Using Free Agency and Draft Benefits to Aide in Roster Construction

I was working a bit on some things dealing with roster construction and one of the things I wanted to touch on was the type of strategy that teams should utilize when building a team. In general there are two prime movers of talent in the NFL- the draft and free agency. Free agency requires salary cap space and a big budget while draft picks require the draft capital to have the chance to draft top players. But I think too often we lose sight of the fact that free agency should impact the draft and the draft should also impact free agency.

When we draft a player we are not just drafting a player- we are drafting a salary cap benefit that goes toward improving the rest of our team. Likewise the availability of talent in free agency should give us more direction in helping decide what positions we should or should not be drafting. The following graph might help illustrate this a bit further.

The X axis is the difference between the average annual salary of the 16th draft pick and the 10th highest paid player at the position. This illustrates how much we gain in our salary cap bucket if we hit in the draft, money which in turn can go toward free agent acquisitions. The Y axis shows the percentage of players who currently rank in the top 20 by salary who were initially acquired in free agency (for example a player like Kirk Cousins would still be considered a free agent acquisition even though he is now on an extension).

The benefit of drafting the QB can not be understated at all. A team gains in the ballpark of $25 million in value with a rookie. That’s like landing two additional top picks in the draft where you can use that money to essentially buy a top corner and linebacker, which are positions that have high availability in free agency. Edge, wide receiver, left tackle, and the interior defensive line are the other positions that provide the most benefit.

Cornerback is one of the most interesting positions. It is a pretty big cap benefit but also a position that has a high level of turnover in free agency. Guard I wouldn’t have considered to be a position with slightly lower than average turnover as I usually think if them as widely available but they are close to league average. Running back is similar but I expected that only because running backs cycle out of the league so quickly.

The top left quadrant are the positions that bring a team limited cap benefits and are at positions where you can find players in free agency.

Can we make this actionable?  While this is an early work through I think you can. One thought is that for free agency we should make sure we are proactive with our signings in spite of who we think is available in the draft. There really is no harm in signing a player and then drafting at the same position except in rare instances. For teams at the top of the draft who have a good idea who they should be taking they should be using those cap savings from day 1 in order to get the four year max value out of the contracts and going into free agency early rather than waiting a year the way some do.

As for the draft I would propose that teams change their grading to take this into account. I would only consider this for the first three rounds of the draft as that has the highest likelihood of drafting stars and it should be adjusted based on positional success per round but if we look at the benefits over average we get something like the following.

Position10th Highest ContractSalary Cap BenefitCap Benefit over AverageTop 20 Signed in Free AgencyFree Agent BenefitAvg. Adjustment

This indicates that the top positions to draft are quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver, edge, and interior defensive line. The least valuable would be right end, running back, and right tackle. Using the average of the two we come up with rough adjustment that should be given to a grade when drafting a player which can help adjust the draft strategy for positional value and long term impact on a teams finances.