen Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, Janoris Jenkins (as if he needed more bad news), and Casey Heyward. Maybe one of them will start.

What Does it All Mean Basil?

Returning to our original questions, yes, the speed of the game has changed the traditional thinking that big and close to the ball is easier and fast and further away. Quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, and the average American female are maturing early, while down linemen, running backs, and cornerbacks are suffering from the changes in the game. So what should teams take away from this? As with all positional analysis, it should be taken as a factor in decisions, not the sole factor. Elite players, no matter the position, should always trump drafting for need and reaching. However, teams shouldn’t be so damn afraid of drafting that start quarterback or elite receiver in fear that he won’t pan out in time. Likewise, they should allow a little more time for running backs, defensive linemen, and corners to develop.

One comment

  1. […] may get a chance to see this year, as Stephen Hill lines up near Sanchez. If you remember from our Impact Rookies column, the 3 year adjustment period to the NFL for wide receivers is a bit of a myth, with 60% of first […]

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