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The Four Rules of NFL Free Agency

An insider’s guide to gaming the player market. Plus: four moves that could boost four Super Bowl contenders.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Did you know the 2017 NFL season starts in two weeks? Maybe you won’t have your fantasy draft for another six months, but the real season kicks off when teams start rebuilding, repairing, and restoring their rosters with signings, trades, and draft picks. Some of those moves will inevitably turn out perfectly fine. But with so many new coaches and decision-makers in power, as well as an unforgiving salary cap that has left more veterans unemployed than ever before, expect to see many more offseason decisions that make us say, “WHAT????”

Free agency comes first, usually with a frenzy of moves in the first few days. The media love grading those free-agency acquisitions based on how THEY assessed every team’s needs — like the website that gave last year’s Jags a “B+” because they “came into free agency looking to make a splash, and they have done just that.” Actually, the Jags’ only 2016 splash was firing head coach Gus Bradley after a road game in Houston.

That’s why you won’t see me grading free agency, as much as I enjoy reading everyone else’s takes. I don’t subscribe to the “collection of assets” school of thinking for free agents. My philosophy centers on a willingness to use every conceivable avenue to procure talent all year long — not just in March and April. Here are my four rules for free agency.

Rule No. 1: Then Is Then, Now Is Now

As fans, we have to forget past performance — consider Peter Frampton and his 1976 album Frampton Comes Alive!, which people my age had to own in order to look cool. You don’t know Peter Frampton? That is the point; Peter is so then. Signing a once-great player doesn’t magically restore him to his old greatness; if anything, guaranteed money might soften him more. The Dolphins found out the hard way when they rescinded Olivier Vernon’s transition tag, hoping to replace his production with Mario Williams for half the cost. Whoops. Williams started five games, made nine tackles, collected a meager 1.5 sacks, and looked like a shell of himself. The Dolphins released him last week. But Williams was also a nonfactor for the 2015 Bills: 15 starts, 15 tackles, and five sacks (and never drew double-teams). How was this a surprise?

Meanwhile, Vernon started all 16 games for the 2015 Dolphins, notching 41 tackles and 7.5 sacks; opponents actually had to plan for Vernon. The Giants seemingly overpaid for him last spring, but Vernon’s 2016 production (16 starts, 46 tackles, and 8.5 sacks) helped revive what became a stellar Giants defense. Had the Dolphins kept Vernon to pair on the opposite side of Cameron Wake and an emerging Andre Branch, their dominating pass rush could have hidden their poor cornerback play. Maybe it’s dangerous to overpay good-but-not-great players; it’s certainly something that Bill Belichick has consistently avoided in New England. But it’s much worse to overpay washed-up players. You’re draining your salary cap for no real reason.

A good current example: Adrian Peterson, once the league’s best running back … only now, it’s 2017, and injuries and a heavy workload have taken its toll. Maybe Peterson isn’t completely done as a productive NFL player, but Father Time is parked outside his house with the engine running. If he’s released by the Vikings, will a needy team reward him for past performance with a meaty deal? History says yes. And it might even work for a few months. Declining players can fool teams by appearing young and vibrant in the offseason and even September and October. But guess what happens as the weather turns in November, December, and January, right when the games count most? Father Time throws them in the football hearse and drives away. Stay away from declining veterans.

Rule No. 2: Don’t Be Lucy

In the 1950s, the great Lucille Ball had a smash-hit television series called I Love Lucy. Lucy had a knack for getting into trouble. In one episode, Lucy loses her earrings in her bedroom and spends most of the episode trying to find them. When her husband Ricky comes home, he finds Lucy on the floor of their living room and asks what she’s doing. She replies that she’s looking for her earrings. When Ricky asks where she lost them, Lucy tells him that it was the bedroom. Confused, Ricky wonders why she’s looking in the living room. And Lucy replies, “The light is much better out here.”

That exchange explains why so many NFL teams fumble in free agency — they search where the light is brightest instead of addressing their harshest needs. Remember the 49ers last spring? They brought in offensive guru Chip Kelly but kept an unwinnable Colin Kaepernick–Blaine Gabbert platoon. How could Kelly fix THAT? And why would Kelly even take the gig without a promise to try to obtain a better quarterback? Besides selecting Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel in the sixth round, the 49ers completely ignored their most glaring need. Within a year, they dumped Kelly and brought in Kyle Shanahan. You have a better chance of seeing Shanahan play his father at QB than you do of seeing him run Kaepernick and Gabbert back out for another year.

The 2016 Niners might as well be the 2017 Jags: new coach (Doug Marrone), new personnel decision-maker (Tom Coughlin), same pulsating problem at QB (Blake Bortles). Will they emulate the old Jags regime by praying that Bortles will suddenly become good, despite overwhelming evidence that it’s never happening? Or will they address their most pressing need? Despite all their recent praise of Bortles, my sense is that Coughlin’s brain trust already has studied enough film to realize they need another quarterback. But you never know. They might spend the spring crawling around in Lucy’s living room.

Rule No. 3: Behave Like Mike McDermott

Did Rounders really come out almost 20 years ago? It feels like yesterday when Mike McD (played by Matt Damon) battled Teddy KGB to pay off his buddy’s gambling debts. In the movie’s climactic scene, Mike McD spots a “tell” — the poker term for a change in behavior that gives clues about the player’s hand and tendencies in general.

Most agents will admit that if they have two teams willing to pay a king’s ransom for a free agent, they are extremely fortunate. Normally, it’s only one team. So they have to create the illusion of a second bidder to bump up the prices — a skill that many of them have mastered over the years. Clubs rarely realize their “tell.” Using their press contacts, we learn that Free Agent X has “five visits lined up,” and that he’s “taking his time” before picking a team. It is not a complete fabrication, but those five teams aren’t playing poker with the same piles of chips. Maybe one team wants to go all in, but the other four are hanging around and hoping nobody has a killer hand (so they can steal the pot). This is when emulating Mike McD helps. You HAVE to understand the market. You have to know the difference between an all-in team and a steal-the-pot team. Know your poker table and learn the players’ tells.

A good example from last spring: the Saints overpaying for yet another skill player while ignoring their porous defense. Who really wanted to pay Coby Fleener $36 million over five years with $18 million guaranteed? Fleener delivered New Orleans eight starts and 50 catches; meanwhile, their defense kept getting torched partly because they shorted it by $36 million. Trust me, nobody else was ponying up that money for an oversize inside slot receiver. But the Saints ignored Fleener’s tell and lost the pot.

Another example: Any free agent who claims that he “won’t give the home team a discount,” like Jermaine Kearse did last month. Translation: “Please, make us an offer! We don’t have a good one brewing right now. HELP!”

Agents love drumming up the illusion of a developing market, and many times they do a brilliant job of fooling one or two teams. Especially the desperate ones. Some advice: Find your bargains at Costco, not during the first few days of free agency. Only April brings the real discounts, once the supply and demand shifts and panic starts to set in with players and agents. Until then, know the tells. To paraphrase a famous line from Mike McD, if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, then you are the sucker.

Rule No. 4: Scout Inside Out, Not Outside In

This phrase comes from the legendary Bill Walsh, and right now, it’s one of the biggest reasons the Patriots compete for Super Bowls every year. The Patriots are terrific at understanding which players fit best in their system — it’s why they keep unearthing a never-ending supply of Chris Hogans, Alan Branches, and Kyle Van Noys. They scout inside out. So many other franchises fail because they keep changing their schemes (and when they do, many of their players might not fit in the new one), or because they don’t understand their own scheme well enough to find and develop the right players for it. They scout outside in.

There’s no better example than Tavon Austin and the Rams. Did you know he’s their highest-paid player? He’s on the books for $15 million this season! That seems a little high for someone who scored 12 offensive touchdowns in four seasons; last year, he averaged 8.8 yards a catch, which would be fine if he was their backup tight end. I keep hearing that the Rams believe new coach Sean McVay will figure out, finally, how to unleash Austin’s talents in the right offense. That’s the Rams front office scouting outside in — they see the playmaking talent, only no consistently productive scheme can highlight that talent. Like Percy Harvin before him, Austin is an expensive accessory — like wearing a Rolex for show even though you can keep track of time on your phone. He can carry a play, not an offense.

Teams that succeed in free agency know exactly what their scheme requires at every position, then find players to fit those requirements. The Giants did it with defensive tackle Damon Harrison. The Falcons did with center Alex Mack. The expensive deals they shelled out were definitely worth it, because Atlanta and New York scouted inside out. How many teams will emulate those big-ticket signings and find the perfect marriage of scheme, need, and player? I’m looking at these four teams:

1. Dallas needs to go all in for Chargers defensive end/linebacker Melvin Ingram. He fits their scheme perfectly, gives the Cowboys an elite pass rusher from the edge, and improves an already solid defense. Why overpay Jason Pierre-Paul for past performance when you can splurge on a blue-chipper hitting his prime?

2. If the Giants sign Detroit’s Larry Warford, he would give them a solid run blocker who could also help protect the inside of Eli Manning’s pocket, allowing Eli to step up in pressure (which is when he really excels). If the Giants don’t use free-agent money and/or draft picks to fix their offensive line, the last few years of the Eli Manning era will zoom by faster than you’d think.

3. The Chiefs need to replace the once-great Derrick Johnson, who fell off because of age and injuries (and not coincidentally, took Kansas City’s defensive ceiling with him). Adding Buffalo’s Zach Brown improves their speed and tackling; he’s one of the fastest linebackers out there. One golden rule to remember: When your middle linebacker slows down, so does your defense.

4. Speaking of Buffalo, new Bills honcho Sean McDermott coached Kawann Short in Carolina and knows that he’s a streaky but talented player. Because Kyle Williams is not the same player he once was, the Bills need to find a legitimate inside threat to help Marcell Dareus whenever pass protection slides to him. That’s Short. If they don’t sign Short, then they have to draft someone like him. And if they do neither, that means the Bills didn’t scout inside out.

And if those four moves happen? Remember: Don’t grade them in March and April. Grade them 10 months from now. You can’t win the offseason; you can only lose it. Just ask Chip Kelly.