What makes a good rookie class?
This is a question that is often answered in NFL circles. Not only is it likely that one would get many differing answers, the question itself may be framed in differing manners.
Here at Over The Cap, the manner that we of course focus on deals with the contractual and financial aspects of building an NFL. Thus, the Rookie Class Evaluation section will aim to provide more insight on how teams have been doing on bringing in new talent to the league.
Understanding the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement
When this CBA was agreed upon, it significantly changed the negotiation of rookie contracts. The key elements mandated by the CBA are as follows:
- It mandated that all pay was set on a strict scale, both in base salary and in signing bonus, that was structured in a way so that players on rookie contracts are among the lowest paid in the league.
- All drafted rookies must sign contracts of exactly four years (except for 1st round picks who also must agree to a fifth year option in their deals), and undrafted free agents (UDFAs) must sign contracts of exactly three years.
- Players and teams are not allowed to renegotiate rookie contracts until the last year of the deal. (For drafted players, this is after three years, and for UDFAs it is after two years.)
- Players may not enter Unrestricted Free Agency until after accruing four seasons in the NFL. Prior to that moment, players may have their market and pay restricted by either an Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender (effectively locking the player to his team at the veteran minimum), or a Restricted Free Agent tender at a pay higher than veteran minimum, but often below market value.
These rules of the CBA set up a goal for teams to gain high quantities of productive talent on cheaper rookie contracts, thus allowing each team to allocate more dollars toward securing the best players in the league on more expensive contracts. In order for this to work, teams need to be able to acquire the correct talent among players who are not yet vested veterans (players with four or more accrued seasons). Acquiring rookies is not the only method of doing so–finding street free agents with three or fewer accrued seasons also matters–but in April all attention is focused upon the NFL Draft, with a little less attention paid to UDFAs signed after the draft. OTC’s Rookie Class Evaluation is thus aimed at that attention.
Metric #1: Snap counts, and the Snap Index
Why is this important? Every team has to fill a large number of snaps for the 22 positions on the field at all times. The more of these snaps that can be filled by cheaper rookie contracts, the more cap dollars that can be allocated to superstar veterans.
How is this being measured? The first step starts with each individual player. The fractions of the snaps on his side (offense, defense, or special teams) that he played in his first four accrued seasons for the team that first acquired his services (either by drafting him or signing him as a UDFA) are summed together. This sum produces a Snap Index for the player, in a range with a minimum of 0 (no snaps contributed) and a maximum of 4 (100% of the snaps contributed each season). As an example, in Von Miller’s first four accrued seasons with the Broncos, his snap count percentages on defense were 79.8%, 89.9%, 47.8%, and 84.3%. The sum of .798, .899, .478, and .843 equals a Snap Index of 3.018.
The second step involves summing up the Snap Indices of all players acquired in the same rookie class (both drafted players and UDFAs) to create a Snap Index for the rookie class as a whole. This Snap Index can then be compared to other rookie classes to see which teams got the most out of the players they secured in the rookie acquisition process. A third step can also involve summing up the rookie class Snap Indices for an entire team or a specific GM or front office to get a broader look as to how that group is doing in this regard.
Note that snap counts are only added from years in which a player accrued a season. As an example, even though Josh Gordon played 22.1% of the offensive snaps for the Browns in 2014, because he failed to accrue a season that year due to multiple suspensions, those snaps are disregarded in this equation. This occurrence is most common with players that are briefly activated off the practice squad for a few games, but not enough to meet the minimum number of six games on the active roster that’s required to accrue a season.
Metric #2: Vested veteran contracts
Why is this important? As is generally known, the majority of NFL players fail to earn a vested veteran contract, defined as a contract that is earned after the four accrued seasons required to enter Unrestricted Free Agency. The more players a team was able to secure via the rookie acquisition that went on to earn vested veteran contracts, the more of an indication it is that the team did well in scouting the future of these players at that time.
The team also gets further advantages to developing such players. The most notable is the retention of an exclusive window of time to negotiate an extension. Even if the team is unable or unwilling to secure such an extension, it may also gain benefits by perceiving its player as being overpaid by another team, and it may also earn credit toward being awarded compensatory draft picks for the player signing elsewhere.
How is this measured? This one is rather simple: just sum up the number of players within one rookie class that went on to play at least some snaps on a non-rookie contract after accruing four seasons of play. Fifth year options exercised on 1st round picks do not count in this sum, as they are officially part of the rookie contract, and oftentimes they still have the effect of undervaluing the player’s talent despite the relatively significant raise in pay the option provides.
The model is quantitative, not qualitative
The measurement of snap counts and vested veteran contracts speaks nothing to the worth of those snaps or contracts. For one example, a below average starting offensive lineman that plays 100% of the snaps throughout his rookie contract will show a higher Snap Index than, say, an All-Pro edge rusher that only logs 75% of the snaps. For another example, history is rife with contracts of players after four seasons, either with their beginning team or elsewhere, that do not live up to the contract’s potential. Observers of these metrics are encouraged to complement them with reasonable subjective measures to deepen understanding of rookie classes.
Quantities of draft picks and roster availabilities for rookies may vary
It’s no secret that drafted players generally have a greater chance of having longer NFL careers than undrafted ones, and that players acquired with higher draft picks have the same greater chance. In any given year, teams may have fewer draft picks, particularly in the higher rounds, due to trades for veterans or draft picks for prior or future drafts. In these cases, of which observation should take into account, teams may have less of a realistic chance to ultimately post snap counts or vested veteran contracts that can match the mean or median.
A time span of at least four years is needed to fully evaluate a rookie class
While we may be able to see some trends from rookie classes created three or fewer years ago, it will take at least four seasons to gain a full understanding how a team did in acquiring those players when they were rookies. And in some cases, even more than four years are needed due to contract rules under the CBA.
The 2014 Broncos rookie class poses a great example of practicing patience. This class is posting a Snap Index that is already above average. But that Snap Index is expected to rise even further due to the facts that Matt Paradis (who has yet to miss a snap when on the active roster) and Shaquil Barrett (a key edge rusher alongside Miller and Shane Ray) spent their first season in the league on the practice squad. This means that, unlike most of the Class of 2014 whose first four accrued seasons align with 2014-2017, for Paradis and Barrett it will be 2015-2018. The end result will likely push Denver’s 2014 rookie class Snap Index even higher, and if/when Paradis, Barrett, and 2014 first pick Bradley Roby (on a fifth year option in 2018) get vested veteran contracts, that metric for Denver will also look better.
This Rookie Class Evaluation model should be considered one that evolves. It is encouraged for readers to find their own observations of what they see, and contribute thoughts as to whether any existing metrics can be reasonably improved, and whether additional metrics can be added to expand the insight further.