The NFL and the Critical Importance of Undrafted Free Agents: Evidence from the NFC
NFL teams are built though the NFL Draft. This is a truth that we hold self evident. It’s also misleading.
The more-accurate truth is that the successful teams are built through the scrap heap in some way or form. The 2010 Packers, an almost completely homegrown team, are the anomaly. But even the SB champion packers wouldn’t have made it as far as they did without something that I will refer to here as an “unexpected” contribution from fourth year CB Tramon Williams and rookie CB Sam Shields, both of whom combined to help Charles Woodson extend the effective portion of his career at cornerback. Williams and Shields have something else in common: both went undrafted by NFL teams in their respective draft years.
It is impossible to compete in the current NFL environment without the ability to find a number of “cost-free” players who can provide competition for — or in many cases, outright win a job from — a recent draft pick. The nature of the draft does not allow for risk-free selections. Even the wisest drafting teams will still have to make a choice at some point in the draft between a player they believe in based on their own evaluations, and a consensus “best available” player who they could not have done their due diligence on. Sometimes, the best player available in the draft is not a player who fits perfectly in the scheme, but if a team doesn’t step outside its comfort zone to draft the best players, it’s hurting itself in the long run.
Which is one of the many reasons why finding a supply of UDFA talent is so critical, especially in the salary cap era. You’ll find that after round 3 of the NFL draft, the players who end up being the very best professionals typically slip through the cracks of the third day of the NFL draft. Why is this?
To answer that question, I compared the value of the best UDFA starters in a given division against the value of the best late round draft picks in a given division to see which teams are optimizing undrafted free agents against late round draft picks. Only players on their rookie contracts are being considered in this case study. Then, I will discuss the effects of this lockout on NFL teams and undrafted players alike.
Players marked with an asterisk (*) are players who have received contract extensions from their teams, but are listed here because they would still be under team control in absence of a contract extension.
Best undrafted players: RB Legarette Blount, FB Earnest Graham, OT Donald Penn, OT James Lee, G Ted Larsen, RB Pierre Thomas, RB Chris Ivory, WR Lance Moore (contact expired), LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, DT Remi Ayodele, G Harvey Dahl (expired contract), T Tyson Clabo (expired contract), CB Brent Grimes
Best late round draft picks: WR Mike Williams, LB Geno Hayes, S Tanard Jackson, CB E.J. Biggers, WR Marques Colston, G Jahri Evans*, G Carl Nicks, T Jermon Bushrod, DE Kroy Biermann, DE Charles Johnson, CB Captain Munnerlyn, WR David Gettis
Analysis: Perhaps one of the best examples of the UDFA phenomenon is the waste of resources between the Falcons and their defensive tackle situation. GM Thomas Dimitroff extended DT Jonathon Babineaux in his first year on the job prior to Babineaux becoming a free agent. The next year, the team drafted Peria Jerry to play next to him. Jerry missed all of 2009 with an injury, and then in 2010, the Falcons spent a third round pick on Corey Peters, who beat out the recovering Jerry as a rookie. That’s a lot of money and draft selections invested to make a position a relative strength…and ultimately, the Falcons ranked 12th, below the league average, in 2010 defensive DVOA, although they were above average in run defense.
You could argue that the best three players on the list above are on the late round draft picks list: Mike Williams, Marques Colston, and Jahri Evans are all on the NFL Top 100 list. But Donald Penn would be on a list of the top 200 players (top 15% of NFL players), as well as Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo, and it’s fascinating how the competitive teams in this division built mauling, man blocking OLs without using high draft picks (the Saints used lower round picks, while the Falcons and Bucs are almost entirely undrafted at the key positions), versus where the Panthers spent their resources: two first round tackles, a second round center, and two first round running backs.
That’s not to rip on the Carolina running game, which is very effective in and of itself, but have you seen it’s passing game? Ignoring the pass protection units for a second, you have a second round QB throwing to a pair of third round receivers (of course, one of those is Steve Smith) and a 6th round rookie, David Gettis, who was the most effective receiver in the rotation last year. The Panthers have almost no impact undrafted free agents who are still cheap, and it’s costing them. Matt Moore still might be the best QB on that roster, but he’s buried beneath the hope of Jimmy Clausen and Cam Newton, and was dreadful last year anyhow.
Beyond Moore, the closest thing the Panthers have enjoyed to a UDFA success is OT Garry Williams, who started 11 games at RT for Jeff Otah last year in a lost season. This is why it could be a while before the Panthers compete again. On the bright side, the Panthers have done pretty well in the 7th round all things considered the last few years (G Mackenzy Bernadeau, G Geoff Schwartz, CB Captain Munnerlyn).
Best Undrafted Players: DE Israel Idonije, S Husain Abdullah, CB Sam Shields, CB Tramon Williams, DE Cullen Jenkins (expiring contract), DL Johnny Jolly, RB Ryan Grant*, LB Frank Zombo
Best late round draft picks: DT Matt Toeaina (by Cincinnati), CB Zack Bowman, OT J’Marcus Webb, WR Johnnie Knox, DT Sammie Lee Hill, C John Sullivan, DE Ray Edwards (expiring contract), RB James Starks, G Josh Sitton, TE Andrew Quarless, DE C.J. Wilson
Analysis: The Detroit Lions may deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done since firing Matt Millen in 2008, but there’s an underlying reason that a playoff berth in 2011 is unlikely, and it’s a reason that has little to do with Matt Stafford. The Lions have done an excellent job on the waiver wire, essentially picking up a first round pick when they snatched Alphonso Smith off waivers from the Broncos after Denver gave up on him after a year. What the Lions haven’t done is found any late round or undrafted help for their team. That 2010 draft class is looking very top heavy a year later and the 2011 class was top-heavy (three picks in top two rounds, just two picks after that). Where are the undrafted players to supplement what Detroit has been doing in the top rounds? They will have to leverage waiver priority again in 2011 to build the depth to contend.
The Vikings are in trouble for a different reason which is that they spent a lot of money on free agents to build their core instead of finding cheap UDFAs to do the same jobs. Wash. St. S Husain Abdullah is the lone exception for HC Leslie Frasier, who oversaw Abdullah beating out 2008 second rounder Tyrell Johnson for the starting safety position in 2010.
The Packers on the other hand, are now set to dominate this division for the next ten years, and they’ve done it with a fair share of draft busts. It will be interesting to see what the young Lions become, but right now now it looks like they will be the equivalent of Jim Schwartz’ 2003-08 Titans to the 2003-08 Tony Dungy Colts (the Packers). It comes as no surprise that almost all of the successful UDFAs from this division are Green Bay Packers, though I certainly expected to see the Lions and Bears with a larger presence in that category.
Best undrafted free agents: RB Keiland Williams, WR/KR Brandon Banks, OT Stephon Heyer, WR Anthony Armstrong, LB Lorenzo Alexander, LB Chris Wilson, S Quintin Mikell* (expiring contract), DT Antonio Dixon, QB Tony Romo*, WR Miles Austin*, DE Stephen Bowen (expiring contract), G Phil Costa
Best late round draft picks: RB Ryan Torain (by Denver), LB HB Blades, S, Reed Doughty, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, TE Kevin Boss, DT Barry Cofield (expiring contract), LB Jon Goff, LB Zak Deossie, FB Owen Schmitt (by Seattle), WR Jason Avant, OL Todd Herremans, OL King Dunlap, LB Moise Fokou, RB Tashard Choice, RB Marion Barber, OT Doug Free, NT Jay Ratliff*, CB Orlando Scandrick, S Alan Ball
Analysis: I figured for sure that the Redskins would come up behind the Giants and Eagles in terms of undrafted free agent contribution, but in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the guess that best fit the evidence. The Redskins were incredible at finding UDFA contributors to fit Gregg Williams defense from 2004-07, and then did a great job last year at finding cost free contributors on offense under Mike Shanahan. The Vinny Cerrato/Jim Zorn years were a lost period in terms of adding cost free talent, as the only starting caliber players adding during that period of Redskins history were TE Fred Davis (second round pick), G Will Montgomery (7th round pick of the Panthers), WR Anthony Armstrong (UDFA, who didn’t get a shot to play until Shanahan came in), LB Brian Orakpo (1st round pick), CB Kevin Barnes (3rd round pick), CB DeAngelo Hall (cost-free pickup who was immediately paid like a top five CB), and some guy named Haynesworth (Unrestricted FA; Brinks truck). So yeah, in two years as GM, Vinny Cerrato acquired just seven players capable of making the 2010 roster, and guaranteed more than $55 million to two of them. But between the 2007 season and the 2010 season alone, the Redskins have still acquired more key UDFAs than other NFC East teams.
But the whaa? It’s the Cowboys who have dominated the NFC East in finding undrafted free agent talent (led, most notably, by Tony Romo and Miles Austin), and have done just as well as the Giants in finding talent to contibute in the late rounds. The knock on the Cowboys, who have typically made great roster construction decisions, is that the 2009 draft is now a completely lost year. Two players from that draft are still with the Cowboys: LB Victor Butler, and K David Buehler. That was the year of the Roy Williams trade with Detroit, and now that it’s 2011, its officially time to see who won that trade: the Cowboys and Lions figure to be direct competitors for the NFC Wild Card, and play each other early in the season.
Best undrafted free agents: WR Danny Amendola, TE Daniel Fells (expiring contract), DT Gary Gibson, S Craig Dahl, LB David Hawthorne
Best late round draft picks: WR Brandon Gibson (by Philadelphia), DT Clifton Ryan, LB David Vobora, RB Justin Forsett, WR Ben Obomanu*, G Mike Gibson (by Philadelphia), RB Tim Hightower, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, WR Steve Breaston, WR Andre Roberts, QB Troy Smith (by Baltimore), WR Josh Morgan, LB Parys Haralson*, CB Tarell Brown, S Dashon Goldson
Analysis: You can file WR Mike Williams under a cost-free pickup as well for the Seattle Seahawks, as both the Seahawks and the Rams fought each other with waiver pickups and the like for the 2010 NFC West crown, won by Pete Caroll’s experience over Steve Spagnuolo’s tactical expertise.
Meanwhile, you can see just as easily why the 49ers and Cardinals are struggling with such talent deficiency. Both teams are drafting pretty well, but both have almost no cost free contribution anywhere on their roster. And both teams are doing pretty well in the late rounds of the draft. Better possibly, than division winner Seattle. But cost free free agents are the engine of the NFL today, and San Francisco and Arizona trail well behind in finding good players and getting them to sign and excel in their systems. Not coincidentally, they also trail in the standings year after year.