The expectations for a first round pick in the NFL is to immediately impact the team. These guys are rookies, but we don’t care. We expect them to start and be difference-makers on the field right off the bat. We don’t grant them the same grace we do some of the other first-year players.
But how much impact does a first-round player really have on their team in their rookie season?
Just look at the Packers recent first round picks. Nick Perry struggled early on and then spent the majority of his rookie season on the team’s injured reserve list. Derek Sherrod struggled to even get in the lineup his rookie season before suffering a devastating leg injury. Bryan Bulaga didn’t play until right tackle Mark Tauscher went down with an injury halfway through the 2010 season. Even then, Bulaga struggled and didn’t become an effective offensive tackle until the following season.
So why every year do we fall into the same trap? We continue to believe these guys will come in fresh out of college and be immediate impact players. Hey, if this happens that’s great, but there’s reasonable expectations and then there’s expecting the exception.
Sometimes our unreasonable expectations can loom over a player’s career like a dark cloud. Just look at how fans feel about A.J. Hawk as a recent example of this.
What are reasonable expectations then for first round picks?
Take the Packers’ 2013 first round selection, Datone Jones, for instance. I was guilty of this like everyone else. We thought Jones would come in and be an instance contributor to the Packers’ pass rush. Well, this hasn’t happened so far.
This has been partly to the ankle injury that has slowed Jones’ progress, but it may also reflect how we expect too much from rookies in their first year.
In fact, Pro Football Focus did a recent study on how well the 2013 first round picks are playing this season. They analyzed every play in the first three weeks of the season and scored each individual player based on their performance on a positive or negative scale, zero being a neutral score.
Out of the 32 first-round players they analyzed, only nine came out with a better than adequate score (any score over +1). 14 players received poor scores, including the Packers’ Datone Jones (-4.0). Eight received neutral or close to neutral scores, and one (Jonathan Cooper) was not scored because he was placed on injured reserve before the season.
According to their performance grades, the five first-rounders that have played the best so far this season have been: Carolina defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (+7.8), New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (+5.5), Houston wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (+5.3), Miami defensive end Dion Jordan (+2.6), and Detroit defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (+2.6).
Oddly enough, four of the top five first round performers this season are 4-3 defensive linemen.
PFF determined the five first-rounders who have performed the worst so far this season are: Buffalo quaterback E.J. Manuel (-8.2), Kansas City tackle Eric Fisher (-6.7), Philadelphia tackle Lane Johnson (-5.2), New York Giants tackle Justin Pugh (-5.2), and Oakland cornerback D.J. Hayden (-4.6).
The Packers’ rookie defensive end would be the next on the poor performers list with a -4.0 grade. In fairness to Jones, he also has the second fewest snaps out of all the active 2013 first-rounders with 49 and he’s been dealing with a lagging ankle injury.
So what should we make of this data?
It definitely shows how rookie offensive linemen, even if they’re first rounders, struggle in their first year in the NFL. The only offensive lineman taken in the first round this year that has a positive grade is Chicago guard Kyle Long, who was taken with the 20th overall pick.
With approximately 45% of this year’s first-rounders struggling early in the season, maybe we should hold our criticism, and our expectations for that matter, about Datone Jones for now.
A first round selection doesn’t guarantee immediate impact. Like all the other rookies, we need to be patient as they grow and adjust to life in the NFL.