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Why ‘lottery tickets’ matter in the NFL and for the Chiefs

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Every year, NFL teams take shots on low-risk, high-reward signings. In the end, those players can make all the difference.

Divisional Round - Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs shot themselves in the foot en route to a 24-0 deficit in this year’s AFC Divisional round against the Houston Texans. After cutting the Texans’ lead to 24-7, the defense did its job to force a fourth down Houston territory — and the Texans were set to punt with four yards to go.

Sensing the momentum shifting in Arrowhead, Bill O’Brien pulled a Bill O’Brien and elected to attempt a fake punt with second-year safety Justin Reid taking a direct snap and dashing for the line to gain.

Former BYU safety Dan Sorensen sniffed the play out, making an outstanding tackle short of the first-down marker. The Chiefs would score quickly — then several more times in their 51-7 run to both come back from a huge deficit and win by a huge deficit. The run to the Super Bowl almost ended before the Chiefs got a playoff win under the belt. If it weren’t for key plays like Sorensen’s heads-up moment on special teams — the Chiefs may not get the confetti shower a couple of weeks later.

Sorensen signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He was a lottery ticket — a player the Chiefs made a minimal investment in that would earn their way onto the 53-man roster. Hitting on an undrafted free agent or two every year is like getting extra draft picks and three-plus years of cost-controlled contribution. It isn't just a league-minimum veteran for one year; it's the potential for three or more years at a small cost. The investment is minimal, but the payout can be extremely valuable — hence being called a lottery ticket.

In any given year, undrafted free agents account for about 30% of NFL regular-season roster. With a massive sample size of players not being selected with one of the 256 picks each year, the hit rate isn’t high, but the volume of players to end up making it on the final 53 is significant.

Figuring out who of the undrafted free agents will make it isn’t easy. There are some stronger candidates coming out that should have been selected but may have been hurt by injury or character — but even then those questions marks can limit the ability of a player to stick. Sample size matters — the Chiefs have brought in several undrafted players to fill out their 90=man roster and will hope that three or four of them will be able to contribute in some capacity over the next couple years.

The Chiefs’ roster is littered with undrafted free agents. Sorensen, Charvarius Ward, Ben Niemann, Darrel Williams, Byron Pringle, Andrew Wylie, Deon Yelder, Gehrig Dieter, Alex Brown and Ryan Hunter all were undrafted free agents that were signed or acquired by the Chiefs and saw their first snaps as members of the organization.

Super Bowl hero Damien Williams, Mike Pennel, Antonio Hamilton, Mike Remmers and Demone Harris all started their careers as undrafted free agents.

The Chiefs need to continue to hit on a few of these players every year — especially now. With a massive contract for Patrick Mahomes looming, money is only going to get tighter.

If the Chiefs can fill out the bottom the roster with more of these lottery tickets, they’re going to be in better shape. The excitement for a lottery ticket should be simply if they make the roster and can contribute on special teams. That’s good enough to save a little money and give them time to develop further into a potential contributor on either side of the ball. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find a starter like Ward — who entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Cowboys before being traded before cutdown day for offensive lineman Parker Ehinger.

Investing in undrafted free agents — both in identifying and spending to acquire them — is just good business. If the salary cap is tight, undrafted free agents can help, as they make league minimum. The salary cap is about to be tight in Kansas City and finding contributors in any facet of the game will be valuable. And who knows? Maybe one of these players can earn a more prominent role on either side of the ball in the near future.

General manager Brett Veach has aggressively prioritized churning over the bottom of the roster with low-risk acquisitions — especially in undrafted free agency. This year is no different, as he’s brought in a great group of undrafted free agents with a chance to compete for a spot on the active roster or practice squad.

I would argue this is the best group the Chiefs have brought in since Andy Reid got to Kansas City.

There are players with legitimate chances to make the roster at offensive line, wide receiver and in the defensive backfield. Throughout the offseason here at Arrowhead Pride, we’ll be discussing the lottery tickets Veach and company brought in, and we will show you why they have a chance to make the roster.