For some reason, the Cleveland Browns have had trouble hitting on picks during the 7th round of the NFL Draf
Historically, the Cleveland Browns are famous for whiffing on their number one draft picks, but the seventh round hasn’t been that kind to them either. There may be an analytics-based reason for the seventh round difficulty, however.
It’s not necessarily just bad scouting. An argument is outlined below that undrafted free agents may be better than the seventh round in the draft for finding good players. Basically, the reason is that the team can audition several players in camp if they are undrafted free agents or veterans who have been cut. In the draft, the decision is made only on the basis of pre-draft scouting.
First, let us review the data. The table below shows every draft pick the Browns have made in the seventh round since 1999. Some years they have had two or three picks in the same year, but in other years they have had zero. The number of picks is due to trades. Offensive linemen Paul Zukauskas and Joaquin Gonzalez were the iron men of the group, sharing 32 starts between the two of them. Overall, the seventh round picks averaged only 2.43 starts among 14.57 games in their Browns careers.
Only a handful of seventh-round picks made significant contributions. The whiff rate is very high. If we use Alex Hall as the over-under for a seventh-round pick, there have been five guys who were NFL successes out of 23 candidates and 20 years. That’s a success rate of 25% or a whiff rate of 75%.
ANALYTICS OF THE SEVENTH ROUND PICK
Here is a question for someone like analytics expert Paul DePodesta: could it be that league-wide, a seventh-round pick actually makes the team weaker rather stronger? That sounds crazy until you realize seventh-round draft picks hardly ever get cut, and if they do get cut it results in a charge against the salary cap.
On the other hand, there are dozens of candidates competing for the last few spots on the roster. Each team brings in a large number of undrafted rookies plus near-minimum-scale veterans and selects only a few.
A case in point was the kicking competition between undrafted Cody Parkey and 7th round draft choice Zane Gonzales in 2017. Parkey missed zero kicks in pre-season, and Gonzales missed both a field goal and an extra point. So Gonzales got the job, of course. Parkey had a much better year in 2017 for the Dolphins on 21-of-23.
Let us explore the options for using the draft versus undrafted free agents in greater detail. Each NFL roster is set at 90 players with several others coming in and out during summer camp. As a guess, the team may have 50 or more players competing for just a few roster spots. Presumably, after summer camp, the team has a much better idea of how good these players actually are.
In the case of the 2018 Browns, the cast of undrafted rookies that made it to the 53-man roster included Desmond Harrison, Dontrell Hilliard (cut and brought back), Derrick Willies, and D’Juan Hines, and Greg Joseph (actually being cut by the Dolphins) among others. In addition, the Browns signed a few veterans with low salary cap impact, including Breshad Perriman, Phillip Gaines and Anthony Zettel. Greg Robinson could also be included in that group though his salary was $790,000. Between Robinson and Harrison, they account for 16 starts in 2018.
Players on the current roster who were picked up as undrafted rookies or near-bottom-payscale veterans and who have met the Alex Hall criterion (30 games) are Trevon Coley, Dan Vitale, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. In addition, there are several players who seem likely to eventually become established NFL players, hopefully, way beyond Alex Hall.
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Going back to the 2016 team, undrafted free agents or pickups included: RB Isaiah Crowell, WR Terrelle Pryor, TE Gary Barnidge, OL Austin Pasztor, LB Cam Johnson, DE Jamie Meder, FB Dan Vitale, and K Cody Parkey. Each of these players was valued much more highly than any Browns 7th round pick in the last 20 years.
In contrast, there are zero seventh-round picks on the current roster. Also, the Browns have drafted zero impact players from the seventh round in 20 seasons.
So there is a case to be made for not using the seventh round pick at all. It may be better to carry an open roster spot to camp because then there are dozens of players to choose from, and teams usually are not subject to a salary cap penalty if they cut an undrafted player. Thus they can keep signing and cutting players till they find one they like. It’s kind of like playing the field at the Kentucky Derby. One of the horses is going to beat the favorite, but not necessarily all of them. Most of the undrafted free agents simply disappear, never to be heard from again.
This does not excuse the Browns for getting very few good players from their seventh-round picks but does call into account the basic assumption that seventh-round picks are a good investment. It may, in fact, be a bad investment because undrafted players and pickups are a better source of talent than seventh-round draft picks.
It will be interesting to see what the Browns do in 2019. Perhaps they will following the same line of reasoning, that the seventh round is too close to the large pool of free agents, and you’re better off auditioning several free agents in camp rather than selecting a seventh-round player based only on pre-draft scouting. For what it’s worth, the Browns traded away their 2018 seventh round pick as part of the Jarvis Landry deal.