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Balancing the expectations for NFL rookies based on their draft positions

How much does draft pedigree influence expected production for a player’s rookie season and beyond?

NFL Combine - Day 5 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Reasonable expectations.

It is a difficult topic to nail down even with every piece of information. When a player is drafted into the NFL, exactly what should be expected? Are there certain players with higher expectations than others? Where do these thresholds lie?

I have always been operating under the assumption that a player’s draft position generally dictates expectations when it comes to the NFL. Granted, certain positions operate differently, but as a general rule: The higher a player is drafted, the greater the expectations placed upon them. For years I felt this way and just assumed so did everybody else. But recently this thought process was brought into question.

In a discussion during one of the live podcasts through the Behind The Steel Curtain YouTube channel, I made a statement that the addition of Alex Highsmith was an upgrade over the loss of Anthony Chickillo. With Highsmith being a third-round draft choice, I had a certain expectation for him this coming season with a path for growth in years to come. Surprisingly, I was blasted for my opinion at even considering Highsmith as an upgrade.

You’re probably asking why this notion seems so ridiculous to someone. Their argument was Highsmith has yet to take a snap in the NFL so he can’t possibly be considered an upgrade over someone who has played the game. It didn’t matter that Chickillo only had 0.5 sacks in 143 snaps in 2019, it was better than Highsmith’s zero on the NFL level. Until a player takes regular-season NFL snaps, they can’t possibly be deemed a better player than someone who has already done so.

Personally, I find this premise flawed. By the same evaluation, even the second overall pick in the 2020 draft— edge rusher Chase Young out of Ohio State— couldn’t be considered an upgrade to Anthony Chickillo. When thinking about it logically, it just doesn’t make sense. But in hashing out the discussion, it caused something to get stuck in my brain: Should there be expectations on any rookie as they enter the NFL, and what should those expectations be?

Obviously, I’m not going to back down from having expectations for NFL rookies. The higher a player is drafted, the higher the expectations. I’ve decided to actually put down my thoughts based on draft position while not looking at any specific position. I also understand if a player is drafted at the end of the first round and another is at the top of the second round, they are generally equal. So when using a round designation, I’m going to generalize being drafted in the middle of the round.

When it comes to first-round draft picks, the expectation is they are a player who could possibly start right away while being someone who is completely ready to start by season’s end. A second-round draft pick should be a player who is expected to become a starter within their first couple of seasons. For me, by the time you get to the third round, I am looking for a player who should be at least a quality back up with starter potential down the road.

By the time you get to a fourth-round draft choice, we are obviously into the third day of the draft. I’d like to think fourth rounders are players who will pretty much be given a spot on the team their first year unless they go out of their way to show they don’t deserve it. Fourth-round picks are sometimes a “shot in the dark” player where they could become a quality starter or someone who is completely out of the NFL in only a few seasons. Going on to the fifth round, those players are pretty much the same as the fourth round, except with less of a guarantee to make the roster their first season.

As for sixth and seventh-round players, they are guys who are great if they can contribute to the team at all. These players are generally kept throughout all of training camp and are prime candidates for the practice squad should they not make the team. As for the undrafted rookie free agents, they are just behind the seventh round draft choices. The biggest difference with them is a team would be much quicker to cut ties during training camp if it doesn’t seem like they’re working out.

I also acknowledge that some positions are handled in different ways. Obviously, quarterback is its own entity. Also, if a team drafts a specialist such as a kicker or punter in a late round, they are much more of a fourth or fifth-round mentality versus a sixth or seventh-round based on the nature of their positions. Since the majority of these players who are starters on NFL teams were undrafted, actually using draft capital on the position means they are more highly coveted than normal.

Of course, these are my own general rules that I’ve come up with. But after the conversation I had this week, I was wondering if I was completely off-base. So what are your thoughts? What are your expectations for players coming into their rookie year? Do you have certain things you want to see out of them based on where they were drafted? Or do you feel each player starts at the bottom of the depth chart until they prove they can do something regardless of where they were selected? Please help me out by leaving your thoughts in the comments below.