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Success rate of finding a pass catcher is better in the NFL Draft than in free agency

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Going hard after Austin Hooper and Emmanuel Sanders shows Brian Gutekunst wants to add a veteran target for Aaron Rodgers, but despite fans’ calls, the odds say that player is more likely to come from the draft.

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Kansas v TCU
Jalen Reagor’s speed and playmaking fit perfectly with what the Packers need at the receiver position.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Maybe Brian Gutekunst wants to channel his inner Han Solo; never tell him the odds. The third offseason of the Green Bay Packers’ successor to Ted Thompson looks much more like his former boss, but last season revealed a willingness to spend big to improve the team. This approach pleased fans who worried about wasting the last seasons with the virtuoso talents of Aaron Rodgers. It was also an enormous risk, one that paid dividends for Green Bay, but rarely goes so swimmingly. Interest in Austin Hooper and Emmanuel Sanders this free agent cycle demonstrates Gutey’s appetite for risk, but when it comes to adding a pass catcher, it isn’t the prudent pathway despite what conventional wisdom says about adding “proven” players.

Free agency doesn’t offer that avenue. Playing in the NFL changes the evaluation stakes, but doesn’t change the need for evaluating. A player’s success or failures aren’t, on their own, proof of his quality. If it were, players who were good for one team would be good for another and we know that’s not true. Writers like Bill Barnwell have warned against the allure of No. 2 receivers from good offenses because they’re almost always overvalued, but the problem isn’t just with overvaluing receivers; most free agents fail.

At the NFL combine earlier this year, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said “any contract that’s been over $5 million the last 10 years has really had a success rate of about 40%.” Keim didn’t cite a specific data set, but teams do these kinds of studies all the time to identify trends and theoretically make better decisions. The recent free agent classes tell a story that matches what he’s saying.

In 2019, 10 receivers signed for $5 million or more AAV in free agency and only four posted a Pro Football Focus grade above 70. In 2018, there were 13 WRs who signed for $5 million AAV or more, and again a paltry four posted a PFF grade of 70 or higher. In fact, barely half (7) even fell inside the top-90 graded WRs that season. To put it more plainly, over the last two offseasons, receiver hit rates in free agency have been dreadful, even below the 40% Keim suggests for all free agents.

The idea of signing veterans because they’re “proven” is demonstrably foolish. Particularly in the case of receivers, the draft offers a more reliable path to success.

But the draft is a crapshoot right? Most draft picks fail and some of the most famous busts of the last decade came at receiver. All of these things are true and yet it’s still more likely a team finds a useful player in the draft than free agency.

Or not.

Timo Riske at Pro Football Focus studied the hit rate of various positions in the draft and found the odds of hitting a receiver in the 65th percentile, in other words a capable starter, were better than 50/50 if that player came in the first two rounds of the draft. And in the third round, the chances were right around 40%, which is roughly the hit rate of free agency with the key difference coming in cost. It’s much cheaper to draft a receiver than pay $5 million or more for an older player.

It doesn’t even require a first-round pick to be in position to have a better chance at a solid receiver. A team can wait until late on Day 2 and still have better odds at hitting on someone than if they sign someone. Taking a receiver in the second round goes well for a team more often than signing one in free agency. That means the Packers don’t even have to go receiver in Round 1 to feel like they’re ahead of the odds curve in terms of predicting success with that player.

Generally we think of needing three years to evaluate rookies, but look at just the 2019 receiver class, one that was supposedly not nearly as strong with prospects as this upcoming class:

  • Hollywood Brown
  • N’Keal Harry
  • Deebo Samuel
  • A.J. Brown
  • Mecole Hardman
  • J.J. Arcega-Whiteside
  • Parris Campbell
  • Andy Isabella
  • D.K. Metcalf

Even without having to wait, we can safely say at least half this class worked out with Samuel, Brown, and Metcalf all playing pivotal roles on playoff teams on offensive with Hardman earning a Pro Bowl bid as a returner. He also played a key role as a gadget player in the Super Bowl champs’ offense. And that’s all in Year 1, for all the critics who say “Oh, but they need time to develop.” Receivers comes to the NFL more ready than ever to contribute and we saw that in full effect last season.

There’s intuitive appeal in signing an Emmanuel Sanders, but a 33-year-old for $8 million a year compared to 22-year-old Brandon Aiyuk on a rookie salary is no contest as a risk proposition. The upside of Aiyuk far exceeds Sanders, the savings in cost is considerable, and the chance either is good, based on historical examples, also tilts in favor of the rookie. That’s not to say the Saints got a bad deal. We know these kinds of things can and do work. Rookies can fail too.

Coming out of free agency without a veteran free agent is not the same as saying they haven’t come out with a proven veteran because even guys who “proved” it elsewhere are far from guaranteed to prove it in Green Bay. This is partially a discourse problem with the way media, analysts, and fans talk about free agency. We all accept the draft as a lottery of sorts, but free agency is more like a rigged card game, one in favor of the players not the teams. It’s more likely than not that teams will fail. The draft provides the steadier option, particularly at receiver, and the best receiver class in years ideally positions the Packers to add multiple players more likely to help this offense moving forward.