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Mr. Scot

Drafting well could be extremely important...

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...because the next three years' free agent classes (including this one) are projected to stink, and maybe even beyond that.

From Albert Breer of The Monday Morning Quarterback: 2018 Free Agency could be the start of a bad trend
 

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No offense to any of the impending free agents out there. This isn’t personal.

But you don’t need to rip off Bill Belichick or Howie Roseman’s free-agent board to know the truth. The new league year opens next Wednesday. And there simply isn’t a whole lot to be had on the market.

Yes, guys will get paid. There’s a good chance Carolina’s Andrew Norwell eclipses Kevin Zeitler’s benchmark of $12 million per to become the game’s highest paid guard. Ravens center Ryan Jensen has a chance of beating the record $10.34 million average Jags center Brandon Linder is getting. Patriots tackle Nate Solder could move into the Top 5 or so paid left tackles, if he chooses to bolt Foxboro.

And by now, you know soon-to-be ex-Redskin Kirk Cousins will at least have offers that will blow away what Jimmy Garoppolo got just last month from the Niners.

So the NFL is desperate for offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Past that? Good luck finding much. Jags receiver Allen Robinson is coming off a blown ACL. By his own admission, Patriots corner Malcolm Butler had a bad year, then got benched for the Super Bowl. Sammy Watkins? Trumaine Johnson? Carlos Hyde? Justin Pugh?

Yeah. Lots of teams have cap space, and there’s not much here to spend it.

“I think it was Carl Banks who said it, talking about the Giants free agents,” recalled one AFC personnel exec this week. “You’re not just buying the free agent, you’re also buying the reason he’s a free agent.”

 

Banks has a really good point here (and to be clear, that's Carl Banks, not Carlton).

alfonso_ribeiro_56664.jpg

 

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That point’s always been a good one this time of year, but it’s more applicable than ever now. Almost no high-end players without strings attached make it to the market anymore. That’s why, if you look at any free-agent list this month, you may not exactly be pushing aside plans to track the madness on March 14.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to give you a fun anecdote about one of the draft’s top quarterbacks that explains why teams love him; pass along the name of a position coach who could be a real difference maker on a new staff; look at the value of skill position players; break down the spot Seattle’s in after all the movement on Wednesday; and go through a ton of rumblings heading into next week.
NFL

We’ll start with the next phase of the player acquisition process, and that starts with the open of the new league year at 4 p.m. ET next Wednesday. And if you want overriding reasons on why the group, on the whole, kinda stinks, there really are two: the cap keeps rising, and teams are getting smarter in how they approach it.

“That’s definitely the case, it’s been a trend and it makes sense,” said the lead negotiator for one NFC team. “It certainly fits with the logic that more teams are being more proactive in locking up their own players. I don’t know that there’s even another side to it.”

This being true, it becomes even more important than before that you draft very well, like the Saints did last year.
 

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That’s the first part: More money to spend, more intelligent ways to disperse it. But there are different levels to this, so let's get into those now...

• Good players are signed earlier. More teams are getting in front of big contracts, and the world champions are a good example of it. The Eagles gave Lane Johnson $11.25 million per coming out of his third year. Some scoffed at that price for a right tackle. Two years later, there are guards paid more. They also locked up Zach Ertz at that point, before Washington’s Jordan Reed and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce got theirs.

The rule now holds that teams can’t do deals until drafted players complete their third year, and teams are acting quickly at that point.

• More trades. We’ve certainly seen it this week. And it plays into why there are fewer cap casualties, and fewer good young players making it to the market. If you’re sick of a guy or deem him too expensive, you’re more likely than ever before to be able to find a viable trade partner.

We've seen a lot of trade activity this offseason (none of it actually consummated yet, but hey) and it sounds like that could continue.
 

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Bills defensive lineman Marcell Dareus was on his way to being a 2018 cap casualty before the Jaguars dealt for him, for next to nothing, in October. Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan was headed for free agency this spring, and then the Eagles traded for him in April and signed him to a four-year, $48 million deal in November.

The bottom line is a new aggressive breed of NFL executive is out there on the trade market. And so if a talented player isn’t a fit somewhere, chances are his employer will be doing more, and finding more help, to get him to a place where he is.

• A reliance on younger players. Analytics data says it’s smart to play guys early, and that loading up on mid-round picks is a more effective way to fill out the middle of your roster than to spend $6 million or $7 million on a middle-class free agent.

The result? Teams have answers on players earlier, so they’re less likely to be caught off guard by a bushel of guys coming of age at the end of their rookie deals, making for decisions to let some go to market. Those mid-round picks who grow up fast, because the roles are there early, get contracts before they expire. And teams put more value in comp picks, and to get those you have to do less in free agency.

Trades had actually been on a downward trend for several years, but now they're starting to pick up again and this is why. Still not seeing as many player for player trades as there once were, but who knows? That could change too.

 

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The Vikings are carrying upwards of $50 million in cap space (hello, Kirk) with a loaded roster in part because they’ve crushed it in this area. Adam Thielen, a former college free agent, was a big contributor as a minimum salary guy in 2016, then did a four-year deal with a base of less than $20 million last March. Likewise, defensive end Danielle Hunter and receiver Stefon Diggs were middle-round picks.

• Cap space means teams can use the tag, if need be. So what happens when you do have a late bloomer? More teams than ever have the room now to accommodate using one on a player who they might want to see another year of production from, before signing that guy long-term.

It’s how we got here with Cousins, and there are two good examples of it this year. Lamarcus Joyner was just a nickel corner for the Rams in 2017. Then Wade Phillips arrived, moved him to safety, and, in the new scheme, they really had something. So they tagged him. Ditto for Dallas and DeMarcus Lawrence, who broke through in 2017 after being dogged by injury and off-field issues earlier in his career.

Years ago, the Cowboys and Rams were tight to the cap annually. This year, Dallas was fine allotting $17.143 million to Lawrence, and Los Angeles was cool putting aside $11.287M for Joyner.

And that's going to be the kind of example teams will want to follow. Naturally this means actually developing the players you draft is equally important.
 

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• Matters of job security. If you feel like the turnover in positions of power with NFL teams comes up in a lot of different areas, you’re on to something. It does here, in a very interesting way.

In the past, the free agent market was driven largely by GMs and coaches on the hot seat. The 2016 Jaguars would be one example: Gus Bradley made it to a fourth year, and the team signed Malik Jackson, Tayshaun Gipson, and Chris Ivory. But coaches getting such a stay of execution has become the exception, not the rule.

With fewer teams taking this sort of urgent, short-term focus to drive the market, there’s less incentive for players to get there and fewer guys whacked on the back end.

So with more cap space, and more perspective, teams have wound up following what conventional wisdom has always held—buying high on the veteran market isn’t the wisest way to build a team.

It can help to supplement already good teams, like Denver’s 2014 splash (Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders) did. But you won’t find your foundation in the middle of March.

On an annual basis, we have people who want the Panthers to go nuts on the free agent market while others want to take it easy.  Current NFL trends are favoring the latter.

 

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“Teams are much more adept at seeing the whole cycle,” said one NFC team president. “More focus on comp picks, a lot more trades, it all plays into it.”

That, of course, isn’t to tell you not to get excited about what’ll happen over the next several days. The quarterback movement alone will be compelling enough to keep everyone’s attention. But it is to say that the pickings are slim, and that really isn’t just a one-year thing.

And if these trends continue, they may be so for years to come.

I know there are people who really hate the notion of "building through the draft" but the current trends in the NFL are going to make the ability to do that well more important than ever before.  Free agency isn't going to be offering the kind of "plug and play" that it once did, so folks annually hoping for big free agent splashes are likely to be disappointed (and if you're a Panthers fan doing this, you should be used to that). In the current atmosphere, teams like the Steelers who draft well and develop their players so they have the "next man up" already waiting in the wings are going to be more successful while teams that have depended heavily on free agency may find the "slim pickings" making their job more difficult.

Here's hoping the Panthers will be prepared to draft and develop good players efficiently and proficiently.

Failure to do so will mean inability to compete. 

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Well this is a shitty draft too. The thing is we are in this to win now. the window is closing. we still have plenty of guys that are developing three years out. both our corners and funchess. Vernon Butler, Shaq, Williams, Byrd, Samuel. We don't need more of those guys. we need impact veterans. 

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3 minutes ago, RumHam said:

Well this is a shitty draft too. The thing is we are in this to win now. the window is closing. we still have plenty of guys that are developing three years out. both our corners and funchess. Vernon Butler, Shaq, Williams, Byrd, Samuel. We don't need more of those guys. we need impact veterans. 

That's the whole point though.  "Impact veterans" are going to be very few and far between in this year's free agency, as well as next year's and quite likely several years to come.

 

Just now, Lemory said:

Well isn't drafting well always important?

Depends on who you ask.  Some folks hate the "build through the draft" philosophy.

But with filling holes via free agency becoming less of an option, drafting well and developing the players you draft is going to be more important than it has been since before free agency existed.

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5 minutes ago, Mr. Scot said:

Drafting well could be extremely important...

Oh lawd!

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Just now, Mr. Scot said:

That's the whole point though.  "Impact veterans" are going to be very few and far between in this year's free agency, as well as next year's and quite likely several years to come.

Do you want someone who knows what they're doing? or a bunch of players lost in coverage or running the wrong routes because they may be good in five years?

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Just now, RumHam said:

Do you want someone who knows what they're doing? or a bunch of players lost in coverage or running the wrong routes because they may be good in five years?

The teams who have the players who "know what they're doing" are locking them up and not letting them go.

You can't sign those kinds of guys in free agency if they aren't there.

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As much as I hate the Seahawks, thats pretty much how they won the Super bowl a few years ago. The entire Legion of Boom (Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman), Wilson, Bruce Irvin, Wagner, etc. were all on rookie contracts thanks to a span of incredible drafting.

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3 minutes ago, tiger7_88 said:

Oh lawd!

Novel concept, right?

The Steelers were draft pioneers in the 70s because free agency didn't exist.  With the trend now being that fewer good players will even make it to free agency, it's about to go back to that kind of atmosphere.

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1 minute ago, Dave Gettleman's Shorts said:

As much as I hate the Seahawks, thats pretty much how they won the Super bowl a few years ago. The entire Legion of Boom (Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman), Wilson, Bruce Irvin, Wagner, etc. were all on rookie contracts thanks to a span of incredible drafting.

Just like the Saints last season, and potentially for the next few years.

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12 minutes ago, Mr. Scot said:

Just like the Saints last season, and potentially for the next few years.

The Saints are going to be trouble for the next few years. However, good thing Brees is probably done in a few years and he's going to get a contract with $30+ million in cap.

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The Panthers have done a lot of drafting very young players lately and having the a coaching staff work to coach them up.  Half of their picks in the first 3 rounds the last 4 years have been 20 year olds when drafted (Turner, Thompson, Funchess, Worley, McCaffery, and Samuel). 

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And now we have "I learned from watching" Hurney to figure this all out.

God help us.

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