The rookie wall is one of those things that’s hard to define until you see it.
College players play about 12 games per season. In the NFL, that’s called a good start, as the regular season goes 16 games and a good playoff run a few more. That’s not including the extensive preseason and the fact that rookies don’t get a true offseason, as they go straight from playing college football to preparing for the draft to playing pro football.
It’s been a common theory that the additional physical workload takes its toll on a player as their body adjusts to the more rigorous professional schedule.
The Steelers were able to minimize the impacts of that when it came to rookie receiver Diontae Johnson last season. In the seasons’s final four games, Johnson averaged 7.8 targets, 5.8 catches and 64.3 yards per game. In the first three quarters of the season, he had averaged 5.1 targets, three catches and 35.3 yards per game. So he was actually far better at the end of the year than he was earlier.
This year, the Steelers are hoping to shepherd another rookie receiver through the process successfully. Rookie Chase Claypool has seen his efficiency as a receiver drop a good bit as his first professional season has gone on.
Claypool averaged 13.96 yards per target in his first five games. Since then, he’s averaged just 5.48 yards per target. He had been contributing some positive plays by drawing pass interference penalties, but those have been drying up as well.
He drew two against Jacksonville for 50 yards, one against Baltimore for 36 yards, one against Washington for 14 yards and none against Buffalo. Even if you add those 100 yards to the 164 receiving yards, he’s still at 9.78 yards per target. A solid figure, but well down from the early part of his season.
The reason for that could be getting worn down physically. It could also be that teams have found better ways to defend the rookie as he’s put more work on film. He could also be a victim of the overall downturn of the Steelers’ offense creating fewer opportunities to go around.
So he has he hit a wall? Maybe.
“I’m not acknowledging that he has, but I’m acknowledging that there is a potential for that,” head coach Mike Tomlin said this week.
The Steelers aren’t taking any chances. When Claypool was hyper-efficient earlier in the season, he was averaging just 58% of the team’s snaps. Since then, he’s been comfortably in the high 60s or low 70s, with a season high of 81% coming at Dallas on Nov. 8. That was also one of his least efficient performances, with 5.31 yards per target on a career-high 13 balls throw his way, and no pass interference penalties drawn.
In response, Claypool has gotten back to that early-season average of playing time, getting 59.2 of the team’s snaps in the five games since the trip to Dallas.
“One of the ways you help a young man work through that is reduce his number of snaps, which is what you see us doing,” Tomlin said.