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NFL Draftees and UDFA’s, Bust or Boom?

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What are the chances your favorite diamond in the rough makes an impact?

UDFA De’Veon Smith at Orange Bowl
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Can you feel that? The buzz, the excitement in the air? Hope springing eternal? No, I am not talking about my first article as a contributing author to the Phinsider, though it is a great honor. I am talking about the 90 man roster. Draftees flying in from all over the country and UDFA’s cracking open the playbook before the ink has dried on their contracts. Fans are scouring the internet trying to get a glimpse of the choices their NFL team has made. Many are picking out that one late round gem or undrafted player they are sure will defy the odds and contribute to the team. I could sit here and espouse the value of my favorite pick up, but I won’t. Because I am probably wrong, and most likely so are you.

As someone else I know would say, I am not about to put too much sugar on these cookies. I know what many are likely to say, “But Hollywood player x is special for all these reasons”... No, they probably aren’t. The odds are not in your favor, the force is not with you, and much like Darth Vader showing up out of hyperspace to chase down Princess Leia, I am here to wreck your day. Ok, well maybe not your whole day, but you catch my drift.

Yes, there is Cameron Wake, and Brent Grimes, and Arian Foster all of whom went undrafted and all of whom have spent time with the Miami Dolphins as part of a good-great careers. They are part of an anomaly, two standard deviations from the mean (in statistics talk), they are not the rule. There is a reason that of all the 310 Hall of Fame players, only 15 have been undrafted free agents; that’s only 4.8%. There will always be some players that get overlooked in the draft and end up going on to have a decent career. But when you calculate the sheer volume of players that fit into the undrafted category, the odds are only slightly better than winning the lottery.

Last season there were 5 UDFA rookies that made a meaningful impact for their team. In no particular order they were, Robert Kelly (WAS), Andrew Adams (NYG), Brian Poole (ATL), Briean Boddy-Calhoun (CLE), and Michael Pierce (BAL). From my research this seems to be the high side of average for any given year. And this doesn’t mean any of these players will have sustained success, just that they made significant contributions. However, consider this, each team signs 10-15 of these guys each offseason.

Let’s take the average at 12, I’m rounding down, and multiply that by the number of teams in the NFL. I come out with roughly 384 players. That is more than are drafted each season. So with 384 players and only 5 making a significant impact, the odds of finding one are 1: 77 or about a 1.3%. So, when I tell you that the one guy you have pegged isn’t that guy, I can say so with 98.7% accuracy.

I have an idea of what you’re thinking; ‘Ok, those are UDFA’s what about the low round picks’? Honestly, they don’t fare much better. A few years ago Pro-Football-Focus came out with statistics about draft metrics measuring “busts”. Now, they give two different metrics for a “bust” the first is a player who becomes a rotational piece and adds little value to the overall team besides depth. The following is a scatter plot of those types of bust by pick number.

Pro Football Focus

Round 6 usually starts somewhere around pick 160, so using that as a guide, we can see that roughly 20-30% of these 6-7th round players eventually become at the very least a rotational player. Although, with 70-80% bust rates, as a betting man, I would say the odds are stacked against the idea. They’re probably going to bust, not make the team and wind up bouncing around practice squads until they are out of the league. Now, let’s move on to the second category of “busts”.

This second category of “busts” are players that start for roughly a season and play in roughly 40 games throughout their career. That’s not a great career. But, hey, they started at some point right? These are the ones that give you some hope but they never end up quite getting to average starter. They are your below average starters that wash out fairly quickly. Here is another visual to help explain this bust rate based on drafted position.

Pro Football Focus

For those late round picks we are talking about that percentage number jumps quite a bit, from 70-80% on the rotational type player to 80-90% for meager starter who washes out sometime during their rookie contract. Only 10-20% of the 6-7th round draftees will ever achieve this meager level of success. I said it from the beginning, the odds are not in your favor if you have hopes for one specific guy.

Yet, I found one more metric for success in my research that I care to share with all of you. DraftMetrics had done a statistical study on players retained by the team that selected them in order to prove a theory about good teams being better at finding talent in the later rounds. Their hypothesis ended in utter failure as they found no correlation between the two. However, for my purposes, the information proved useful.

DraftMetrics

The first line here is the percentage of NFL draft picks, over a four year window, that were retained by the team that drafted them. The second line is the percentage of all of the players who were awarded a second contract, by their own team or another team. If we look at rounds 6-7 we can see that of all the players that received a second contract, only 6.2% of them were drafted in the 6th round and 5.9% of them were drafted in the 7th round. Meaning, of all the players retained in the NFL who did not “bust” while on their rookie contracts only 12.1% of them were 6-7th round draft choices.

So as we look forward to OTA’s, Minicamp and Training Camp keep this in mind. Overall, the chances of Miami having a guy from the low rounds or UDFA’s come in and make an impact, let a alone a sustained impact, are slim to none in most cases. We can hope, we can analyze, but most likely, we are all going to be wrong. These are the players that define the words “Camp Body”. The fill up 90 man rosters and fight for their careers. The vast majority will never make it however, and putting any emphasis on one over the other is likely to lead to disappointment. I’m not trying to bring you down. I am simply trying to temper some great expectations.