You may have noticed that the Pittsburgh Steelers have been making greater and greater use of their rookie draft classes over the course of the past several years. There are multiple avenues of explanation for this, as would be expected. For one thing, they had a depletion of talent on a formerly veteran-laden roster that opened the doors for more opportunities.
But it is also a part of a stark, league-wide trend that largely sees a clear trend at a very obvious point in time: the signing of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011, which introduced the new rookie wage scale an in effect made their labor more cost-effective.
As a result, we have seen a clear rise across the entire league in terms of the quantity of contributions from rookie players. We even saw a prelude of this in 2010, during the uncapped year, which served as the preface for the negotiations to come a year later.
According to Pro Football Focus’ data, prior to 2010 (going back to only 2006, admittedly, when they began tracking their data), rookie draft classes never accounted for more than 33,000 snaps played. Since then, rookie classes have never accounted for fewer snaps played.
Develop rookies on the bench?
Not in today’s NFL! pic.twitter.com/SO3zOwY4vJ
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 7, 2017
Considering that there are 32 teams in the league, we are working not far from a 1000-snap average per team for their rookie classes. We have seen that rise to nearly 1500 snaps per team since then, on average, especially in 2014, the year of the great wide receiver class, when rookies contributed 49,000 snaps.
Now, I probably should have noted this above, even though I would imagine that we would see a familiar trend on either side, but the data in the graphic pertains to offensive players. If we factored in defensive players, we might see an even greater rise in rookie contributions, though that is speculative.
It is my inclination that it is more difficult for defensive players to contribute immediately than for offensive players, but we need look no further than our own Steelers to see just how dramatically their approach has changed. We have seen rookie starters on defense every year going back to 2013 in some form or fashion, and that trend could continue this year with T.J. Watt, or possibly Cameron Sutton.
It would be interesting to see what PFF’s defensive snaps show for the rookie classes, but unfortunately they don’t seem to have ever gotten around to posting that, so we are really just left to speculate about it.
Still, I think this is great evidence to support the hypothesis that the installation of the rookie wage scale has helped young players see playing time earlier, and one could argue that this has helped them when it comes time to cash in during free agency.