FAB 4. The Crazy Thing About Free Agency That Nobody Mentions
Free agency has started and the NFL Draft is nearly one month away. Those are two main channels to acquire talent for NFL teams with two vastly different processes.
Let’s start with the draft first. NFL teams send area scouts to colleges during football season to observe them in practice and watch film on them at the school’s football headquarters. Sometimes college scouting directors like Tampa Bay’s Mike Biehl will join the area scouts on those trips. Sometimes it is general managers like the Bucs’ Jason Licht.
Then there are the college games where area scouts, Biehl and sometimes Licht will attend to see how players warm up on the sidelines and interact with teammates before the game begins. Licht saw Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston in person in Louisville for a Thursday night game in 2014 when Florida State’s Heisman Trophy winner engineered a second-half comeback. Licht also watched defensive end Noah Spence play in person in 2015 when Eastern Kentucky played at Jacksonville State.
Once college football season is over, the scouts continue their investigative process on prospects, looking into any school discipline, team suspensions or possible arrests. They take a look at prospects’ grades, home life and love life. Are they married? Do they have a girlfriend? Do they have any kids?
Assistant coaches and head coaches are probed for insight into draft prospects, and area scouts usually get the pulse of a player’s work ethic by interviewing the strength and conditioning coach. Past or current injuries are investigated and trainers are probed about how diligent the player is during his rehab.
Face-to-face interviews occur at NFLPA post-season game, the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl with area scouts handling those for the most part, with Biehl, Licht and perhaps the coaching staff getting involved in interviewing targeted players. Then it’s off to the NFL Scouting Combine where important medical information is collected and disseminated to all teams.
Heights, weights, 40-times, bench press and agility drills are done, along with some position drills to gauge arm strength for quarterbacks, hands for receivers, backs, tight ends, linebackers and defensive backs, and movement for ability for pretty much all of the prospects. Scouts, coaches and GMs take part in face-to-face 15-minute interviews with the prospects at night.
Pro days are up next with area scouts being dispatched to schools for a final investigative whirl, grabbing more player data and asking more questions from the school’s football staff. The important pro days draw general managers and head coaches. Licht and former head coach Lovie Smith attended the pro days for wide receiver Mike Evans in 2014 and Winston in 2015. Both were first-round picks by Tampa Bay.
Teams are allowed to bring 30 NFL Draft prospects to their headquarters in March and April for face-to-face interviews. Prospects meet with position coaches and coordinators in addition to the G.M. and head coach. It’s a constant process of evaluation. Sometimes general managers and coaches will take a highly regarded prospect out for dinner to spend more time talking with them.
I was once told that USF cornerback Mike Jenkins dozed off in a film session Monte Kiffin was hosting with several defensive draft prospects on a visit and that disqualified the Bucs from drafting him in the first round. Tampa Bay took cornerback Aqib Talib with the 20th overall pick in 2008, while Jenkins went to Dallas five spots later.
During LeGarrette Blount’s visit in 2010 he took the time to slip into the kitchen in the One Buccaneer Place dining hall and thank the chefs and cooks for lunch. That made a favorable impression on general manager Mark Dominik, who was evaluating Blount’s character after he was suspended at Oregon for sucker punching a Boise State player after a game. That helped Dominik sign Blount as an undrafted free agent that year.
After visits have concluded, scouts and coaches watch more film and Biehl, Licht, director of player personnel John Spytek and Koetter will stack the Bucs’ draft board and conduct mock drafts to form pools of players that Tampa Bay would consider drafting in each round. Many talent evaluators would say that the two most important factors in the evaluation process are the interviews and the medical reports.
“Whenever I’ve missed on a player it’s usually because I’ve missed on the person,” Licht said.
Between all-star games, the NFL Scouting Combine, pro days and pre-draft visits at team headquarters, general managers like Licht are afforded the opportunity to spend hours with college kids, gauging their genuineness, their personality, their character and their swagger. On one visit, a high-profile quarterback the Bucs were evaluating didn’t make a lot of eye contact when answering questions. That was a big turnoff.
“How in the heck is this guy going to lead a huddle of men, or face 1,200 pounds of defensive linemen wanting to sack his ass if he won’t even look me in the eye – and I’m not a threat to sack him?” I was told.
Needless to say the Bucs didn’t draft him and he hasn’t had a tremendous of success in the league thus far.
So let’s talk about free agency now.
These aren’t college kids we’re talking about now. These are current professional football players that will stand to make significantly more in free agency than they did coming out of college in the draft.
What does that evaluation process look like?
Well, teams like the Bucs can go back to their draft files from when they had face-to-face interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine and spend 15 minutes watching those tapes. They can also ask players that might have played with a targeted free agent or call coaches around the league to ask, “What’s he like?”
Outside of this and watching game film, that’s about it.
The Bucs will spend months meeting with and evaluating draft prospects who the team will draft in the third round, but when it comes to a free agent that they are going to spend $10 million per year on face-to-face visits – or even calls – rarely happens.
Isn’t that strange?
It’s actually messed up.
Want to know why free agency is an even bigger crapshoot than the draft? That’s why. The big names with the big contracts – those guys are signed essentially sight unseen. Those deals are struck within the first 52-hour “open window” that started Monday at noon this week and ended at 4:00 pm. on Wednesday when NFL free agency officially began. During that time no NFL teams can be in contact with pending free agents otherwise it’s tampering, which can result in a loss of draft picks and a fine.
Many of the deals for the top free agents are done and executed just after 4:00 p.m. at the opening bell of free agency, so there is no time for a visit. I’ve spoken with several league executives that say the craziest thing in the world is NFL free agency when a team hands over millions of dollars to a player that the head coach, general manager and owner may not have met before.
There was no meeting between DeSean Jackson and Dirk Koetter last year. No film session and joint discussion about how he was going to be used.
Instead, the Bucs likely said: “You’re fast and you’re an accomplished receiver, and we’re willing to pay you $11 million per year – sound good?”
Jackson’s agent likely said: “Sounds good. Those are the numbers DeSean is looking for and he likes the idea of playing with Mike Evans and Jameis Winston.”
It was the same with Chris Baker. Both of those deals were signed with those players sight unseen.
Some times it works out, as it did with wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who didn’t visit before signing with Tampa Bay. Often times it doesn’t work out when a team can’t even meet with a premier free agent who is signed at the start of free agency – or even talk to them. In 2009, the Bucs didn’t meet with running back Derrick Ward, who opted out of most of the OTAs after he signed and became a fat cat with a big contract. That put Ward behind in the playbook and he was never a factor in Tampa Bay and was released after just one disappointing year.
The Bucs have had several of those free agent busts that came without a visit, and Tampa Bay is not alone. It happens all over the league when teams sign players sight unseen.