Behind the Scenes: There is no off-season

THE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLAR MAN - Al Bello

Putting free agency under the microscope

Well, it's Sunday once again and there aren't any Redskins games on television. That leaves you with a couple of options, either you have a bunch of old Redskins games on VHS tape, like I do, or you can turn on the NFL Network to see if anything catches your eye. Outside of that, it appears to be the off-season, but is it really?

I learned while working in pro scouting with the New York Jets, there really is no such thing as the off-season. Once the final gun sounded, the real work in the pro personnel department was just beginning. Once upon a time, at Redskins Park, Joe Gibbs slept in office three nights a week preparing game plans and I quickly saw how the same thing could easily happen in pro personnel if the job was going to get done right.

As the players were cleaning out their lockers; we were rolling right into free agency. Before long, we were on a plane to Orlando to check out the players in the NFL Europe to see if we could find any proverbial diamonds in the rough and soon after we were on our way to Indianapolis for the scouting combine. On draft day, there was also much to do. You could literally work around the clock every off-season and not get everything done. There's also the CFL and the Arena Leagues that need to be evaluated and don't forget about all the highlight tapes that pour in every spring from aspiring players everywhere that need to be looked at. There is always talent that somehow slips through the cracks, always.

Today, I thought we could put just one of these things under the microscope to really put all of this into perspective. Let’s focus in on free agency. Before even getting started, it's important to have a very clear philosophy about free agency outlined and communicated by the team's decision makers. Some teams believe a key free agent or two can put them over the top. Other teams believe it's a great avenue to acquire lesser known names who can fill in the roster and provide depth. There are yet other teams that don't get too involved and would rather build primarily through the draft. Some teams believe big money free agents become complacent and never again achieve the same level of play they demonstrated when they were trying to prove themselves. Other teams think it's better to sign a restricted free agent who's somewhat proven and give up a draft pick for him rather than draft an unknown. Whatever the philosophy, once it's clearly established, it's absolutely essential to have each and every single player evaluated and graded on your own team's roster. Before going grocery shopping, it's always good to know what's already in the cupboard. The same principle applies when it comes to player acquisitions. A rock solid understanding of the team's salary cap is also extremely important. All these factors come together and provide the framework for a game plan to head into free agency with.

This year alone, according to nfltraderumors.com, I hand counted some 479 unrestricted free agents and 51 restricted free agents. Now, I may be off one or two in either direction, but you get the picture. To put this into context, it takes a good solid week of working eighty hours to properly evaluate a 53-man NFL roster. That’s not to mention the administrative time that goes into printing out the name of each and every free agent on paper, cutting them all out with scissors, sliding them into the little magnetic holders and placing them up on the pro scouting directors magnetic office wall in the exact order they are graded in. Now, hopefully, a lot if not all of these free agents have been evaluated through the process of advance scouting. If not, hopefully, the team’s NFC or AFC pro scouts have evaluated them. If not, they will need to be evaluated ASAP. The more recent the evaluations are, the better, because it is not at all wise to base your opinions of a player on an old scouting report.  As Parcells used to say, something to the affect of either you are getting better or you’re getting worse, but nobody stays the same.

There are meetings, meetings and yes more meetings to attend to watch film and discuss the list of free agents. The big question becomes, does this particular free agent fit our system and what we’re trying to do here? For example, if your team plays a traditional base 3-4 defense, there is absolutely no point to consider a pure rush end like Jared Allen, because he does not fit that particular defensive system. In a base 3-4 defense, the defensive ends need to be big 300+ pounders that can hunker down at the point of attack against those huge mammoth offensive tackles. The philosophy calls for them to tie up the big offensive tackles, which ideally allows for the swifter linebackers to scrape in virtually untouched and make the plays. You’ll rarely see defensive ends in a 3-4 base defense doing a lot of sack dances, because that is not what they are asked to do and most of them are not capable of doing it. So it doesn’t really matter who the best free agents are, because this isn’t fantasy football. If they don’t fit your specific offensive or defensive systems, you can’t afford to spend much time on them at this point.

The next questions become, why is this guy available and why is his current team willing to let him test the market? Are his best days behind him? What is he like off the field; does he have any off field issues? At this point, if a team is still interested in a particular free agent, it’s extremely wise to consult with the college scouting director, pull up all of his old scouting reports when he was coming out and if possible, talk with the scout who did those evaluations.

Then comes the back end of the free agency process. Evaluations and discussions are only one side of the coin.

The next step is having the player the team is interested in, come in and meet with the decision makers. Airline and hotel reservations need to be made. Someone needs to be assigned to pick the player and his agent up from the airport and see to it they are taken to their hotel. Dinner reservations need to be in place. Someone also needs to drive them around during their stay in town.

Negotiations are the next phase. Anyone with an NFL checkbook can enter the sweepstakes and overspend, but is there a better approach? I was truly blessed to work under the direction of two of the most brilliant and outside the box thinkers who have worked in the game, Mike Tannenbaum and Scott Pioli. Tannenbaum taught me that agents want to negotiate subjectively, but it's the club's responsibility to negotiate objectively. If we were interested in signing a particular free agent, sometimes he would ask me to do a comparative statistics report by compiling the statistics of the player we were interested in potentially signing against the statistics of similar players who played the same position around the league. The salary's of each player in the report were also included, which helped create the ground work for an objective offer. Scott Pioli had me enter in and compile background information such as past injuries and off field issues like you won't believe. With those two guys in the building, it was next to impossible for agents to achieve any artificial leverage during negotiations. If a team does not have objective methods such as these put in place, free agency amounts to nothing more than impulse shopping and that's not in the best interest of the owner's savings account or the future of the team.

There is also league protocol that must be followed. Every player that comes in for a visit must be reported to the league office like clockwork.

If a contract is signed, there's the press conference and someone typically helps coordinate the move and housing arrangements. Of course, the equipment manager needs to order all the new player's gear and a locker needs to be prepared.

Regardless if a deal is reached or not, the player and his agent still need to be driven back to the airport.

Next week, I'll share with you a behind the scenes look at the most underrated, but most important ingredient in the championship recipe.

Hail to the Redskins,

Daniel Kelly

Daniel spent four years working in pro scouting with the New York Jets and he's the author of the book, "Whatever it Takes," the true story of a fan making it into the NFL. Go to www.whateverittakesbook.com to see and hear more of his amazing story of growing up as a die-hard Redskins fan who got hired out of nowhere to work on one of the best staffs in NFL history. Daniel co-hosts Whatever it Takes, a radio show on El Shaddai Radio, he's a contributing writer for Touchdown Europe and he's a featured writer on Hogs Haven. Daniel is a fan of the Washington Redskins with the unique perspective of someone who has worked inside the game.


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