Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson, Derek Stingley Jr. and the other 259 picks in the 2022 NFL Draft will want to thank — or curse — the previous four draft classes, which have raised the bar for Year 1 expectations.
The 2018-2021 draft classes are the four most productive classes in their rookie seasons since the start of the seven-round draft in 1994, in terms of Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value,” which, per its definition, “attempts to put a number on the seasonal value of a player at any position.” Players in those draft classes played more snaps and contributed more quickly than any Year 1 classes in recent history.
Maybe draft picks are more NFL-ready than ever to contribute and thrive right away. Maybe head coaches have adapted better to players as they come out of college. Maybe NFL teams prefer cheaper labor by using their drafted players as early as possible, specifically in their rookie seasons. It’s probably a mixture of those factors.
Still, it’s not simply hyperbole to say rookies have made an impact earlier over the past few years.
For reference, here’s a general idea of what type of player corresponds to each number value:
- 10-plus AV (within approximately the top 120 players in that season; primarily Pro Bowl-level players; most starting quarterbacks)
- 8-9 AV (approximately top 121-270; some Pro Bowl players, but overall heavily impactful players)
- 5-7 AV (approximately top 271-600; solid starters and rotational contributors).
The 2006 class seemed like an anomaly at the time. Rookies like Colts tailback Joseph Addai (15 AV), Jaguars tailback Maurice Jones-Drew (13), Chargers linebacker Marcus McNeill (13), Saints tailback Reggie Bush (12), Bears wideout/returner Devin Hester (12) and Saints wide receiver Marques Colston (10) headlined that class.
The 2007 class obviously didn’t follow up too well. Only three players ended Year 1 with a 10-plus AV: 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (17), Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (12) and Browns left tackle Joe Thomas (11). And only six draft picks finished with an 8-plus AV.
The uptick really began in 2011. Cardinals cornerback (and All-Pro returner) Patrick Peterson finished that season with a 22 AV as a rookie, which ranked second in the league overall, behind only Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who won league MVP. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton amassed a 19 AV, tied for seventh league-wide.