Recently TFE touched upon the idea of Free Agency beginning after the NFL draft in April. Of course this won’t happen as the window of opportunity has come and gone with the signing of the new 10 year CBA between the National Football League and the NFL Players Association (Union).
The best laid plans
As it stands, Free Agency begins March 13th and a frenzy of signing usually commences thereafter. There’ll be talented players available for the taking later in the process, but by and large the top acquisitions will be snatched up immediately. Theoretically, a large portion of a club’s Free Agent budget should go towards keeping its own players off the market by signing rising young talent to lucrative contract extensions. This the result of years of development on the club’s part in exchange for consistent on and off the field performance from the player.
After all, isn’t that idea? Doesn’t the path to success in the NFL travel directly through drafting top college prospects and nurturing them through your system? As they grow within the culture of your club, they ultimately earn the right to bigger and better paydays than perhaps what a 4th round rookie contract brought four years earlier?
But the current system has it all backwards. Free Agency commences prior to the draft. Pressure to improve and bolster the chances of winning in the fall is felt immediately at the start of the spring. Fans and media begin penciling in would be NFL Free Agents and filling up the depth chart. Coaches and GM’s feel the demands of adding various pieces to the puzzle NOW in lieu of being labeled “cheap” down the road.
Agents understand these timely burdens on the front office and are able to leverage more cash from the club that just can’t wait for delayed opportunities. So the big money is thrown out at the franchise Wide Receiver, lockdown Defensive Corner or impenetrable Offensive Tackle. “Who knows what’s going to be available in the draft?” But aren’t these the biggest checks a club will write throughout the year? Shouldn’t a club know ALL aspects of their team before doing so?
How it SHOULD work
That’s exactly the point. With the draft moved ahead of Free Agency, clubs would be afforded the opportunity to build through youthful potential before spending money on past production. The new CBA has tempered the out of control rookie contracts that were making the upper rounds difficult to absorb. Now clubs can afford to draft the best player, capable of helping the team early and not break the bank doing so.
Nothing would please a GM more than to unexpectedly see a dominant rush end fall to his pick, versus getting locked in a bidding war to lure a veteran free agent in at inflated numbers. Such a scenario allows for more judicious decision making on the part of GM’s and Coaches. Free Agency would be the closing pieces to the tinkering of a roster, rather than the foundation of a quick fix rebuilding effort.
“Just WIN baby”
But in today’s NFL the pressure of “What have you done for me lately” and “Win now” can be so overwhelming and competitive that inevitably bad deals get made under bad circumstances. Without strong overriding leadership at the top of the front office, factions will continue to look for the upfront fix to roster building and the NFL draft will be left as the “spackle” for the cracks.
Having your cake and…
Why do we speak out of both sides of our mouths as an industry? Why do we clamor for clubs to draft and develop, yet at the same time show enough aggression on the market to escape the label of “tightfisted”? Because players and their agents want it both ways. They long fought for the “strike it rich” moment of being drafted in the first two or three rounds and then immediately began looking to “greener pastures” through free agency.
They want the top dollars going to veterans, yet chide clubs for their poor decisions in the process. The NFLPA wants it this way. They want the money spent upfront first. They want their membership to reap the rewards of “time in service” through profitable NFL Free Agent contracts.
As a result the pressure remains on the clubs; wait until the NFL draft and you’re CHEAP, load up on NFL free agents and you’re STUPID.