It’s interesting to analyze the logistical strategy that was built into the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the Player’s Union (NFLPA) and the National Football League (NFL). Since its inception the official start of the free agency period has coincided with the start of the new League Year. Traditionally that’s around the first week of March and with it, the feeding frenzy of NFL clubs looking for a quick fix to what ails them. In the early years of the CBA, clubs placed a significant emphasis on their roster improvement by focusing intently on veteran acquisitions. Agents knew this and skillfully used “the first 48” as leverage in negotiating and finalizing a deal.
In such a competitive industry everything is viewed through a win-loss window, and NFL club decision makers weren’t going to let a divisional rival or conference foe get the best of them in any facet of operations. So the bidding war was fast and furious, with glass ceilings in the market value of veteran free agent contract negotiation. The best laid plans were shattered when an anxious head coach or over aggressive general manager couldn’t stick to the carefully crafted plans of his cap & contracts manager.
“We must have this player! He’s the difference in us making the playoffs or drafting in the Top 10 next season.” Budgets were pushed, bonuses added, and back ends inflated to keep up with the “average at the position”. Most Directors of Football Administration would tell you they’d rather see free agency after the annual NFL draft. Push the draft forward and allow for free agency somewhere down the road.
Opponents argue the need to get veterans into the facility for offseason training and assimilation into the team culture. Agents want the aforementioned leverage of putting the big money upfront and spent first on their clients. It also gives them a wider window to find work for their players not already under contract. The League likes the late April fan interest in the event. All are valid points and from the various perspectives hard to really argue with.
NFL draft strategy
Current draft strategies are as fluid and dynamic as the ink in the ballpoint pen that signs a six year, seventy-million dollar deal. Clubs are knee deep in building their boards, but the flux of a particular player up and down his positional ranking has as much to do with what a club accomplishes in free agency as it does with how he ran at the Combine. High dollar free agent additions to fill holes in a bleeding roster don’t often make room for Top 100 picks at the same position.
If a club does miss on a coveted positional need in free agency, focus then indeed shifts to filling that need through the draft. There’s a lot of discussion about “need vs value” in developing an overall draft strategy, but make no mistake, leave a hole open after both free agency and the draft at a particular position, and it’s more than likely going to come back to bite you in the following regular season. Needs are a must fill.
Influence of player contracts
This question was recently presented to The Football Educator; How much does a current player’s uncertain contract situation weigh on overall draft strategy and priority?
When resigning your own players, the draft certainly can give you added leverage in negotiating a deal. Top players will obviously explore other options within the League, but a club can reach their agreed upon “ceiling” and walk away if disciplined enough to seek replacement talent in the draft. This is exactly what has happened from the hard lessons learned over years of bad free agent deals across the NFL.
Stick with the plan
The prudent professional football front office management team sticks with their plan. They’ve analyzed the market and coordinated their cap & cash with the evaluations coming from player personnel. The two efforts MUST be synchronized. That’s often why you see the results of Charles Woodson or Dwight Freeney, iconic players with their respective clubs, given their walking papers early in the process. NFL front offices have a firm understanding of what they can afford and what’s available to replace the released production.
Flip flop the order?
Back to the order of free agency and the draft. What if the two were switched? Certainly clubs would have a better idea of what young talent they’ve already added to their roster. The emphasis of “draft and develop” would be even more validated. Clubs could fill remaining holes with veteran experience, zeroing in on specific areas of need for improvement. Agents would still have backend leverage to negotiate big dollar deals (i.e. “my player is your last chance”). And overall teams might be even less likely to chase after an errant answer through free agency.
Won’t happen, but just a thought.