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Ryan Pace’s 2015 UDFA Class: Midterms

NFL: Washington at Chicago Bears
One player might explain undrafted free agency best
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The mothership SB Nation tells is that as of mid-June in 2015, 446 players were signed as undrafted free agents to NFL rosters. Some years, it can be higher (the same time in 2013 saw 622 UDFAs sign contracts with teams). As is the case in most years, the majority of the 2015 UDFA class did not stay on rosters. Per CBS Sports, about 1 in 6 UDFAs can expect to earn spots on the Week 1 rosters, and perhaps that many other such players find spots on teams’ practice squads. However, those numbers are averages. Some years, a single team might see just a handful of UDFAs crack the roster, whereas in other years (or on other teams), it might be double digits for a single UDFA class. It varies wildly.

Over time, one way or another, those undrafted free agents add up. In fact, depending on the year and the reporting, there are around 400 to 600 undrafted free agents on NFL 53-man rosters each year. Using the number 481 (from Elias) as of November of 2016, an average NFL team is carrying 15 UDFAs a year. A quick check of individual rosters confirms that while this average might be valid, the numbers fluctuate wildly here as well. Some teams might have single-digit active UDFAs on their rosters (the 2016 Falcons had 9), while others might have more than 20 (the 2016 Vikings had 22). With all of these fluctuations, it is very difficult to determine what is and is not a good crop of UDFAs, because unlike the draft (where there are precise limits on opportunity), the undrafted free agent market is wide open.

That openness gives struggling teams the chance to pull ahead. One or two more quality finds can be the equivalent of an extra draft pick. It’s important to note that a team doesn’t gain enough of a competitive advantage with a single hit, though, because as much as Bears fans might love Bryce Callahan, Seattle is enjoying Thomas Rawls from its own 2015 UDFA class. However, there’s also no harm in bringing in extra bodies to evaluate. Therefore, in evaluating Pace’s decisions with UDFAs, I’m not worried about players brought in who never came to anything. A “miss” does not have the same cost as a failed draft pick might. Instead, I’m looking at three factors: First, did Pace do enough to try to improve the roster for the state it was in? Second, did he find quality talent based on what was knowable? Third, what was the overall impact of his UDFA class?

2015 was the first period of undrafted free agency that Ryan Pace managed for the Chicago Bears. In June, the Bears were listed as having 19 UDFAs. That was the second-highest total in the NFL (the Chargers had 20); the average number was 15. However, “enough” can’t simply be a body count. Pace also brought in players at 12 different positions, including all three levels of defense, quarterback, kicker, wide receiver, and tight end. Not bad, but Pace had also just taken over a team that had missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, so he should be expected to try to turn over the roster.

Pace’s grade for using undrafted free agency to cycle the roster is a C+.

Second, did Pace find quality talent? Simply put, yes. Just to focus on his top finds:

Bryce Callahan was given a 5th or 6th-round grade but was considered to be a little too small, a little too weak (liable to be pushed around), and unable to provide enough help in run support. However, he was considered fine in coverage. How did it turn out? Callahan was fine in coverage, which is where the Bears used him, but he got banged up a bit and pushed around. For those familiar with Pro Football Reference’s “Career Approximate Value,” the average 5th-rounder in the 2015 draft is carrying a CAV of 3.2, whereas Callahan has earned a 4. In other words, with this single very rough measure, he’s more or less on-par with where he was projected to be at, only a little higher because (to be honest) the Bears’ roster was weak enough to need him. SInce Pace did not actually spent a fifth-round pick on him, this is a win.

John Timu was given a 7th-round grade or considered a possible UDFA candidate. There were concerns about his speed and ability to change direction, but he was considered to have good instincts and an ability to play the ball. As it turns out, most of that turned out to be true enough, in that he has shown some trouble with speed, but he’s managed to get a hand on a pass and to recover two fumbles, and he has found the ball eventually. He’s at about 3 tackles per game played, which is an okay rate. Interestingly, while he has seen limited playing time, nearly a quarter of his tackles in 2016 were for a loss, which makes him second-best on the Bears as far as percentages are concerned. His CAV is the same as Callahan’s.

Cameron Meredith barely had a draft profile. Playing for Illinois State, he was largely unheralded. A few people considered him as a 7th-round player largely as a result of his athleticism, but there were a lot of questions despite pro day numbers that were impressive. How has it turned out? In 2016, he was 39th in the NFL in terms of yards per reception (13.45) and 34th in the NFL in terms of receptions going for a first down (67%). To put that first number into context, every first-round receiver in the NFL with at least four games and ten receptions since 2009 has averaged 13.8 yards per reception. In fact, Meredith’s 63.4 yards per game for 2016 places him almost a full yard per game ahead of Michael Crabtree and about 6 yards per game ahead of the average first-round receiver from the last eight drafts. He carries a CAV of 7, whereas the average 3rd-rounder carries a CAV of 5.5.

Finally, look at Harold Jones-Quartey. HJQ is a particularly interesting case, as he was unable to make the Cardinals’ roster but found a home playing in 29 games and starting in 16 of them for the Bears. His draft profile projected him as a free agent and the kind of guy who should make a training camp. He was considered to have mediocre instincts and to have problems with tackling in space. He’s contributed an interception each year and has defended 7 passes. He was also the second-leading tackler on the Bears this season. He’s not going to the Pro Bowl, but he has been “pretty not bad” for the team. He carries a CAV of 6, or a bit above the utility found in a typical third-rounder so far from the 2015 draft.

I could go on, but in one offseason Pace found a full crop of undrafted free agents worth talking about. Pace’s grade for finding quality talent is a B+.

Finally, it’s time to consider the total impact of the free agent class on the Bears. On the one hand, this cannot be a very high grade because the 2015 and 2016 Bears won a total of 9 games. On the other hand, that isn’t all on undrafted free agency.

Going back to the simple metric of CAV, across four players Pace found greater utility than the average first-round pick in the 2015 draft. One player really helps to understand both the limits of this approach and the advantages. The case of Harold Jones-Quartey demonstrates why CAV numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, because this is a player who could not make the cut on the secondary of a better team who has instead become a reliable player for the Bears (who obviously have lower standards in their secondary). Thus, all we can really say from anything like an objective perspective is that Pace seems to have the ability to “multiply” his late-round picks. He and his staff have the ability to find role-players.

What Pace has not done, with the possible exception of Meredith, is locate a true diamond in the rough. This reinforces something Pace has said time and again regarding the draft itself, in that he wants to find playmakers. If he truly is confident in his ability to fill in a team outside of the draft (and 2015 seems to suggest he has reason to be confident), then it makes sense for him to move around in the draft in order to find his guys. If he spends a 6th-round pick to move up a couple of positions, then he hopes he can make that up by sorting through the UDFAs a little more carefully.

Considered in this light, his “swing for the fences” approach with White and Floyd makes more sense. Many fanbases facing top picks urge their GMs to “trade back” and to accumulate picks, because their rosters are so depleted that they need to fill too many holes. The the 2015 UDFA class for Ryan Pace suggests is that he possesses the ability to fill in those holes, at least a little, without the draft. Both in the first pass at undrafted free agents (finding guys like Meredith) and in the later stages (landing HJQ). No matter how it’s looked at, Pace essentially sorted through the debris of the draft to find at least four draft-quality players.

When the on-field results are a sub-30% winning record, I just don’t see an A as being an available grade, even if this seems unfair when comparing his work to that of his peers.

Therefore, the overall impact of Pace’s 2015 UDFA class is a B.

That makes Pace’s overall grade for undrafted free agency an 83%. That’s a B that is in danger of slipping to a B-. Perhaps more importantly, it also gives insight into what we might expect from how Pace uses undrafted free agency to provide opportunities in the draft. If this approach works out in the long run, his grades could (hopefully) be going up soon.

As usual, unless otherwise cited all stats come from Pro Football Reference.