Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Nov 2012

Jim Harbaugh Puts Baby in a Corner

I've got an upcoming column on FO using our snap count data to look at links between snap counts and player years of experience. In a quick-hitter at my former internet home, though, I detail the discovery that San Francisco has given the fewest snaps to rookies of any team in the league; and it's not even close. This piece was geared towards the Niners Nation crowd, but there's a table of rookie snap counts for all teams through Week 9 if you're interested.

Posted by: Danny Tuccitto on 07 Nov 2012

28 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2012, 6:46pm by Little Bobby Tables


by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 3:38pm

Phew, I was worried that Harbaugh had gone and said something really stupid again.

by tuluse :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 3:41pm

One man's relief is another's disappointment.

by LionInAZ :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 8:30pm

Don't worry, it will come...

by BaronFoobarstein :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 1:12am

I think you're thinking of a different Harbaugh.

by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 4:01pm

I've been thinking about the 49er draft class for a while, why have they had so little production from their rookie class?

It really boils down to trying to establish whether the rookies have been kept off the field by quality of the 49er starters or whether they selected crap players. However, it's pretty hard to work out if the rookies are no good because they haven't played. Some lower picks, like Joe Looney, Darius Fleming and Cam Johnson were either quasi-redshirted or got hurt during the offseason so we'll have to wait on them and they traded their third rounder away so it really comes down to AJ Jenkins and LaMichael James.

Unfortunately both have been buried down the depth chart and haven't made the active roster. It seems to be because they don't contribute as much on special teams as Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams at receiver or Anthony Dixon at running back. Brandon Jacobs can't get a game and he has had a decent career at running back but doesn't play special teams. I would have hoped that by now Jenkins would have taken a spot from Williams.

There aren't many players who the niners could have taken that would be contributing, perhaps a pass rusher to spell Brooks or the Smiths, I quite like the look of Criner and Sanu lower down at receiver. I still think they wanted Bruce Irvin but there aren't many players who'd be getting much time.

by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 4:31pm

Good teams don't play many rookies, because they have, you know, good players. The 49ers in particular don't have open slots for new players. They have five running backs that would be starting right now in Arizona. FIVE. They have five receivers who would be starting or in the slot for the Jets or Dolphins. And that's on offense, where the Niners are not quite as good.

I am also surprised that Jenkins hasn't gotten a look.

by LionInAZ :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 8:33pm

The Packers have a lot of good players, but they get rookies involved pretty quickly on both O and D.

by Turin :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 3:20pm

Not on purpose. Under 1% of Offensive snaps by rookies, over 20% of defensive & ST snaps. Mostly as a direct result of injuries.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 10:17am

I'm trying to figure out who got the 61 offensive snaps on O. They only have 3 rookies, two of the lineman who have never been active for games, and the Jarret Boykin the WR, and I didn't think he had made 61 snaps yet.

On defense it isn't mostly as a direct result of injuries. Nick Perry was tagged as the starting OLB in training camp and got the majority of the snaps in game one, there weren't any injuries at the position at that point. Jerel Worthy was the same deal on the defensive line. Now Hayward and McMillian have gotten more snaps than planned, as they were both only slated for sub package roles, and injuries to Shields and House did accelerate their play. Mike Daniels is getting about as many snaps as was expected.

In past seasons the Packers have started rookies as well and not because of injuries. Nick Collins and Morgan Burnett were both starters at safety in their rookie years. Clay Matthews was given a lot of snaps, then made a starter in his rookie year. Barnett was put in as a starter, so was Hawk. Jenning, Jones, and Nelson all got a lot of snaps as rookies. Cobb got a lot of snaps as a rookie. Sitton and College earned starting jobs as rookies on the o-line.

In fact it's odd that they don't have a rookie getting a lot of offensive snaps this year, since they usually do. It's easily explainable in that most of the draft and FA class was defensive players, but it's still odd. Thompson has kept 8-12 rookies nearly every year of his tenure as GM, when 10 - 25% of your roster is rookies you expect them to get some snaps.

Sure, some years they get more play due to injuries, but some years they get less because they suffered the injuries (see Morgan Burnett). It's part of the team philosophy to not hold onto players too long, which means rookies are going to get snaps, but you stay out of salary cap hell, and tend to have depth with more experience, though sometimes you don't have quite as good of a player (see the loss of Cullen Jenkins, or Atari Bigby getting starts because they let Sharper go).

by RickD :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:16am

Chandler Jones has been starting for the Pats since Week One.

Of course, the Pats got him with a pick they had traded for.

by In_Belichick_We... :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 4:20pm

Chandler didn't really have to earn his job out of training camp. What other DE was going to take it from him?
I'm not saying he didn't deserve the job, I'm saying he didn't have to beat out an established veteran to get the job.

Entitled freeloader

by dcp (not verified) :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 8:53pm

I really, really wanted them to take Doug Martin with the 1st round pick. I feel sure that he could have contributed by now.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 9:44pm

Gore and Hunter are proven in all aspects including blitz pickup and the niners siut up two top backs and a special teamer. Unless Martin had been a better special teamer than Anthony Dixon he wouldn't have suited up and so wouldn't have had a chance to even show if he was any good.

by Jeff Huter (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 4:15pm

I'm not sure what the official definition of a rookie is, but the data for the Colts defense looks suspect to me. It's Freeman's first year in the NFL and despite being the leading tackler, the table says the Colts defensive rookies have taken 0 snaps this year.

by Danny Tuccitto :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 4:37pm

Freeman is in his first year in the NFL, but he is not a rookie. He went undrafted in 2008, and played in the CFL for three years. Putting all this stuff together, it was actually interesting to (a) learn the above distinction in the NFL's player experience stat, and (b) see that there are a ton of guys in the league who fit that bill.

by tuluse :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 5:30pm

pfr considers him a rookie

by LionInAZ :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 8:35pm

Yes, sounds like he's a rookie as far as the NFL is concerned.

by Danny Tuccitto :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:48am

See comment #8.

As a reference, here's Freeman's player page on NFL.com. They say he's in his "First year," which corresponds to a "1" on the Colts roster page.

Compare that with LaMichael James, who is listed as "Rookie" on his player page, but is listed as a "0" on the 49ers team page.

by Jerry :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 7:57pm

Official rosters will have "R" for rookie and "1" for a guy who's in his first year in the league but isn't in first year of trying to be in the league. 1s might have just been in a camp the prior year, but that's the league's distinction.

by Travis :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 8:54am

The official definitions of "rookie" and "first-year player":

The term NFL Rookie is defined as a player who is in his first season of professional football and has not been on the roster of another professional football team for any regular-season or postseason games. A Rookie is designated by an “R” on NFL rosters.

Players who have been active in another professional football league or players who have NFL experience, including either preseason training camp or being on an Active List or Inactive List, or on Reserve/Injured or Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform for fewer than six regular-season games, are termed NFL First-Year Players. An NFL First-Year Player is designated by a “1” on NFL rosters. Thereafter, a player is credited with an additional year of experience for each season in which he accumulates six games on the Active List or Inactive List, or on Reserve/Injured or Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform.

Since Freeman played in the CFL, he is considered a First-Year Player, not a Rookie.

by JonFrum :: Wed, 11/07/2012 - 9:32pm

Patriots #1 on defense - that's interesting. Chandler Jones has played almost every snap, Tavon Wilson has played in every game, starting four, and Dont'a Hightower has played in six games, starting five. Thank God - the talent level last year was abysmal.

by RickD :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:19am

"unlike -- say -- the New England Patriots, who give rookies a ton of snaps on defense but few on offense"

Hmm...a philosophy or just a case where one of the units needs a lot more help than the other?

by BJR :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 8:14am

Seems to me it would be highly correlated to number of injuries as well. From memory the Patriots have been ravaged by injuries to their defense the past couple of seasons, whereas the Niners have had virtually no significant defensive injuries.

by Bobman :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:43am

Logically, the table generally reflects the inverted standings from last year. The teams witht he worst records had higher draft picks with more NFL-ready 22 year-olds than teams with late first round picks. The COlts, for example, blew up the whole team, jettisoned lots of vets, and had little choice but to start a lot of rookies on O/ST. In years past, it was not the case for them at all. Even Freeney didn't start til halfway through his rookie year (the old saying was, the only guy who can stop Freeney is Dungy).

Interesting piece. Thanks.

by Danny Tuccitto :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:01pm

Interesting point. I went ahead and tested this w/ correlations between 2012 rookie snap percentages and 2011 winning percentage. Here they are (R^2 in parentheses):

TOT: -.529 (28.0%)
OFF: -.610 (37.2%)
DEF: -.055 ( 0.3%)
ST: -.253 ( 6.4%)

Obviously, this is based on only one season, so we don't want to draw too strong of a conclusion, but it does seem to mesh with your logic; at least for total snaps and offensive snaps. However, I'd point out that, even for offense, there's still over 60% of the variance in 2012 rookie snap percentages that isn't explained by 2011 winning percentages. In other words, although common sense gets us pretty far, looks like it's not that simple. Of course, nothing usually is.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:40pm

I wonder how much of that offensive figure is made up by rookie quarterbacks. Also the first five players picked this year were all offensive players who have all started.

by LionInAZ :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 9:58pm

I wouldn't consider any results for the Lions terribly meaningful. They've been plagued by injuries to rookies the past four years -- Stafford, Pettigrew, Best, Leshoure, Fairley, and Broyles and Bentley this year.

by Little Bobby Tables (not verified) :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 6:46pm

Crazy stat: Harbaugh has never started a rookie. Aldon Smith was a rotational player last year, and didn't become a starter until his sophomore season.