49ers 2012 rookie class snap counts: Jim Harbaugh puts baby in a corner

Cherish the sight of this man on the field. It's only happened 0.2% of the time. - Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

One thing we know for certain that you have in common with rookie safety Trenton Robinson: He hasn't played a defensive snap for the 49ers either.

In his masterfully played role as "The Informer," Fooch has been keeping readers up to date on 49ers snap counts this season. In his latest update last week, AptosNinerFan asked the following question in the comments section:

The entire 2012 Draft Class has contributed 25 special teams plays via one player-Trenton Robinson?!? Anybody know if any draft class has contributed less than this one?

In his masterfully played role as "The Inspector," Fooch followed this lead to its inevitable destination: my e-mail inbox (not literally, of course). In case you were unaware, at Football Outsiders (FO), we have a new page this season with snap counts for all teams and players. Naturally, behind the scenes of that nifty search tool is a gigantic database, which allows us to answer questions like the one posed by AptosNinerFan.

I have an FO column in the works examining some connections between snap counts and player years of experience (which you should totally look out for in the near future), but, in this very special appearance back at my former stomping grounds, I'm going to focus on how teams have allocated snaps to rookies over the first nine weeks of the 2012 regular season.

At the team level, the average NFL squad has played 67 snaps on offense and defense per game, as well as 29 snaps per game on the various special teams units. Through Week 9, San Francisco registers just a tick below those averages, at 62 and 26. And of course, it makes sense that their preferred style of play would produce a slower pace to their games.

That's nice summary information and all, but it's not very interesting. Instead, to find "interesting" requires magnifying snap counts down to the player level. When we do that, we find there have been nearly half-a-million player snaps so far in 2012, and, proceeding to the question at hand, only about 10 percent of those snaps have been played by rookies. Rookies comprise about 16 percent of all players who have seen the field this season, so their much-lower snap percentage suggests -- shockingly! -- that NFL head coaches loathe playing rookies.

There's one head coach, however, whose aversion seems akin to a triskaidekaphobic encountering the number 13: Jim Harbaugh. Below is a table showing stats related to rookie snap counts for every team through Week 9. So we're on the same page, the "TOT," "OFF," "DEF," and "ST" columns tell you the number of snaps played by rookies in total, on offense, on defense, and on special teams. The "PCT" columns tell you how those snap counts relate to the number of snaps played by all of the players on the team; not just rookies. Because some teams have played more games than others, and some teams have more snaps per game than others, the percentages are really what matters. (I'm just posting the raw numbers because I'm a swell guy.)

TEAM TOT PCT Rk OFF PCT Rk DEF PCT Rk ST PCT Rk
CLE 4348 26.3% 1 2187 34.5% 1 1281 17.5% 6 880 30.4% 1
IND 2430 16.3% 2 2010 30.1% 2 0 0.0% 31 420 16.7% 9
JAC 2210 15.2% 3 860 15.6% 4 591 9.2% 16 759 29.3% 2
MIN 2384 14.7% 4 701 10.9% 10 1003 14.3% 7 680 24.5% 4
STL 1986 14.5% 5 585 10.8% 11 783 13.4% 8 618 25.0% 3
CAR 1968 14.3% 6 488 9.1% 14 1235 20.4% 3 245 10.3% 22
MIA 2051 13.6% 7 1285 21.6% 3 445 6.8% 21 321 12.1% 19
GB 2229 13.3% 8 61 0.9% 30 1468 21.2% 2 700 23.8% 5
TB 1832 12.8% 9 379 6.8% 18 1209 20.1% 4 244 8.9% 26
CIN 1795 12.5% 10 813 14.1% 6 567 9.7% 15 415 15.3% 13
SEA 1845 12.1% 11 783 12.6% 8 776 12.1% 9 286 11.1% 20
NE 1865 12.0% 12 74 1.1% 29 1369 23.3% 1 422 15.9% 11
PHI 1700 11.4% 13 323 5.0% 21 1077 18.1% 5 300 12.3% 18
BUF 1581 11.3% 14 582 10.8% 12 710 11.8% 10 289 11.0% 21
TEN 1807 11.2% 15 460 7.5% 17 817 11.6% 11 530 18.0% 8
BAL 1386 9.2% 16 585 10.3% 13 433 6.4% 23 368 14.1% 16
ARI 1474 9.1% 17 934 13.7% 7 272 4.1% 25 268 9.3% 24
PIT 1207 9.0% 18 687 11.3% 9 2 0.0% 30 518 22.3% 6
KC 1194 8.6% 19 478 7.6% 16 314 6.3% 24 402 15.4% 12
NYJ 1200 8.1% 20 262 4.4% 23 538 8.8% 17 400 15.0% 14
WAS 1318 8.1% 21 995 15.1% 5 138 2.1% 28 185 6.1% 29
DEN 1193 8.0% 22 89 1.5% 27 650 10.3% 13 454 18.2% 7
DAL 983 7.2% 23 70 1.1% 28 537 10.3% 14 376 16.2% 10
SD 893 6.6% 24 287 5.1% 20 393 7.0% 20 213 9.2% 25
HOU 935 6.5% 25 501 8.1% 15 155 2.8% 27 279 10.3% 23
DET 960 6.5% 26 211 3.2% 24 368 6.5% 22 381 14.6% 15
NYG 1012 6.4% 27 118 1.8% 26 508 7.9% 19 386 13.5% 17
OAK 934 6.4% 28 340 5.7% 19 468 8.1% 18 126 4.5% 30
NO 920 6.0% 29 12 0.2% 32 692 10.5% 12 216 7.8% 28
CHI 542 3.8% 30 268 4.6% 22 234 4.0% 26 40 1.6% 31
ATL 375 2.7% 31 158 2.7% 25 4 0.1% 29 213 8.7% 27
SF 61 0.5% 32 35 0.6% 31 0 0.0% 31 26 1.1% 32
NFL AVG 1519 10.3% -- 551 9.0% -- 595 9.8% -- 374 14.2% --

As you can see, the answer to our question is, "No." Not a single team has had their rookies play a smaller share of total player snaps than your San Francisco 49ers; and it's not even close. The next-most-invisible group of rookies plays for the Atlanta Falcons, and that group sees the field over five times as often.

Splitting things out into team units, we further discover that, unlike -- say -- the New England Patriots, who give rookies a ton of snaps on defense but few on offense, the 49ers are ranked at the bottom across the board. That's certainly amazing in its own right, but the really crazy snap count percentages are the ones for defense and special teams.

Although head coaches prefer not to play rookies in general, it's also well known that they don't mind as much when it comes to populating their special teams. And yet, Jim Harbaugh will have none of it. Rookie safety Trenton Robinson has played 25 special teams snaps, Garrett Celek has played one, and that's it. For no other team outside of the Chicago Bears is the sight of a rookie on special teams truly "special."

On defense, the 49ers are one of only two teams in the NFL to have not given a single snap to a rookie. Granted, their 2012 rookie class is mostly geared towards the other side of the ball, but you'd figure Robinson would get into the game for one snap at the end of a blowout, right? Nope. Jim Harbaugh will have none of it.

As I've been saying since June, the primary thing that could derail San Francisco's Super Bowl train this season is their relative lack of experience on their defensive bench, and especially in the secondary. As the snap count data shows, Harbaugh doesn't seem to mind being in that situation. If he did, Robinson would be getting at least an iota of valuable gameday experience when situations allow it. Obviously, he's the elite coach and I'm the guy who writes about football stats on the internet, so I'm not going to second-guess him here for one minute. As fans, however, it is something to be cognizant of as the playoffs approach.

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