Panthers 2nd best in NFL with rookie cornerbacks

Carolina Panthers fans have much to be excited about this season, however there is one small cloud on the horizon,  one nagging doubt that threatens to creep in.”What about the secondary ?”  PFF just ranked the Panthers’ Defensive backfield dead last in the NFL in their preseason preview rankings.  Did Dave Gettleman hurt the team by letting Josh Norman walk?

Thinking about this situation and the huge risk it seems that the Carolina Panthers front office has taken in letting an All Pro Corner walk, and instead possibly placing their hopes on three rookies, got me to wondering.

How tough is it for rookie CBs to transition to the NFL? 

So I went hunting for any data I could find on rookie corners performance – and specifically the performance of rookie corners for Carolina.  What is the Carolina Panthers’ experience with rookie corners?

To research these questions, I dug deeply into the database at Pro Football Reference, looking at the Panthers roster season by season, and I created a database of every rookie who’s been on the Panthers’ roster during the past 21 years.

Excluding a handful of rookie specialists, there have been 216 rookies on Panthers’ rosters in the past 21 seasons, who have played in all or parts of 2042 games, starting 681 of those games.  Here’s a summary, split by offense and defense, position by position.

Carolina Panthers Corners Stats

 

On average throughout Carolina Panthers history, rookies who made the roster played in an average of 9 – 10 games each, starting in about 3 games their rookie season.  Of course that average masks the huge difference in rookie contributions to the team each season.  Some rookies were 16 game starters like Cam Newton.  Others, like RB Brandon Wegher in 2015, were inactive pretty much the entire season.

While it’s very basic data, by looking at the games played and games started stats, we can see something notable about Panthers rookie CBs:

Although Panthers rookie cornerbacks made up a smaller percentage of rookies on Panthers rosters than most other defensive position groups (only DEs were a smaller group of rookies on Defense), they played in, and started an above average number of games – the highest of any position on defense.

That’s an encouraging statistic.  Clearly Panthers coaches have given CBs above-average opportunities to contribute as rookies, perhaps suggesting that the transition to the pros may not be as fearsome for rookie CBs as many make it out to be.  Look for instance how many fewer average starts rookie RBs or TEs had than CBs.  Rookie CBs getting playing time is not unheard of throughout Panthers history.

But of course, playing time and opportunities to start are not by any means enough to determine whether rookie CBs can succeed in the NFL.  For that you need some measure of performance.  I’ve chosen to use “AV” – Approximate Value.

 

 “AV” (Approximate Value) is a metric developed by Pro Football Reference which provides a single quantitative value on every NFL player’s performance every season, denoting their contribution to the team’s overall production and talent.

I’ll discuss rookie CBs and their value to their teams greater detail below.  For now, it may be helpful merely to note several simple figures as rules of thumb.

  • The average AV for all 330 rookies (all positions) on NFL rosters in 2015 was 1.9
  • The average AV for all 672 rookie CBs on rosters throughout the league from 1995 – 2015 was 1.8
  • An AV for a rookie player greater than 2 is above the average.  An AV of 3 or above for a rookie (at all positions) is very good (top 20 – 25%).  An AV of 5 or above is generally in the top 7 – 10% of all rookies, varying a bit by position.

But before digging further into AV, let’s take a closer look at the rookie CBs who have made the Panthers rosters in various seasons, so as to make an abstract discussion a bit more concrete, giving names and “faces” as it were to this analysis:

Panthers 21 Rookie CBs.png

Some of the names above are well known to Carolina Panthers fans, and even other teams’ fans, as they became stars or had long and successful careers.  Others listed above never made it in the pros and have long since been forgotten.  Highlighted in blue are those rookie CBs who got the starter designation in at least 8 games their rookie seasons.  There are a few well known names there, including  Tyrone Poole, Chris Gamble, Josh Norman.

Those three and several others got significant opportunities as rookies, and they played well.  This doesn’t mean they were stars from the start (none of them came anywhere close to Patrick Peterson kind of numbers (rookie season AV of 20!), the player who broke the mold and set amazing records as a rookie CB for Arizona).  Yes, these rookies certainly made some mistakes and missed some plays, but they contributed in a positive and significant way to the Panthers in their rookie seasons.

While Tyrone Poole and Chris Gamble may have been the most productive Carolina Panthers rookie CBs, the Panthers success with rookie CBs is not ancient history. One can see from the data above that 3 of 6 rookie CBs under head coach Ron Rivera have made a very good to excellent contribution to their team’s overall talent and production in their rookie years.  These data give reason for hope that the current crop of Panthers coaches can coax a solid performance out of some raw rookie corners…

In fact, by doing some very deep digging in the Pro Football reference (PFR) database, I’ve found some pretty strong evidence that the Panthers have been second-best in the NFL, just slightly behind the Patriots, in terms of getting solid production and impact from rookie Corner Backs.

Rookie Corner Backs in the NFL:  1995 – 2015 by team.  Games, Starts, and AV data

sorted in order of highest Average AV per rookie CB to lowest

All teams rookie CBs and AV 1995 - 2015.png

The Carolina Panthers have a nice track record over their 21 year history, including recently under Ron Rivera, when they’ve turned to rookie CBs.  The average AV rating of their rookie CBs is second only to the Patriots.  Perhaps on a more exciting note, Carolina coaches seem to excel in getting maximum impact per rookie CB, having the highest number and percent of any team in the league of rookie CBs with an AV of 5 or better in the past 21 years.  (AV 5+ columns in the table above.)  Nearly one-third of all Panthers rookie CBs over the years have excelled at this level, including two players under Coach Rivera (Melvin White and Josh Norman).

I can’t promise that the Panthers new rookie CBs, James Bradberry, Daryl Worley or Zack Sanchez, will be the next Patrick Peterson and have an all-Pro rookie season, or even that they will be as good as Josh Norman, Melvin White or Bene Benwikere were as rookies.  But these data remind me that there are a good chunk of Panthers rookie CBs through the years who’ve done very well in their NFL debuts.

Here’s hoping the Panthers very good track record with rookie corners continues.

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*Note: the PFR database includes 19 Carolina Panthers CBs during the 1995 – 2015 period instead of the 21 CBs I listed in my table of all Panthers rookie CBs.  For my list of 21 Panthers rookie CBs, I verified position data with the Panthers.com roster archive data.  In some cases PFR may have listed a player as a “DB” and not a “CB” so a few CBs are missing from this database for the Panthers, and other teams.  The slight difference in players means that PFR shows the average AV of all Panthers rookie CBs as 2.8, whereas I calculated an average AV of 2.5.  However, I don’t think this minor discrepancy significantly alters the validity of the findings.  Average AVs of 2.5 or 2.8 are both very good figures for rookie CBs.

 

You can call me the Panthers Stat Lady. A passionate Panthers fan and a database geek... staying up to date with my favorite team from afar and having fun with number crunching too.