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Why Seahawks shouldn’t forego free agency for comp picks

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NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, during the NFL free agency period following the 2017 season, many fans of the Seattle Seahawks were upset that the team signed role players that offset the comp picks the team would have otherwise been awarded for the departure of several key players. The team had failed to qualify for the playoffs, as a Blair Walsh miss in the season finale against the Arizona Cardinals left the team at 9-7 and outside of the playoffs for the only time during the Russell Wilson era. That season led to the team overhauling the coaching staff, with Darrell Bevell, Tom Cable and Kris Richard all being shown the door, and Brian Schottenheimer, Mike Solari and Ken Norton brought in to replace them.

New coordinators weren’t the only changes, as free agency saw several players both arrive and depart. Those players who left via free agency included:

  • Jimmy Graham,
  • Paul Richardson,
  • Sheldon Richardson and
  • Luke Willson,

While those added were:

  • Barkevious Mingo,
  • Jaron Brown,
  • D.J. Fluker,
  • Ed Dickson and
  • Shamar Stephen.

The fact that the number of free agents signed that offseason exceeded the number of free agents lost led directly to the team not being awarded any comp picks in the 2020 draft. That led to an uproar from fans who were disappointed in the team’s actions, as some would have preferred to have skipped adding role players in order to retain the upside of draft picks. With that in mind, let’s take a very rough look at the type of return comp picks can reasonably be expected to generate and compare it to what the Seahawks actually got out of the players they signed.

Now, that said, the tool we’ll be using for this analysis is AV. AV is far, far from perfect. It’s a machete when you need a scalpel and it’s a machete when you need a combine. That said, it’s a tool which does provide some sort of utility in the evaluation of players across multiple positions and seasons, so it’s what I’ll be using today.

The first thing I’m going to do is to take a look at the expected outcomes of using the comp picks that the team could have been awarded to draft players. The four players who left and might have qualified for a comp pick and the round of corresponding pick are as follows:

  • Graham: 3rd or 4th round pick
  • Paul Richardson: 4th round pick
  • Sheldon Richardson: 5th round pick
  • Willson: 7th round pick

Now, just as a note, the Willson departure would not likely have generated a pick because the salary for which he signed with the Detroit Lions was low enough that the three other picks would have pushed it below the 32nd ranked salary in the calculation. That said, I’m going to include it in the computation here simply because it’s a seventh round pick and those, frankly, aren’t worth a whole lot.

For each of the comp picks, I’m simply going to maximize the expected return by using using the absolute highest pick corresponding to the round in question. So, for Graham I’ll use the expected value of the highest 3rd round comp pick from the 2019 NFL Draft, for Richardson the highest value of the first 5th round pick and so on. With that methodology laid out, here are the expected five year returns of the comp picks that might have been awarded following the departure of each of these players:

  • Graham: 7.1
  • Richardson: 3.4
  • Richardson: 2.3
  • Willson: 0.1
  • Total: 12.9

For comparison, here is the AV generated by the players the Seahawks signed that cancelled out those possible comp picks:

  • Mingo: 7
  • Brown: 4
  • Dickson: 1
  • Stephen: 6
  • Total: 18

Now, it’s important to note that not only did the players signed outperform the expected return as calculated by AV of the comp picks, they did so in just two years of performance. In contrast, the 12.9 total points of AV are what is expected out of those draft picks over five years. That means if Jaron Brown or Ed Dickson somehow manage to stay with the Hawks and generate more AV, the return will continue to increase.

In addition, that comparison does not even begin to take into consideration the ten points of AV that D.J. Fluker has generated in his two seasons in Seattle. With Fluker under contract for 2020, and with questions surrounding multiple members of the offensive line, it seems like a safe bet that Fluker will be back and maintain his starting role in 2020. That is of note because it will not take much, roughly eight games a starter, for Fluker to generate three points of AV and to have individually surpassed the expected value of all four of the comp picks the team could have received himself.

This may seem preposterous, but it’s not. It’s simply a function of the fact that the hit rate for players outside of the first two rounds of the draft are very low. Fans, of course, fall in love with all the Day 3 Darlings their team drafts each spring, but in reality the majority of these players never amount to much. Many may not believe this, given the successes of many favorite Seattle late round picks from earlier last decade, but let’s take a look at the real numbers starting with the most optimistic returns.

Now, just for clarification purposes, that chart is looking at the absolute number of third round draft picks from 1976 through 2006 and the AV they generated during their careers. It’s not hard to see that a very large number of third round picks generated less than five, or even ten, points of AV for their entire careers. In contrast, as noted above, Fluker has generated ten points of AV over the past two seasons, and is likely to generate more this coming year.

Of the 943 players drafted in the third round between 1976 and 2006, Fluker’s 10 points of AV is more than 449 of the listed players. That means that just during his two seasons in Seattle Fluker has been more valuable than around 47.6% of all third round draft picks taken over a period of three decades. Simply adding five more points of AV, the average of what he’s generated over the past two seasons, puts him at AV of 15 for the Seahawks, which is higher than 57.6% of all third round picks drafted in the sample period.

And the numbers only get uglier from there. For the fourth round.

Things do not get any prettier as we get deeper into Day 3.

Scared to look at the sixth round yet?

And this next table really pictures how unlikely the successes of seventh round picks like J.R. Sweezy (Career AV of 50), Chris Carson (Career AV of 22) and David Moore (Career AV of 7) have been.

This is not to say that all teams should dive right in to free agency and ignore comp picks. If a quality team has the majority of its starters under contract and set to return in 2020, then that team is better suited to pick and choose who to pursue, and if it is able to address its needs while not impacting comp picks, that’s fantastic. For a team like the Seahawks who could be looking for three new starters on the offensive line, and multiple new starters in the front seven on defense, then the potential return from comp picks are likely to be far less important than adding experienced offensive linemen or pass rush in free agency.

Certainly, if the Hawks can address their needs through players who won’t figure into comp pick calculations, such as they did with Greg Olsen, that’s preferable. However, if there’s better value to be found in signing an experienced pass rusher such as Everson Griffen or an over-30 offensive lineman like Kelvin Beachum or Bryan Bulaga who can potentially contribute for multiple years, then skipping the comp picks may be the value play according to the numbers.