The NFL Draft provides an opportunity for teams to supplement rosters, improve on weak positions, and build a strong foundation for the future. While the hope for any draft class is that every player can become a contributing member of the team, that is far from reality. More often than not, a draft class will produce one or two starting caliber players at most. As the newly minted 53 man roster is composed today, the New York Jets look to be starting five rookies by year’s end. Is this level of rookie production a pipe dream or a realistic option?
Seven out of the seven players drafted by the Jets in 2013 have made the roster cut (plus one UDFA): Dee Milliner, Sheldon Richardson, Geno Smith, Brian Winters, Oday Aboushi, WIlliam Campbell, Tommy Bohanon, and Ryan Spadola. Six of the eight are expected to come in and immediately make an impact on the field.
In the past, rookies in the NFL were expected to come in and wield a clipboard for a season or two at least. The rookie would be present, but silent, absorbing as much information as possible from experienced veterans at the top of the depth chart. Recent trends, however, have shown rookies stepping in and contributing at a high level. You only have to look back one season to see such evidence.
In 2012 alone, three rookie quarterbacks led their teams to the playoffs (Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Russell WIlson), two rookie rushers broke the 1,400 yard mark and were in the top five at their position (Alfred Morris and Doug Martin), and one rookie linebacker led the NFL with 164 tackles (Luke Kuechly). Just 10 years ago, this level of production from one rookie class was unheard of, but is now within expectations. When did this trend begin?
Many point to Ben Roethlisberger as the player that paved the way for modern rookie production in the NFL. Roethlisberger was the third quarterback drafted in the 2004 NFL draft, behind Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers, and accompanied by other offensive standouts like Larry Fitzgerald and Steven Jackson. However, despite his obvious competition, Roethlisberger earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors following a 15-1 campaign that culminated with a run to the AFC Championship game. Roethlisberger was the first quarterback ever to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Roethlisberger opened the floodgates and led the way for five rookie quarterbacks to be awarded the honors in the following eight years (Vince Young, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, and Griffin III). Once quarterbacks were considered viable rookie starters that could produce at a high level, expectations rose for rookies at positions that were less demanding. If a rookie quarterback can come into the league and lead a team to the Super Bowl, why can’t a rookie defensive end lead the league in sacks or a rookie tackle protect the franchise quarterback’s blind side?
In 2013, new Jets General Manager John Idzik managed to combine need with a “best player available” draft strategy. Going into the draft the Jets lost: an all world cornerback, two starting guards, two starting defensive linemen, and needed to provide a boost to the quarterback position. Coming out of the draft, the Jets touted young and talented options at each position of need.
The modern level of expectations for rookies, along with this draft class filling positions of need on the roster, create the perfect storm for the Jets 2013 rooks to make a significant contribution.
As high first round draft picks, Milliner (9th overall) and Richardson (13th overall) would be expected to start under most circumstances. Considering the fact that the Jets needed starters opposite Antonio Cromartie and Muhammad Wilkerson, these two should be seeing plenty of time on the field.
Smith came into a situation where his eventual starting seemed inevitable, considering the rocky situation surrounding Mark Sanchez. Add to that a higher ceiling and change of pace from the turn ver prone incumbent and Smith’s eventual taking of the reins was never truly in question.
The Jets brought in Willie Colon to start at right guard and drafted Winters to compete for the left guard spot. Stephen Peterman disappointed, leaving the door wide open for Winters to run away with the job. Winters lower leg injury slowed down his progress but did not derail it entirely as he is expected to take the job away from perennial underachiever Vlad Ducasse at some point this season.
Tommy Bohanon (Idzik’s personal project drafted in the 7th round) came in relatively unheralded. However, a useful skill set of blocking, running, and catching ability plus poor competition from Lex Hilliard helped the rookie out of Wake Forest secure the starting fullback/h-back gig.
Finally, the Jets brought in numerous highly regarded undrafted free agents hoping to supplement their roster. Wide receiver Ryan Spadola proved to be the best of the bunch, catching everything thrown his way. He earned his spot as the fifth receiver on a surprisingly deep pass catching depth chart.
Despite this influx of rookies, the Jets are only the seventh youngest team in the league. The Jets are not the St. Louis Rams (the youngest average team in the league) who are relying on their last two or three draft classes to lead the team. Nor are they the Detriot Lions, who have the oldest roster in the league and not a lot of youthful talent to supplement their aging veterans.
The Jets have a strong core of veterans in Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and Antonio Cromartie. They have a host of up and coming talent in Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, and Jeremy Kerley. Combine these players with the veteran leadership of Dawan Landry, Antwan Barnes, and Willie Colon and you have a strong backbone for a team.
If these six rookies were coming in and expected to run the team, then concern would be greater. However, these rookies are joining a Jets team that has talent and leadership in key areas. The energy and athleticism that the rookies bring to the 2013 Jets will provide an upgrade to the roster and the inevitable rookie mistakes (and there will be many) can be buttressed, to a degree, by the veterans around them.