How Clubs Prepare for Free Agency

We are two days into free agency and there have been quite a few transactions already, but there is still about a week to go before things will start to settle down and we can turn our attention to the draft. There are many fans who think that free agency is just a crap-shoot, and teams just go after what is perceived to be the “hot” names on the free agent board. That couldn't be farther from the truth. For many clubs, preparation for free agency begins during the previous season. Clubs know which players are going into the last year of their contract. The pro scouting staff will begin to track those players and have an ongoing report on them so that if, in fact, they do become free agents, they already have a body of work done on the player. Once the season ends, and the free agent list takes shape, the pro scouting department will rank the players by value, much as the college scouts do with players in the draft. There are some differences, though, and there will be players that are considered “ascending” or “descending” players. The ascending player is generally a younger player who is just beginning to come into his own. He may have been a role player early in his career and just as his contract is ready to expire, he starts playing the best football of his career. Generally, these are the best players to try and acquire. They may not be household names, but the pro scouts know who they are. Often, you can get these guys at a less-than-premium price, but in the long run, they turn out to be the best signings. Clubs can get in trouble signing a descending player. These are players who have already played a number of years in the league and by the nature of their work, feel they are due the big pay day. Many times, the club they play for knows they have already peaked and their play will start to go downhill. Often, these players make up the hot names in free agency, and once they hit the market, the bidding can get crazy. Looking back through history, you will often see that while signing this type of player makes headlines, the player doesn’t live up to what he is getting paid. We see it happen every year. Going back to the evaluation process, after the pro scouting department evaluates a player, the coaching staff gets involved. This will include the position coach, the coordinator, and often, the head coach. When the evaluations have concluded, a board is set. Just like with the draft, each club’s free agency board will look different. Players who fit the scheme will obviously be rated higher than players who don’t. Once these boards are set, clubs develop a general idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the free agency class. The next thing that is done is balancing the difference between the free agency class and the draft class. Clubs go into every off-season with positional needs. They hope to take care of those needs in either the draft of free agency. If the draft is strong at certain positions, then your club may feel they can address a positional need in the draft and get another need filled with a free agent. The important thing is they have to balance out. The other important factor involved in free agency is, of course, money. Depending upon a club's cap situation, they will have only so much to spend in free agency. If you have a healthy cap situation, a team can often take care of most, if not all, of their needs through both free agency and the draft. Regardless of the cap situation, a budget has to be set as to how much a team will spend on certain players. They have to be prepared to say no to a certain situation if the bidding gets out of hand. If that happens to be the case, they have to hope that there is a fallback player they can go to if they don’t sign the top player they were looking at. If that doesn’t happen, then you have to hope you can address that need in the draft. Needless to say, the clubs that do the best job of preparing for both free agency and the draft will be the clubs that win. As we have seen so many times in the past, a club will “win” free agency by spending a lot of money on big name players, only to be disappointed once the season starts. I learned a long time ago, it’s not about winning in free agency and the off season in general, it’s about being smart with intelligent planning, budgeting, and implementation. The teams that do that year after year, generally are teams that win year after year. Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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