Rookie Class Expectations: A Closer Look At First Year Production

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A Look At First Year Production And A Tempering Of Expectations For This Rookie Class.

The NFL draft is an exciting event for football fans. Fans of the college game get to see the kids they’ve been watching as teenagers realize their dreams and receive an opportunity to play on Sundays. Fans of the professional game get a look at the potential future stars for their favorite team. The NFL draft is an event that embodies everything that the NFL offseason is for fans: hope.

Every fourth round pick could be the next Russell Wilson. Every first round pick could be the guy that changes a franchise. Any undrafted rookie could be the next Arian Foster. Even the smartest minds in the draft community can’t tell you with any reliable certainty how each player’s career will look. Every player is a potential star until they first step foot on the field.

The truth is that not every player can be a star. Not every player can be an adequate starter. The truth is that most of these players will be out of the league in a couple of years, or they will provide depth for their team. It is a sobering fact to think about for all of us on our post-draft-highs, but that is the way the NFL works. It is a tough league, and not everybody is cut out for it.

The 2014 rookie class really took the NFL by storm. More than anything, Lions fans remember it as the year that the team drafted Eric Ebron before Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham. While Beckham and Donald solidified themselves as stars in the NFL, Ebron has yet to elevate his game to that level. Eric Ebron is playing out the more traditional career in the NFL. At first glance, he appears to be the outlier in that 2014 first round. In reality, that rookie class was an outlier itself. Drafts do not generally produce close to that many NFL-ready impact players. Most players take time.

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Unfortunately, the recency of this draft has infected us with unrealistic expectations that rookies need to produce. There aren’t many highly-drafted quarterbacks that have the opportunity to sit on the bench for a year and learn the offense anymore. Fans want these players to win their fantasy league for them. We want Odell Beckham. We want Ezekiel Elliot. As fans, we often demand instant production, but it is worth remembering that there are plenty of good players that weren’t necessarily good from day one.

Last Year’s Rookie Class

Last year, not a single rookie quarterback threw for over 4000 yards. Dak Prescott has been hailed as a rising star in the NFL. He was elected to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. He had success in the win column. However, he ended the year with just 3667 yards passing. This is not to say that he is a bad player, or that he isn’t going to develop into a star, just that his statistical production was underwhelming. He was a rookie. He was working with a more limited offense to cater to his learning curve. The team leaned on the running game. This is how many successful quarterbacks begin their career. Quarterback is the toughest position in the NFL, and these young players need time to learn how to process and play at the NFL level.

Of last year’s rookie class, only two running backs exceeded 1000 yards. Many Lions fans and media analysts considered running back to be a need for the Lions. Many people have been disappointed that Ameer Abdullah has not eclipsed the thousand yard mark. Only Ezekiel Elliot and Jordan Howard surpassed that mark. It isn’t as simple as just drafting a running back. Not every back drafted highly is going to be a star out of the gate. Derrick Henry worked in reserve of Demarco Murray last year. That doesn’t make him a bust. He, like many others, is making the transition from the college game to the NFL game. He’s getting the opportunity to learn pressure-free.

No receivers from last year’s class reached 1000 yards. Michael Thomas came close with 981 yards but ultimately missed the mark. Four wide receivers were selected in the first round. Coleman, the first off the board, ended with 373 yards receiving. Will Fuller collected 673 yards through the air. Josh Doctson spent his rookie season on the injury reserve. Laquon Treadwell struggled to see the field and ended the year with the same number of receptions as Sam Bradford.

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Even the most successful of the rookie wide receivers wasn’t entirely ready for the NFL. Michael Thomas started the year in a more limited role. He ran primarily a few different routes while he developed his game. As fans, we want to see these guys come out and play right away. We want to see them make an instant impact in meaningful ways. Even the guys that make that impact are growing, learning, trying to reach their full potential. Michael Thomas came from Ohio State. Kenny Golladay is coming from a small school. That is only going to make the transition more difficult. That doesn’t mean he can’t do it, only that he will probably need some time. Fans need to be patient.

No rookie pass rusher reached double digit sacks. Joey Bosa racked up 9.5 sacks and was considered to be an instant star as a pass rusher. When draft analysts call prospects double digit sack players, they are generally speaking in terms of potential. They are saying that this guy could develop into a double-digit sack player, not that he has the tools to do that right away.

Cornerback is among the most difficult transitions for college players. The most interceptions by a rookie last year was three. Teez Tabor has excellent instincts and ball skills, but that doesn’t always translate right away. The NFL moves at a different speed. Offenses are more complex. The guys on the other side of the ball are bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter than the guys these defensive backs played in college. Darius Slay was benched multiple times throughout his rookie season. He is now a lock-down corner for the Lions. Slay had an adjustment period, like most rookies in the NFL.

Looking Forward

2014 spoiled us. Players all over that first round came in and made an instant impact. There are pro-bowlers all over the board. There are players making significant contributions to their teams that went undrafted. That class is not what fans should expect from this class or any class for that matter. These players deserve our patience. For every Odell Beckham there is a Darius Slay. As fans, we need to temper our early expectations.

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These players aren’t generally drafted for immediate production. Teams are usually drafting these guys with their future, rather than their present, in mind. Is Jalen Reeves-Maybin going to start day one? Probably not. We may see very limited tackle production from him this year, but Bob Quinn and the front office saw things in his tape that make them think that he can be a quality player for the Lions down the road.

As much as we want to hope that this Lions rookie class is going to come out and set the world on fire, we have to remember that it is rare for a class to do that. I think we, as fans, were happy with the production that the Lions got out of the rookie class last year. I don’t think the class disappointed many people. As the roster gets stronger and stronger, we will see less and less production out of the first year players. The better Quinn makes this roster, the less the team has to lean on players who need time to develop. As fans, we should be happy that the team is moving in that direction.

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Thanks for checking out the article everyone. Go Lions! You can follow me on Twitter @Lanny1925 and be sure to join the community on the Detroit Lions subreddit.

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About the Author

Sean Lanigan
I love fantasy football, fantasy baseball, music, books, video games, and all things nerd. I'm a big football fan and a bigger Detroit Lions fan. I was born in Michigan but have spent the vast majority of my life living in Viking and Packer country. If you are a Lions fan in Minnesota, hit me up, and let's watch some football.