Undrafted Free Agent Analysis

Yesterday I broke down NFL rosters in a few different ways and one of the things that caught the eye of many people was the UDFA numbers. Nick in particular asked if we could drill that down a little further basically looking at whether or not “priority” UDFAs have a better success rate or not. A priority UDFA is one that receives a high level of guarantees (or at least that is how I define it) presumably because there is a great deal of competition for the player’s services.

To look at the success rates of these selections I went back and focused on the last two drafts (I only selected the last two because the guarantee levels have been higher in 2019 and 2020 than before so it was more relevant to the salary bins) and broke the UDFA signings up into groups based on their guarantee levels. Here is the breakdown of the percentage of players who have yet to be cut and remain on a UDFA contract with the team who signed them.

$1 to $10,0002.4%6.4%4.2%
$10,000 to $20,0009.5%4.0%6.7%
$20,000 to $40,00014.3%20.3%17.1%
$40,000 to $60,00017.9%5.9%11.3%
$60,000 to $80,00016.7%21.7%20.0%
$80,000 to $100,00023.1%25.0%24.2%

Now the columns don’t exactly tell the same story since 2019 is for players two years out versus just 1 year out for 2020 but I think it does tell us that teams do a pretty good job of identifying the better prospects, but it may be questionable whether or not they are making the best use of their resources. The hit rates on the sub $20K guarantee are very low. You can throw out the 2020 percentage here because the sample size was very small due to NFL teams not giving hundreds of players a look in camp due to the pandemic.  

Once you get above that number the hit rates improve but there does not seem to be a substantial difference between the $20,000+ prospect and the $60,000 prospect and certainly seems to be little between the $60,000 prospect and the $100,000 one.

Still this chart only tells us the players who were never exposed to waivers. Sometimes (often) the player ends up back on the active roster after being released. Here are the numbers for those on the team that signed them (does not include practice squad).

$1 to $10,0007.2%7.6%7.3%
$10,000 to $20,00012.2%5.3%8.7%
$20,000 to $40,00024.3%20.3%22.5%
$40,000 to $60,00028.6%5.9%16.1%
$60,000 to $80,00033.3%21.7%25.7%
$80,000 to $100,00023.1%25.0%24.2%

The numbers improve a little bit here but nothing significant enough to really justify the emphasis on the expensive undrafted as they have a lower hit rate than the lesser guaranteed 7th round picks.

Many teams will look at the guarantee as more of an investment in a practice squad player since the salary guarantee is offset by the players practice squad salary. Here is the breakdown of players on the 90 man as well as the practice squad roster.

$1 to $10,00013.9%34.3%23.1%
$10,000 to $20,00018.9%50.7%34.9%
$20,000 to $40,00027.1%62.7%43.4%
$40,000 to $60,00039.3%64.7%53.2%
$60,000 to $80,00050.0%60.9%57.1%
$80,000 to $100,00046.2%70.0%60.6%

These numbers are interesting because the percentages are so much higher for 2020 that I think its fair to say that the guarantee is a driver of having a spot on the roster in the first year with so many with a large guarantee getting some kind of roster spot. That falls by year 2 when teams are less invested in those same players to warrant a second practice squad contract. What if we include all player contracts for this year regardless of team?

$1 to $10,00021.5%34.9%27.6%
$10,000 to $20,00029.7%52.0%40.9%
$20,000 to $40,00047.1%66.1%55.8%
$40,000 to $60,00064.3%73.5%69.4%
$60,000 to $80,00050.0%60.9%57.1%
$80,000 to $100,00053.8%70.0%63.6%

You can see the jump here from 2019 as these players, especially the pricier ones, are still in the NFL- they just are getting looks from new teams who think they can get something out of the player.

Is too much emphasis placed on the UDFA craze? I’d say to some extent that is accurate. It would seem that the NFL does a good job in identifying the longest of long shots but has very mixed results with the players that they clearly have higher draft grades on and target with large guarantees. Id say teams could prioritize the undrafted free agents into three groups- the sub $20,000 category where bidding on the players is pointless and teams could do as well with low offers, the $20,000 to $60,000 category where you can bid on players but should probably stay on the low end, and the $60,000+ category where overbidding is probably a mistake.

Still this is splitting hairs as we are talking about numbers so low relative to the NFL contract that its probably worth the shot in the dark. While the hit rates are much lower than the 6th and 7th round draft picks I think the better argument is that those players should ask for more guarantees to reserve a practice squad spot, because for the most part that is all the big UDFA guarantee amounts in anyway- a chance on the practice squad.

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