It is often the case that we as fans have exalted expectations for the performances of players as rookies. While we are excited to see them get on the field, we may sometimes not only allow for the inevitability that the vast majority of rookies will not be polished and know what they’re doing in all situations. The Lawrence Taylors of the NFL are few and far between.
Depending upon circumstances and the position that you play, your numbers can also look better, even a lot better, than your play-to-play performance really warrants. Take Devin Bush, for example, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top draft pick last year. He finished with 108 tackles, a sack, two interceptions, one forced fumble, and four fumbles recovered.
To start off with, recovering a fumble is largely just about being in the right place at the right time. That can apply to interceptions, as well, which was certainly appropriate for the interception that he had against the Chargers off of a batted pass.
Obviously, I’m not saying that Bush played poorly. It was a good rookie year, and an extremely encouraging one. even Pro Football Focus agrees with that. They recently put up an article detailing why they believe both Bush and Devin White will show clear improvement from year one to year two.
The first, and most obvious, point that they make is that they won’t be rookies anymore. However, they back it up with numbers, which show that a player’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) typically rises 70 to 80 percent from a player’s first year to his second. And the reason is obvious: they know what they’re doing the second time around.
The fact that both of them are also great athletes is another piece of the puzzle. You can be the greatest athlete in the world, but if you don’t know enough about how to utilize it, it won’t do you much good. Likewise, you can know what the play is and where it’s going before the ball is snapped, but if you don’t have the athleticism to get there, it doesn’t matter. By 2020, both linebackers should be able to put their athleticism on display to greater degrees.
I think the most compelling, or at least most tangible, point that the article makes is the fact that they were forced to go from primarily man-coverage responsibilities against running backs near the line of scrimmage in college to spending most of their time in zone coverages, and facing deeper targets against tight ends and wide receivers.
According to their charting, Bush played just 124 snaps in man coverage, but he graded out very well (89.3). However, the bulk of his time was spent playing within a zone scheme, to the tune of 290 snaps, and there he had much greater difficulty, with a grade of 52.1.
None of this is earth-shattering stuff, but it is at least interesting to see the coverage scheme breakdown. It’s very typical for rookies to struggle to adapt to zone coverage schemes if they were more involved in man in college. A lot of things take a year or two of adjustment, but I think it’s fair to say that Bush will be a great player in a short amount of time.