When the bell rings and bidding begins on the NFL free-agent market, the ensuing scramble can appear to be chaos. The truth is that almost every movement has been carefully choreographed over a period of months. No hand is raised without considerable dissection, debate and deliberation.
This is how NFL teams prepare for what happens in the elbowing and jostling of the free-agent pit.
While others are consumed by the challenges of a game week, pro scouts and player personnel directors begin to consider long-term possibilities. A high-profile player with an expiring contract like Ndamukong Suh will be scrutinized by pro personnel scouts and discussed in various team headquarters every week during the season. In addition to free agents, front-office men also think about players who are under contract for the following year but could be cut. Darnell Dockett, for instance, was thoroughly evaluated by many teams long before he was released by the Arizona Cardinals in late February.
"In the fall, it's hallway chatter more than anything," said Trent Kirchner, Seattle Seahawks director of pro personnel. "You look at the list and project how players might fit into your team, and envision what kind of role they would play. If somebody notices something about a free agent, there might be a discussion in the department. When we are playing a team that has an interesting free-agent-to-be, we'll let our coaches know and ask their opinion about the player."
By this time, every team already has an extensive file on every potential free agent. Former Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills general manager Bill Polian, who was recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said collegiate reports on all players are electronically transferred into a pro evaluation system. Then, the pro personnel department files a report on every player at the end of each season. That forms the foundation of the evaluation.
Numerous front-office men agree it's critical to take a fresh look at each player every year, because players are almost always evolving or regressing. "A lot of it is how players have developed since they got into the league," Kirchner said. "One of the hardest things to overcome is your initial impression of the player coming into the league. You have to start the evaluation process all over again. It can be difficult to do."
Many teams have their first free-agency meetings late in the season. The meetings typically go for about a week and take up the better part of each day. In Flowery Branch, Georgia, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff leads discussions that include assistant general manager Scott Pioli, salary-cap specialist Nick Polk, player personnel director Lionel Vital, pro personnel coordinator DeJuan Polk and pro scouts Bob Kronenberg and Michael Ross. Other teams expand the group to include select college scouts who have crossover responsibilities, or analytics specialists.
It is typical for evaluators to watch tape of 30 to 40 potential free agents during these meetings. They may study as many as four games of each player. Kirchner said the Seahawks also peek ahead to the following year's free-agent class at this time.
Potential targets begin to emerge in December, and teams typically begin to do background work on players who interest them. They want to know how these players have carried themselves professionally, what kind of teammates they have been and how they have treated people who they are in contact with. Their legwork may entail reaching out to coaches who have worked with them, and players who have been teammates. One team keeps a database that shows every teammate a player has ever had and every coach that player has been exposed to.
"If we had a coach who had been with a player at some point, he could give us a detailed firsthand report," said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "If we had a player who had been with him, he would do the same thing. If not, we would go to people around the league we were close with or friendly with and try to get some insight along those lines."
For players with a history of missteps, such as defensive end Greg Hardy, the process becomes a little more complicated. Every team has a security specialist who checks law enforcement and court records, and he also might investigate further by making calls to acquaintances. If a general manager signs off on a free agent like Hardy, he will have to get approval from ownership before moving forward.
Once the season ends, coaches are available to come to the free-agent party. The head coach is a strong voice in every team's free-agent process; in some cases he is the strongest voice. On all teams, the opinions of assistant coaches are sought. On some teams, those opinions are heeded.
"The grades of the assistants are very important here," Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "[GM] Scot [McCloughan] has been good about getting input from everybody. The coaches are important in determining scheme fits. There are some cases where guys may not fit. We are changing a little bit on defense, so it may not be as much of an issue this year. But you need free agents to be impactful right away, so you have to get that right. You look at some free agents from the past, like Darrelle Revis and Michael Bennett, who were able to step in and be used in an effective manner. There are major players out there who can have an immediate impact if you do it right."
Scouts find it easier to study NFL players than college players because there are fewer unknowns and variables with established pros. The free-agent process, subsequently, is a little more cut-and-dried than preparing for a draft.
"With college kids, you are evaluating them against their peers in college, which is an inferior level of competition by a wide margin," Polian said. "That's guesswork. In the NFL you are judging them against peers in the league. That's not hard."
Another round of meetings, with more chairs at the table, is scheduled for this time of year. The theme is more big picture. Before the season ends, a group of executives cannot comprehensively evaluate its team.
"At this point we can determine what our scheme is and how we view our team," said Dimitroff, whose Falcons underwent a change in coaching staff and will subsequently have new schemes. "Now we can start talking more specifically about potential matches."
Without the grind of the football season, everyone involved has more time to break down game tape. For head coaches and special teams coaches in particular, there is a lot of work to do because they need to know something about almost every free agent. Gruden said he tries to watch three or four games of all of the free agents who are on the Redskins' radar.
"I'm responsible for everyone who is free, so you grade a lot of guys, and a lot of them end up getting tagged or re-signed," he said. "As a result you have some wasted time in there."
By now, every team has a free-agent board, which is very similar to its draft board. All available players are ranked under every position and graded. The Falcons, in fact, have about 10 free-agent boards throughout their building, as many of the evaluators have a personal board in their offices that reflects their opinions.
The board that counts is kept by Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn. It is a 10'x10' white board in Dimitroff's office. As information becomes available, Dimitroff marks the board with a dry-erase marker. Another version of the board is kept electronically so the Falcons can access it via touchscreen. The electronic version is more detailed, with a lengthy file on each free agent that includes his draft report, pro scouting reports, character information, medical records, past contracts, playing time numbers and statistical data.
The board should be pretty much set by March, though there may be minor adjustments. Most front offices will have a set of meetings about one week prior to the start of free agency in which they home in on their target list. By this time, teams should have more of a feel for the projected price tags of free agents.
The scouting combine has long been an effectual singles bar for free agents and NFL teams, with subtle flirting that often precedes big moves to come.
"There are ways to let guys know you have interest without getting into full-fledged negotiations," said former Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns executive Joe Banner, who has signed dozens of free agents.
During the free-agency grace period that began Saturday, the feeling-out process accelerates. Teams are prohibited from making concrete offers until free agency begins, but during the grace period they can present hypotheticals and parameters.
Determining the value of a free agent is an important part of preparation for every team. Most of the number crunching is done in the days leading up to free agency.
"In the calm moments, we'd grade the guy, discuss his impact and determine his value," Banner said. "We'd have a figure where we hoped to get a deal done. Then beyond that, there was kind of a drop-dead number. But we didn't want to get into an auction mentality. In a negotiation, you can get caught up in trying to win the negotiation, the enthusiasm, the excitement of signing the guy. We wanted to figure out the numbers before running the risk of getting carried away with emotional factors."
Overpaying a free agent is a common mistake, and it's a mistake that can have ramifications beyond a player's inability to justify his salary.
"If you give people outside the building bigger contracts, the people who have been loyal Redskins players might get a little upset," Gruden said. "You have to be selective and make sure the guys you sign perform at a high level, or that the role players you sign can fit the role."
The Eagles used a massive chart that helped them gauge comparative values of players. Every NFL player contract was on the chart. It included information such as year of signing, total money, average compensation of the first year, first two years, first three years, etc., partial guarantee, full guarantee and incentives. Also on the chart was some of the player's profile information: age, height-weight, accrued NFL seasons, playing time percentages, Pro Bowl appearances and other honors.
Part of establishing value is projecting durability. Free agent running back DeMarco Murray from the Dallas Cowboys might not be paid like the NFL's most productive runner in part because teams are skeptical about his ability to stay healthy. Murray has a long injury history dating back to his college days, and has missed 11 games in four seasons.
To research players like Murray, general managers will often lean on their team physicians and trainers.
"It would not be unusual for a general manager to have you do a little bit of reconnaissance," said David Chao, the former Chargers physician who now is a practicing orthopedic surgeon in San Diego and a columnist for National Football Post. "The first thing you do is ask for [medical] records. If they provide you with the records, it's easy. Sometimes they are happy to give you access if a player is coming off an injury and they want to address a concern. You also can get permission from the player to talk to his doctor."
Team doctors all know each other. Although they have to be careful not to violate privacy laws, there are subtle ways for them to help one another understand a player's medical state. Eventually, the team will get medical information of its own, as free agents typically undergo a head-to-toe physical exam when they visit each team. If a team has doubts about a player's medical condition, the exam is likely to be more extensive, Chao said.
The more information a team has about each free agent, the easier it is to put the big-picture roster plan in place. And that's what many teams try to accomplish as the start of the new league year approaches.
Team architects have to consider factors beyond the free agent and their own rosters, though. In planning meetings prior to the start of free agency, they also discuss how much competition there will be for the player's services, whether or not his former team has the resources to retain him and if they believe the player's agent will be a help or hindrance in their efforts to sign him.
The Falcons will compare the free-agent class to the draft class at each position, and determine which provides better solutions. Factors include the depth of players in each pool, draft positioning and number of picks, salary-cap issues, cash issues and the chances of getting an immediate impact at a given position.
"If you have positions of need and the draft is heavy at those positions, most teams, as we do, focus on the draft," Dimitroff said. "If we need a proven player at a certain position and deem the price to be right, then we consider free agency."
The mechanics also have to be considered. Teams plot out the timing of offers, scheduling visits and sales pitches. Some teams will try to be the first to get a foot in the door, and pick up top free agents with private planes. Many teams will provide a swag bag with team merchandise. Some will put together packets with information on housing, area schools, local culture and team history.
The Seahawks usually plan on taking the free agent to dinner at a hot-spot restaurant. Attendees will likely include head coach Pete Carroll, GM John Schneider, a few members of the personnel department and some of the current Seahawks players who have volunteered to help recruiting efforts.
"You sell them on our city, our fans, our culture with Pete and John and the fact that we strive to be a consistent championship-caliber team," Kirchner said.
The Falcons will work on pitches that appeal to the free agent's desire to have sustained success.
"We stress the fit with the scheme, the opportunity to grow and the idea of longevity," Dimitroff said. "We provide an athletic performance model that could help prolong a player's career. I think most teams are selling technology to free agents as a competitive advantage."
Teams also plan on trying to get a feel for the free agent's personality. But by the time they are breaking bread, their research has usually told them what they need to know.
"They will be on their best behavior," Gruden said. "But you can get a feel for finding out if they love football. We're looking for great passion for the game."
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.