For instant impact, draft linebacker or lineman - NBC Sports

For instant impact, draft linebacker or lineman
If your team is drafting for immediate need, steer clear of QBs
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is expected to go in the first round of the draft, and he should make a big splash right away, contributor Mike Tanier writes.
April 24, 2012, 9:04 pm

Maybe you are last year's Falcons, who felt they were one playmaker away from the Super Bowl and traded up to select wide receiver Julio Jones. Or last year's 49ers, who wanted to make a good defense great by adding Aldon Smith to the pass rush. Or you are this year's Dolphins, who could leave a box of season tickets lying on the street, come back in an hour, and find that none were taken: You need a rookie that will generate excitement.

There are great prospects at every position. But which position will give you immediate results? Rookie running backs often have 1,000-yard seasons. Or do they? Jones had a great year for the Falcons, but how often does that happen? Smith recorded 14 sacks, but can a team expect that from Courtney Upshaw or some other pass rusher?

Let's look at the past 10 drafts on a position-by-position basis. We will focus on the first round, because when you are looking for immediate help, you don't wait until later rounds to find it. We will also define an "impact rookie" as precisely as possible to eliminate judgment calls. At what positions do rookies produce the most immediate results?

The answers buck conventional wisdom. Let's start at the top.

Impact rookies: Start at least 10 games and produce a quarterback rating over 75.0.

Impact rate: 16%
As you might expect, rookie quarterbacks rarely have outstanding seasons. Only Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger met our not-too-stringent standards among first-round picks. Lots of rookies fell below the 75.0 rating threshold, including Vince Young, Mark Sanchez and a few others who garnered a lot of attention in their first seasons. Remember, we are looking for "impact" players, not guys who can hold down the job and get by because they make a few plays.

The low impact rate is sobering news for those who hold up Cam Newton as an example of what Robert Griffin III or some other quarterback can do right away. The reason the four players above are mentioned so often is that they are the only good examples from the past decade. Drafting a quarterback is not a quick fix.

Running back
Impact rookies: Gain at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

Impact rate: 39%
Surprised? When we think of rookie running backs, we think of Adrian Peterson-types: Point them at the hole, give them the ball, and watch them thunder for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. But most of our impact first-rounders are more like Reggie Bush, Jahvid Best or Knowshon Moreno, barely qualifying after their rushing and receiving yards are mixed together.

The message is clear: The first round of the draft is not teeming with 1,000-yard rushers, though the probability of a quick upgrade is higher here than at many other positions.

Wide receiver
Impact rookies: Gain at least 800 receiving yards and score a minimum of four touchdowns.

Impact rate: 22%
Lower the threshold to 700 receiving yards, and the impact rate is much higher. Receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and Jeremy Maclin all gained between 700-800 yards as rookies. But we are looking for major upgrades here, not guys who come in and show flashes. Eight hundred yards works out to just 50 yards per game. The only rookie first-rounders from the past decade to reach that total were Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Dwayne Bowe, Roy Williams, Michael Clayton, Lee Evans and Andre Johnson.

Just as Newton set a misleading standard for quarterbacks, Jones and Green might set the bar too high for wide receivers. If Fitzgerald and Megatron could only catch 48-58 passes as rookies, it is not fair to pencil 75 in for Justin Blackmon or Michael Floyd. Production like that is rare.

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Tight ends
Impact rookies: Catch 60 passes, with a five-catch bonus for every touchdown

Impact rate: 31%
Jermaine Gresham, Dustin Keller, Heath Miller and Jeremy Shockey all had excellent rookie seasons as first-round picks. Of course, for a tight end to merit a first-round selection, he is usually a pretty special athlete.

Offensive tackles
Impact rookies: Start at least 10 games as rookies, then hold onto their starting jobs for at least one more season.

Impact rate: 70%
Yes, 70 percent of all first-round rookie tackles not only earn starting jobs more-or-less immediately, but hold onto them for at least one more season. The impressive list includes Jake Long, Joe Thomas, D'Brickishaw Ferguson, Jordan Gross, Ryan Clady and many others. It also includes some weaker choices, such as Alex Barron (a penalty-plagued Rams tackle who slowly lost his starting job) and Mike Williams (a huge Bills lineman who ballooned over 400 pounds).

There is only so much we can do, statistically, on the offensive line, and this impact rate would be lower if we could eliminate some of the borderline players. Still, these figures are an eye-opener for people who think rookie linemen are yanked in and out of the lineup because they allow easy sacks or jump offsides. A tackle is more likely to start right away, and play well, than a first-round pick at just about any other position.

Interior linemen
Impact rookies: Start at least 10 games as rookies, then hold onto their starting jobs for at least one more season

Impact rate: 76%
Guards and centers are rarely drafted in the first round. When they are selected, they are outstanding prospects whose teams have an immediate need. This data does not tell us much.

Defensive ends
Impact rookies: Record at least eight sacks, with a one-sack bonus for every 25 tackles.

Impact rate: 19%
Defensive ends are like wide receivers. If we lower our standards to four or five sacks, we get a lot of guys who help the cause, including Jason Pierre-Paul types on the verge of greatness. But Aldon Smith types (really a linebacker, but we will get to that) are much harder to find. The list of first-rounders who fit the bill in the last decade: Smith, Ryan Kerrigan, Kamerion Wimbley, Tamba Hali, Will Smith, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney and Charles Grant.

As the list above shows, some defensive ends may be lumped in with our linebackers, and vice versa. Don't worry: No truly great rookie season is going to slip through the cracks.

Defensive tackles
Impact rookies: Record at least six sacks, with a one-sack bonus for every 25 tackles

Impact rate: 12.5%
Our impact players here are Ndamukong Suh, Marcel Dareus, John Henderson and Kevin Williams. We might be icing out some top run defenders with our criteria, but the list of non-qualifiers is full of players such as Ryan Sims, Marcus Tubbs, DeWayne Robinson and Justin Harrell, who washed out of the league pretty quickly, plus Jimmy Kennedy-types who stuck around as journeymen. Draft a defensive tackle early, and you must be ready for a development period and the possibility of a major bust. Dontari Poe should get a tattoo which says just that.

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Impact rookies: Record at least 100 solo tackles, with a 10-tackle bonus for sacks and interceptions.

Impact rate: 55%
Yes, there are pass rushers, run stuffers, and all-purpose defenders chunked into this data. But it is quite a list: Brian Orokpo, Von Miller, Patrick Willis, Clay Mathews, Jon Beason, DeMarcus Ware and so on.

Leaving the pass-rushers aside for a moment, traditional linebackers have become like tight ends and centers: Teams only take very special prospects in the first round, because there are usually solid rank-and-file players available later in the draft. When a Willis, Beason or Jonathan Vilma bubbles to the top of the draft board, he is usually ready to make a big splash. Dont'a Hightower and Luke Keuchly appear poised to join that list.

As for the pass rushers, prospects who can play linebacker, or who are projected into 3-4 schemes as linebackers, have a much better chance to make their presence felt right away than defensive ends. Miller, Orokpo, and Aldon Smith are fine examples. So if your favorite team plays a 3-4 and drafts Melvin Ingram, be excited. If they play a 4-3 and draft Ingram, be a little less excited.

Defensive backs
Impact rookies: Start at least 10 games and produce high big-play totals.

Impact rate: 29%
If the criteria above sound a little vague, it's because cornerbacks and safeties are hard to evaluate statistically. High tackle totals often mean that they are getting beaten on a lot of pass plays. Interception totals are very volatile. We had to take the "know `em when you see `em" approach in the secondary, mixing interceptions, passes defensed, sacks and tackle totals in a way that represents a quality, high-impact performance.

Here's the list of players who made the cut, so you can quibble: Eric Berry, Joe Haden, Earl Thomas, Devin McCourty, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, Darrelle Revis, Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson, Sean Taylor, Dunta Robinson, Chris Gamble, Terence Newman, Marcus Trufant, Roy Williams, Ed Reed. Those are some good players, and they were good rookies.

First-round defensive backs are a lot like first-round offensive tackles. We picture cornerbacks getting burned and benched, but a surprisingly high number of first-round cornerbacks and safeties more than hold their own in the secondary. Take Leon Hall as an example of a player who doesn't get a lot of attention. As a rookie, he started 10 games, recorded five interceptions, forced a fumble and broke up 12 passes. That is the kind of season that makes a difference, and Hall has been a very good starter ever since.

Any team who selects a Mark Barron or Morris Claiborne, then, might not have to wait a year or two for them to figure out what they are doing.

Wrapping it up
Drafting for immediate help is counter-intuitive. Running backs, receivers, and defensive ends can provide a small boost and a chance for bigger things. But a team that wants to insert a difference maker right into the lineup should draft for infrastructure on the offensive line or at linebacker.

Of course, expecting immediate results from the draft is rarely a good idea. Great players are usually developed, not drafted. So if your team is one 10-sack defensive end or 1,000-yard receiver away from a deep playoff run, here's hoping that they drafted that player last year.

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