In order to play in the NFL, you need players. Your team has 53 players on the roster, plus eight more on your practice squad. The average team also has about five players on Injured Reserve (IR) or Physically Unable to Perform (PUP), so in the NFL there's about 2,100 players, about 66 players on each team. Where can you find your players?
If an NFL player makes an opening day roster, then his average career length is six years. This means you need to get about eleven or twelve new players each year to replace guys who are retiring, or worn out, or just can't play at an NFL level anymore. That means each year you're going to turn over about 15% to 20% of your roster on average. You will have to be searching non-stop to find these dozen NFL caliber guys. In fact since your scouting is an art, not a science, you're going to need to bring in 25 to 40 new guys each year and have a competition, with the goal of retaining the best 66.
Better players last longer - players drafted in the first round last about nine years on average, and a player who makes the pro bowl lasts about eleven years on average. Obviously this means there's a lot of turnover among the fringe NFL players, those who barely make a roster or are on a practice squad perhaps only last one to four years.
There are several ways you can acquire players for your team. You can draft them - this year 254 players will be drafted, about eight per team. If we're looking for 32 warm new football bodies for our training camp, that's about a quarter of our requirement.
Immediately after the draft you can start calling young guys who weren't drafted. A handful of these guys will be sought after by more than one club and will command signing bonuses of as much as $20,000, however most of them feel lucky to get a chance at the NFL. A typical club will have about fifteen of these Undrafted Free Agents (UFAs). This will provide another half of our required 32 players.
The rest will come from street free agents - guys who have been waived by other clubs and are available for veteran minimum salary, typically.
You can also acquire players in free agency, or by trades. Trades are very rare these days. If the player is under contract, then his contract was designed for the salary cap of his current team. After a trade the original team is still on the hook for his pro-rated bonuses, and the new club has a contract that wasn't designed for their needs. Most of the time the new club will just wait for the player to get cut then work out a new deal if they can. Free agency is also available and used from time to time by every club. However, the past ten years have shown clearly that the real impact players tend to get signed by their original clubs, and the guys who get waived tend to have issues: health, attitude, effort. Free agency signings are busts about half the time - roughly the same rate for drafting - but the price is much higher. Many GMs think the risk / reward ratio for free agents is all wrong.
How to draft
All clubs now have a draft board. A club will rank somewhere around 300 to 350 college players on their draft board. The top five to fifteen players will each be graded individually; after that the players will be put into tiers. The 300+ players are not ranked #1 to #300, no one is dumb or arrogant enough to think they can scout and predict to that degree of precision. They're ranked about #1-#12, then a tier of perhaps 25 players who are all considered equivalent in terms of talent and likelihood of success, then a next tier of perhaps 35 players who are all considered equivalent, and so on. A club will typically have about five to eight tiers in their draft board. By the fifth or sixth tier you have perhaps 50 to 75 players you rank as equivalent, which gives an aggressive draft manager a lot of room to trade down and get extra picks in the 6th and 7th rounds. No one thinks this process is perfect: Tom Brady was ranked about a 5th tier player, but in retrospect was one of the top 10 or so NFL players of all time. Similarly Joe Montana, a top 10 HOF player, was ranked in the 3rd or 4th tier by most teams. A players tier is determined not just by talent, but also by other factors: Everyone knew Randy Moss and Warran Sapp were rare talents, the question was would they screw up so badly they were tossed out of the NFL. These questions dropped them out of their top-10 talent level into the 2nd tier. Similarly a club that is desperate for a QB may well take a 2nd tier talent and draft him in the top ten picks, hoping that the intangibles make him another Brady / Montana. By about half way through the first round, most teams will be into a part of their draft board where they have several candidates, perhaps two or three dozen, who they rank equally in terms of skill. Inside that tier of players a particular club will have particular needs and will therefore place a higher value on players who can meet those needs.
Having set up your draft board you're ready for the draft, but you're not ready to manage your roster. You have two more important jobs to do. First you self-scout your own team and rank your own players into your draft board. For example, if you were going to keep four ILBs and the top ILB available on your draft board when your turn comes up was ranked below your existing four players, you would likely not draft an ILB with that pick. On the other hand if you feel you need better depth at ILB and a player comes available in the 4th or 5th round that seems to be a clear upgrade on your #3 or #4 player, you have to seriously consider jumping on that guy. Since you rank players in tiers, it's likely that by the 4th or 5th round you have several available players who look like upgrades on your backups; now you have to consider which positions have the most value for you, because you can only pick one. This is where there's a lot of guessing: you have to guess what this 4th or 5th rounder player is likely to look like after a year of coaching and practice. Maybe he gets a lot better, maybe a major injury puts him out of commission indefinitely, maybe he's thick as a brick and uncoachable.
The next important job to do is rank all the players in the NFL on other teams who you think might become available and then put them into your draft board. Putting these guys into your draft board includes not only talent, but age, rate of physical decline, comfort level with your type of schemes, and locker room presence. This means you rank all the players who were on practice squads, all the free agents, and all the players in their last year of their contract. For example, if your scouts had Brian Urlacher ranked in your third tier due to his declining speed and the possibility that he would get injured, you would be unmotivated to sign Brian: his projected salary of likely about $3.5M makes him undesirable compared to the handful of LBs in your third tier that you can draft in the 3rd or 4th round and pay just a bit over the rookie minimum. These rankings must be done before free agency starts - you're only going to sign a guy who fits in your salary cap, is a clear upgrade to your existing players, and looks to be better than the guys you can draft. If you feel you need about 6 guys who have 3rd to 5th round talent, but you only have three picks in those rounds, then you would be more motivated to sign a free agent who you think could contribute to that group. If your pick comes up and there's two guys you like, you would consider if you can fill one need in free agency, leaving you free to draft a guy at the other position.
There are about 250 practice squad players in the NFL, and another couple hundred players who you think are likely to be cut or waived, so ranking these other players roughly doubles the size of your draft board.
There are several downsides to signing free agents. They aren't trained in your schemes and are going to make rookie mistakes until they get comfortable with your system. They cost a lot more than drafted guys. As they're typically older with more miles on the tread, it's more likely they'll get hurt and spend several games unable to play. And finally if a veteran is on the roster he blocks a rookie getting experience and learning his position. So in a couple years when the veteran is used up, it's harder to have a young guy developed and ready to step in to that position.
If you're on the clock - it's your turn to draft - and you have six players on your board who you rank equally in value to you, if someone calls you up and makes you an offer to trade down five or fewer slots you jump at it: this means you still get one of your desired players, plus you get an extra pick. In the lower rounds there will be lots of players you rank equally, so it's much easier to make a trade. Or, there may be a player you rank much higher than other clubs who drops, and then you think it's worth it to trade up for him. If you're deep into your 3rd tier and a 2nd tier talent drops near to your pick at a position of need for you, maybe you have to go get that guy. The Packers ranked Clay Matthews as a top 10 talent but were able to trade up and pick him in the 20s. This was a big gamble: he was a one year starter and it was known he had had ham string issues, which is why many other clubs had him ranked lower.
Building a roster
All of this effort must be done with one eye on your cap situation. If you have a quarterback who is eating up 20% of your cap space, you need to bias your decisions towards drafting and away from free agents: you simply cannot afford many multi-million dollar misses. On the other hand if you have a QB in his rookie contract and you think you're just a player or two away from a Superbowl, then like Seattle you go out and get them. A couple years down the road Seattle will have a blood letting in their middle class veteran players as they clear cap room to give Russell Wilson $20m / year, but perhaps they will also have a Lombardi trophy. San Francisco finds themselves in a similar position to Seattle given Kaepernick's low cost. Baltimore is well into the blood letting stage, having just paid their QB $20m / year. Green Bay is walking a salary cap tightrope - no blood letting seems imminent, but neither do any free agent contracts for much more than minimum.
As we saw in part I of this article, although the salary cap of $124m would seem to indicate you have about 53 guys making about $2.4m each, in fact you have a few guys making about $10m and a handful of guys making $2.5 to $7m for a total of perhaps 13 to 16 guys making more than the average; then you have 37 to 40 guys making under the average, most of them making well under $1m. So your job as a GM is to find almost 40 guys who can play excellent football for (NFL) minimum wage. Robert Townsend pointed out that the trick of being an excellent manager isn't to get a group of top people, but to get excellent results out of the average people that you can actually hire. The reality of the NFL with a salary cap is that if you want to hire an Elvis Dumervil for $10m, then you have to be prepared to let go a Jermichael Finley for more or less that same $10m. The job of the GM is to collect two to four blue-chip players, another ten or so excellent players, and 40 more players with the potential to play excellent football. The job of the coaching staff is to teach those 40 mostly young raw guys how to play excellent football in the NFL.
Finally, if you're a Green Bay fan you must always remember that without revenue sharing, the salary cap and free agency, the Packers would be lucky to win 5 games a year. If the clubs negotiated their TV contracts individually and there were no salary cap, the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins would win the Superbowl every year. Green Bay fans must always be appreciative of revenue sharing and the salary cap.
May be a little long for Al's tastes, but there are no limits for true Ramblers.