What a Football Agent looks for when placing Free Agents

As a General Manager and head of a professional football front office management team it’s your responsibility to use any and all means available of acquiring talent to improve your club.  There are a number of avenues to take; draft, trades, waiver wire claims, practice squad raids, free agency.  The Football Educator has addressed one of the more recent headline acquisitions in Oakland Raiders’ controversial trade for QB Carson Palmer from the Cincinnati Bengals.

We’ve also looked at the conventional wisdom of building entirely through the draft and developing young players within your own system.  Certainly there’s an advantage to weighting your own requirements and vetting those players that may or may not have the makeup and moxy to be a member of your organization.

Then there’s free agency.  So much is made of the movement of veteran players around the NFL after the start of the League Year.  Just that one missing piece is often thought to be the “boom or bust” factor as a team heads into a coming season.  Every year there’s a tremendous amount of attention placed on the free agents at each position, and yet there’s an underlying anticipation whereby some fans and media look for failure.  In their eyes, free agency is a waste of money.  Throwing bucks at a bust for little in return.  Besides, “Who could honestly be worth that much?”

But as a club, you’re frowned upon if you don’t show some aggressiveness in the market.  Frequently such teams are painted as cheap and unwilling to put forth the required effort to improve.

The media follows all this with a microscope.  Their primary goal is to have the contract numbers before the NFL front office has a chance to input them into its own accounting ledger and all too frequently misinterpret the meaning & intention of the actual deal.  This sends out a ripple effect on the industry of “Player X was paid way too much by Team Y”, when the specifics of the contract haven’t truly been properly evaluated.

A top football agent will work free agency with the following goals in mind;

  1. Value of the deal – Above all is the lure of guaranteed money and the amount of cash that can be made before buyer’s remorse sets in.  Agents are looking to push a large amount into the first two years.  The length of the deal is often irrelevant and yet set to help offset cap charges (via proration) and to increase average salary (often for appearance sake only).  Finally the football agent looks to load up with incentives to protect himself and his player should he outperform the original deal.
  2. Opportunity – Agents are looking to place their player in the best opportunity possible.  Certainly investments made on highly sought after free agents require that player to be on the field in a starting capacity.  But frequent free agent deals are about presenting an upgrade in playtime potential and the ability to crawl out from behind an established veteran.  Players want to play and football agents will look for roster voids allowing them to do just that.
  3. Strength of the team – Many high profile players are looking for a chance to get out of a losing situation and into a winning environment.  Most teams with a consistency of success are at the top of a football agent’s list.  This forces the lesser teams to up the ante and sometimes overpay for the player in order to lure him into a rebuilding scenario.  Football agents and players are also looking for a strong roster that can complement and enhance the skill set of the free agent.  You wouldn’t want to send a top shelf wide receiver to a club that’s running the option.
  4. Background of the staff – Coaches and staffs have reputations in the player community.  There are those known to be player friendly and those known to be hardnosed.  League rules have put a curb on the degree of contact in practice and offseason drills, but some push the envelope.  Players will look to steer clear of such situations if they’re older or struggle with injury.  Others put emphasis on teaching ability to accelerate their learning or the overall management style of a head coach or staff.
  5. Geographics – Initially the draft determines the first few years of location for most players and the prudent draft choice is quick to point out how happy he is to be just about anywhere.  But as a player matures, settles down and begins a family, he may tend to look at geographic location with a keener eye.  Frequently decisions will be based on quality of life, schools, family presence, and hometown proximity.

As a club, the General Manager does his best to address all of the above.  In some instances he has little control over a particular situation and will look to minimize the impact of a negative feeling by the player.  The crafty football agent knows this and will work to offset a player’s reservations by once again softening the blow with cash.  Doesn’t like the opportunity?  “Nothing a little more bonus won’t help with.”  Has had an issue with a particular coach in the past?  “Might want to bump up the base salary a bit.”  Doesn’t care for the cold of northern winters?  “A little more guarantee and upfront “green” might warm up my player.”

All these issues must be tended to or the club risks setting up a “bust” situation; poor fit, loss of motivation, good player – bad team, wrong coach for needs of player, player doesn’t feel comfortable in the new location.  To zero in on just the value of the deal is all too often the wrong approach, but 9 times out of 10 it circles back to the guaranteed dollars.