What’s better for an NFL Draft prospect?
Being a seventh-round draft pick? Or signing a rookie free-agent deal?
Don’t answer too quickly, now.
In Dallas Cowboys country alone, it’s too easy to rattle off some truly great NFL talent that went unnoticed on draft day, but then exceeded all expectations on the way to NFL glory.
Heck, you only have to roam to the outskirts of Cowboys country to include Texas-ex Priest Holmes in 1997 or North Texas-ex Brian Waters three years later in 2000, or even Wes Welker, the pride of Texas Tech, in 2004’s draft class, as guys who turned a draft-day snub into a long and memorable NFL career.
Those are the highly cited exceptions to the rule, though, and being drafted in the seventh would likely have had little to no effect on their success in the league.
But they did have more to prove and a higher likelihood of being cut early in their career than their counterparts on whom teams did spend a draft pick, NFL Draft analysts say.
“Imagine, from a front office perspective, if a really tough decision comes down to keeping either a seventh-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent for the 53-man roster, they have more invested in the guy they spent a draft pick on,” said Dane Brugler, an NFL Draft analyst for CBS Sports. “They may be more likely there to stick with the guy they drafted.”
Every year, around 75 undrafted free agents make NFL rosters, said Gil Brandt, a senior analyst for NFL.com. That’s more opportunities than the 32 slots in the seventh round of the draft.
With the scarcity of guaranteed money in those undrafted free agent contracts, however, they are in danger of being cast aside, seemingly on a whim, for the entire life of their first NFL contract.
Most of the time, the only guaranteed money an undrafted free agent will see during that first contract is their signing bonus, which Brugler said is commonly in a range from $3,000-$15,000, but on rare occasions will approach $100,000.
After that, undrafted free agents have to make do with “per diem expenses” during training camp while they fight their way either onto the roster, onto the practice squad or, for many, onto a different career.
In 2016, the rookie minimum for any first-year player who made a 53-man roster was $450,000. Seventh-rounders are more likely than undrafted free agents to get a little more than that minimum in contract negotiations, and the seventh-rounder’s signing bonus money comes from a different bucket in the team’s payroll than “undrafted rookie reservation” money, which was $92,021 in 2016.
That makes the likelihood of negotiating a higher signing bonus greater for a seventh-round draft pick.
At the same time, the Cowboys signed undrafted free agent offensive lineman La’el Collins to an unprecedented, fully guaranteed three-year, $1,599,500 deal, along with a $21,000 signing bonus cherry on top.
The Cowboys only offered that contract, which is closer to a sixth-round deal, because they were getting a first-round talent in Collins after a tragic set of circumstances surrounding the death of a former girlfriend clouded his status and left him undrafted.
It was ultimately determined that Collins had nothing to do with the former girlfriend’s death. The situation left him undrafted, but highly sought-after and free to choose his own destination. He is like the unicorn of the undrafted free agent world.
Romo’s path as an undrafted free agent illustrates some of the other delicacies of the process. He was in a position to negotiate with multiple teams and find the best situation for him.
In his case, though, he didn’t take the offer that included the biggest bonus.
“He could have been one of those guys who squeezed a $20,000 bonus out of a team,” Brandt said of Romo. “But he took $10,000 from Dallas because he thought he had a better chance to make the team and ultimately get on the field.”
And $120 million-plus later in career earnings, the difference between $10,000 and $20,000 looks pretty small, which points to one advantage some undrafted free agents have over some seventh-round draftees.
If the undrafted free agent has more than one team bidding for his services, he can choose, as Romo did, the team that gives him the biggest chance to find the field, become indispensable and perhaps then even earn a second contract.
So in the short term, within a rookie’s first contract, it’s better to be a seventh-round selection. The likelihood is that you’ll get a slightly higher contract, a slightly higher signing bonus, and have a slightly higher chance of making the 53-man roster than an undrafted free agent.
Since the lifespan of an NFL player is shorter than four years, it is often right to end the argument there. But there will always be exceptions to that rule.
So many exceptions, in fact, that Brandt, a former vice president of personnel for the Cowboys, says the difference between the two is fractional.
“It seems like, these days, it’s six of one, a half dozen of the other,” Brandt said. “But if I’m a player, I’d rather say that ‘I was drafted’ than not.”
“There’s an argument to be made both ways, but being taken with a draft pick is a badge of honor.”
Matthew Martinez: 817-390-7667; @MCTinez817
82nd NFL Draft
Thursday through April 29
Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Selections: Round 1, 7 p.m. Thursday; Rounds 2-3, 6 p.m. Friday; and Rounds 4-7, 11 a.m. April 29
TV: ESPN/ESPN2 and NFL Network
1. Cleveland Browns
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. Chicago Bears
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. Tennessee Titans (from Los Angeles Rams)
6. New York Jets
7. Los Angeles Chargers
8. Carolina Panthers
9. Cincinnati Bengals
10. Buffalo Bills
11. New Orleans Saints
12. Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia Eagles)
13. Arizona Cardinals
14. Philadelphia Eagles (from Minnesota Vikings)
15. Indianapolis Colts
16. Baltimore Ravens
17. Washington Redskins
18. Tennessee Titans
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
20. Denver Broncos
21. Detroit Lions
22. Miami Dolphins
23 New York Giants
24. Oakland Raiders
25. Houston Texans
26. Seattle Seahawks
27. Kansas City Chiefs
28. Dallas Cowboys
29. Green Bay Packers
30. Pittsburgh Steelers
31. Atlanta Falcons
32. New Orleans Saints (from New England Patriots)