An NFL Owners Guide to Free Agency

February 27th marks the start for the annual rite known as the NFL free agent signing period and frankly some clubs just don't get it! Tom Marino gives the readers his views on free agency, but hopes the owners within the league that truly want to win will take the time and read along with the fans.

The current Free Agent exercise is a direct off spring from it's, "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 2009 salary cap figure set at a whopping 123 million dollars, (14 million over the 2008 season) many of the leagues member clubs were 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 thereof, who will in theory send their ailing franchise to the promised land. My suggestion to those clubs is simply; put away your check books boys, it's just not going to happen!

Sure the Falcons got very well by signing Michael Turner last season, but the different makers in every unrestricted free agent (UFA) classes are few and far between. The Chargers recognized Turner' outstanding skills, but with LaDainian Tomlinson at or near the top of his game and with the explosive Darren Sproles waiting in the wings, the Chargers could ill afford committing the type of money it would take to re-sign Michael Turner.

Technically teams are not allowed to speak to impending free agents, or their representatives, until midnight on February 20th because of the tampering rule, but realistically clubs that have not started the process as early as the Senior Bowl or in the days leading up to this weeks scouting combine in Indianapolis are in effect non-players. If there were not tampering and "agreements in principle" done between GMs / team representatives and agents, then how come there are so many intricate deal struck only minutes after 12 midnight 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.

One high powered agent related to me recently that a former head coach who is now a highly respected college coach actually called him at his home on the Monday following the final regular season game of the season a few seasons ago, to begin "informal" discussions on five UFA on three different clubs! I've spoken to other agents who have confided in me that they have spoken directly to many of the top coaches and GM's in the leaguer long before the start of the free agent process and this year (2009) has been 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 or approached any or all of the junior prospects until that had declared for the player draft last month!

OK, let us move to the first Marino 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 formally of the Patriots hit the jackpot last year by satisfying a team incentive (a twelve win season). The second of these exceptions are players whose agents have negotiated accelerators 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 (see 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 true difference makers; Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, LaDainian Tomlinson or an Adrian Peterson (next year's class), are exposed to the open market.

Marino Rule # 2 – When any of these fore mentioned 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 Emmett Smith (Arizona) Brett Favre (New York Jets) are just three examples of the literally hundreds of super star 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.

Marino Rule # 3 With the exception of quarterbacks and kickers, be very wary of signing the 10 year plus veteran. The plus 30 year old athlete or any player coming off a major injury to any long term contract. In most cases thirty something or veteran players' playing production diminishes quickly.

For the GM's who don't prescribe to this way of thinking, take a close look at MLB and the reluctance of virtually all suitors to commit to more than two years to 37 year old super star outfielder Manny Ramirez; and he's not taking a physical pounding on every pitch delivered in a nine inning baseball game.

Marino 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 Seahawk's Shaun Alexander or Bengals' Rudi Johnson, the Falcons Warrick Dunn or the Chief's Larry Jackson.

As recent as four years ago the names Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Curtis Martin, and Emmett Smith, brought fear to apposing defenses and were among the best to have ever played the game, but today all have retired from the game and have gone on to the next stage of their lives.

Marino Rule # 5 – Avoid at all cost in contract negotiations the term "void able years." It just accelerates things and almost always leaves teams in bad negotiation situation. This year group of players that fall into this category include Jordan Gross of the Panthers and pass rushing extraordinaire from the Baltimore Ravens Terrell Suggs.

Marino 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 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. For some unknown reason, football people are exempt from any such scrutiny.

It may surprise some people, but there are some very ordinary people making important personnel decisions in the National Football League today and in most cases those decision makers are not the pro scouting director, but rather football's newest phenomenon; accountants (Bean Counters) turned decision makers or General Managers. Oh they learn the lingo and catch phrases very quickly, but at the end of the day they are still "Bean Counters."

That being said, there are many top pro personnel people operating within the league today; among them are five individual Bobby DePaul (Bears), Steve Sabo, (Browns), Sheldon White (Lions) Tommy Gamble (49ers) and Packers Reggie McKenzie, I believe to be at the very top of the pecking order.

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 personnel people. Let's hope that that practice will change under the guidance of new General Manager Bill Devaney.

Marino 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 just do not impact a football game and chances are you already have near the same level of players currently on your roster.

Let me give you an example; Jeff Saturday is truly one of the leagues top offensive centers, he contributed, but in no way was he the reason the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl two seasons ago. 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 without the guy lining up directly behind him in the Colts offense.

The Colts will likely jettison him and his five million dollars plus contract very soon along with a number of other veteran stars in order to avoid a total cap catastrophe!

Marino 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 Steinback, the number 3 prospect in ranking behind Adalius Thomas and Patrick "Void able 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 Cincinnati Bengals, the team in which he came from, thus the double whammy.

This particular rule (my favorite) was made popular by current Giants head coach Tom Coughlin when he was head coach and chief bottle washer with the then expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. His rule; sign the best free agents available, but whenever possible sign players' from within our division.

If the Jets were not strapped financially entering this year's free agency; a perfect double whammy situation would be for them to sign Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman, a former starter that I believe will quietly be among the most sought after players in this year's UFA period.

Marino Rule # 9 - When looking for the best possible venues for his promotions, veteran boxing promoter Bob Arum used to have a saying; "Always fish where the fish are," and such is the case with signing free agents in professional football. If you prescribe to the theory that the better clubs in the league have the better player, then it stands to reason that most of your top free agents each season will come from the better clubs within the league. Again, improve your own club and weaken the better club helps bring about parody, a word made famous by former NFL chief Pete Rozelle.

Marino Rule # 10 – Now this one is in my opinion the absolute most important of my rules for ultimate UFA success. If an organization is committed to building their club through the veteran free agent system, let me offer one final pieces of advice given to me by one of football's top personnel evaluators some time ago. Simply stated he related to me that not all position are created equally and to always believe in the power of the pyramid. Sure virtually every owner in the league would figuratively sell the grandmother into servitude for an Ed Reed or a Chris Snee, but in the scheme of things, a top defensive safeties and offensive guards will contribute to winning, but will NOT put a team on his back and lead them to a Super Bowl championship.


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 – HD

Looking for a veteran bargain? There is little doubt that the most significant bargains will come from not from the seemingly endless list of marginal free agents but rather from the list of cap casualties who were released so that teams could fit under the cap. A partial list of cap casualties from 2006 cap included; Trevor Pryce, Brian Griese, Gary Stills, La'Roi Glover, Sam Madison, Gus Frerotte, Brandon Short, Terrell Owens, Willie McGinest, Isaac Bruce all of whom were still active and productive during the 2008 season.

Looking for a cap casualties with some significant thread still remaining on his tires? My pick to click in 2009 is former Jacksonville Jaguars all time leading rusher Fred Taylor.

* OLB in a three-four front

** Nose Tackle in a three-four front

*** Under tackle in a three-four front

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