The NFL and the Critical Importance of Undrafted Free Agents: Evidence from the AFC
As clear as it was last week that both late round picks and recent undrafted free agents form the core of contending NFC teams, such as the Packers, we’ll look at a couple of the dynasties that dominate the AFC and examine the role of the cost-free acquisition on building a consistent winner…and challenging the consistently dominant teams in the AFC.
Undrafted Free Agents: Evidence from the AFC
An asterisk denotes a player who is no longer cheap because he is on his second (or third) contract, but was acquired via the means discussed in this article.
Best undrafted players: WR Jason Hill (waivers from SF), FB Vonta Leach (expiring contract), G Mike Brisiel, S Bernard Pollard (waivers from KC), FB Ahmard Hall, DT Tony Brown*, C Jeff Saturday*, LB Gary Brackett*, CB Jacob Lacey
Best late round draft picks: QB David Garrard*, RB Rashad Jennings, TE Zach Miller, OL Uche Nwaneri*, DE Austen Lane, WR Kevin Walter* (signed as RFA from Cincinnati), TE Owen Daniels*, TE Joel Dreessen (by NYJ), CB Glover Quin, RB Javon Ringer, TE Bo Scaife* (expiring contract), C Eugene Amano*, G Leroy Harris, CB Cortland Finnegan*, CB Alterraun Verner, WR Austin Collie, WR Pierre Garcon, TE Jacob Tamme, OT Ryan Diem*, LB Clint Session, LB Kavell Conner, CB Justin Tryon (by Washington), S Antoine Bethea*
Analysis: The Jaguars are an excellent example of a team that hardly ever uses cost-free competition for its draft picks, as both the offense and the defense are littered with second and third rounders everywhere. Sometimes, the draft works well right from the first season (Maurice Jones-Drew), sometimes you get a huge return a few years down the road (David Garrard, Marcedes Lewis, Daryl Smith). Sometimes, you draft a really good player, but he signs a big contract and with no competition, he loses effectiveness entirely and is still in the starting lineup because “he’s all you’ve got” (Rashean Mathis). And then sometimes you draft a total bust (Reggie Nelson), and four years later you don’t have any starter at the position. If the Jags were better with UDFAs than they have been, they would have won multiple AFC South’s over the last few years, but their roster has always had an underachiever problem, even when it was young.
The Texans don’t have a lot to show for it, but there are elements of intelligent design in their offense. FB Vonta Leach was a cost-free pickup from Green Bay in the middle of the 2006 season, Gary Kubiak’s first year, and he’s served an entire contract length with the Texans.
The Colts are the opposite of the Jags: they find undrafted free agent contributors every season, and more than just that, they aren’t afraid to play them.
Overall the AFC South appears to be the one division that has had far more success in the late rounds of the NFL draft against undrafted free agent signings. But the Colts, who use both, often have the strongest and deepest roster of the entire group.
Best Undrafted Players: WR/KR Josh Cribbs*, TE Evan Moore, DE Matt Roth (waivers from Miami), LB Chris Gocong (S. Brown trade throw-in from Philadelphia), RB Cedric Benson* (cost-free UFA), RB Brian Leonard (contract swap w/St. Louis), WR Quan Cosby, G Nate Livings, C Kyle Cook, RB Isaac Redman, LB James Harrison*, DL Kelly Gregg* (signed to BAL practice squad in 2000), LB Jameel McClain
Best late round draft picks: RB Peyton Hillis (by Denver), FB Lawrence Vickers, DT Ahtyba Rubin, RB Bernard Scott, DT Domata Peko, OT Willie Colon, DE Aaron Smith*, DE Brett Keisel*, CB Ike Taylor* (contract expiring), FB Le’Ron McClain, OT Jared Gaither, LB Jarret Johnson*,
Analysis: One of the more loaded NFL divisions now that the Browns have decided to join the party. And there a significant undrafted flavor in this division, although not so much recently, so if you’re looking for the decline of the Steelers and Ravens soon, you can look at the inefficiency in the cost structure of their (still very loaded) respective rosters. Look at the Steelers for example. You have two pro bowl 3-4 ends who were developmental draft picks. They are now being paid like starters. Also being paid like starters are their future replacements, first round picks Ziggy Hood (2009) and Cam Heyward (2011). Casey Hampton is a nose tackle entering his mid-thirties on an expensive contract he signed in 2010. Longtime backup Chris Hoke is an unrestricted free agent, and highly undervalued. Then at the linebacker level, James Harrison is still elite, but in the middle of a mega deal. Lamarr Woodley has the franchise tag, and figures to sign a mega deal to offer Pittsburgh cap relief (whenever there is a cap again). Where does that leave Lawrence Timmons, an elite interior linebacker in the last year of his rookie contract? Pittsburgh will likely resign him too, but likely will have to release Aaron Smith to free up that salary. They got a discount on Ryan Clark (thanks, rest of the NFL), but can’t afford depth behind him and Polamalu. And Ike Taylor is probably walking because the Steelers feel can win without him. If you look at the cost structure of the Steelers, you can maybe see the business reason for dealing Santonio Holmes when they did: they couldn’t have afforded him anyway. That’s a terrible cost structure, and we just covered the defense. The Ravens aren’t a lot better, except that they haven’t tied 100 million up in a quarterback yet.
This is a good division for UDFAs, and no franchise is an obvious leader in terms of efficiency. The teams that have the most talent are also paying the most to keep their talent. That means the Browns and Bengals will have every chance to rise as the Steelers and Ravens age, but must continue to add talent to play a meaningful role in the future.
Best undrafted free agents: RB Fred Jackson, WR Davone Bess*, WR Brian Hartline, LB Cameron Wake, RB BenJarvus Green Ellis, RB Danny Woodhead, DE Mike Wright*, G Brandon Moore*, DE Mike DeVito
Best late round draft picks: WR Stevie Johnson, OT Demetrius Bell, DT Kyle Williams*, CB Terrence McGee*, NT Paul Soliai, S Yeremiah Bell*, TE Aaron Hernandez, C Dan Koppen*, LB Rob Ninkovich (by New Orleans), WR Jericho Cotchery*, WR Brad Smith (expired contract), G Matt Slauson
Analysis: Few teams have been able to extract more value out of undrafted free agents than have the Miami Dolphins, who built most of their receiving corps from college UDFAs, and went to the CFL to find Cameron Wake, one of the NFL’s most terrifying pass rushers. One of the teams that may have the Dolphins bested, unsurprisingly, is the New England Patriots if only because they can turn BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead into household names, and people are so generally unimpressed that the number one surprise about the Patriots’ undrafted free agent tactics is who they will find this year. The Pats have not been nearly as successful at receiver as they have been at running back in finding cost-free, winning options. As far as cost structure goes, it’s still the Dolphins world in the AFC East. Of course, that was before they brought Brandon Marshall on board. We will see where he takes them.
The Bills have little to speak of. Kyle Williams is on a team friendly deal: he earned his extension through 2012, and he’s due even more money from someone when that deal runs out. Fantasy owners know all about the Bills one undrafted contributor, RB Fred Jackson. His undrafted contributions are limited by the fact that he is almost 30 years old, and that the Bills have spent two first round picks on RBs since he’s been on the team. WR Stevie Johnson was a big time draft steal, but that’s all the Bills have done in the late rounds to date.
The Jets have always done a good job finding cheap players to plug their holes, although they have long preferred (even prior to Eric Mangini) the veteran free agent route to going with undrafted players and developing them.
Best undrafted free agents: G Brian Waters*, G Ryan Lilja (waivers from Indianapolis), DE Wallace Gilberry, LB Jovan Belcher, FB Marcell Reese, DT Tommy Kelly*, CB Chris Johnson*, RB Mike Tolbert, WR Malcolm Floyd (expiring contract), TE Antonio Gates*, G Kris Dielman*, NT Antonio Garay (waivers from Chicago), LB Antwaan Applewhite
Best late round draft picks: OT Barry Richardson, CB Brandon Carr, WR Louis Murphy, WR Jacoby Ford, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Trevor Scott, S Tyvon Branch, DE Elvis Dumerville*, CB Perrish Cox, RB Darren Sproles, FB Jacob Hester, NT Cam Thomas, DE Jacques Cesaire*, LB Shaun Phillips*
Analysis: Really, the only place in which Scott Pioli has outperformed the Patriots since he took over in Kansas City is in terms of undrafted free agents, on the backs of which the Chiefs have successfully rebuilt their defense. But if we’re giving credit to the Chiefs for rebuilding their defense on the cheap, what do you say about the Raiders, who have given Jason Campbell more weapons than he ever had in Washington and they spent: a 7th rounder in 2008, 4th rounder in 2009, a 4th rounder in 2010, and now in Denarius Moore works out, a 6th rounder in 2011. If only their mid round picks spent on protecting Campbell could work out as well. Both the Chiefs and Raiders are vastly outpacing the Denver Broncos in undrafted free agent contribution. In fact, Denver does not have an undrafted, cost-effective player who is in the starting lineup right now.
The San Diego Chargers are the gold standard for this exercise. No team in the last decade has done a better job finding talent from all sources, particularly those sources which do not cost the Chargers might to take a look see. Tolbert, Floyd, and Gates could start for nearly any team in the league, and have helped to keep the Chargers near the top of the league leaderboards. Kris Dielman has long been the leader on the Chargers OL. Did you know he too was undrafted? He was. What about young Antwaan Appelwhite? He was undrafted as well.
And the Chargers deserve credit for how they attack the late rounds of the NFL Draft as well. Jacques Cesaire has been a contributer on the DL of the Chargers since they’ve been playing a 3-4. Stephen Cooper, Brandon Siler, and Kevin Burnett make this LB corps a strength. And this team is still loaded with plenty of prospects.
The Chargers have had some difficult drafts since 2009. They haven’t gotten a lot of return on their picks in the first two rounds, notably LB Larry English, RB Ryan Mathews, and LB Donald Butler didn’t play last year. But this team is still a good pick, annually, to reach the super bowl, and it’s because of excellent roster construction on the cheap. No team has been better at building resource-free than the San Diego Chargers, a great bet to be the team of the 2010’s.