As part of my never-ending mission to spare Washington fans the disappointment that comes from setting unrealistic expectations, for the past two season I have published performance benchmarks for the rookie class based on historical data from at the same position picked in the same region of the draft.
In the 2021 edition, I merely attempted to provide benchmarks to help gauge the chance that rookies would earn starting time. Last season, I got a little fancier and used an overly complicated method to provide production benchmarks. This year I have further refined the method by basing the performance benchmarks on productivity per snaps, rather than games played or games started.
The new method should provide a better indication of what the average comparable drafted player should be expected to achieve, since snap counts provide a much better indication of playing time than games played or games started, particularly for backup and rotational players. It also provides a solution to the problem I encountered last year when I failed to adequately deal with the switch from 16 to 17 game seasons.
I would like to be very clear that this is not an attempt to project how well individual Commanders’ rookies will perform this season. I will do a little of that at the end of each article. Rather, I am using historical data from comparable drafted players to provide benchmarks against which we can compare their rookie season performances.
My approach is to derive benchmarks which describe the average performance of players selected in the same draft range, at the same position as each member of the Commander’s 2023 draft class. To do that, I used the Pro Football Reference (PFR) database to search for all the players drafted at the same position within a specified number of draft picks around each of the Commanders’ draft picks in the decade from 2013 to 2022, which I will refer to as the comparable players or comparison cohort.
I then used rookie season stats from each player’s comparison cohort, sourced from PFR and Pro Football Focus (PFF) to estimate average performance in a 17-game season, adjusting for the fact that most of the comparable players played in 16-game seasons. To do that, I first calculated the average first year playing time of the comparable players. Games Played and Games Started were estimated by calculating the proportion of games for each player and multiplying the cohort average by 17. To calculate average snap counts, figures from seasons before 2021 were “scaled up” to a 17-game season by multiplying by 17/16, and then the cohort average was taken.
Production benchmarks (e.g. interceptions, sacks, rushing yards) were then derived using the average snap counts and average production stats expressed as per snap rates. For example, to calculate the rushing yards benchmark for Chris Rodriguez, I first calculated rushing attempts per offensive snap for each comparable player, then took the average. The average number of rushing attempts was then derived by multiplying the average offensive snaps for comparable players by the average rushing attempts per offensive snap. Finally, the rushing yards benchmark was calculated by multiplying average rushing attempts by the average yards per attempt for the cohort.
In addition to production benchmarks, which depend on playing time, I also calculated performance benchmarks which do not, including containment stats for DBs, and blocking grades for OL. These were simply derived as cohort averages.
One critical detail is that I only calculated productivity and performance benchmarks from players who were active in games during their first seasons. Therefore, the performance benchmarks represent the average performance expectation for Washington’s first year players if they see the field. Obviously, if they don’t, their expected production is 0. The point of this approach is to prevent 0s from players who didn’t see the field from dragging down the averages.
This approach provides estimates of average production stats within the comparison cohort scaled up to a 17-game season. Basing everything on snap counts, instead of games played, should provide a better representation of average rookie season performance than my previous approaches.
2023 Draft Class Performance Benchmarks
Emmanuel Forbes, CB
Round 1, Pick #16
Comparison Cohort: CBs drafted from picks 11 to 32
The comparison range for this pick is different to all the others. This range was set to exclude the elite prospects in the top 10 picks of the draft, while recognizing that it is difficult to differentiate the future prospects of players taken half a round later in this range of the draft.
From 2013 to 2022, 31 CBs were drafted in the range of Forbes’ pick. Not surprisingly, CBs drafted in this range have a high success rate. The comparison cohort includes eight All Pros and 11 Pro Bowlers. Depending on your definition, around 19 of the comparable players became long-term starters or are young players showing promise of being high-end starters. Among the 21 players who have been in the league long enough, only one (Gareon Conley) was not extended beyond his rookie contract due to injury. Out of 25 CBs drafted more than three years ago, only five have had fewer than two seasons as a primary starter, excluding Jeff Gladney who died in a car crash.
The most decorated player in the comparison cohort is Marcus Peters, whose honors include AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, four AP first-team All-Pro (AP1) nominations, one second-team All-Pro (AP2) nomination, and five Pro Bowl nominations in eight years in the league. Peters also had by far the best rookie season of the group with eight interceptions, two for touchdowns and a staggering 26 passes defended, while only allowing a 50.4 reception rate in coverage.
Proportion of First Year Starters
18 of 31 comparable players started at least nine games in their rookie seasons to qualify as primary starters: 58%
Playing Time and Production
Most of us probably expect that a CB drafted this high will start Day 1 and play at a high level in his rookie season. The truth is, only around 10 to 12 of the 31 comparable players actually lived up to those expectations. Eight of the 31 started two or fewer games as rookies, and seven of them struggled when they got playing time or did not play. For every CB drafted in this range who had a rookie season like Marshon Lattimore (5 INT, 18 PD) there were close to two who posted middling to poor stats or barely played.
Even so, the average rookie production of the comparison cohort was not bad for a team’s second CB. For comparison, the average reception rate allowed (Rec%) of 60.9% would have ranked 56th among NFL CBs who played 200 or more defensive snaps in 2022. The leading comp players by this metric were Jason Verrett and Tre’Davious White at 50.0%, followed closely by Marcus Peters at 50.4% and Eric Stokes at 51%. The worst performer was Damon Arnette at 81.3%.
The average number of passes defended among comparable players (10) would have ranked 27th among NFL CBs in 2023. The leader in this category was Marcus Peters with 26 PD. The next highest were Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White, with 18 PD apiece.
The average interception total (1) would have ranked 33rd among NFL CBs in 2023. The leader in the comparison cohort was, again, Marcus Peters with 8. The next highest was Lattimore with 5. Thirteen of the 30 CBs who got playing time as rookies had no interceptions.
The average interception TD total in the comparison cohort was 0.14, which rounds to 0. Only 10 out of 207 NFL CBs had pick sixes in 2022, and Washington’s Kendall Fuller was the only one with two. The leader within Forbes’ comparison cohort was once again Marcus Peters, with two. Marshon Lattimore and Damarious Randall were the only other two comp players with pick sixes.
The average production figures from comparable drafted players should not be confused with a prediction that Emmanuel Forbes will only have one interception in 2023. Forbes was drafted for his exceptional ball-hawking ability after leading the SEC with six interceptions as a senior.
To get an idea of the likelihood that he exceeds the average performance of his comparison cohort, I calculated the average peak season performance of the comparison players in college. The average player in the comparison cohort had 0.263 interceptions per game in their best season in college. By comparison, Forbes had an interception rate of 0.5 INT/game in his senior season, which was higher than any of the comparison players (highest: Eric Stokes 0.444 INT/game).
It would therefore be reasonable to expect Forbes to exceed the average interception total of 1 in 14 games played. Will he eclipse Marcus Peters’ high mark of 8 interceptions as rookie? It is possible, but not likely. Bear in mind that interception rate in college is only weakly correlated with rookie season performance in this group (r = 0.30). Of the four comparison CBs who had 5 or more interceptions in their peak seasons in college, two had multiple interceptions in their rookie NFL seasons (Marcus Peters 8, Artie Burns 3) and two did not (Adoree’ Jackson 0, Jaire Alexander 1).
Earlier this offseason, I argued that traditional coverage metrics based on making plays on the ball (e.g. interceptions, passes defended) overlook what is arguably the most important aspect of cornerback play, the ability to shut down receivers and prevent pass plays from happening. In order to quantify “lockdown” ability, I have included two Containment stats. Coverage Snaps per Reception (CovSnp/Rec) measures how well a defender does at preventing receivers from making receptions, whether by defending passes, blanketing them to prevent targets, or both. Yards per Target (Y/Tgt) quantifies the net effect of preventing receptions and defending passes on receiving yardage.
Since these stats might not mean much to readers on their own, I also included rankings by these stats among CBs with a minimum of 100 coverage snaps.
To make sense of the containment rankings, consider that each team has two starting outside CBs, for a total of 64 starters. In addition, with the rise of the nickel package to become the base defense over the last decade, most teams have a third defensive back playing a majority of defensive snaps. However, nickelbacks can be either CBs or safeties. Therefore, as a rough approximation, there are probably around 80 CBs with enough playing time to count as a starters in any recent NFL season.
The average CB drafted in the range of Forbes’ pick ranked toward the bottom end of starting CBs in terms of lockdown ability during their rookie seasons. The Coverage Snaps per Reception ranking of 72 likely reflects a combination of rookie CBs getting picked on by opposing QBs, resulting in high targets per snap, and the rookie CBs being relatively leaky in coverage. The leader by this metric in the comparison cohort was Tre’Davious White, who ranked 11th in the NFL as rookie at 15.8 coverage snaps per reception. White was followed closely by Trent McDuffie at 15.3 snaps/rec (ranked 9th). The worst performer was Trae Waynes, who ranked 137th at 6.7 coverage snaps per reception.
The average comparable CB was a little better at preventing receiving yardage, ranking 59th in yards per target as a rookie. The leader in this category was Trent McDuffie, who ranked 8th in the NFL at 5.0 yards per target. The next closest player was Eric Stokes at 5.3 yards per target, also ranked 8th. The worst comparable player at preventing yardage gains was Noah Igbinoghene, who ranked 94th in the NFL at 11.4 yards per target. The worst ranked was Vernon Hargreaves III at 119th and 9.4 yards per target.
What does this all mean for Emmanuel Forbes? If he can rank in the top 50 NFL CBs in preventing receptions and receiving yardage in his rookie season, he will have done significantly better than the average rookie CB picked in his draft range.
Quan Martin, S
Round 2, Pick #47
Comparison Cohort: Safeties drafted from picks 33 to 64 (2nd round)
For the remainder of the picks, I compared players picked from 16 picks before to 16 picks after their pick number, until the 7th round.
From 2013 to 2022, 19 safeties were drafted in the 2nd round. Reflecting the relative valuation of the two positions, safeties drafted in the second round included a higher proportion of eventual quality starters (14/19) than CBs drafted in the first round, which we just reviewed. It would appear that CBs are more likely to be over-drafted in the first round, while quality safeties are generally available in the second. Martin’s comparison cohort included four All-Pros and four Pro Bowlers. The most decorated of the comparable players were Budda Baker (AP1 x2, AP2, PB x5) and Kevin Byard (AP1 x2, PB x2). Only three of the comparable players drafted from 2013 to 2020 (Jaquiski Tartt, Sean Davis, Justin Evans) failed to hold down starting roles long term. Bryan Cook also had an unimpressive rookie season in 2022.
Proportion of First Year Starters
13 of 19 comparable players started at least nine games in their rookie seasons: 68%
Playing Time and Production
As a safety drafted in the second round, Quan Martin faces higher expectations in some respects than Emmanuel Forbes drafted a round earlier. Safeties drafted in this range were more likely to start as rookies than CBs drafted in the latter 2/3 of the first round and also averaged more playing time. Only one of 19 comp players (Grant Delpit) did not play as a rookie, due to injury, and the lowest snap count among the other 18 players was 210 (Xavier McKinney).
Like first-round CBs, rookie safeties drafted in the second round generally held their own among NFL starters. The average reception rate of 64.9% would have ranked 34th in the NFL in 2023 among safeties with more than 200 defensive snaps. The leader by this metric was Marcus Williams, at 38.5%, and the worst performer was Jaquiski Tartt at 82.1%.
The average comparable player defended six passes in his rookie season, which would have tied for 27th among NFL safeties in 2023. The leader in this category was Jevon Holland, with 10. Not surprisingly, Xavier McKinney had the fewest (1), because he had the least playing time; but he at least he made it count with an interception.
The average interception total of two would have tied with 16 other safeties in 23rd place in 2023. Marcus Williams also led this category with four. Only three of the comp players had no interceptions as rookies (Budda Baker, Kevin Byard and Bryan Cook). Two of them went on to become All-Pros.
Lastly, only three of the comparable players (Juan Thornhill, Jessie Bates, Taylor Rapp) had pick sixes in their rookie seasons. The rounded average figure of 0 is unremarkable for safeties. Only 10 safeties had pick sixes in 2023. None had more than one.
The containment stats are not really comparable between safeties and CBs, due to differences in coverage responsibilities. As a group, safeties get fewer targets and tend to give up more yardage per target.
The average safety drafted in the second played well enough in coverage as a rookie to rank among the NFL starters at their position, even if it was in the bottom half of starters.
The average comparable player ranked 52nd at preventing receptions among safeties with over 100 coverage snaps, with 30.7 coverage snaps per reception. That places them among the latter half of NFL starters, since there are a little more than 64 starting safeties each season (most teams start two, some start three). This figure is around three times higher than the first-round CBs, reflecting the fact that safeties are targeted less in coverage. It does not mean that safeties are three times better in coverage than CBs.
The best of the comparable players at preventing receptions as a rookie, by a sizeable margin, was Marcus Williams at 114 coverage snaps per reception, which ranked 3rd among NFL safeties. The second best comp player was Tre’von Moehrig at 74 snaps/reception (ranked 5th). The worst coverage safety by this metric was Taylor Rapp at 10.2 snaps/reception (rank 99th), followed by future All Pro Budda Baker at 10.6 snaps/reception (rank 99th).
The comparable players did slightly worse, relative to their peers, at preventing receiving yardage in their rookie seasons. The best of the group was Kevin Byard, with a stingy 3.6 yards per target, which ranked 3rd among NFL safeties. He was followed by Juan Thornhill at 4.3 yards per target (rank 4th). The worst of the group was Antoine Winfield at 13.5 yards per target, which ranked 81st in the NFL in his rookie season. The worst ranked was Justin Evans at 96th in the league with 11.3 yards per target.
What does this mean for Quan Martin? If he ranks within the top 50 NFL safeties at preventing receptions and yardage in his rookie season, he will have exceeded expectations for a safety picked in his draft range.
Ricky Stromberg, C
Round 3, Pick #97
Comparison Cohort: Centers drafted from picks 81 to 113
From 2013 to 2022, only 10 centers were picked in this range, including Chris Watt who split time between center and guard as a rookie. Seven of the 10 started nine or more games as rookies, but two of those became backups by their fourth seasons and one was out of the league after two years. Only four of the seven players drafted before 2019 were extended beyond their rookie contracts. The best two players in the comparison cohort were Graham Glasgow and Russell Bodine, whom I would class as quality starters. There were no All-Pros or Pro Bowl players.
Proportion of First Year Starters
7 of 10 comparable players started at least nine games in their rookie seasons: 70%
Centers drafted in this part of the draft tend to start early, whether they are ready or not. All 10 of the comparable centers saw the field in their rookie seasons. Brian Allen (36 snaps) and Drew Dalman (67 snaps) saw limited playing time. The remaining eight centers played 485 snaps or more. Six of the centers started 11 or more games (Russell Bodine, Bryan Stork, Graham Glasgow, Mason Cole, Lloyd Cushenberry, Kendrick Green).
Production statistics for offensive linemen are not readily available. In order to provide performance benchmarks for centers, I had to resort to using PFF blocking grades. I am not happy about using rankings derived from a subjective grading method, but they are the best metrics that were available.
Average blocking grades and league wide rankings were calculated for the eight comparable centers who played a minimum of 200 offensive snaps.
The average comparable player to Ricky Stromberg ranked toward the bottom end of NFL starters in blocking during his rookie season.
The highest ranked comp player in overall blocking (Off. = Offense) was Chris Watt, who only played two years in a backup capacity. Watt’s offensive blocking grade of 68.8 ranked 22nd among NFL centers who played more than 200 snaps in his rookie season. Lloyd Cushenberry was the lowest ranked center in the NFL during his rookie season, with an offensive blocking grade of 40.5.
The comparable centers did a little better at run blocking. The highest rated rookie in this category was Brian Schwenke, who ranked 15th in the league with a run blocking grade of 73.5. Cushenberry was also last in the NFL with a run blocking grade of 37.9.
Pass blocking was the Achilles heel of the rookie centers. Brian Stork rated highest, ranking 17th in the league with a pass blocking grade of 74.7. Chris Watt ranked 23rd, and all of the others ranked in the 30s. The lowest ranked (39th) was Mason Cole, with a pass blocking grade of 41.9.
What does all this mean for Ricky Stromberg? There might be some wisdom behind the Washington coaching staff’s decision to ease Stromberg into the league. Centers drafted this late in the draft have generally got playing time early in their careers, but they have not performed well at blocking in their rookie seasons.
A Bit of Projection
The benchmarks provided here describe the average performance over the past decade of players drafted at the same positions and draft ranges as the Commanders’ Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks. As such, they provide a basis to set reasonable expectations for Washington’s rookies in their first NFL seasons.
What they lack is any sense of the individual players’ strengths and weaknesses and their situations on Washington’s roster. I would like to close with my opinions on whether the rookies are likely exceed or underperform relative to the average performance of the comparable players.
Emmanuel Forbes – Exceeds expectations
I tipped my hand on this one in the first section. Forbes’ comparison cohort is almost bimodal. It is made up of around 15 to 20 players who became solid starters to elite CBs. Most of them had strong rookie season performances. The other 10 to 16 first-round CBs tended to have weak rookie campaigns. Their performances bring down the average. Early indications from training camp and preseason suggest that Forbes is the real deal. He was also more a ball hawk during his time in the SEC than any of the comp players. I would be surprised if he doesn’t exceed the average performance benchmarks, particularly in interceptions and possibly pick sixes.
Quan Martin – Underperforms expectations
Prior to the draft, I felt that a draft pick at Martin’s position (nickel back/safety) was one of the easiest calls in the Commanders’ draft. Jack Del Rio played three starting safeties in 2022, and the player in this role, Bobby McCain, was released immediately after the season without being replaced in free agency. I liked Brian Branch for that role in the first round and Martin in the third. I was very surprised when the Commanders’ picked Martin a round earlier than I expected, with higher rated players at other positions I thought were equally easy calls (OL, TE, LB, Edge) still on the board.
Martin’s shaky performance in preseason, combined with other players like Percy Butler and Benjamin St. Juste stepping up, has raised the possibility that the Commanders could man the slot coverage and free safety positions with a different combination of players in 2023. As a result, Martin could find himself well down the depth chart in his rookie season.
The comparison cohort of second-round safeties is mainly composed of very good to outstanding players. It seems unlikely that Martin will earn enough playing time to compete with those players’ rookie seasons, and if he does, he will have to play at a very high level.
Ricky Stromberg – Playing time below expectations, blocking meets expectations
This is the hardest call because of the uncertainty surrounding the Commanders’ offensive line. As it stands now, Stromberg is likely to find himself third on the depth chart at center, where he will struggle to get playing time. He would only be likely to see playing time there as a rookie if the injury streak at center continues for a third year in a row. However, there is a reasonable chance that the Commanders will find themselves shuffling the deck chairs at guard, which extends his range of potential early starting opportunities.
If he does see significant playing time in his rookie season, it would not be a surprise if his blocking performance ranks among the worst NFL starters, which would be right on expectation for centers picked in his draft range.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
How many interceptions will Emmanuel Forbes have as a rookie?
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