Nine Mistakes GMs Will Make
Neil Hornsby spells out the common mistakes we see from NFL general managers during free agency.
Nine Mistakes GMs Will Make
“Nine Mistakes General Managers will Make”
That’s a pretty bold statement. It includes the word “will” not “may” or “could” and the reason is that history has a habit of repeating itself – over and over again.
Out in the real world, at the end of significant pieces of work, good Project Managers run something called post completion reviews (PCRs) to try and ensure they learn from their mistakes (and successes). What went well, what less so and why? They then put processes in place to try and mitigate against those same issues recurring – continuous improvement loops. In football, with particular regard to the draft and free agency, such exercises are in short supply.
The limited tenure of certain regimes, the lack of accurate, precise and reliable measures of success and, in certain cases, the lack of desire to even contemplate the word “mistake” make for an annual extravaganza that, in the case of some transactions, has all the appeal of a car crash in slow motion.
So what are the lessons of history with regard to free agency and how can they be avoided? The errors can normally be categorized as follows:
Mistake No. 1 – Paying substantially on the basis of performance in a contract year
We see it happen many times. For the first few years of a guy’s career he does nothing and then, with only a year to go before potentially the most lucrative contract of his life, he suddenly plays well. In some cases better than well, and everyone asks “Where the hell did that come from?”
Teams are left wondering did the light suddenly just come on or, far more worryingly, was this a last ditch attempt to cash in and will his performance degenerate once a big money contract in his pocket weighs him down? However, giving the guy the benefit of the doubt isn’t the issue. Paying him as if he’d played every year of his career at that level is.
In 2008 the Atlanta Falcons made a first round selection of Sam Baker, signed him to a five-year contract and patiently waited for him to become their franchise left tackle. After four years of either poor play or injury, in his contract year of 2012 he finally played well. A +12.5 grade from us was his best performance by some margin but still saw him rank only 18th among his peers. Regardless, the Falcons paid him as if that production was his annual average and not the high-water mark with a Top-15 salary. The most recent results? Two games of completely abysmal play where he allowed 16 quarterback disruptions before going out with injury yet again.
Mistake No. 2 – Ignoring what the current team is implicitly telling you
It’s one thing to let a 32-year-old wide receiver go (as the Ravens did when they mistakenly traded Anquan Boldin to the 49ers). It’s quite another to allow a 27-year-old pass rusher to leave in what should be the prime of his career. Make no mistake, Baltimore would have liked to have Paul Kruger back, but not at $8.1M APY.
There are few shrewder operators than Ozzie Newsome and what he knew was that Kruger was a reasonable but not great pass rusher. The gaudy sack numbers (15) looked good but he knew what we saw in our grading; when Terrell Suggs was on the field alongside him he rated an excellent +13.1, but when Suggs was out injured for seven games, a less-than-stellar +3.1. How did he do once he signed his Browns deal? He graded +4.9, a number remarkably similar to his rating without Suggs. Essentially that grade says what he is; a slightly above average, complementary, not star rusher. The deal he got is only $900k per year less than Robert Mathis and about twice what his production warrants.
Mistake No. 3 – Paying Based on a former association with a key decision maker.
In 2010 the Chicago Bears decided they needed a blocking tight end and new Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz was high on Brandon Manumaleuna. Manumaleuna had played for Martz in St. Louis between 2001 and 2005 and built a reputation as a versatile player who could run block very well; indeed in 2008 he was our fourth-rated run-blocking tight end. However, in 2009, he looked a different beast, average at best without showing anything of his previous dominating form.
Did the Bears watch his 2009 tape and if so, did they see what we did or perhaps what they wanted to see? Given they signed him to a $15M, five-year deal it appears they either didn’t agree with our assessment or chose to go on previous experience.
After a year in which he became our lowest-rated player at the position (largely predicated on his work as a blocker), he was released costing the Bears $6.1M in the process; the guaranteed money from his deal.
Mistake No. 4 – Putting all your chips into Free Agency
Has there ever been a free agency splurge that worked out well? The most recent example of this was the Dolphins last year who signed 10 new players and extended two (one of whom was Reshad Jones in a scenario eerily reminiscent of the type I describe in “Mistake 1”) as Jeff Ireland looked to turn the tide in Miami.
This year, in terms of APY, six of the current seven highest paid players were signed during that time with the total cost a staggering $46M APY for 2014 alone.
No question some of these moves were high quality; Brent Grimes was our top-rated corner in free agency last year and backed it up with fine play in 2013, while I also liked the Brandon Gibson pick-up. However, all of wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and linebacker Philip Wheeler were significantly overpaid (Wallace grossly so) and the Dolphins’ linebacker play (particularly in coverage) regressed markedly.
Mistake No. 5 – Giving too much weight to performance against your team
Maybe the evidence here is circumstantial, but I still see the Colts’ move to bring in Erik Walden last year as an example of this behavior. During both 2012 and 2013 Walden was our lowest-rated 3-4 OLB while playing for Green Bay. Most of this was based on a somewhat startling inability to get pressure, but it really wasn’t offset by a “Jarret Johnson type” skill set in the running game, either. For whatever reason the Indianapolis Colts targeted him as a bookend for Robert Mathis and, to be fair, his performance, although never coming close to his $4M APY, improved significantly to a level best described as “below average”.
So why do I feel this falls into the category above? Well here are his weekly grades during 2012
The Week 5 performance was against the Colts no less, and don’t forget their advanced scout would almost certainly have included his games in Weeks 2 and 3.
Mistake No. 6 – Subset Scouting
The Pro Personnel guys in the NFL have it hard. The department is usually a fraction of the size of the college team and their work during the season is often limited to the teams they have to play and even then, based on a subset of four games. The workload is enormous and the notion of watching every player on every play an impossible dream. During Free Agency, therefore, a lot of the analysis is based on incomplete data; extrapolations based on the information they do have. As we have shown many times (here, for example), this approach can be problematic.
When the Cowboys decided to pay Nate Livings $7M APY they watched seven or eight games or less than half the available data for 2011. They chose what was, on the face of it, the harder matchups… against Justin Smith, Haloti Ngata, Calais Campbell, etc. However, just like them, we had these games graded highly, but they never saw his struggles against lesser opponents like Jacksonville and Cleveland.
In this case Livings actually improved his average performance before injury struck, but it was still well south of the dollar value paid. Would they have still paid that amount if they had seen his other, poorer performances?
Mistake No. 7 – Paying based on potential, not production
As an NFL agent once told me if a team asks a guy to do something one hundred times and he manages if once in those repetitions, there are far too many coaches who think, under their guidance, they can move that number to one hundred. The truth is that what you see, particularly in free agency, is mostly what you get. If anything, the additional money means more players regress than improve.
Look, there is no one who watched Jared Cook in training camp last year who could come away unimpressed with his talent, but the fact remains in his four years in Tennessee he averaged just over 350 snaps a season and never graded higher than a +0.7. No one I know would disagree he was criminally underused during that period but still, $7M APY is a huge amount of money to pay for potential. I really hope this one works out as watching the guy at the top of his game is a real privilege, but I have a terrible, nagging suspicion the real player has already stood up.
Mistake No. 8 – Watching the box scores
Everyone likes a good stat and even NFL scouts can sometimes be bewitched by bright, shiny numbers.
Case in point a certain Joey Porter in 2008 and 2009. A Pro Bowl and 26.5 sacks looked pretty on the face of it but something else lurked beneath the surface. Porter was particularly poor against the run in 2008 as he played pass on almost every down, and had a real lack of other pressure to go with the sacks in both years. Each season also featured a precipitous fall in performance down the stretch. So despite all the flashy numbers his pass rushing grade over the period still came out a well below average -10.2 and his overall a distinctly poor -27.5.
The rest is history as Porter signed for $8.1M APY in 2010 and managed another six sacks over two seasons to end his career. Each of those sacks ended up costing $2.85M.
Mistake No. 9 – Failing to Play in Free Agency at all
Some teams, like the Steelers, have a reputation for not giving Free Agency much prominence. There’s a lot to be said for the draft in terms of value for money but, if teams do their work properly, there are real bargains to be had, particularly on the O-Line. Every year it seems quality players drift about before someone lucks out by signing them as a back-up, having an injury, playing them and realising they had a much better player than they thought.
In 2009 (before anyone else had even heard of him) we graded Evan Mathis as the fifth-best guard in the league before injury and a strange rotation with Nate Livings in 2010 saw him enter free agency as something of a mystery to every NFL team. We still had him rated as the fourth-best interior lineman in that free agency class but, as it transpired, anyone could have had him for the veteran minimum as teams just seemed to ignore the tape.
It turns out we had it wrong too, he turned into the best guard in the league and probably the best value for money signing that entire year. He’s now rightly an All-Pro but his $5M APY is still peanuts for a player of his ability and as good a reason as any to play the game called Free Agency.
Keep up with all of this year’s free agency moves with the PFF Free Agency tracker.
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Neil Hornsby | PFF Founder
Neil founded PFF in 2006 and is currently responsible for the service to the company's 22 NFL team customers. He is constantly developing new insights into the game and player performance.