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Bill Polian on weighing WR: free agency vs. draft

Posted Mar 11, 2013

In a league that continues to lean more and more to the passing game, wide receiver is one of the priority positions to be addressed by a lot of NFL clubs this offseason. The issue is whether to address it in free agency or the NFL draft.

It’s become one of the headline positions of the offseason. In a league that continues to lean more and more to the passing game, wide receiver is one of the priority positions to be addressed by a lot of NFL clubs this offseason. The issue is whether to address it in free agency or the NFL draft.

The free agent market has its share of recognizable names and proven veteran talent. Knowing the NFL draft lacks elite talent at the top it could push teams to make the financial commitment to a player with a resume of NFL production.

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ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian was asked about a few of the high-priced veteran wideouts in the market. Knowing some of the top receivers will command $10 to $12 million dollar a year contracts, Polian was asked if any of them are worth it.

“Worth is in the eye of the beholder,” said Polian. “You then get into the qualitative judgment or subjective judgment of at what cost? So player A, who cost you $12 million a year, is he a success if he starts, or is he a success if he helps you get to the playoffs? That's what you run up against, that’s the conundrum.” 

While serving as general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, Polian had his staff conduct a study that went position by position to determine if there was a distinct success or failure rate in free agency or the draft.

“We did this study to try to determine what the hit rate was,” he said. “It ended up in our study being about what it was for the draft, right around 50 percent, slightly above that. I keep going back to this, but this is the nature of free agency.”

That’s why Polian was usually conservative when it came to free agent signings. Knowing that the hit rate was comparable to the draft despite the fact that you were dealing with so-called proven commodities in the free agent market affected his approach to improving his roster.

When it comes to the receiver position however, there is a flip side to an identical hit rate on free agent acquisitions compared to draft choices.

“In the first round, receivers have the biggest miss rate over time,” said Polian.

This year there are only a couple of receivers that are even deemed to be first round worthy in the 2013 class, though there is considerable depth between rounds two and four. But if an NFL club needs a true number one wideout free agency appears to be the course to take.

Polian said age 27 was his cut-off for free agents in terms of handing out long term contracts and big money, though he did admit there can be exceptions.

“If you feel you're one quality receiver away and the physical exam turns out to be okay, you might do it,” he said. “Again, that is what makes free agency interesting.”