The Buffalo Bills released Cyrus Kouandjio yesterday, the culmination of a rough offseason for the young offensive tackle.
It’s also the continuation of a bad trend for the Bills, who have been shedding their draft picks from the last few seasons at an alarming rate. Of the 46 players the Bills drafted from 2011 to 2016, only 16 remain on the team after Kouandjio’s release. Their draft pick retention rate over that time of 34.8% is dead last in the NFL, well behind runner-up Indianapolis and their 37.2% rate.
What’s been happening to these players? Where are they going, and why? Let’s take a look at the departed players from those drafts to see what’s gone wrong and to compare to the retention rates around the league.
Retention Rate: 100%
League Retention Rate: 92.9%
Departed Players: N/A
The Bills are one of 18 teams who still have every player they drafted prior to last season. It’s possible that they could lose some players prior to the start of this season, especially if fourth-rounder Cardale Jones is unable to secure one of the backup quarterback positions or sixth-rounder Kolby Listenbee has any setbacks from the sports hernia that cost him his rookie season.
While most of the rookies from this draft are still with the teams that drafted them, a few teams have already suffered some losses from this draft. Notably, three teams - the Chiefs, Colts, and 49ers - have already lost multiple picks from this draft.
Retention Rate: 66.7%
League Retention Rate: 72.2%
Departed Players: RB Karlos Williams (Round 4), LB Tony Steward (5)
Williams had been one of the better reserve running backs in the league during his rookie season, and even managed to tie an NFL record by scoring a touchdown in each of his first six games. However, he came into training camp 20 pounds overweight and came out of training camp with a four-game suspension, a one-two punch he couldn’t overcome. Steward’s release was more straightforward, as he was cut during the team’s offseason conditioning program last April. Both players were on rosters last season (Williams with the Steelers, Steward with the Saints), but neither played a down.
As is the case with most of the remaining seasons, the Bills are in the bottom third of the league in retention from the 2015 draft. Three teams - the Panthers, Jaguars, and Chargers - still have all of their picks from this draft (the Chargers also have all of their picks from 2016, as well). The Eagles, on the other hand, only have two of their six 2015 picks remaining on the roster.
Retention Rate: 42.9%
League Retention Rate: 54.7%
Departed Players: OT Cyrus Kouandjio (2), CB Ross Cockrell (4), G Cyril Richardson (5), LB Randell Johnson (7)
While it remains to be seen whether Kouandjio is able to salvage his career with another team, at least one Bills castoff from this draft has found himself a home. Cockrell didn’t seem to garner a whole lot of trust from either of the coaching staffs he played under, but has been a revelation since he signed with the Steelers in 2015. He started all 16 games in Pittsburgh last season, and finished the year as PFF’s 28th-best cornerback (Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo’s top CB, finished at 60). Such was not the case for the final two players, however; neither Richardson nor Johnson showed much with the Bills, and both have found other teams (the Bears and Jets, respectively).
The Bills may only have three players left on their roster from this draft, but they’re far from alone in that regard. Ten teams have three or fewer of their 2014 draftees left on their rosters. In fact, both the Patriots and Cowboys, last year’s number one playoff seeds, both only have three draftees remaining despite having nine picks in the draft (the Pats, at 58.6%, have the lowest percentage of their own 2014-16 draftees remaining on their roster). The Saints, after trading Brandin Cooks to the Patriots this offseason, have none of their 2014 draftees on their roster.
Retention Rate: 0.0%
League Retention Rate: 20.1%
Departed Players: QB E.J. Manuel (1), WR Robert Woods (2), LB Kiko Alonso (2), WR Marquise Goodwin (3), S Duke Williams (4), S Jonathan Meeks (5), K Dustin Hopkins (6), TE Chris Gragg (7)
Most of this year’s free agent pool was made up of players from this draft who were coming off of their rookie contracts. That includes most of the players the Bills lost from this group. Some, such as Manuel and Woods, have found teams for 2017. Others, like Meeks and Gragg, have not. Two players have been gone for a few years: Alonso (now with the Dolphins), who was traded for LeSean McCoy in 2015, and Hopkins (now with the Redskins), who was injured during his first preseason and released after Dan Carpenter secured the kicking job.
The Bills have taken a lot of heat for losing this entire draft class already, but again, they’re not alone by any means. Only one team, the Falcons, have retained even half of their 2013 draftees, and the Bills are one of eight teams who have lost all of the players they drafted this year.
Retention Rate: 11.1%
League Retention Rate: 15.1%
Departed Players: CB Stephon Gilmore (1), WR T.J. Graham (3), LB Nigel Bradham (4), CB Ron Brooks (4), OT Zebrie Sanders (5), LB Tank Carder (5), G Mark Asper (6), K John Potter (7)
As is the case with most of the draft classes who have outlived their rookie deals, most of these players have moved on to other teams or their next professions. Gilmore, whose fifth-year option was picked up, just earned a mega-deal with the Patriots. Bradham and Brooks both hit free agency last year and followed former Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to his new job with the Eagles (who have retained a league-high 44.4% of their 2012 draftees). The rest either floated around the league or fell off the grid entirely.
The Bills do still have second-rounder Cordy Glenn from this draft, having secured him with a five-year deal last offseason. That’s more than most teams can say: 12 of the 32 NFL teams don’t have any players from this draft on their roster anymore. The Bills are one of nine teams with only one player remaining.
Retention Rate: 11.1%
League Retention Rate: 15.7%
Departed Players: S Aaron Williams (2), LB Kelvin Sheppard (3), S Da’Norris Searcy (4), OT Chris Hairston (4), RB Johnny White (5), LB Chris White (6), CB Justin Rogers (7), DT Michael Jasper (7)
Again, a look around the league shows that most of the players from this draft have moved on by now. All of these players, save WIlliams, had been long gone even before last season. The earlier picks have hung on in the league, most notably Searcy, who has started 27 games for the Titans over the last two seasons. The latter picks are long gone and mostly forgotten, aside from the nightmare fuel that Rogers provided when he was forced to start in 2014.
This draft provided one of the best first rounds the league has seen, and it shows in the fact that a higher percentage of players from this draft are still with their original teams than in the next draft. Only five teams have lost all of their 2011 picks, although many only have one remaining. The Bills, as is the case with most teams, have held on to their first pick, although Marcell Dareus has given them plenty of headaches along the way.
One thing I should point out is that draft pick retention is by no means a strong predictor of team success. The team with the highest retention in this span is the Bengals, who had the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The third-lowest rate belongs to the Seahawks, who have made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons.
That said, there are a few good reasons to strive for high draft pick retention. First, draftees cost less than veterans, so keeping them around saves a lot of money on depth positions. Second, a homegrown base is never a bad thing to have, especially when there’s a solid team culture in place. Finally, when a team keeps the players they’ve drafted it’s a sign that those players are good, if only at filling the role they’ve been given, so if a team feels compelled to keep their draftees around they’re probably doing a good job when it comes to team building.
One of the important things that the best teams do is finding contributors in the latter rounds of the draft. These players don’t have to be stars, but they should at least be able to fill out a roster and contribute occasionally. If you go back and look at the names that have left, many weren’t even able to do that. For every Robert Woods that left for a bigger paycheck, there are two Tank Carders that couldn’t even see the field.
Development is also an important factor. The Patriots are on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to keeping their picks, but they do a phenomenal job of working with the ones they do keep around, as well as those who are let go from other teams. Having Tom Brady helps, but he doesn’t turn every receiver into a solid contributor (Chad Jackson, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins...).
The Bills need to do a lot of things to get their ship turned around. Drafting better is right at the top of the list. We can only hope that Beane and his staff can do well to draft contributors all over the depth chart, keeping them in place after their rookie deals are up. It also wouldn’t hurt if Sean McDermott is a master developer, either.