The Dallas Cowboys have six picks in the last round of the 2014 NFL Draft, three of which are compensatory and cannot be traded (and are at the very tail end of things). In my previous post, I made the argument that these are very valuable picks to have, despite being so late in the proceedings. I based that on the fact that the Cowboys currently have three seventh-rounders and 18 undrafted free agents on their roster. That is a significant part of the team, and includes the starting quarterback, both starting offensive guards, and a starting safety, as well as specialists and some purely backup players.
My assertions led to some arguments that this was evidence of poor drafting more than anything else. Successful teams aren't built with a bunch of UDFAs and seventh-rounders, right?
Well, the ever vigilant One.Cool.Customer came up with some interesting information that he shared with me. And OCC also gave me permission to quote his research extensively. (I would like to note that, despite persistent rumors, OCC is not truly omniscient. For instance, he is as baffled by the existence of the Kardashians as the rest of us.)
The first bit of information he has already dropped into the comments thread on my first take on this. The following was written after the Conference Championships in January - and before the massacre that took place in the Super Bowl.
It is probably not the optimum way to assemble an NFL roster. But if you're looking for a reason why the Seattle Seahawks are arguably the toughest collection of SOBs in the league, consider this: Of the 53 players on the roster for Sunday's conference championship game victory, 21 originally entered the NFL as undrafted free agents.
That's a lot of players who came into the league hungry, desperate and motivated to prove themselves.
And, judging from the way the Seahawks play the game, they've pretty much stayed that way.
The NFL is a league of trends and fads. Whenever one team makes it to the promised land, a lot of teams that have not been as successful of late will look at everything the latest winner did and see what they can copy or steal. You can bet many front offices around the league are quite aware of the high number of former UDFAs that are waiting for those Super Bowl rings to be delivered.
Of course, in this case, Dallas has no interest in following a trend. They are more or less one of the leaders of it. In 2013, Dallas had a total of 22 UDFAs who were active for at least one game during the season. Seven were active for all 16, and six more were active for 11 games or more.
This is the kind of player that seventh-round picks, particularly the three compensatory ones Dallas has, can be used to secure. Instead of having to bid for their services against other teams, the Cowboys just turn their names in at the end of the draft and let them know when to report.
Also, OCC kindly provided me some other stats on UDFAs and seventh-round picks for the entire NFL. First, on seventh-rounders, he looked at a ten-year period, since the numbers there are quite a bit smaller than for UDFAs (as we shall see later). There were 471 players picked in the seventh round, including compensatory picks, from 2001 through 2010.
- 213 ended up starting at least one game in the NFL (45%)
- 120 had at least one season as the primary starter for their team (25%)
- 8 made the Pro Bowl (2%)
- 2 made All Pro (0.4%)
That second number is the one that surprised me. A quarter of seventh-round players taken during that period wound up as true NFL starters. That one in four chance at getting someone to handle a starting spot is plenty of reason not to treat those as throwaway picks - and with six, Dallas would have a very high likelihood of finding at least one starter out of the last round this year.
For UDFAs, there are enough that the single season numbers become significant. OCC took a look at the league last year, and I'll just quote him directly on what he found.
NFL teams carried a total of 703 UDFAs on their roster at some point in the season last year (there is some double counting in these numbers as this number is not adjusted for players who changed teams during the season). The number of drafted players on 2013 rosters: 1,384. That makes roughly every third player in the league a UDFA.
However, those numbers contain a lot of roster bodies, players on IR etc. If we look only at players who played in at least one NFL game, we have 521 UDFAs and 1,223 drafted players.
That's an average of about 16 UDFA players per team who played in at least one NFL game in 2013. Here's the breakdown by team:
Team UDFA* Team UDFA* Team UDFA* TB 25 CAR 18 SD 14 CLE 24 IND 18 WAS 14 GB 24 MIA 17 ATL 13 OAK 24 PIT 17 BAL 13 DAL 22 SF 17 MIN 13 SEA 21 ARI 15 KC 12 JAC 20 BUF 15 PHI 12 NO 20 CIN 14 TEN 12 HOU 19 DEN 14 CHI 8 NE 19 DET 14 STL 19 NYG 14 * played in at least one game in 2013
His breakout by team shows that leaning on UDFAs is not a surefire strategy to build a team, but it is a viable one. The Seahawks, Saints, Patriots, Panthers and 49ers all had more than the league average on their roster. Actually, the only real outlier is the Bears. UDFAs are just a fact of life in building almost all NFL rosters, with all but one team getting over 20% of their roster that way. Using the figures for players who actually got into a game last season, 30% of the league was former UDFAs. Having a high number is not a sign of bad drafting or poor cap management. It is just utilizing available resources. Simply put, you almost cannot have a 53-man NFL roster without a sizable dose of players who did not get their name called in Radio City Music Hall.
I will once again mention that the Cowboys have done well with finding UDFA talent (although that may not be as rare a thing in the NFL as I had previously assumed). All those seventh-round picks are just ways to demonstrate that skill and try to find some gems in the bottom of the draft. Even if the Cowboys should try to use the original three to trade up or get a future pick, they will still have three shots at finding some hungry players to lock up as the draft winds down.
This year, Cowboys fans will be watching the draft with interest, almost to the very last minute.