The first step for every NFL team in the offseason is to assess their own roster. Where are their strengths? Where are their holes? What is their cap situation? After they have a firm grasp on their current roster, the next step is free agency. That starts with identifying their own critical free agents. Once those players are re-signed, they look toward other free agents. This is done with an eye on the draft. A team should not sign a high-priced player if there are several possible starting options at that position in the first few rounds of the draft. Once the first wave of free agency has passed, teams can focus almost exclusively on the draft.
The draft is more of an art than a science. While every team is excited this week about their first-round talent, the historical odds point to the reality that only 50% of those players will be future impact NFL starters. After the first three rounds, players are being drafted based on traits that could lead them to becoming difference makers, but they are certainly not expected to step in as day 1 starters.
As for assessment of the roster, do you draft to fill holes or do you take impact players who somehow fell to you (see Ceedee Lamb and the Cowboys in 2020)? Also, what do you do if you expect four players to be there in the second round and they’re all gone? That might leave you in a place where you need to overpay a free agent on a one-year deal to fill that need.
The graphic below shows each team’s five top needs going into the draft as well as how those needs were addressed — with an potential starter, a rotational player, an expected backup, or no player drafted at that need.
Some interesting takeaways:
- The average team drafted (at positions of need):
- 1.2 Potential Starters
- 0.6 Potential Rotational Players
- 1.7 Backup Players
- 1.5 Positions of Need Undrafted
- Only three teams drafted at least one player at each positional need:
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Los Angeles Chargers
- New England Patriots
- Seven teams used their first-round pick on a player who was not at a top 5 need:
- Arizona Cardinals – Zaven Collins, LB (16)
- Atlanta Falcons – Kyle Pitts, TE (4)
- Dallas Cowboys – Micah Parsons, LB (12)
- Detroit Lions – Penei Sewell, OT (7)
- Green Bay Packers – Eric Stokes, CB (29)
- New Orleans Saints – Payton Turner, DE (28)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Joe Tryon, DE (32)
Every team goes into the draft with a plan and a strategy, but several things can happen to get off script: Players start going earlier than expected, other teams make a worthy trade offer, a supremely talented player you didn’t expect to fall to you is available. No one can fault the Falcons for taking the best tight end prospect most evaluators have seen in a decade, but at the same time the needs on their defense are still there and may now need to be addressed in free agency. For teams who are in similar boats, they can either aggressively attack the remaining free-agent market or wait until camp and hope a player they like becomes available.