This is a first for all NFL franchises: having the draft ahead of free agency. In every NFL war room, the speculation over what players could have been aggressively recruited in the free-agency period of 2011 is like a 747 in a holding pattern and unable to land. Teams must proceed without using a large piece of their strategies, because the landing strip is full with smaller planes that are getting ready for flight.
When planning for free agency, teams study their rosters and submit grades at the end of each season at a large personnel meeting. This meeting allows both coaches and scouts a chance to read reports and announce their grades for each player currently on the roster.
Then, a special session with the organization’s pro director, front-office executives, the general manager and the head coach takes place. All parties discuss and grade all restricted free agents to establish a priority list and assign tender offers to those who grade out high. Initial judgments are also made on unrestricted free agents, and those who no longer maintain a team’s interest are released.
The pro director, prior to this meeting, has targeted the NFL list of RFAs and UFAs based on game tape review, playing time and injury history, and develops a plan of attack to present in the special session. Before making any decisions and creating what is called a “free-agent target list,” the college scouting director would be called in to give a layout of the upcoming college prospects and where the draft is heavy or light at a given position. This gives a clear vision and is the final stage of the meeting prior to game-planning the ultimate direction in which the team will head.
The free-agent process, as well as the NFL Draft, is a guaranteed form of procuring players. One can weigh all options and still have a clear-cut plan. While the draft board is not set prior to the start of the new NFL year every February, there should be a good overview of each position.
With free agency on hold this year, a team’s draft philosophy and process cannot waiver. It must continue with great focus, starting with the vertical stacking by position; attaching bowl game grades; All-Star game grades; analysis of combine prep work; processing combine data; spring workout data; and, of course, the final stages of dressing the draft board with horizontal comparisons to achieve a final grade.
While several teams target and weigh the free-agency period as a heavy factor in accruing players, others target select players to fill hot spots and rely on building a roster through the bloodline of the organization – the draft. With the NFL and NFLPA in a lockout situation, it has affected not only the regular free-agency period, but teams’ ability to enhance other teams on draft day via trade.
The 2011 NFL draft has 254 selection slots, which include compensatory picks as well. The NFL personnel department has established a “draft grace period” allowing the draft picks to fly and visit with their new team. In this 24-hour period, there are to be no football-related activities (meetings, playbook review, film study, etc). The grace period provides a positive twist to a rather strange situation, allowing the draftees a chance to meet and greet the media before jetting out of town the next day.
For all draft-eligible players who go undrafted, they are considered college free agents and will be treated like NFL free agents, meaning they can’t be signed. Once the lockout ends, there will be considerable chaos in both the NFL and CFA market, which will be extremely interesting to track. Reading between the lines, a lot of jostling for position between clubs and agents has probably already begun.
The bottom line: NFL clubs should stay true to their board. Don’t reach, but rather go about business while drafting according to a premeditated structure. When free agency starts – and it will start – fill the hot spots still remaining on your club’s roster while improving the depth of your championship foundation.