There was a recent study conducted by ESPN that took a look at the NFL Drafts between the years 2011 and 2013 as a sample size to diagnose the extent to which teams retain the players that they draft. This is a non-arbitrary and significant window as it corresponds with the first class that came in outside of the old CBA as well as the most recent class to hit unrestricted free agency.
According to the study’s findings, just 129 of the 761 players drafted over that three-year period actually remain with their original teams, which works out to just 17 percent. While roster turnover year-to-year has always been significant, even prior to the free agency era, this does seem to be a notable increase.
The Bengals evidently have retained the highest number of their draft picks from that three-year range with 10 of them, though they did draft 28 players in those three years, working out to about a 36 percent retention rate.
Unsurprisingly, the Pittsburgh Steelers are among just eight teams in the league who retain at least six of their draft picks from that era, also joining the Eagles, the Texans, the Cowboys, the Falcons, the Rams, the Seahawks, and, of course, the Bengals.
As for the Steelers, they drafted 25 players over that span, but only retain exactly six players from those three drafts, which works out to 24 percent. They retain two of seven picks from 2011, yet just one from 2012. They still have three draft picks from the 2013 class.
Among those are 2011 second-round pick Marcus Gilbert and 2012 first-round draft pick David DeCastro, who of their five starting offensive lineman. 2011 first-round draft pick defensive end Cameron Heyward is the other player from 2011 in addition to Gilbert.
The 2013 class is still represented by second-round running back Le’Veon Bell, fourth-round quarterback Landry Jones, and sixth-round inside linebacker Vince Williams. Aside from Jones, the remaining five players are all anticipated to be in the starting lineup this year, with Williams the lone new introduction.
The article argues that the increased turnover stems in part from what they say “incentivized teams to pursue cheap labor and sign only a few key players to second contracts” after a rookie contract cap was implemented.
The contention is that it is no longer a viable strategy to ascertain the value of a draft class based on its longevity but rather on its short-term contributions because of the frequency with which rosters are turned over now.
I’m not sure that I agree with the conclusion, frankly. There has always been roster turnover, and it is not uncommon for a draft class five or more years down the line to retain just one or two members, when teams typically add anywhere from seven to 10 new players to the 53-man roster on a yearly basis.
The Steelers, for example, have eight draft picks and have already brought in four outside free agents. That is potentially 12 players that were not on the roster a year ago, and 12 spots that will be replaced.