Yesterday, I published my new and improved annual performance benchmarks for Commanders’ rookies picked on the first and second days of the draft. Today we turn our attention to the rookies drafted on Day 3. These benchmarks are derived from the average rookie season performances of comparable players, and are intended to provide a basis for setting reasonable expectations for the rookie class. They are not an attempt to project how well the Commanders’ rookies will actually perform. I will do a little bit of that at the end of the article.
This season I have improved the methodology, by basing average production estimates on snap counts instead of games played, and including better measures of how well players actually performed when they got playing time. The general approach is described in the first article in the series for those who are interested. In short, for each of the Commanders’ draft picks I assembled a comparison cohort of players at the same position, selected in the same region of the draft from 2013 to 2022, then calculated their average playing time, production and performance stats.
2023 Draft Class Performance Benchmarks, Continued
Braeden Daniels, OT
Round 4, Pick #118
Comparison Cohort: OTs drafted from picks 102 to 134
The comparison cohort for Daniels provides a stark contrast with the comparison cohort for center Ricky Stromberg, drafted just 21 picks earlier. Offensive tackles picked this late in the draft were much less likely than centers to start as rookies and were less likely to become long-term starters. Only three of 18 offensive tackles drafted in this this range in the last decade have gone on to become long-term starters thus far. Unlike centers, though, two of those players became All-Pros: David Bakhtiari (AP1 x2, AP2 x3, PB x3) and Daryl Williams (AP2 x1). Of the 11 comp players drafted before 2014, five had NFL careers of four or fewer years. Only one OT drafted in this range (Cameron Clark) never played in an NFL game.
Proportion of First Year Starters
3 of 18 comparable players started at least nine games in their rookie seasons: 17%
Unlike centers drafted just 21 picks earlier, offensive tackles picked this late in the draft seldom started or earned significant playing time as rookies. Only five out 18 comparable players started more than two games as rookies. Twelve of the 18 played fewer than 240 offensive snaps, and nine played fewer than 100. Four of the comparable players did not play any games as rookies
Only six of the comparable players achieved the minimum criterion of 200 offensive snaps to give reliable blocking grades. If PFF blocking grades mean anything at all, it would be fair to say that the gradable comparable players were uniformly terrible at blocking in their rookie seasons. Only one of the six, David Bakhtiari, ranked in the top 64 offensive tackles in any blocking category in his rookie season. Not even Bakhtiari ranked in the top 32.
Bakhtiari was top ranked and well ahead of most of the comparable OTs in all blocking categories. Even so, the eventual five-time All-Pro wasn’t amazing as a rookie. His overall offensive-blocking grade of 70.5 ranked 42nd among NFL OTs. His run-blocking grade of 62.6 ranked 60th; and his pass-blocking grade of 72.1 ranked 46th.
The next highest ranked rookie OT in overall blocking (ranked 67th) and pass blocking (ranked 65th) was T.J. Clemmings. The second highest ranked comparable player in run blocking (63rd) was James Hudson.
The lowest ranked gradable comparable player in overall blocking (89th) and pass blocking (77th) was Julie’n Davenport. Dan Moore was the lowest graded run blocker, ranking 82nd in the league in his rookie season.
Of the three comparable OTs who have gone on to become long-term starters, only Bakhtiari played enough as a rookie to be gradable. Green Bay draft classmate J.C. Tretter didn’t play as a rookie and Daryl Williams only played 58 offensive snaps.
What does this mean for Braeden Daniels? Offensive tackles picked this late in the draft rarely see significant playing time as rookies. If he does get to play and ranks in the top 64 NFL OTs in blocking, he will have well exceeded expectations for his draft pick at offensive tackle.
K.J. Henry, DE
Round 5, Pick #137
Comparison Cohort: Edge Defenders drafted from picks 102 to 134
Henry’s comparison cohort includes 30 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers who played primarily as edge defenders. Za’Darius Smith is the only one to make All-Pro (AP second team) . Smith and Josh Sweat were also Pro Bowlers. Only seven out of 30 (23%) edge defenders picked in this range have become starters thus far. Interestingly, of the seven eventual starters, four first became starters in their fourth or fifth seasons, including Smith and Sweat. None of the seven started as rookies. Eight of the 20 comparable players drafted before 2019 had NFL careers shorter than five years.
Proportion of First Year Starters
0 of 30 comparable players started at least nine games in their rookie seasons: 0%
By the fifth round, first-year starters have become rare commodities. The player who came closest in the comparison cohort was Da’Shawn Hand, who started eight games at DE in Detroit’s 4-3 defensive front. The player with the second most starts as a rookie was Hassan Ridgeway, with five. Deatrich Wise got the most playing time with 543 defensive snaps, but only three starts.
Six of the Henry’s 30 comparable players (20%) didn’t see the field as rookies, and nine (30%) played fewer than 70 snaps, which is about equivalent to one whole game.
Given the low playing time of Henry’s comparable players, it is little surprise that they made relatively modest contributions on defense.
The most productive tackler, in terms of both solo tackles (33), combined tackles (60) and solo tackles per snap (0.097) was Prince Shembo who played one season for Atlanta in 2014. Only nine of 30 (30%) comparable players registered 10 or more solo tackles as a rookie.
The most disruptive rookie of the group, Carl Lawson, had eight tackles for loss (0.0168 TFL/snap). Za’Darius Smith was right behind him with seven, and slightly ahead in TFL per snap (0.0172). Eight of the comparable players (27%) had three or more tackles for loss. Twelve had none, including the six players who didn’t see the field.
Most fans will likely focus on how much impact to expect from Henry as a pass rusher? The average comparable player made a modest impact, commensurate with their modest playing time. The average expected sack total of one would have ranked 91st among DEs and OLBs in 2022. The pressure average would have ranked 69th. Obviously, the fifth round rookie edge rushers were limited by playing time.
The most disruptive rookie pass rusher in the comparison cohort was Carl Lawson with 59 pass rush pressure (0.124 press/snap). The next closest was Deatrich Wise with 37 (0.068 press/snap). Lawson was also the rookie sack leader, with 8.5 in 477 defensive snaps (0.0178 sacks/snap). Only five of 30 comparable players (17%) had 15 or more pressures as rookies. On a more positive note, 14 (47%) had at least one sack and 11 (37%) had two or more.
Only eight of the comparable players (27%) failed to register a single pressure as a rookie; while 16 (53%) failed to register a sack.
What does this mean for KJ Henry? If Henry can get on the field for 265 defensive snaps (about equivalent to four full games) and sack one QB, he will have performed as well as the average edge rusher selected in his draft range. If he can find a way to get past the players ahead of him and start a majority of games, he will have achieved something no comparable player has done in the past decade.
Chris Rodriguez, RB
Round 6, Pick #193
Comparison Cohort: Running backs drafted from picks 177 to 209
Thirty two running backs were drafted in the range of Rodriguez’s pick in the past decade. The comparison cohort includes two Pro Bowlers, Latavius Murray and Aaron Jones. Jones and Murray are the only players in the cohort to be designated as their teams’ starters for more than one season (Jones 4, Murray 3). The comparison cohort also includes six players who became quality complementary backs (Andre Ellington, Theo Riddick, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue). Elijah Mitchell, drafted in 2021 and injured in 2022, could add to those numbers.
Ten of the 20 comparable players drafted before 2019, and one drafted that year, had NFL careers shorter than five years. Three only played one season and two never played in an NFL game, including Washington’s 2014 draft pick, Lache Seastrunk.
Proportion of First Year Starters
1 of 32 comparable players started at least nine games in his rookie season: 3%
Players drafted this late in the draft are lucky to get much playing time on offensive or defense as rookies. The average comparable RB saw the field for a total of 122 offensive snaps in 11 games (11.1 snaps per game) in his rookie season.
The player who saw the most playing time was the lone rookie starter, Elijah Mitchell, who was on the field for 441 offensive snaps in 11 games and 10 starts for the 49ers in 2021. Andre Ellington was in second place with 405 offensive snaps, but only one start. Only nine of 32 comparable RBs (28%) played more than 150 offensive snaps in their rookie seasons. Seven of the comparable players (22%) did not play a single snap.
As expected, with such limited playing time the average rookie season production from this group was not very impressive. The average rushing yardage figure would have ranked 82nd among NFL RBs in 2022, and the receiving total would have ranked 94th.
That is not to say that late-round RBs like Chris Rogdriguez can’t have highly productive rookie seasons; it’s just not very common. Two of the comparable RBs had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Elijah Mitchell rushed for 963 yards and five TDs, with 137 receiving yards and a TD. Andre Ellington rushed for 652 yards and three TDs, with 371 receiving yards and a TD. The next highest total was Alfred Blue with 641 all purpose yards and three TDs. Only seven of the comparable players (22%) had over 300 yards from scrimmage.
Twenty-two of the comparable players (69%) had fewer than 100 yards from scrimmage and eight (25%) had none.
What does this mean for Chris Rodriguez? Two out of 32 RBs drafted in the near vicinity of his pick in the last decade have been highly productive as rookies. Around 22% of RBs drafted in his draft range have been significant contributors as rookies. If he can surpass Curtis Samuel’s 2022 rushing total of 187 yards as Washington’s third leading rusher, he will have exceeded reasonable expectations for a rookie running back drafted 193rd overall.
Andre Jones, DE
Round 7, Pick #233
Comparison Cohort: Edge defenders drafted in the 7th round
Fourty-six edge defenders were drafted in the seventh round in the last decade. Two of the 46 (4.3%) became full time starters in their fourth (Zach Sieler) and fifth (Shelby Harris) NFL seasons. The third best player in the comparison cohort is Washington’s own James Smith-Williams, who has served as a high-end backup and quality rotational player since he was drafted in 2020. Nine (20%) of the comparable players never played a single NFL snap. Only five of the 24 comparable players drafted before 2019 played more than four years, and 20 of the 39 players (51%) drafted before 2022 were out of the league after two years or less.
Proportion of First Year Starters
None of the 46 comparable players started at least nine games in his rookie season: 0%
Just getting on the field in their first season is an accomplishment for edge rushers drafted in the seventh round. The same is true for every other non-specialist position. Only four of Jones’ 46 comparable players (9%) started any games as rookies. Denver’s 2021 pick, Jonathon Cooper had the most starts at five. Sixteen of the 46 (35%) didn’t play a game in their rookie season. Two of those players were drafted in 2022. Of the remaining fourteen, nine never played in an NFL game.
The highest rookie season snap count in the comparison cohort also belonged to Denver’s Cooper at 457. The second highest was Chicago’s 2014 pick, David Bass at 311. No other comparable edge defender had more than 225 defensive snaps. Including the ones who did not play, 37 of 46 comparable players (80%) saw the field for fewer than 100 snaps as rookies.
The nine players who did see the field, on average, had fairly minimal impact on opposing offenses. Despite getting very little playing time, the average player in this group nevertheless managed to make a tackle for loss and pressure the QB twice.
Not surprisingly, the player with the most playing time, Jonathon Cooper, had the most solo tackles (22), assists (16) and sacks (2.5). He tied for most tackles for loss (4) and pressures (15), with David Bass, who had the second most playing time.
Twenty-six of the comparable players (56%) did not register a solo tackle in their rookie seasons. Thirty (65%) had no tackles for loss. Thirty two (70%) had no pressures, and thirty five (76%) had no sacks.
What does this mean for Andre Jones? Players drafted in the seventh round are challenged to see the field in their rookie seasons. If Jones plays more than 15 snaps six times he will have exceeded expectations for his draft position. If he can pressure a QB or get a single sack, he will have well exceeded expectations.
A Little Projection
The benchmarks provided above represent the average stats of players at the same positions, drafted in the same range as the Commanders’ rookies. Some of our first-year players will exceed those benchmarks and some will underperform relative to them. Here are my best guesses about how the Day 3 draftees will do.
OT Braeden Daniels – underperforms
The Commanders have a pressing need for reinforcement along the offensive line. While Daniels’ athletic tools offer upside in Eric Bieniemy’s zone blocking scheme, at 294 pounds, he would be one of the lightest offensive tackles in the NFL. While Bill-in-Bangkok’s current depth chart shows him third in line behind Cornelius Lucas and Trent Scott if, God forbid, something happens to Charles Leno, I suspect it will take a year in the Commanders’ strength and conditioning program before we see much of Daniels on the field. He’s also had a quiet training camp and preseason.
DE K.J. Henry – underperforms
As modest as the benchmarks for a fifth-round rookie DE may be, I don’t like Henrys chance of even meeting them. He has been close to invisible in training camp thus far. Furthermore, to get any playing time, he would have to get past established backups James-Smith Williams, Casey Toohill and Efe Obada. At this point in the preseason, if a rookie DE does see the field this season, I would bet on it being his rookie classmate.
RB Chris Rodriguez – exceeds expectations
Rodriguez is my pick to be the surprise late round star of the Commanders’ draft class. He is currently positioned as the third RB in the Commanders’ rotation. If he stays there, he should easily surpass the modest playing time and performance benchmarks for a 6th round RB. As incoming OC Eric Bieniemy’s pick, with a strong showing in camp and preseason, I like Rodriguez’s chance to push Brian Robinson for playing time this season. If that is the case, he could smash the benchmarks and potentially even become one of the rare RBs in his draft range to have a very strong rookie season.
DE Andre Jones – exceeds expectations
DEs picked in the 7th round rarely have an impact as rookies. In fact, they are close to four times more likely to not play at all as they are to start a game in their first NFL season. Three years ago, Ron Rivera pulled a rabbit out the hat by finding James Smith-Williams at pick 229. Despite just playing 98 defensive snaps as a rookie, Smith-Williams went on to become a high-end backup and quality rotational player, and is one of the best value draft picks in Rivera’s tenure in Washington.
Could Andre Jones be Rivera’s next diamond in the rough find at DE? Based on his flashes in camp and preseason, I’ll go out on a limb and say I like his chances of matching JSW’s rookie performance (98 snaps, 8 solo tackles, 2 assists, 3 TFL, 0.5 sack, 2 pressures), to put him ahead of the average performance benchmarks in most important categories.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
Which rookie will most exceed expectations of his draft status?
This poll is closed
S Quan Martin, 2nd round
C Ricky Stromberg, 3rd round
OT Braeden Daniels, 4th round
DE KJ Henry, 5th round
RB Chris Rodriguez, 6th round
DE Andre Jones, 7th round
OL Mason Brooks, UDFA
WR Mitchell Tinsley, UDFA
WR/Returner Kaz Allen, UDFA