Hang on to what you got
Every NFL team espouses the theory that the best way to construct a football roster is be successful in the draft. The common phrase used by NFL executives is that drafted players are acquired at wholesale prices and free agents at retail. But it is more complicated than that. Initial contracts expire and players move from the wholesale bin to retail. Andrew Luck, for example, had a contract hit of about $6 million in 2014. That number is likely to at least triple when he signs his second contract.
This leaves a team in a position of deciding whether to pay up and try to retain its most talented draftees or move on to more economical players. Some teams (as you will see later in this article) have a strong predilection to retaining its draftees and molding them to fit their system. Other teams, though, are content to sign players from the free agent market rather than valuing continuity. This is not always their choice, though, as in some cases, a player just "wants out" for a variety of possible reasons. In this article, various aspects of player retention will be considered.
First, let us set the context. The composition of 2014 scrimmage plays is as follows:
• 53% of plays from scrimmage are from players who remain with the team that drafted them
- 9% were from rookies
- 28% were from players drafted in 2011-2013
- 16% were from players drafted before 2011
• 29% of all scrimmage plays are from drafted players who have moved on to another team
• 18% of all scrimmage plays were from undrafted free agents
This article focuses on players who have remained with the team that drafted them (the 53%). Information for this analysis was accumulated from the weekly NFL Game Books. The last page shows complete information by team
In 2014, the ability to retain players a team drafted led to success. As stated above, 53% of all 2014 scrimmage plays came from players still with the team that drafted them. The highest and lowest five teams by percentage were:
Sixteen teams were above the average of 53% and 16 were below. The top 16 teams registered 144 regular season wins in 2014 (nine wins per team), with both Super Bowl participants in the top half. The bottom 16 teams registered 111 wins, or seven wins per team. The presence of the Colts and the Broncos in the bottom five show, though, that it is also possible for a team to achieve success by bringing in veteran free agents.
The group of players still playing for the team that drafted them can be further split between (1) those that are still in their first contract and (2) those that have “re-upped” and are still playing for the team that drafted them under their second or later contract. In this analysis it is assumed that all players drafted in 2011 or after are in their first contract. This may not be 100% true but it is close enough for the purposes of this analysis.
Several factors influence whether a player signs a second contract with a team:
• Whether a team wants to retain that player
• Whether a player fits under the salary cap
• Whether a player wants to return due to either economic or other reasons.
43% of 2014 scrimmage plays were from players drafted before 2011. This can be divided into two groups of players - - 27% were from players who are no longer with the team that drafted them and 16% were from players who remained with their original team.
For the accountants in the audience, the difference between the 27% cited above and the 29% mentioned earlier in the article represents players who changed team during their initial contract term.
The highest and lowest percentages for scrimmage plays by players retained after the their first contract are as follow:
In this case there are 13 teams above the league average of 16% and 19 teams below the average. These thirteen teams accounted for 125 wins in 2014 or an average of 9.6 wins per team. The bottom 19 notched 130 wins or an average of 6.8 wins per team (despite having the Broncos, Seahawks and Colts among them). The two top teams (Packers and Steelers) have historically been committed to retaining their own players and that is reflected in these numbers.
Is there any difference by playing position? Yes, there is, as indicated in the table below. The same 16% average applies and the higher the percentage, the more likely a player at that position is to stay with the team that drafted him. The following table indicates that defensive backs are least likely to stay with the team that drafted them (whether it be their decision or the team’s) and that tight ends and quarterbacks are most likely stay with their original team. The percentages are relatively close, though, and there is no significant conclusion to be drawn.
The final piece of the analysis was to look at the percentage of scrimmage plays by players in their first contract. On average, 37% of all scrimmage plays come from players in their initial contract. Exactly half the teams are higher than the average and account for 8.5 wins per team while teams in the bottom half average 7.5 wins per game.
The highest and lowest percentages are as follows:
This is the most difficult measure to interpret as it could either mean good drafting (whether quality or quantity) or failure to hang on to players drafted after their first contact. It is clearly the former with the Seahawks as their first contract players include Russell Wilson, Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, Richard Sherman, JR Sweezy and James Carpenter. The Jaguars, on the other hand, had over 20% of their scrimmage plays from 2014 draftees. This could be good news for the future or just mean that there are plenty of openings to be filled due to lack of talent. Time will tell.
So, in summary, how important is it that a team retains its most talented draftees? The data would indicate that it is pretty important. The next table summarizes the results from this analysis and indicates that teams who retain players after their first contract show the best results.
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