Rookie Expectations: Defensive End Edition

Phil Emery's first draft took many fans and pundits by surprise with some of his selections, and while it will take some time to determine whether the Bears' 2012 draft class was an overall success or an "Angelo," our new series "Rookie Expectations" will look back at rookie performances from the past few years to see what could be expected from our young cubs in year one.

While looking back at historical data doesn't paint a complete picture of what will happen in the future, we can get a glimpse at what players at the same position - or players drafted in a similar draft spot - have contributed in their rookie seasons. First up on the list: what to expect from first round pick, defensive end Shea McClellin.

McClellin was taken with the 19th overall pick in round one, after Bruce Irvin (Seahawks) and Quentin Coples (Jets) but before fellow first-round defensive end picks Chandler Jones (Patriots), Whitney Mercilus (Texans), and Nick Perry (Packers). Interesting in the 2012 first round was that of the six defensive ends selected only McClellin and Irvin join 4-3 defenses - and Irvin could play linebacker or end for the Seahawks. And even though it remains to be seen how the remaining players are utilized - as ends or outside linebackers - the primary goal of all these guys remains the same: create pressure and get to the quarterback. Lets take a look back at how first round defensive ends have performed in their rookie campaigns the last four seasons.

2011 First Round Defensive Ends

Aldon Smith (7th overall pick) led all rookies with fourteen sacks despite starting zero games; he was a situational pass rusher that excelled coming off the bench, which would be a best case scenario for McClellin if he starts the season in that role. J.J. Watt (11th overall) and Robert Quinn (14th overall) collected five sacks each in their rookie campaigns, but should be viewed on different edges of the performance scale. Watt was a 3-4 end who played well despite only collecting five sacks in sixteen starts; more a byproduct of his role in Wade Phillips' defense versus Quinn, who struggled as a backup 4-3 end for the beleaguered Rams.

Ryan Kerrigan (16th overall) had a similarly successful season with the Redskins as Watt did with the Texans, playing end in a 3-4 and collecting 63 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles. Adrian Clayborn (20th overall) posted similar numbers with the Bucs, starting all sixteen games and finishing the season with 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Cameron Jordan (24th overall pick) would be the only end selected in round one to have little to no impact in year one, finishing with one sack and 31 tackles despite starting fifteen games.

So out of the six first round defensive ends in 2011, that makes one stellar year, three solid years, and two so-so years, with four guys starting and one backup putting up double digit sack numbers.

2010 First Round Defensive Ends

The 2010 Draft featured four first round defensive ends - five if you include 3-4 end Jared Odrick - and the results from that group of rookies was far less impressive than the 2011 group. Brandon Graham was the first defensive end off the board at thirteen to the Eagles. While injuries practically wiped out his sophomore year, Graham contributed three sacks and thirteen tackles in his first year while starting six games. Jason Pierre-Paul (15th overall) was the next DE selected, and while his second year was the complete opposite of Graham's (16.5 sacks) his rookie year with the Giants was similar (zero starts, 4.5 sacks).

Derrick Morgan was taken right after Pierre-Paul by the Titans, and saw limited playing time in his first year, appearing in four games and collecting one and a half sacks. Jerry Hughes (31st overall) was also limited (twelve games, no sacks) - and has contributed almost as little as Morgan in his career with only one career sack. Jared Odrick (28th overall) is a pure 3-4 end that had a solid second season with the Dolphins, but his first year was also limited (one game).

Overall, the 2010 group had barely any impact, and only Pierre-Paul and Odrick bounced back to have solid-to-great second years in the NFL.

2009 First Round Draft Picks

Another five first round defensive ends, with all five joining 3-4 defenses. Brian Orakpo (13th overall) had the best rookie campaign out of the group, starting every game and collecting eleven sacks as an outside linebacker for the 'Skins. The remaining four picks - Tyson Jackson (3rd overall), Aaron Maybin (11th overall), Larry English (16th overall), and Robert Ayers (18th overall) - all had minimal impacts during their rookie years (or careers, thus far). English was the only one of the four to collect a sack his rookie season (two) while Jackson was the only one to start more than two games.

2008 First Round Draft Picks

Chris Long was the second player drafted in 2008, and started every game for the Rams his rookie year while collecting four sacks and forty tackles as a 4-3 end. Vernon Gholston (6th overall) has become another cautionary tale about prioritizing Combine numbers over on-the-field performance, as he did nothing his rookie year and nothing since then. Derrick Harvey (8th overall) had a decent rookie year for the Jaguars, starting nine games and collecting 3.5 sacks (or .5 more than the number of teams he's been on) while Lawrence Jackson (28th overall) mirrored Harvey's rookie season (fourteen starts, two sacks) and career (currently a backup end for the Lions).

Conclusion

Looking back at the first round defensive ends selected, it is strange to notice that of the four years we've looked at, each year further in the past is worse as rookies than the previous one. The 2011 class was solid as a group, with five out of the six playing significant roles on their teams. 2010 had no studs in year one, with only two of the four 4-3 ends collecting more than two sacks, while Brian Orakpo was the only 2009 pick to accomplish anything (and he did it as a 3-4 OLB). 2008 featured no standout performers from the first round group, but only Gholston failed to collect at least two sacks in his rookie campaign.

The numbers tell a tale that we've heard all too often: that success in the NFL is part-skill and part-luck. While there are a few outliers that failed to have any impact as rookies (Gholston, Hughes), the last four years have shown to expect something from rookie first-round defensive ends, but it may only be a handful of sacks and part-time contributions. Hopefully this time next year we'll be talking about McClellin having an Aldon Smith-like rookie impact, or in the least looking solid after collecting four to six sacks in relief of Israel Idonije. How do think McClellin's season stats will end up? Hit the comments section with your predictions.

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