The copious supply of ‘winners and losers’ articles that spring up post-draft are the inspiration behind this post. Far too often, far too many assumptions are expressed about the impact of a draft pick or UDFA. If you are riding this bus, buckle your seatbelt, place your hand on the seat in front of you, and brace, because the brakes are about to be pumped, liberally. Some basic points are about to be examined and hopefully, some perspective will be gained as we look at the coming season.
There are maybe a dozen spots up for competition. Almost all of those spots have incumbents like Watts at safety depth, Jefferson and Glasgow at linebacker, Ehlinger at QB2, Granson at TE, Patmon and Strachan at the wideouts. So, what’s this mean? There are probably 39 to 41 spots already decided on this roster, barring injuries at this point. The spots that are open are either filled with incumbents or have experienced guys brought in for the job, like Watts.
First, rookies tend to fall victim to strains and pains that include shoulders, knees, ankles, quads, hamstrings and my favorite, sports hernias. Consider OTAs and early training camp, forms of boot camp. If you survive and graduate from that, then you have to be ‘better’ than a veteran player, usually, just to get a roster spot. This is not a universal statement, but the later you are drafted, the less likely you are ‘better’ than that veteran player. If you are a UDFA, that window of opportunity shrinks more.
You can have all the physical prowess in the world, but there is still the learning curve. It is the exception to get meaningful time in the lineup for a rookie, not the rule, and certainly not when factoring in late round draft position or UDFA status. Early round picks generally are closer to starting, later rounds fill depth. There are exceptions, but that is the point, they are exceptions.
The counterpoint that balances this equation is injury. This is not a Paris Campbell drubbing piece, but he is the prime example. When a cog that is expected to be integral to the function goes down early, it opens the door for a guy drafted later, or even a UDFA. Dulin got a fair bit of experience because players were out. Pryor did as well. It happens. It is called depth. Safety was terrible depth-wise last year so picking up Cross is less of a threat to supplant someone than he is a very good insurance policy. Woods is a Doyle replacement, but that does not change the role Granson might play and this doesn’t impact Moe Cox, rather he might provide some overlap should MAC get injured. Raimann might compete for a tackle spot but it likely would turn more on whether Pryor stays healthy. You draft late to make sure you have more depth than a mud puddle.
If any of the late round guys make the team, it is a bonus. If these same guys contribute then it is an amazing bonus, and if UDFAs make it and contribute, well, that is an amazing, rare, bonus. There are exceptions here like Kickers, and Punters, and long snappers, special teams LBs, CBs, and safeties. So, in general if a guy can play special teams, he can contribute right away. That same player will likely not see the field on the first three downs unless there are catastrophic injuries ahead of him. It is rare that a late round receiver or running back establishes themselves initially in any role other than special teams, thus the impact on players ahead of them is minimal.
Unless they have been abysmal at their job, are injured, or have severely fallen out of favor with a coach, incumbents have an edge in the competition because of experience. Depth is a quality thing. You can have a lot of depth that never plays, and you can have rotational guys. The D-line is an example of where you may just be able to have an impact early on because rotation is king. In general, having experienced rotational depth is the prime desire . Rookies might get a taste but usually will have a better chance to make it on special teams. Odom and Dulin were good examples of this. Both of these guys rose from the ranks of early special teams contributions to eventually crack the rotational lineup.
I have to pump the brakes on my expectations. Last year I bought into the hype and thought Paye would tear it up. He held his own, respectable, average, but not fantastic. I was sure Granson would rise to the forefront, that Strachan would be an asset. The rookies contributed a little but were largely non-participants. Dayo participated, but that was the extent of it. Other guys I thought had opportunities never even made the team. This is common, year in, and year out.
UDFA gold is difficult to find. We might find some diamonds this year, but the reason they are UDFAs (largely), is because they are far more in the rough than the gems drafted, or the veterans signed, in front of them. Indianapolis has historically found one most every year on the UDFA pile. With the crazy draft class this year, there are opportunities. I’m going to go out on a limb and say, even if a guy makes the roster from the periphery late rounds or UDFA pick-ups, that guy is not going to play much more than special teams or bench warmer to begin with. UDFAs have to compete with the post-draft and post-camp veteran cut wave, increasingly making it difficult to keep that last roster spot. But, as always, I could be wrong…Here’s looking at you, Mr. Curtis Brooks. Keep that tree stump sized chip on your shoulder and let’s see what you can do. Hype or the exception? We will see.