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Broncos are good at finding value that other teams miss

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With eight starters who were undrafted out of college, the Denver Broncos are in mostly uncharted water.

NFL: OCT 27 Broncos at Colts Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every coin has two sides (some strange ones have three). So let’s start with the negative side to get it out of the way quickly. The fact that the Denver Broncos now have eight players who are starting that were undrafted out of college is a pretty big indictment to the ability of our front office to draft starting-caliber players and to sign free agents who will be able to stay on the field.

If Bryce Callahan or De’Vante Bausby had been able to play we would have another UDCFA starter on defense - meaning more than half of our starting defense would be UDFA’s.

So Denver has three on offense and five on defense who went undrafted out of college. The Broncos also have a seventh round pick (Shelby Harris) and two sixth round picks (Brandon Allen and Andy Janovich) starting.

Here’s the context. This is not normal. I looked at the starters for every team going back to 2011, defining starter as a player who starts in 8 or more games, and found only one other instance of a team with 8 starters in a given year who were UDFA’s, the 2013 Raiders.

Here are the 2013 UDFA starters from the Raiders

  • FB Marcel Reece
  • WR Rod Streater
  • TE Jeron Mastrud
  • RG Mike Brisiel
  • LG Lucas Nix
  • DE Jason Hunter (remember him?)
  • MLB Nick Roach
  • SS Brandian Ross

It’s interesting to note that most of these players were out of the league by 2015 if not sooner. Roach never started another NFL game after 2013. Hunter and Brisiel retired after 2013. Only Reece and Streater got any playing time after the 2013 season. Hopefully the same fate does not befall our eight guys.

Here is the table with the data for the whole league going back to 2011.

2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011
ARI 3 1 4 3 2 3 2 3 2
ATL 0 3 2 3 2 4 1 0 2
BAL 5 4 6 2 2 1 2 3 2
BUF 3 1 3 1 1 2 2 3 5
CAR 3 5 4 4 3 4 6 2 1
CHI 3 2 2 7 2 0 0 2 2
CIN 4 1 3 3 2 4 4 2 3
CLE 2 4 3 3 6 6 2 0 2
DAL 2 3 3 2 2 4 5 4 4
DEN 8 5 6 3 2 2 5 3 1
DET 5 5 2 2 3 3 2 1 0
GNB 1 4 1 2 1 2 6 4 3
HOU 3 2 3 3 2 3 2 1 2
IND 4 3 5 3 4 4 1 3 5
JAX 5 6 7 4 3 2 3 2 0
KAN 3 2 3 2 5 3 2 4 3
LAC 4 1 5 4 3 2 1 4 3
LAR 1 2 0 2 2 5 4 7 5
MIA 3 3 2 2 3 2 4 2 2
MIN 4 2 5 4 3 1 2 2 4
NOR 1 1 3 4 5 2 6 3 4
NWE 2 1 3 4 2 2 4 6 6
NYG 2 3 5 4 2 4 4 3 1
NYJ 1 5 5 1 2 5 3 5 5
OAK 3 0 1 2 2 4 8 4 2
PHI 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 2 2
PIT 3 3 3 2 4 2 3 2 2
SEA 3 2 2 6 5 4 4 2 3
SFO 2 4 2 1 7 4 2 1 0
TAM 3 5 3 4 4 4 2 2 2
TEN 2 4 3 3 3 3 2 2 2
WAS 2 0 1 3 3 3 4 3 2

Let us also note that some of our UDFA’s were not discovered/developed initially by the Broncos. Mike Purcell was originally signed and developed by the 49ers. Todd Davis was originally signed by the Saints - although Denver developed him (he had five total defensive snaps for the Saints). Shelby Harris (who was drafted, but in the 7th round) was drafted by the Raiders (with the 235th pick).

Ronald Leary was originally signed by the Cowboys; they developed him. That being said, six of the UDFA’s starting for Denver should be “credited” to Denver for their discovery and/or their development. You could make the argument that Oakland developed Shelby Harris, as he did appear in eight games for them over the course of two seasons, but you would be making a losing argument. Shelby Harris has developed into an above average DE during his time in Denver. The Raiders should not get credit for his development.

This brings up another topic of debate: Does the GM get credit for finding these overlooked players? There are those who don’t think that UDFA discovery should be credited to the GM.

Historically the Broncos have been pretty good at finding starters in the “discard pile” that is the UDFA pool. Our 35 UDFA starters from 2011-2019 is the most in the league. The sum of the DEN row in the table is 35, but remember that Chris Harris counts for each each year; so we have not had 35 individual players who were UDFAs and were starters for us from 2011-2019. For comparison the Falcons have had only 17 UDFA starters in this time-frame.

So this could be seen as a great job by our area scouts, a terrible job drafting by our front office (mostly John Elway) or a combination of the two. Whoever is responsible for finding these UDFA’s and extracting the value from them needs to be given a pay raise because the Broncos are the best team in the league at doing this and have been for quite some time.

The area scouts deserve some credit for the sheer amount of UDFA’s the Broncos’ find.

Why do the Broncos have eight UDFA starters?

There are multiple reasons and not all apply to every one of the eight. Mike Purcell is now starting because Shelby Harris is not a two-gap NT and will never be one in the NFL. The era of the 290 lb two-gap NT ended about 30 years ago in the NFL. Purcell essentially replaced Adam Gotsis, who was a second round draft pick, but allowed Harris to move over to DE, where he is an asset instead of a liability.

Another reason is that the Broncos have been loathe to resign players after their rookie contracts are up. Looking at the 2012-2015 drafts, the Broncos resigned two of the 29 players they drafted in those four drafts (7%). Those two are Derek Wolfe and Jeff Heuerman. This is also not normal in the league. The 7% drafted player resign rate is one of the lower ones in the league over this time frame, but two teams had zero resigned draftees (the Giants and the Bills), so Denver is the not the worst.

Team Number of total picks 2012-2015 Still on NFL active roster in 2019 or on IR % still active 2012-2015 active draft picks resigned by team % resigned
Falcons 30 12 40% 8 27%
Panthers 23 12 52% 6 26%
Vikings 39 15 38% 9 23%
Eagles 30 14 47% 6 20%
Steelers 35 10 29% 6 17%
Rams 37 15 41% 6 16%
Chiefs 31 17 55% 5 16%
Cowboys 31 12 39% 5 16%
Buccaneers 26 10 38% 4 15%
Patriots 34 16 47% 5 15%
Bengals 37 11 30% 5 14%
Chargers 24 5 21% 3 13%
Saints 25 10 40% 3 12%
Bears 26 9 35% 3 12%
Seahawks 38 13 34% 4 11%
Colts 30 6 20% 3 10%
Jaguars 31 10 32% 3 10%
Lions 32 13 41% 3 9%
Dolphins 33 11 33% 3 9%
Jets 33 7 21% 3 9%
Re. Potatoes 34 13 38% 3 9%
Texans 34 13 38% 3 9%
Broncos 29 11 38% 2 7%
Cardinals 30 16 53% 2 7%
Browns 34 9 26% 2 6%
Packers 36 10 28% 2 6%
Ravens 36 15 42% 2 6%
49ers 40 13 33% 2 5%
Titans 30 5 17% 1 3%
Raiders 34 12 35% 1 3%
Bills 30 13 43% 0 0%
Giants 27 9 33% 0 0%

It’s a fairly damning indictment of the Broncos drafts that only 11 of the 29 players drafted by Denver 2012-2015 were still on an active NFL roster in 2019, but that 38% still active rate is about average for the league. The Titans were the worst with 17% while the Chiefs were the best at 55%.

So the Broncos have not been getting significant contributions from many draftees 2011-2019. The list of busts from the first through third rounds is pretty scary, even for Halloween.

Garett Bolles, Carlos Henderson, Brendan Langley, Paxton Lynch, Adam Gotsis, Shane Ray, Ty Sambrailo, Cody Latimer, Michael Schofield, Sylvester Williams, Montee Ball and Kayvon Webster.

Also Ronnie Hillman, Brock Osweiler and Isaac Yiadom could be (some would argue should be) included in that depending on how you define a “bust”.

That’s a whole bunch of wasted day one and two draft picks, many of whom never contributed anything even when they were forced to play because of draft status. When you have that much failure in the early rounds your team is going to be forced to rely on “discard pile” players and later round draft picks.

Sometimes discovering/developing an UDFA into a starter is combination of bad luck (injury to the guy in front of him) and “good luck” (opportunity seized by UDFA). Take the case of Malik Reed who is only getting to showcase his skills because of the injury to Bradley Chubb, or look back two seasons when Shaq Barrett got a chance to start (and shine) because of the injury to Shane Ray. Those are the great outcomes, but they are not the norm. The norm, when a drafted player or a high-price free agent goes down for the season with injury and is replaced by a UDFA, is for that replacement starter to be a weak link. An example of this is Elijah Wilkinson. He is a very limited (below average) offensive tackle in the NFL. He would not be starting if we had a better option at tackle (neither would Bolles). Our offensive tackle situation could (and will) be a topic for a whole other article.

Other times that “luck” is born out of ineffective play from the drafted starter. Josey Jewell was expected to be the other starting ILB this season beside Todd Davis. Alexander Johnson has played extremely well in the place of Jewell to the point where Jewell has lost his starting job even though he is fully healthy. Jewell played one defensive snap in the victory over the Browns after playing every defensive snap in the losses to the Faiders and the Packers.

Poll

What is the main reason why we have a historic number of undrafted college free agent starters right now?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Poor early round drafting 2012-2015
    (329 votes)
  • 5%
    Injuries to starters
    (42 votes)
  • 6%
    Luck
    (53 votes)
  • 12%
    Excellent positional coaches (player development)
    (103 votes)
  • 11%
    John Elway doesn’t know what he is doing
    (92 votes)
  • 22%
    Excellent area scouts
    (177 votes)
796 votes total Vote Now