In a normal year, most NFL teams would be putting pads on their new NFL draft picks and getting ready to watch them practice. But because of the novel coronavirus, all organized team activities have been postponed, and rookie minicamps — which should be starting on Friday — are an all-remote affair, with no workouts allowed. It seems unlikely that coaches will be able to see their top prospects up close before all players report to training camp. The conventional wisdom, then, is that rookies will be less likely to make an impact in 2020.
No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow hasn’t practiced in front of his Bengals coaches and can’t even prepare for the upcoming season with them at his team’s shutdown facility. His coach’s advice? Coach yourself and run drills with extended family and your significant other.
“You have to find a way to get in your backyard and get reps in,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “Whether it’s telling your girlfriend or mom where to line up, or how many steps to take on each route — just make sure you know it inside and outside. We’re going to challenge our guys to get creative.”
Given this new reality, one team — the Houston Texans — opted to exchange a second-round draft pick for a veteran (WR Brandin Cooks). “I truly believe that this is a veteran type of year,” head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien told reporters. “I think it’s going to be really difficult for rookies, without offseason practicing on the field and being able to do all the things that you do during that five-week stretch after the draft and [before] training camp.”
But this line of thinking flies in the face of what happened the last time rookies had to miss their minicamp. In 2011, a lockout due to an expired collective bargaining agreement similarly distanced rookies from their teammates and coaches until a new deal was signed in late July. Yet rookie performance that season ultimately seemed to be unaffected, measured both by the number of rookie starts and by how well the rookies ended up playing.
Starts per season for NFL rookies who had been drafted in the first three rounds, since 2010
|Season||Total starts||Avg. per rookie|
For rookie starts, we focused on the players taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft because the NFL.com grading system allocates starter grades for prospects expected to be drafted in those rounds.1 The average number of starts for the 2011 rookies — without minicamps or organized team activities — is right in line with the decade average.
The performance of the full class of 2011 rookies — including undrafted free agents — can be measured by overall Approximate Value (AV).2 For our baseline, we found a rough median of 6.5 AV for the 640 total players who started at least nine games in 2019. So we looked at each rookie class, irrespective of where or even if each player was drafted, to find the most players who totaled at least 7 AV for the season. And 2011 was the best performing class of the decade, by far.
Number of total rookies per season with Approximate Values of at least 7, along with average AVs for those rookies, since 2010
|Rookies with at least 7 AV|
|Season||Count||Avg. AV per rookie|
Of course, the 2011 draft class is only a sample of one, so it’s possible it was such a good class that nothing could keep those players down. (And on a per-rookie basis, the AVs of the 2016 and 2012 classes were higher.) But some even believed back then, like O’Brien today, that the rookie class would suffer because of being unable to work with coaches. Rich Gannon, a former NFL MVP and a CBS announcer, said at the time, “I’ve had coordinators tell me you could pretty much write off the first year for these rookies.” Instead, by the end of the year, the class was being touted as the most productive ever.
Kyle Rudolph, a Vikings tight end who was a rookie in 2011, spoke of the parallels between then and now. “It would be very similar to what it was like in 2011 when we had the lockout and it was not an offseason,” he said prior to the 2020 draft. “It definitely spikes the learning curve. We had to essentially make up for 13 lost practices, three lost rookie minicamp days and nine weeks of in-classroom learning. And the league wasn’t going to slow down for us.”
But don’t tell the team with the best record last season to run up the white flag when it comes to its rookie class, judged via consensus grading to be among the best in the league.
“We’re not drafting them to redshirt them,” said Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. “We’re drafting them to play them as freshmen. You want them to play, and we’re going to do everything we can to get them ready and get them on the field.”
If 2011 is any indication, the class will rise or fall based mostly on the quality of the prospects, not on any time lost with their teams because of the coronavirus.