Lombardi: Why NFL rookies struggle to make an impact

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When the 175 men and women arrive for BUD/S training at the Navy Seal base in Coronado, California, the instructors have a good sense of the first ones to put their helmets in the quad to signal they quit.  Most often the first ones “out” are the ones who run the fastest to the first breakfast, break the chin-up record on the first day and showcase their superior athletic skills.  They crave the attention and don’t understand how hard the journey becomes.  An early display of awesome athletic skills never guarantees anyone the coveted Trident medal.   The 25 that gain the medal have something in common, and it’s not talent. It’s perseverance—the ability to do hard things day after day.  Few can handle the volume of the daily work, which is why few get pinned a Seal. 

 

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The same can be said about NFL rookies.   As we read the superlatives of many of the rookies, based on their first practices, remind yourself not to fall into the trap of believing many of them will have an impact. The ratio of admittance to BUD/S training and becoming a Navy Seal (about 15%) and rookies making an impact are the same.  Few will help their team this year.  Rookies are just not ready, and despite the positivity, we must remind ourselves the season is long, the work is hard, and most players are not prepared for what lies ahead. 

One of the first things you notice at most rookie mini-camps is how out of shape the players are in relation to the veteran team.  Rookies have spent the month of April being wined and dined; they have not been dedicated to their craft nor do they understand the level of fitness required.  (Let’s face it, Philadelphia 76ers center and NBA MVP Joel Embiid hasn’t figured this out, and he is going to be 30 years old). Rookies are stunned to learn what occurs to prepare for the Sunday game, and all the hard work they were doing for the Saturday games pales in comparison.  Because most players are not in top condition, they don’t look as effective. Once they get into great physical condition and can handle the volume of work, their talents begin to shine.   This usually doesn’t occur until mid-season or later. 

Rookie minicamp is a scaled-down version—Football 101 of the schemes on both sides of the ball.  It’s the basics, with nothing advanced or challenging.  Once the rookies join the veterans of the Phase 2 program and then the OTA days, the learning challenges become harder.  The game is moving rapidly, and when players have to think before reacting, they don’t play well.  They look sluggish.  It takes time to develop the confidence needed to play without thinking, to allow your natural instincts to take over. 

Understanding the rookie challenges is part of understanding who might become the Rookie of the Year.  The conditions for the player’s talents to shine must be perfectly aligned, and they must help a team win.  If Bryce Young leads the Panthers to the playoffs, then he will win the award easily.  If not, then it’s a wide-open race.  Here are a few players that I think meet the criteria to become Rookie of the Year. 

Dalton Kincaid – Buffalo Bills
Kincaid will be on the field with Dawson Knox as the F receiver and move tight end.  His skill set in the passing game will shine, and playing on a good team with good skill players around him will highlight his game.  Plus, Kincaid is tough, pro-ready and will not be overwhelmed.  He is the perfect fit for the Bills. And perfect fits, assuming they stay healthy have a chance to win the award. 

Jahmyr Gibbs – Detroit Lions               
The Lions shocked the world with the Gibbs pick, considering they had signed David Montgomery in free agency.  Then they traded D’Andre Swift for a late fourth-round pick to the Eagles, which means his trade value wasn’t high.  Swift was targeted 70 times in the 14 games he played in and had 48 catches averaging 8.1 per catch.  His 68.6% catch percentage was 11 percentage points lower than his 2021 season and 12 percentage points lower than his 2020 season—which indicates the Lions felt he wasn’t giving them enough.  Gibbs can do all the same things that Swift can do, perhaps better.  And with Ben Johnson understanding how to use Gibbs as the Saints understand how to use Alvin Kamara, it makes Gibbs a weapon in an already talented offense.  If the Lions are as good as many suspect and Gibbs makes an impact, then he has a chance. 

Jake Moody – San Francisco 49ers    
Now, I understand kickers won’t win Rookie of the Year, but I want to make a case for why Moody will be so impactful for the Niners.  Last season, Robbie Gould scored 131 points for the Niners averaging 7.7 per game.  He missed one extra point and five field goals, four of them from the 49-40 range.  Last season at Michigan, Moody was 60-60 on extra points, missed six field goals on the season and scored 147 points.  Now, I understand the Saturday game allows higher scoring and blowouts, which is reflected in the point total.  But Moody has a stronger leg than Gould, can make clutch kicks and will be able to eliminate any kickoff returns against the Niners.  Gould only kicked the ball out of the endzone 49% of the time, allowing the opponent to return the ball on average to the 25.7-yard line.  Having a great kicker is like having a great closer in baseball. Even though Gould was good, Moody can be better. 

Jaxon Smith-Njigba – Seattle Seahawks
Smith-Njigba is one of the best slot receivers in college football, even though he didn’t play last season for Ohio State.  He understands how to run the inside routes, create separation against man-to-man, and catch the ball in traffic.  With DK Metcalf on the outside, along with Tyler Lockett, and Noah Fant, Seattle has a great set of skill players.  Add in running back Kenneth Walker, which helps makes the spread dangerous and Smith-Njigba will get a ton of targets and convert third downs.  It’s the perfect situation for him to shine, and if Seattle makes another playoff appearance and Njigba duplicates the season Garrett Wilson had for the Jets, then he will be in the running for the award. 

Deonte Banks – New York Giants          
To win the Defensive Rookie of the Year requires noticeable production.  Sacks or interceptions catch the voters’ attention.  Christian Gonzalez of the Patriots or Devon Witherspoon of the Seahawks might be great cover corners their first season, but if they don’t have interceptions, few will notice.  In the Giants’ scheme, the corners are asked to cover early in the route, as they expect the pressure to force the quarterback to throw the ball early.  Banks has excellent instincts and shows the burst at the top of the route. If the ball is released too soon, he can be in position for an interception.  The same logic applies to Emmanuel Forbes of the Commanders.  If Washington’s front pressures, he will make plays on the ball.  I like Banks more because of the scheme. The Giants plan to get the ball out quickly with overloaded pressures and attacking the protection schemes.  Washington relies on their four rushers, and while this might result in sacks, it often doesn’t carry over to turnovers, which is why Washington had a league-low nine interceptions last season. 

To win the award, the scheme must match the talent and most of all, the team needs to win games.  So as you read and review all the rookie evaluations during the next few months, remind yourself unless those factors align, the impact won’t be great—at least this year.  Much like BUD/S training, there will only be 25 rookies competing for the award—and most will be looking to have a better season in 2024.