Undrafted Free Agents. The dream of fans and football executives alike is that a team finds an undrafted free agent “diamond in the rough,” and that this player succeeds and prospers. Because there is not a cap, necessarily, on undrafted free agency, it seems like each player can be a free lottery ticket.
However, even educated fans often have an unrealistic appreciation of what the UDFA market looks like. They know their own team’s players, and maybe a couple of standouts, but they don’t necessarily know how many players actually make rosters after signing as UDFAs. The answer is “a lot.” As I have mentioned before, at any given time there are 400-600 UDFAs in the NFL, and that means that each team carries around 15 UDFAs (with some wild variation, as in 2016 the low was 9 and the high was 22).
Quick side note: Trey Smith wrote a really interesting senior thesis on the survivability of UDFAs in the league using a ten-year range from 2008-2017. This data also suggests an average rate of around 13-15 undrafted free agents per team, but he goes into much greater depth by position and looks at which teams had an advantage in retention rates. The Bears saw an uncommonly high rate of players exiting, but given that this sample includes a time of upheaval when the Bears saw three different GMs, it’s probably unfair to draw any conclusions.
The only way to grade a GM in finding UDFAs is to compare him to his peers. A quick glance at the roster for the 2018 Bears reveals that of the top 30 players (by AV), only one was an undrafted free agent (Bryce Callahan). Ben Braunecker, Kevin Toliver, and Taquan Mizzell are the only other undrafted free agents found by Ryan Pace to record at least a single start last season. The prior year’s best UDFAs are actually not Pace discoveries (Mitch Unrein was uncovered by the 2011 Broncos and Christian Jones was a Phil Emery holdover). Instead, Bryce Callahan is again Pace’s banner carrier, wit Roy Robertson-Harris, John Timu, and Ben Braunecker leading the way. Other starters include Tanner Gentry and Cre’von LeBlanc.
How does Pace compare to his peers? Well, a quick tour around the NFC North suggests that he’s not the top of the class, but he’s also not a slouch. The 2018 Vikings’ roster featured Adam Thielen and Anthony Harris, and they also got 8 starts out of tackle Rashod Hill, while the rotational play they got out of Holton Hill was nothing to sneeze at. However, the 2018 Packers really only enjoyed “free” quality from Lane Taylor and Tyler Lancaster, because although Tramon Williams was an undrafted free agent for Green Bay, he left only to come back after a considerable absence. Geronimo Allison has been promising in fits and starts, but all he has really proven is that he can sometimes be a good wide receiver with Aaron Rodgers throwing to him; that is not a rare talent. Meanwhile, Detroit has Pro Bowl center Don Muhlbach to hang their UDFA hat on, and while he was quite a find, he was picked up in 2004 back when Matt Millen was the GM of the Lions!
Don Muhlbach and John Timu are actually the keys to understanding undrafted free agency. Yes, each team has a large number of UDFAs. However, most of those UDFAs are either the rare precious finds who stick for a long time or else they are bit role-players. Additionally, there are a number of Undrafted Free Agents, like Mitch Unrein, who stick around in the league and fill in roster spaces, but they are not steals because they are on second and third contracts and are hired like any other free agents. Yes, there are Adam Thielens and Anthony Harrises to be found, but they are extraordinarily rare. Still, every team gets hits in undrafted free agency, so it’s unreasonable to pretend that every starter or contributor is an A.
Therefore, any evaluation of a GM’s ability to find undrafted free agents has to include two components. First, in any given year did the roster carry 3 or more undrafted free agents the GM found to fill the available needs? Second, did the GM properly manage UDFA talent? This includes a GM’s ability to judge which talent needed to be retained and which talent could be allowed to slip away, but it also deals with where the GM placed emphasis in finding the right pieces. This is a fairly flat scale, but sorting through undrafted free agency really is pass/fail in a lot of ways.
In 2015, the Bears went 6-10 and frankly needed help up and down the roster. There was a lot of potential for UDFAs to make an impact. Still, the highest-rated UDFAs found by Ryan Pace in 2015 (at least per AV) were Jonathan Anderson and Harold Jones-Quartey. John Timu and Bryce Callahan were also on the roster at that point, as was Khari Lee. Lee is an interesting case because he was an undrafted free agent that the Bears actually gave up a draft pick to acquire, only to waive him a year later. Cameron Meredith played in 12% of offensive snaps but had very little impact.
If you’re a fan of Ryan Pace, and if you really want to make a case for him having a solid UDFA class in 2015, all you have to do is look at Callahan. Pro Football Reference gives him a Career Average Value of 12; only 7 drafted DBs from the 2015 class beat that, and Pace didn’t even spend a pick to take him. However, Anderson and HJQ had more impact right away. Ultimately, Pace found five UDFAs to play a role, and three of those stuck around on the roster.
So, when it comes to filling positions of need (defensive back, linebacker, and wide receiver), Pace did a solid job. None of them played exceptionally well, but he got bodies--and back then, that’s what the Bears needed. Call this a solid B+. Then there’s the ability to identify and hang on to talent while managing resources. Trading for a UDFA who washed out was a bad move, but he retained solid players and let go of pieces who were not really missed. This is C-level UDFA management, marred by that weird trade.
This nets Pace a B- for his management of UDFAs in 2015.
In Pace’s second year, his UDFA strategy hit its stride. Cameron Meredith and Harold-Jones Quartey combined for 30 games and 22 starts, with HJQ breaking up five passes and Meredith turning in nearly 900 receiving yards. New find Cre’von LeBlanc broke up 10 passes and had a defensive touchdown, while John Timu did an adequate job as a role-player filling in on a situational basis on defense. In short, this was a solid group, and it filled in at places the Bears needed help. Nobody set the world on fire (there were no Thielens or Harrises), but this is good work, worthy of a solid B+.
However, Pace deserves at least some criticism for his misses as well as his hits. With the departure of Robbie Gould, the Bears desperately needed a kicker, and Connor Barth was not the answer. It might be too much to ask that he snagged Ka’imi Fairbairn (who was a UDFA that year), but it’s not too much to ask that he actually get an upgrade on the 28th-best kicker in the NFL that year. Otherwise, though, his management strategy seemed sound. Call this another B, mostly because there were talented legs out there and I am not the only fan disgruntled over the continued state of the kicking game in Chicago, and most kickers are undrafted free agents.
Pace deserves a high B for his management of UDFAs in 2016.
Things slowed down in 2017, and in some ways that’s a good thing. Because the roster was generally stronger, there was less opportunity for UDFAs to play themselves into position. However, Callahan continued to play well, and newcomer Roy Robertson-Harris provided some positional depth. However, after that it’s slim pickings. Rookie Tanner Gentry contributed 35 yards that would have gone to someone else, and the Bears probably didn’t need the two tackles offered by Isaiah Irving. Rashaad Coward is still waiting to arrive, Taquan Mizzell shows that where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. The new talent infusion was not spectacular. This is a C, trending toward a C- but saved from that level of criticism because it’s worth pointing out that injury kept Cam Meredith off the field, and he certainly would have contributed something to the cause.
However, the other aspects of roster management are worth noting. Pace still didn’t address the kicker position. Despite his general good fortune at finding UDFA defensive backs, he still needed to go out and invest heavily in the position by signing Demps, Amukamara, and Cooper. If Callahan, HJQ, and LeBlanc were his biggest hits to date, and they were, then the fact that they were not good enough to save the team money when it mattered is worth noting. This is basically D+-level work. Pace did not meaningfully add to the talent pool, he got in the way of his own good fortune, and he did not fix a glaring need.
Overall, handling UDFAs in 2017 was Pace’s weakest season to date, and it’s a C-.
Pace found his stride again in 2018, and he did so in a number of ways. First, he continued to get a lot of value out of Callahan and Robertson-Harris. Second, Kevin Toliver and Isaiah Irving were able to step up as role-players when needed. Bringing in new talent let him keep his number of contributors in a solid range. This is another B-level group. There were no Pro Bowlers or world-changers, but some of that is that Callahan plays nickel, and the position is undervalued when it comes to formal recognition.
However, what Pace really deserves credit for here are the moves he didn’t worry about making. He let Cameron Meredith go, and that turns out to have been a perfectly acceptable decision. At this point, dinging him for the kicker situation, again, seems unreasonable. I mean, that would be like hitting the goalposts twice with one kick and then doinking it in a playoff game. It would be pyloning it on. Sorry. I’m done now. To be fair, Pace did, at least, try to cycle through the position. The fact remains that he let his talent sort itself out, and that talent largely did so in ways positive for the Bears. This is B work. He did what he had to do and did it well, but he did not reshape the roster using UDFAs, nor did he really maximize the efficiency available to him.
Pace’s UDFA management in 2018 is worth a B.
Taken overall, Ryan Pace’s ability to find, manage, and retain talent in undrafted free agency comes in at around an 80% to an 82% (that’s a B-). He did well early on but then tapered off, in part because it became harder for UDFAs to have their impact felt on a generally improved roster. However, he continued a trend of investing both UDFA spots and big money in the same positions while leaving other areas under-improved. This means that instead of using the ‘free’ lottery tickets to their best advantage, he left a few gaps.