When it comes to a player's value to a team, it’s often the money that tells the real story. There are, of course, plenty of hidden gems teams find on the undrafted free agent market, but often the most talented players require a solid guaranteed investment to get them into a team’s facility.
The Detroit Lions signed 13 UDFAs in the 2021 cycle, and while we at Pride of Detroit have already evaluated their skill sets, seeing how much money the team invested in them illustrates what the team thought of them ahead of camp.
Here’s a quick overview of how teams can spend money on their UDFA rookies.
The NFL allows each team a pool of money to be spent on a rookie class, both drafted and undrafted players. That number is based on the salary cap and is not typically disclosed to the public. Because drafted player's contracts and signing bonuses are part of a slotted system, a team will have a general idea of how much money they have left in the rookie compensation pool to spend on UDFA contracts and signing bonuses.
UDFAs base salary is the league minimum ($660,000 in 2021), and teams will use bonuses to entice a player to join them. If teams compete for a player, their signing bonus offers may rise along with the market for their services. Additionally, because funds for signing bonuses are limited, and the competition for players is large, teams have recently begun to offer portions of their salary as guaranteed money as a way to get players under contract.
With 13 UDFAs and limited funds for signing bonuses, the Lions opted to lean on the guaranteed money strategy to bring players in. In all, the Lions allocated $121,500 in UDFA signing bonuses and $475,000 in guaranteed money— $596,500 in total guarantees for this class (roughly 0.3 percent of the Lions' 2021 salary cap).
Let’s look at how that money was distributed (per OverTheCap.com):
No surprise the Lions spent a lot of guaranteed money on their UDFA wide receivers, with that being a weak spot on the roster. Tavante Beckett getting more than Tommy Kraemer and Drake Jackson caused me some pause and makes me want to go back and see what I missed about him. Rakeem Boyd has already been released, but when you look at the money invested in him, they really just paid to get him in camp for a quick look.
If we look back at the Lions' last three UDFA classes, 13 players have made either the 53-man roster or practice squad, and eight of them are still on the current 90-man roster. Five of those 13 players were offered a contract that ranked in the top three, and eight in the top five among Lions’ UDFAs in that cycle.
Players who received more guaranteed money tend to stick around longer in camp but there isn’t a UDFA contract that the Lions will feel married to if the player doesn’t perform. The best example of this is 2019 UDFA Ryan Pope, who was given $165,000 in guarantees but was dominated in camp and was eventually cut.
So while Javon McKinley, Sage Surratt, Jonathan Adams Jr., Beckett, and Kraemer are in good spots (all with at least $55,000 in guarantees) the odds are not all of them make it onto the roster in any capacity. While players like Drake Jackson and D’Angelo Amos shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.