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Why NFL teams should sign free agents for need and draft for value

I’ll put my hand up. I’m guilty as anyone in my mock drafts — pigeonholing a lesser player into a certain pick because it fills a more-glaring need. It’s human nature to want to address the biggest problem areas right away. It’s also human nature to vastly overestimate the competency of that first-round pick your favorite team just drafted. 

That’s why I’m here to argue that if you have an obvious need, next week is the time to address it, not late April. The PFF grading is clear on this. Not nearly as many rookies hit the ground running as one might estimate — no matter the position and no matter the round.

Let’s dive into this a little deeper. 

[Editor's note: PFF's Sam Monson breaks down 10 free agent reclamation projects NFL teams should consider for 2020.]

First, let’s set a very low threshold of simply competent play and look at only the top of the draft. Most fans will throw a fit if you’re not filling the most glaring need on a roster in a mock draft, even if the player mocked actually fills another need. Below is a chart showing the percentage of players drafted in the first round over the past five years who meet the respective thresholds.

Note: Players who were injured and didn’t play a snap as a rookie were excluded from this analysis.

Position 300 snaps, 60+ grade 500 snaps, 70+ grade Qualifying Draftees
QB 68.8% 6.3% 16
RB 77.8% 33.3% 9
WR 60.0% 20.0% 15
TE 66.7% 0.0% 6
OT 53.8% 46.2% 13
IOL 66.7% 25.0% 12
DI 72.2% 22.2% 18
Edge 75.0% 20.8% 24
LB 54.5% 18.2% 11
CB 73.7% 36.8% 19
S 88.9% 33.3% 9

Unsurprisingly, quarterback showed a very steep learning curve in terms of quality play from rookies. On the flip side of things, offensive tackle has been very binary over the past five drafts. The ones that hit do so right out of the gate, while the others make it obvious they aren’t ready to pass protect in the league. Among all first-round picks over the past five seasons, only 25% met the quality play thresholds of 500-plus snaps and 70-plus overall grade. That’s about eight per draft and a figure that must be taken into account when making draft decisions based on need.

Now let’s expand it out to Day 2 as well. Any pick-value chart will start to flatten out greatly on Day 3 as the hit-rates toward the end border on random at best. Picks on Day 2 still are considered to offer a ton of value, so let’s explore exactly what that has translated to on the football field.

Position 300 snaps, 60+ grade 500 snaps, 70+ grade Qualifying Draftees
QB 14.3% 0.0% 11
RB 50.0% 15.4% 26
WR 53.3% 20.0% 45
TE 50.0% 10.0% 20
OT 32.0% 12.0% 25
IOL 51.7% 13.8% 29
DI 41.2% 11.8% 34
Edge 28.3% 2.2% 46
LB 39.3% 7.1% 28
CB 37.5% 6.3% 48
S 37.0% 22.2% 27

Running back was hampered here by the snap thresholds more so than any other position. Tight end had another rough showing as the odds of getting an impact starter at that position have been bleak over the past half-decade. Also, Day 2 is not the place you want to be addressing your edge-rushing needs. Markus Golden is the only player to be a productive Day 2 edge defender as a rookie (most edges on Day 2 fail to get a starting role and see at least 500 snaps). While the first round saw only a quarter of the players taken become quality starters, rounds two and three saw a mere 11.2% of their selections plate 500-plus snaps and earn a grade over 70.0.

The odds seem fairly clear. Hitting on a position of need in year one is akin to a crapshoot — even in the first round. From a roster-building standpoint, pigeonholing yourself into one position doesn’t give you a great chance of fixing said hole on the roster.

That’s why free agency exists. It’s important to remember that we should look at draft picks more like long-term investments rather than lottery tickets that will hit overnight.

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