Free Agency for Dummies

March 2nd marked the start for the annual rite which we as football fans have come to know as the NFL free agent signing period, and quite frankly, some teams just don't get it! NFL Expert Tom Marino gives us the Eight Golden Rules of Free Agency.

Tom Marino is a veteran of 35 years in the player personnel field, most recently with the St. Louis Rams. He has worked in three professional leagues (NFL, USFL, and WFL), and among his many accomplishments, is credited with the discovery of Eric Swann, the first non-collegiate player since 1946 to be selected in the 1st round of the NFL college draft.

The current Free Agent exercise is a direct offspring from its "Plan B" forerunner (AKA Reggie White rule), a collectively bargained process that federal Judge David Doty struck down in 1992 ruling that it violated federal antitrust laws.

With the NFL's 2007 salary cap figure set at a whopping 109 million dollars, many of the league's member clubs were poised to jump into the process with guns blazing, wining and dining both players and agents alike with the hope of adding that one player who will in theory send their ailing franchise to the promised land. My suggestion to those clubs is simply, put away your checkbooks boys, it's just not going to happen!

Technically, teams are not allowed to speak to impending free agents, or their representatives, until midnight on March 2 because of the tampering rule. But realistically, clubs that have not started the process as early as the Senior Bowl and throughout the Combine are at a distinct disadvantage in free agency. If there was not tampering and "agreements in principle" done between GMs/team representatives and agents, how are so many intricate deals struck only minutes after midnight? On Fantasy Island and in football utopia, there are no agreements in principle. But in reality, the work is generally done through a series of conversations that never took place regarding certain hypothetical players, who might be interested in certain hypothetical teams.

Charles Grant (Getty Images)
Okay, let's move to the first rule of free agency. NFL clubs do not allow impact players to ever go the true free agency route. Oh yes, the rare blue chip player's contract will expire, but in virtually all of these cases he is quickly given the franchise tag (see Dwight Freeney, Charles Grant in 2007) to keep them from being exposed to the open market. For those of you who disagree with my assessment, be sure to let me know when any of the league's true difference makers such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, LaDainian Tomlinson, or Orlando Pace are exposed to the open market.

Rule # 2: When any of these aforementioned future Hall of Fame members are in fact exposed during the free agents' signing periods, remember two very simple phrases: "Father Time" and "Damaged Goods". Joe Montana (Kansas City), Joe Namath (Los Angeles), and Emmitt Smith (Arizona) are just three examples of the literally hundreds of superstar players whose new clubs hoped would recapture the past glory that was once theirs and help lead their new club to the big game. But they soon learned even the great ones sometimes stay at the dance too long.

Rule # 3: With the exception of quarterbacks and kickers, be very wary of signing the 10 year-plus vet, the 30-plus year-old athlete or any player coming off a major injury to any long-term contract.

Rule # 4: The career of a running back in the NFL is a half-life. Think about it. Relatively speaking, in professional football, we ask little men (200 to 215-pound range) in a league of giants to touch the football 300-plus times a season. As recent as three years ago, the names Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Curtis Martin, and Emmitt Smith brought fear to opposing defenses and were among the best to have ever played the game. But today, all are considered afterthoughts.

Rule #5: Avoid at all cost in contract negotiations the term "voidable years." It just accelerates things and almost always leaves teams in a bad negotiation situation.

Rule # 6: Evaluate the evaluators. Let me ask you your opinion. How long would an executive for a leading pharmaceutical company, high-tech operation or brokerage house last if he were to make say a 10 to 25 million dollar error within the scope of his job? Nobody is asking, but if someone were to pose that question to me, I would venture a guess about as long as it would take to have someone from security usher them out of the building. But for some unknown reason, football people are exempt from any such scrutiny. That being said, there are many top pro personnel people operating within the league today such as Bobby DePaul (Bears), Steve Sabo, T.J. McCreight (Browns) Tommy Gamble (49ers), Jeff Robinson (Vikings), Jim Stanley (Cardinals), and former Patriots pro scouting director Nick Caserio. But there are also some less then stellar people making personnel evaluations within the league.

Jeff Saturday and Peyton Manning (Getty Images)
Rule # 7: Do not put an inordinate amount of money into offensive linemen (except left tackle), SAM backers, strong safety, punters, fullbacks, tight ends, and shop-worn running backs. They do not impact a football game and chances are a team already has near the same level of players currently on its roster. Let me give you an example. The Colts' Jeff Saturday is truly one of the league's top offensive centers. He contributed to, but in no way was the reason Indianapolis won the Super Bowl. One could argue that the Colts would have won the 2007 Super Bowl with any of the 31 other starting centers within the league. But there is no way they would have won the coveted prize with the majority of the league's signal-callers.

Rule # 8: Double-whammy whenever possible. Case in point is when the Cleveland Browns targeted and signed one of top free agents available in the 2007 pool in Eric Steinback, the number three prospect in's ranking behind Adalius Thomas and Patrick "Voidable Years" Kearney. Not only does the move strengthen the Browns along the offensive front, but it also served to weaken the Cincinnati Bengals, their division rival to the south. Thus, the double whammy.

And finally, if an organization is committed to building their club through the veteran free agent system, let me offer two final pieces of advice, the first of which was given to me by one of football's top personnel evaluators some time ago. Simply stated, he told me that not all position are created equal and to always believe in the power of the pyramid.



DC - RB - WR - WB - LDE - DC(3)

DT - FS - WR - MB - ROT - DT - LOG - TE - RB(2)

TE(2) - KS - WR(3) - FB - OC - ROG - SS - PT - RS - LS

My second piece of advice is directed to the decision-makers with middle-of-the-pack clubs within the league like the Redskins, Vikings, Chiefs, and Panthers. Bite the bullet. Give up your first and third round picks (the highest upgraded tender), and sign budding QB star in waiting Matt Schaub to an offer sheet. Recent history has proven time and time again that in order to win the big one, you better have someone special spinning the ball. I truly believe that Schaub is the low-risk, high-rewards performer in this year's group of free agents.

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