Projecting how a rookie will perform in their first season has as much to do with the team that selects them as it does with the player’s own talent and ability. It would be hard, for example, for a rookie quarterback to have an impact with the Kansas City Chiefs — simply because the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.
The same can be said for the complexity of coaching schemes. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid’s offense is notoriously difficult for young receivers to learn, because they need to learn every receiving position on the field.
Wide receiver Mecole Hardman’s splits from last season clearly demonstrate this. In his 725 offensive snaps, Hardman lined up in the slot 382 times and was split out wide 322 times. Both Byron Pringle and Tyreek Hill had similar splits.
When you couple this with the numerous shifts and pre-snap motions that the Chiefs employ, you begin to understand why it’s so hard for rookie receivers to make noise.
To help highlight this, Pro Football Focus recently did a study to find the teams with the most unique offensive schemes, using a mathematical tool called Principal Component Analysis (PCA). Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs were at the top of the league.
“The Chiefs are in a league of their own, as they are the only team in their cluster when we do cluster analysis based on these PCAs. This is how a team can host four consecutive AFC Championship games — despite the league spending a great deal of its time trying to stop them specifically.”
So here’s the question: how do we project a rookie's performance when they haven't played a single NFL snap?
There is no perfect method for projecting how a player's abilities will translate to the NFL. The best we can do is make an educated guess based on what they did in college — and how previous draft picks fared in their rookie seasons.
To do this, I compiled a list of every player selected in the first three rounds of the 2020 and 2021 NFL Drafts, comparing their PFF grades from their final year in college to their first year in the NFL. To help deal with outliers, the highest (and lowest) graded player from each NFL team’s draft class was ignored. Then I averaged the data, which gives us a number we can subtract from the grades for this year’s rookie class.
And then for fun, I also calculated how well the Chiefs’ drafts have compared to the rest of the league in the last two seasons.
SPOILER ALERT: in these two seasons, the Chiefs have drafted better than average.
On average, Chiefs rookies perform over five points better than other NFL teams. And this was after Creed Humphrey was removed from the calculation!
While it’s tempting to simply use the Chiefs’ average, we’ll temper our expectations by being conservative. We’ll average the Chiefs’ number with that of the whole league to obtain our PFF grade adjustment figure.
How does the calculation look when we compare it to players who have already finished their rookie seasons? We’ll use Kansas City linebacker Willie Gay Jr. as an example.
College PFF: 83.5
Projected rookie PFF: 62.4
Actual rookie PFF: 68.1
So let’s take a look at the five Chiefs rookies whom I expect to have an impact this season, and see how they might perform.
1. George Karlaftis | EDGE | Round 1, Pick 30
“There is something about Karlaftis that screams Chiefs and Steve Spagnuolo. He’s tough, smart, sets a good edge and knows how to use his hands.”
Round 1, pick 30: meet Purdue EDGE George Karlaftis pic.twitter.com/piqymXZLdg— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) April 29, 2022
“Following the team’s first of three mandatory workouts on Tuesday, Karlaftis revealed he got a head start on becoming a pro by losing 10 to 15 pounds during his pre-draft process. It can be estimated that Karlaftis, who was listed at 275 pounds at Purdue, is likely in the 260-265-pound range.”
Entering this offseason, EDGE might have been the Chiefs’ greatest position of need. While he initially drew mixed reviews from our pre-draft film team, all reports out of minicamp say that Karlaftis dropped 10-15 pounds — and on the field, is playing like a man possessed. If this more agile Karlaftis can translate his newfound athleticism into production, the Chiefs may have found a cornerstone around which they can build their pass rush.
Projected rookie PFF grade: 66.0
Similar PFF comp: A.J. Epenesa (61.5 in 2020)
2. Trent McDuffie | Cornerback | Round 1, Pick 21
“One of McDuffie’s primary strengths is his football intelligence — he keeps himself in good position to take away options from the opposing quarterback very consistently.”
McDuffie is a footwork matching man coverage player at the line of scrimmage; less reliant on hand usage. pic.twitter.com/SrRx1ucrzQ— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) May 1, 2022
“McDuffie seems to have been fighting a nagging injury — and has been beaten a couple of times in minicamp. Given his stature (and his style of play), we can assume he’ll look better once the pads come on.”
Like Karlaftis, McDuffie is crucial to the success of the Kansas City defense. If he cannot stay healthy and produce, the Chiefs are going to find themselves with a talent deficit in the secondary. While the team likes fellow rookie cornerback Joshua Williams, McDuffie is the sort of blue-chip secondary prospect for which Chiefs fans have been begging since Marcus Peters threw the referee's flag into the stands.
Projected rookie PFF grade: 65.5
Similar PFF comp: Elijah Molden (62 in 2021)
3. Skyy Moore | Wide Receiver | Round 2, Pick 54
“Moore’s calling card is the advanced route-running that helps him gain separation. He has good — though not elite — long speed to make himself dangerous after the catch.”
Skyy Moore runs a great route and picks up a first down. Yet it also hits home what the Chiefs will miss about Tyreek Hill. Moore is not a threat to cut back inside and potentially gain 20 more yards. The Chiefs will not replicate how deadly Hill is with the ball in his hands. pic.twitter.com/FBrf41z0dP— Jared Sapp (@TrumanChief) April 22, 2022
“Rookie Skyy Moore was limited as he continues to recover from the hamstring injury he suffered prior to arriving to rookie minicamp.”
There is no doubt that Moore is one of the most exciting wide receiver prospects the Chiefs have drafted in the last few years — but hamstring injuries are funny and can take a long time to heal. Moore was also the last rookie to sign his contract, which means he has a lot catching up to do in a very difficult offense.
Projected rookie PFF grade: 70.6
Similar PFF comp: Elijah Moore (71.2 in 2021)
4. Bryan Cook | Safety | Round 2, Pick 54
“He plays with an intimidating force and will stand out as a tackler... His potential is there, and once he can unlock those different skill sets, he will make quite a bit of noise.”
Cook sees the reverse coming and gets around his blocker in time to make big stop in space pic.twitter.com/G3evqhJOZ8— Talon Graff (@CoachGraff34) May 6, 2022
What we’re saying now
“The player of the day during Wednesday’s look was rookie 3rd-round safety Bryan Cook... Mahomes rolled out to his right and threw a pass deep downfield* to his left on the run. Cook was right there to corral the interception.”
The player of the day during Wednesday's look was rookie 3rd-round safety Bryan Cook.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) June 15, 2022
In the team pass period, Mahomes rolled out to his right and threw a pass deep downfield* to his left on the run. Cook was right there to corral the interception.
*could have been free play
So far, the Chiefs don’t know who their SAM linebacker is going to be. I propose the Chiefs move away from the 4-3 as their base defense. Instead, they should run a 4-2-5 hybrid nickel, where Cook lines up near the box and plays the role of an enforcer.
Projected rookie PFF grade: 70.6
Similar PFF comp: Kyle Duggar (64.1 in 2020)
5. Leo Chenal | Linebacker | Round 3, Pick 103
“Chenal will play the SAM, giving them the ability to defend the run — but sometimes rush off the edge in certain packages. It makes the linebacker position one of the team’s strongest positions — and maybe even one of the best groups in the league.”
Round 3, pick 103: meet Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenel pic.twitter.com/o2jiVOwKlC— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) April 30, 2022
What we are saying now
“Linebacker Leo Chenal had a pass breakup in 7-on-7.”
Linebacker Leo Chenal had a pass breakup in 7-on-7. Linebacker Jonathan Jones forced a fumble. Defensive back Nasir Greer nearly had an interception during the team period, but it went through his hands and out of bounds.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) May 8, 2022
Chenal had a very quiet rookie and minicamp, which never bodes well for a rookie’s early playing time. For the time being, it appears Chenal will be relegated to situational duties until he proves himself. The biggest thing going against him right now is his sub-par pass coverage.
Projected rookie PFF grade: 70.3
Similar PFF comp: Nick Bolton (72.5 in 2021)
The Chiefs’ full draft class
PFF did not have college grades available for cornerback Joshua Williams and defensive back Jaylen Watson.
The Chiefs will have to rely on some of these players to step up and produce right away. There are bound to be some bumps and growing pains along the way — but much like the Chiefs offensive line last year, I think that if the team sticks with the kids through the rough patches, I believe it will pay huge dividends in the postseason.