The Expectation from NFL Rookies: What Is Reasonable?

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) celebrates after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft is a week away, and as teams get ready to pick their newest players, it’s time to take a look at what we should expect from the NFL Draft. There is usually a lot of hype around the draft, as fans expect the draft picks to be instant starters or All-Pro caliber players on day one, but this is rarely the case. It’s time to take a look at what to expect from the draft, and how well players tend to turn out. 

Immediate Expectations

Around 250 players get drafted each year in the NFL. There are 1696 53-man roster spots in the NFL. The odds are already low for draft picks, especially later-round picks, to make it to the final roster cuts on an NFL team. Out of all the players on NFL rosters, about 50 each year make a Pro Bowl. And 22 make it to a first-team All-Pro selection. So expecting that first-round pick to make a Pro Bowl or All-Pro in his rookie season is unreasonable. Only two rookies last year, Chase Young and Justin Jefferson, made a Pro Bowl. No rookie made it to the All-Pro first team, and only Jefferson made it to the second team. In most cases, a rookie should not be expected to be a day one starter, let alone one of the best players in the league. 

Rookie Contract Expectations

While a player should not be expected to be an immediate contributor, by the end of their rookie contract they will have likely shown if the draft capital invested in them was a good call. Let’s first look at some of the numbers on what day in the draft 2020 first-team All-Pro players came from. 23 players made the first team All-Pro team this season, and out of those 23, 10 were drafted on day one, 9 on day two, and 4 on day three. All 12 players on the first team defensive team were drafted in the first three rounds as well. It’s only a one-year sample size, but this shows that we should temper the expectations of the draft picks a team might make on the third day of the draft. 

However, just because the All-Pro list is made up of mostly players drafted in the first three rounds, this doesn’t mean that every early draft pick is going to be elite. After all, the draft is a crapshoot, and as a result, any player drafted in any round can easily be out of the league in two years or make multiple All-Pro teams. 

These numbers aren’t pretty. It just goes to show how many players don’t pan out in the NFL. Another thing to look at is how many of those players are on the team that drafted them. Stefon Diggs, Jack Conklin, DeForest Buckner, Tyrann Mathieu, and Minkah Fitzpatrick all made the All-Pro team last year for a team that did not draft them. Only Conklin and Mathieu made the All-Pro first team for their original team as well. However, Diggs, Buckner, and Fitzpatrick were all known to be good players before they left their original team. In most cases, by the end of a player’s rookie contract, people will know how good a player is, even if they have no recognition by the league. If a player has been a solid, multi-year starter for a team, a draft pick was likely a success.

Second Contracts

Getting a second contract in the NFL only happens to 50-60% of first-round picks. That rate is even lower for players drafted later in the draft. While it isn’t a perfect indictment of a successful NFL career, a second contract, whether it is by the team that drafted them, or a different team, is usually a sign that an NFL player is doing something right. First-round picks are held in higher regard around the league, and as a result, are more likely to receive a second contract from a different team even if they disappointed in their first couple of years in the league. At the end of the day, if you’ve drafted a player who is contributing to the team in positive ways, they are likely getting a second contract, and as a result, that should be considered a successful draft pick.

Players such as Mackensie Alexander, Cole Beasley, John Johnson, and many others, have been solid players on successful teams without having any individual awards and would be considered successful draft picks. So when your team drafts a player next week, especially in the first few rounds, don’t go in expecting them to be Pro Bowl or All-Pro level players during their career. If they end up becoming a positive-impact player in their career, they have likely been worth the draft pick.