Free Agency 101

Do you know the eight rules of free agency that can make or break your team's upcoming season? Former pro scout Tom Marino fills you in on the eve of the opening of NFL free agency.

February 29 marks 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!

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.

Many of the league's member clubs are poised to jump into the process with guns blazing, wining and dining both player and agent alike, with the hope of adding that one player or combination of players, who will — in theory — send their ailing franchise to the promised land. My suggestion to those clubs is simply to 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 February 29th because of the tampering rule.  But realistically, clubs that have not started the process as early as the Senior Bowl and throughout last week's Combine are at a distinct disadvantage. If there was not tampering and "agreements in principle" done between GMs/team representatives and agents, then why are there so many intricate deals struck only minutes after midnight to start to the process? On Fantasy Island and 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.

I've spoken to agents who have confided in me that they have spoken directly to many of the top coaches and GMs in the league long before the start of the free agent process, and this year will be no exception. If you are skeptical of my last statement, I guess I could also get you to believe that no player agent had spoken to or approached any or all of the junior draft prospects until they had declared for the player draft last month!

OK, let us move to the first rule of free agency. With two exceptions, NFL clubs do not allow impact players to ever go the true free agency route. The first exception are players who were franchised and agreed to re-sign only if they were given the assurances that if they satisfied a particular incentive they could not be franchised the following year (the Bears' Lance Briggs satisfied it by meeting a playing-time incentive, while Asante Samuel of the Patriots hit the year's jackpot by satisfying a 12-win season team incentive. The second of these exceptions are players whose agents have negotiated accelerators (See Rule #6) into their original contract (Jordan Gross).

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 (Dwight Freeney, Charles Grant in 2007), thus not exposing them to the open market. For those of you who disagree with my assessment, please be sure to let me know when any of the league's true difference makers — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, LaDainian Tomlinson, 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 who their 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 one 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 plus 30-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 225 pound range) in a league of physical giants to touch the football 300 plus times in a regular season. Consider the production drop off in recent years for the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander or the Bengals' Rudi Johnson, the Falcons' Warrick Dunn or the Chiefs' Larry Johnson.

As recent as four 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 retired from the game and have gone on to the next stage of their lives.

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. This year's group of players that fall into this category include Jordan Gross of the Panthers, the Cowboys' running back tandem of Barber and Jones, and pass rusher extraordinaire from the Baltimore Ravens, Terrell Suggs.

Rule # 6 - Evaluate the evaluators. Let me ask you your opinion.  How long would an executive for a leading pharmaceutical company, high-tech firm or brokerage house last if he were to make a $10 million to $25 million 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. 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.  Among them are Bobby DePaul (Bears), Steve Sabo, (Browns), Sheldon White (Lions) Tommy Gamble (49ers), Jim Stanley (Cardinals), and Packers rising star Reggie McKenzie. For years the Rams (my last professional club) have depended exclusively on a professional service for their evaluations and have virtually ignored the opinions of a number of highly skilled, and I might add, highly frustrated professionals. The latest in the list is former Patriot, Giant, and Rams defensive linemen Ray Agnew.

Rule # 7 - Do not put an inordinate amount of money into offensive linemen (except left tackle), SAM linebackers, strong safety, punters, fullbacks, tight ends, and shop-worn running backs. They do not impact a football game, and chances are you already have near the same level of players currently on your roster. For example, Jeff Saturday is truly one of the league's top offensive centers. He contributed, but in no way was he the reason, the Indianapolis Colts 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 leagues signal-callers.

Rule # 8 - Double-whammy whenever possible. Case in point, the Cleveland Browns targeted and signed one of top free agents available in the 2007 pool in Eric Steinbach, the No. 3 prospect in Scout.com's free agent rankings behind Adalius Thomas and Patrick "Voidable Years" Kearney. Not only did the move strengthen the Browns along the offensive front, but it also served to weaken their division rival to the south, the Cincinnati Bengals — the team he came from — thus the double-whammy.

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

                                          QB

                                DC - LOT - RDE

                  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


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