Roster Turnover in the NFL

Every year when we start making projections for teams we often make  or wind up in discussions about the future prospects of a team. More often than not these discussions focus on how a team did in the prior season, how many expensive players are on the team, and how many good recent draft picks are on the roster. I’ve always thought these are kind of foolish since the NFL is so volatile year by year so I wanted to test out a few concepts about the long term prospects of any current roster in the NFL.

The first thing I wanted to look at was simply year by year roster churn. What I did was go back to 2013 and look at every teams roster at the end of the season and then see if that player was on the team the following season and/or the season after that. Here is how the numbers worked out on a league wide basis.

Period20132014201520162017201820192020Avg.
One Year59.7%53.4%59.4%56.2%53.4%54.7%58.7%55.3%56.4%
Two Years37.1%34.7%35.7%33.3%32.9%36.2%36.0%35.1%

To say NFL rosters are unstable is certainly an understatement. On average only 56% of players return from one year to the next and two years out it is just around 35%. Here are the numbers when calculated on a team by team basis.

Year20132014201520162017201820192020Avg.
Avg. Retention59.9%53.6%59.6%56.6%53.7%54.9%59.0%55.5%56.6%
Max Retention68.8%69.8%79.3%71.2%75.0%68.3%69.8%69.8%71.5%
Min. Retention36.1%39.2%41.8%30.6%23.7%34.3%43.2%28.6%34.7%
Quartile 156.1%48.6%54.1%51.5%47.6%50.0%55.3%52.4%51.9%
Quartile 261.8%53.4%59.4%58.1%56.9%55.6%60.0%56.0%57.7%
Quartile 364.7%58.7%64.3%62.1%59.6%61.8%66.3%59.9%62.2%

So about a quarter of the teams will hold over 62% and usually one team a year is around 70%. Maybe with some of those teams there is some validity to the blind reliance on the current roster when looking toward the future. Two years out though?

Year2013201420152016201720182019Avg.
Avg. Retention37.1%34.9%35.9%33.5%33.2%36.2%36.2%35.3%
Max Retention52.3%51.5%53.4%49.2%51.7%50.8%52.4%51.6%
Min. Retention20.7%21.1%17.9%14.1%11.8%15.9%16.7%16.9%
Quartile 131.2%29.9%31.5%29.0%26.6%30.5%30.4%29.9%
Quartile 235.5%34.5%36.2%35.6%34.1%38.7%37.0%35.9%
Quartile 342.8%39.1%40.7%38.0%42.1%42.0%42.6%41.1%

Our top teams here barely average 50% retention of players. A quarter of the league is under 30%.

The next thing I wanted to look at was the drivers of roster churn. I categorized the changes in a roster to be based on either salary considerations, front office decisions, or performance. The basis for salary inclusion is any contract that averaged at least $5M a year on a new team. A front office decision would be moving on from a sub $5M a year player who lands on another team. Performance is the category of players who simply do not find a NFL home once they are cut or their contract expires.

20132014201520162017201820192020Avg.
Salary2.1%2.4%2.1%3.1%3.7%4.1%3.9%3.9%3.1%
Decision17.4%15.9%14.6%16.6%17.4%17.5%14.6%17.6%16.4%
Performance20.8%28.4%23.9%24.1%25.6%23.7%22.8%23.3%24.1%

The performance numbers here are certainly high with about a quarter of a roster not having a NFL job the following season unless it was on a practice squad or for a short stint during the year. About 16% are lower salaried players who move teams and only 3% are really lost because they are “too expensive”. You can extrapolate the numbers for the 2nd year if you want but generally speaking about 7% of player losses come from contract concerns, around 35% decisions made by the staff, and the rest of the time it is because the player no longer has the ability to contribute in the NFL. The low salary numbers should also give caution to any player being sold to “take one for the team”. Teams rarely lose stars because of cost. They lose them because they are no longer playing at a star level.

Finally I wanted to look at roster stability of expensive players, often considered the “backbone” of the team. These are the most proven players in the NFL, but how do their futures work out?  Here is a look at all players who average over $5 million a year and what their status was the next season (a pay cut means that their next contract no longer averages at least $5 million not just that the salary was reduced).

Year20132014201520162017201820192020Avg.
Paycut15.1%11.1%11.4%10.6%8.9%10.8%13.4%16.9%12.3%
Out7.8%7.1%10.0%10.0%9.8%10.8%10.8%9.0%9.4%
Total22.9%18.3%21.4%20.6%18.7%21.6%24.1%25.9%21.7%

About 12% of the players who are expensive talents will wind up on a lower contract the following season while about 9% are cut and are out of the NFL. That means about a fifth of the “top” talents are not living up the expectations of the contract. The real numbers are more than that but teams are more limited with options for expensive players due to contractual guarantees, dead money on the cap, etc…

Here is how the expensive players fare over a two year period.

Year2013201420152016201720182019Avg.
Pay cut19.6%21.0%23.8%22.6%24.6%24.5%23.4%22.8%
Out17.6%16.7%16.0%12.6%12.5%17.5%21.8%16.4%
Total37.1%37.7%39.9%35.2%37.1%42.0%45.1%39.2%

Again, it becomes very difficult to rely on today’s performance of the most expensive players in the game when nearly 40% of them are seeing their salaries drop they wind up out of the NFL.

That doesn’t mean that trying to project the future is worthless it’s just that the way we often frame the discussions is way off. There is little to gain from taking the high level view at today’s roster and projecting anything in the future unless the team in question has the Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers type QB on the roster who is going to consistently drive success as long as they are healthy.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @Jason_OTC