Every spring, NFL teams meet with prospects for the upcoming draft in the months leading up to the draft itself. There are many opportunities for players and teams to meet with one another, including all-star games, pro days, the NFL Scouting Combine, workouts, and private visits. Each type of meeting has different rules that govern how the meeting can run, as all-star game meetings like those at the NFLPA Bowl, East-West Shrine Game, and the Senior Bowl all tend to be informal conversations between players and NFL evaluators, coaches, and decision makers. On the other hand, meetings at the Combine are strictly limited to 60 meetings per team at 15 minutes per meeting. The meetings here can cover anything the team wishes, including medical questions, reviewing film, going over a playbook, or simply an interview-like series of questions.
What I look to focus on here, however, are the pre-draft visits players make to team facilities, often referred to as a top-30 visit. Predictably, each team is allowed 30 of these visits each draft season, excluding players from local universities or those who grew up in the area from the count of 30. These visits typically take multiple hours at the team’s facility, but cannot include working out the player. Prospects will often meet with coaches (head coaches, coordinators, or position coaches are all possible) and scouts / decision makers. The visit provides an opportunity for the organization to get to know a player in depth, before possibly selecting them in the Draft or signing them as an undrafted free agent.
Each year, visits are announced on Twitter, tracked on fans blogs, and sometimes announced by the teams themselves. What I did in this piece is compile all this data from the last six draft classes (2012-2017) and examine the effect a visit has on the player being drafted. Visits are not official, and oftentimes they are not confirmed by the teams. However, using a number of websites (with the biggest data source being WalterFootball.com) I compiled all the reported visits for teams’ drafts in that time frame. I ended up missing seven teams’ 2016 draft visits lists, as they were not tracked anywhere with reliable information so those teams (BAL, CHI, CIN, IND, MIA, SDC/LAC and STL/LAR) were removed from the data set.
I split this project into four sections to examine different things, namely: which teams selected (or signed) players who made pre-draft visits most often, the positions where visits were most often relied upon by teams, what round teams tended to select players who visited, and which teams were the most predictable (selected the highest percent of players who visited).
For reference throughout this piece, the total numbers over the last six years are as follows: 1,525 players have been drafted, but only 1,468 are included in this dataset (due to lack of information on seven team’s visits in 2016). 268 of those players were drafted by a team they visited. On average, 20.30% of players drafted since 2012 made a pre-draft top 30 visit to the team that would end up drafting them.
If you have any comments, suggestions, things you’d like to see added in the future or something I might have missed (there were a lot of names and tedious data farming for this piece, it’s definitely possible a typo occurred or something of the sort) reach out to me on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm.
Part 1: What Teams Have Relied on Visits the Most in the Draft Process
This was how the project started for me, as I was reading this piece about the Buffalo Bills continually relying on pre-draft visits when making their first round picks. I set out to research how often the Bills selected players who made visits, and if it had made their drafts under (now departed) general manager Doug Whaley at all predictable. Early on in the project, however, I realized I had nothing to compare it to and would have no idea whether or not the Bills percentage of players selected who made a pre-draft visit was high or low compared to the league average. Thus, the entire project began to shape in my mind, and this was the main idea driving the entire project.
Below is every NFL team’s data concerning their number of pre-draft visitors selected out of all their draft picks since 2012 (except for the seven teams listed above whose 2016 visits could not be found, their 2016 was not counted). The data is organized by the highest percent of draft picks who selected who made a reported pre-draft visit.
So my initial intuition that Bills relied on visits quite a bit was correct, as they hold the second-highest rate of draft picks selected that made pre-draft visits. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the highest in the data set, with 46% of their draft picks since 2012 making a pre-draft visit to the facility. The Atlanta Falcons (35.71%), Dallas Cowboys (32.65%), and Jacksonville Jaguars (28.88%) round out the top 5. Interestingly, these teams provide a mixture of teams that have found success in the 2012-2017 time frame and teams that… well… haven’t. When I was compiling the data I thought the teams that were more predictable in selecting players who made visits to the facilities would be the less successful teams who might be more poorly managed. However, with three teams that have made the playoffs and found varying degrees of success in this time frame joining the Bills and Jaguars, it doesn’t seem like team success plays into this much at all.
The five teams that selected players that visited the least in the last six drafts are (in order): Washington (5.88%), the New York Giants (7.69%), the Seattle Seahawks (8.84%), the Arizona Cardinals (9.30%) and the Oakland Raiders (10.00%). These five teams have selected the fewest players that visited before the draft as a percentage of total draft picks in the last six years.
The final piece of part 1 of this project was tracking players who went undrafted and ended up signing with a team that visited them. The reasons I chose to use raw numbers here rather than percentages are twofold: firstly, there are simply too many possible players that could be signed as undrafted free agents to adequately convert the signings into percentages. In that same vein, signings can happen very late in the offseason, which would be difficult to adequately track each year. As such, I used only the signings tracked in the immediate aftermath of each draft year as those that could count for this project (tracked by NEPatriotsdraft.com). Secondly, there is a natural cap on draft picks, and teams end up having similar numbers over a large number of years. However, with undrafted free agent signings teams can sign as many as they choose (at least within their 90-man roster limit) throwing the percentages off even if a certain team signed a lot of players who made pre-draft visits.
The interesting part about the above chart (the same as the first image, simply organized by UDFA signings) is that the number of UDFA signings with visits is far lower than the number of draft picks who made visits. There are only three teams (the Giants, Saints and Chargers) that have signed more UDFAs who made visits that draft picks of the same criteria. Even with the advantage in numbers that UDFAs have every draft season over the number of draft picks, this remains the case. Teams clearly place more value on using visits on draftable players to assure that their investment in a player is worth it, while failed UDFA signings mean losing a small signing bonus at most.
Part 2: Positional Breakdown
The next piece of this project was examining the positions teams used their draft picks on when selecting players who made visits. The results were very predictable, as quarterbacks were the outlier of the data set, with a massive 37.87% of quarterbacks drafted making a visit to the team that drafted them. All other positions were very close to the average of 20.30%. For clarity sake, positions are organized as follows: QBs, RBs (including fullbacks), WRs, TEs, OL, IDL, LB (includes DE, OLB and ILB; as the 4-3 vs. 3-4 edge player / LB distinction would be too difficult to sort through for 1,500+ players), DBs (corners and safeties) and specialists (kickers, punters and long snappers).
The only other notable position with a rate of drafted visiting players that is outside the average is defensive line. It’s tough to know what would prompt this higher rate, as there isn’t anything that truly sets apart defensive linemen from other positions in terms of the need to hit on a draft pick like quarterback.
I also included the list of raw UDFA numbers by position as well, with the defensive back and offensive line groupings holding the most numbers. This is likely from the fact that these positions dominate signings after the draft and make up (generally) the largest position groups on the offseason rosters.
Part 3: Round Breakdown
The third part of the project is looking at which rounds teams tend to choose players who visited their facility. Again, the results were predictable, as there is a pretty clear downward trend in players that made visits being drafted as the rounds of the draft get later.
First round picks made reported visits to the teams that drafted them 42.41% of the time over the last six years. The number is still high for second round picks, with 29.63% of players making visits to their eventual pro team. Rounds three and four both hover around 18%, quite close to the average of 20.30% across all rounds. Beyond round four. the rate of players getting drafted after making visits drops to about 11%, which certainly seems to indicate that teams value visits as a way to make their top picks as “safe” as they possibly can to protect their investments.
For comparison’s sake, 91 players have signed as undrafted free agents after making visits to that team compared to a total of 298 drafted players. So, as a raw number that would be greater than any one round of the draft, but when looking at the total number of players who aren’t drafted each year it’s not a large factor in UDFA signings. However, I would bet that visits are more important for undrafted free agents than late round draft picks. When a team likes a player enough to draft them late that is fully their decision, regardless of a visit or not. However, when an undrafted player is choosing where to sign their rookie contract a visit can likely play a role in that decision. For example, a player might make a connection with a position coach, felt like there was a cohesive front office or loved the team’s market while on the visit, all of which could sway their decision.
Part 4: Predictability
This last piece of the project aims to see what teams are most predictable in choosing players who make a visit. The “Predictability %” in the chart below is simply the number of players drafted who made a visit, divided by the total number of visits that the teams took in the last six years. If teams are very predictable in drafting players who visit it could give opposing teams an edge in predicting their opponents draft strategy.
As you can see, no team appears to be too predictable, as the percent of players who visited being drafted ranges from 3.45% (New York Giants) to 13.83% (Cincinnati Bengals). None of these numbers on their own represent a team getting too predictable and obvious in selecting players who make a visit, but it could be useful combined with other information. Using the rounds and position pieces of this project almost like filters for this part of it could lead to more predictable selections. For example, if a team that is fairly predictable, say the Minnesota Vikings (10.00%), had a quarterback as one of their top needs (fully hypothetical situation) looking at the quarterback prospects who visited them could help narrow down their possible choices. Another example would be a situation where a team spends a number of visits on predicted first round prospects. Since over 40% of first round picks visited the team that drafted them, this could help narrow down a certain team’s possible selections.
Now, there will never be a way to predict the draft using visits or predictability, but it does provide an interesting look at how different front offices operate and how much importance they may, or may not, place on pre-draft visits.
Conclusion and Other Notes
There were a couple of trends I found interesting in this project but didn’t have a good place to put them so I’ll drop them here. Anything else you’re interested in seeing? Feel free to browse the data set below.
The Steelers, who have the highest percentage of players drafted that made visits, appear to value visits for all rounds of the draft. While the league-wide trend is that visiting players are drafted by the team they visited earlier rather than later, the Steelers have made selections of players that visited their facility in all rounds of the draft (see below).
Some teams have a noticeable trend of their eventual first round pick visiting their facility before the draft. The Eagles (2012, Fletcher Cox), Jaguars (2012, Justin Blackmon), Cowboys (2012, Morris Claiborne), Falcons (2016, Keanu Neal) and Bills (2017, Tre’Davious White) have all had every first round pick in the last six season visit before the draft aside from the one player / year listed in parentheses. A couple of interesting things about this: The Bills also had 2011 first round pick Marcell Dareus in for a visit, meaning every first round pick under Buddy Nix / Doug Whaley since 2011 made a visit. However, that ended once new head coach Sean McDermott took over before the 2017 NFL Draft. The Jaguars selecting players who visited in the first round since 2013 lines up perfectly with general manager Dave Caldwell taking over, making it pretty clear he places a high value on first rounders making pre-draft visits.
The other interesting team regarding first round picks is the Cleveland Browns. While they’ve had three first round picks since 2012 not make pre-draft visits, that’s because they’ve had a total of 11 first round picks in that time. Eight of the 11 have made visits before the draft, with only Jabrill Peppers (2017), Cameron Erving (2015) and Justin Gilbert (2014) failing to make pre-draft visits.
For those interested in viewing the whole data set of draft visits over the last six years, it is available for viewing here. Feel free to download it to make your own edits and work on your own copy of the data. If you have suggestions on what you’d like to see in future projects with this data set, feel free to reach out on Twitter.