As NFL rookies’ impact grows, report finds best clubs limit their use

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Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (10) is pressured by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas (94) during an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Chicago. The 49ers won the game 15-14. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

NFL rookies are contributing as much as, or more than, ever nowadays.

Just look at the statistics: With players such as running backs Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints and Kareem Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans (until he tore up his knee, anyway) and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore of the Saints and Adoree Jackson of the Tennessee Titans making immediate impacts — to name a handful of examples — this season’s class ranks among the strongest since 2000.

The Bears started rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky early this season and have seen mixed results in the suprising move.

Based on data from Sportradar through Week 10 of each year in that span — before additional rookies get extra snaps as a result of injuries to veterans or because eliminated clubs want to figure out what they might have for the future — the 2017 crew shows up as No. 1 in rushing yards, No. 2 in TDs, No. 3 in receiving yards and No. 4 in tackles.

“Rookies are being asked to do more right away than they used to be,” Washington Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “Teams are wanting to get more out of you sooner.”

That’s true, and it’s part of a larger shift : More than 55 percent of all snaps are now taken by players 26 or younger, at least in part due to seeking relatively cheap labor.

But the rookie trends are not simply a reflection of more playing time, because the total number of games started by rookies through Week 10 was the lowest since 2010. It’s that they’re making the most of their chances.

Still, teams need to be wary of just how much they rely on the very youngest members of their locker rooms: An Associated Press examination of the past 10 seasons shows that the worst clubs inordinately rely on newcomers. The five teams with the most games started by rookies since the start of the 2008 season all ranked among the eight with the fewest victories: the Browns, Jaguars, Buccaneers, Raiders and Bills.

Cleveland, with the fewest victories in that stretch, used by far the most rookies (114; no other team had more than 92 appear in a game) and let them make by far the most starts (247; no one else had more than 214).

This season, the teams with the fewest number of rookies who made an appearance in a game through Week 10 were the Patriots and Steelers, with only four apiece. They happen to be tied atop the AFC with matching 10-2 records. At the other end of the standings, the 49ers (2-10) were leading the league with 18 rookies, followed by the Colts (3-9) with 13.

The Browns (0-12) are part of the group that used a dozen rookies each. So is New Orleans, posting a league-high 31 rookie starts through Week 10, which goes to show that, as former Dallas Cowboys front-office executive Gil Brandt put it: “I don’t know that there is a hard-and-fast rule that says, ‘If you start four or five rookies, you’re not going to have a chance.'”

Kamara, Lattimore, safety Marcus Williams and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk all are integral elements for the NFC South-leading Saints.

“Guys seem to come in even more prepared now,” quarterback Drew Brees said, “than they ever have.”

While that is not necessarily the case among offensive linemen, where the techniques required in the pros are quite different from the spread-dominated college game, rookies are excelling at skill positions.

Kamara leads all nonkickers in scoring. He and Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers rank in the top 15 in catches. Hunt and Leonard Fournette of the Jaguars are among the league’s top seven rushers. Hunt, Kamara and Fournette are among the top 15 in total yards from scrimmage. Evan Engram of the Giants is tied for seventh among tight ends with 51 catches.

Among players with at least 15 punt returns, Jackson and Jamal Agnew of the Lions, another rookie cornerback, are ranked in the top seven in average yardage. A quartet of rookies, including Lattimore and Tre’Davious White of the Bills, are tied for 11th in interceptions. Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson is tied for 21st with 7½ sacks.

So the question becomes: Why?

“Kids are coming into the league better than the previous generation was. And they’re coming into college more prepared. Watching a high school kid pass-rush now, versus when I pass-rushed, it’s like, ‘Wow, that kid already knows how to do this?’ I had no idea how to do that when I was that age,” said Kerrigan, 29, a 2011 first-round pick. “The game is just evolving and guys … can give a team more at an earlier age.”

Brandt, now an NFL draft consultant, pointed to schools’ improved nutritional and year-round weight programs.

“The player that we’re getting coming out of college now is a much better player than we got 10 or 15 years ago,” Brandt said.

Titans coach Mike Mularkey also pointed to the preparation received in the pros.

“These guys being here in the offseason, with as much work as they get to have, they were thrown right into a role pretty quickly,” Mularkey said. “You’re talking about getting a lot of reps early, a lot of experience early. I think that has a lot to do with it.”

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