Today ESPN NFL analyst and six-time National Football League Executive of the Year Bill Polian answered questions about NFL free agency on a media conference call.
Note: NFL Live host Trey Wingo will host a one-hour SportsCenter Special: Parcells and Polian Free Agency Preview on Sunday, March 10, at 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Polian will join ESPN contributor and Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013 inductee Bill Parcells to examine the NFL free agency process, players to watch, and more.
Q. I was wondering if you could talk about a couple of the 49ers soon to be free agents, Dashon Goldson and Delanie Walker, and what kind of attention you think they’ll get on the free agent market?
BILL POLIAN: Well, I think both will command a fair amount of attention. There is always a buzz, if you will, about the players who played well in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl and both did. Delanie Walker, you have a really, really interesting guy. Age is a bit of a concern with a minor, but he’s not 25 any longer.
But he’s very, very versatile. He can play fullback, he can play tight end. He can play in the slot. He’s very productive, and he’s a tough guy. He’s a really good blocker and a willing blocker. So I think he’ll get some activity. The question is how much and what is the fit, and that’s always the question.
That is the overarching question in free agency. This is a good safety year, so in the draft, as well as to some degree in free agency. I think they’re both good players, and they’ll both command attention. To me, the question is at what price, and only the market can tell us that going forward.
Q. Regarding the personnel process, it’s kind of clear that the draft is always best player regardless of position, and you hope it sort of meshes with your need. Is it different in free agency where, in general, you’re really trying to address a need whether it’s a pass rusher, a tackle, a corner? And, when you look at the Colts and what they need and what the market offers, where do you think they might go?
BILL POLIAN: I can’t predict where any team’s going to go. There are three things at play here in free agency. The first is the need. Answer is, yes, free agency is almost always aimed at a needs situation simply because of the cost. Free agency brings it at a cost, and that is the nature of it. That’s why the union fought so hard to get it so many years ago. So you almost always try to fill a need.
The second is cost. What is the cost? What is the outlaying cash? What is the outlaying guarantee? In many respects, particularly in this early period that we are about to enter, the marketplace dictates that.
You could sit here, and I often did, and say this player should command only X. And then the market would open up and the player would come in X plus Y. And you’d say, oops, well, that’s not in our bailiwick. So we don’t know what the market will bring. We know where there are numbers or clumps of players, although the recent franchise use of the franchise tag has reduced that considerably. And this is all tied up with the money, too, are the age and injury concerns. How much of that money are you going to reasonably accrue by signing this player?
I believe that the statistics clearly show that that money attached to every free agent signing. Again, that’s why the union wanted it at four years to try to make long term deals as attractive as possible. But there is always some dead money attached to it, and you build that into your budget. So the question is how much dead money?
Medical and age concerns enter into that. That’s how you view it. And because you’re spending big money, usually and because you’re, again, involved with the reasonable prospect of some dead money at the end, you now come in and say we have to try to fill this need and at least on teams that I was with, we always had a strata of people.
If we can’t afford player A, let’s see how much different is player B, and how much different is player C? In the end of the market and in the aftermarket, again, you’re looking to fill needs almost always with reasonably priced players who are not at the same talent level or production level as the top guys.
Q. Over the course of your career, did you ever do a study to gauge the success rate of free agents who are signed by other teams? Also, what’s been your experience as far as what positions are the biggest gambles as far as gauging the success rate when you sign a free agent and which positions maybe have a bigger comfort level as far as the success of a player?
BILL POLIAN: We did this study to try to determine what the hit rate was. It ends up in our study being about what it was for the draft, right around 50 percent, slightly above that. I keep going back to this, but this is the nature of free agency.
You then get into the qualitative judgment or subjective judgment of at what cost. So player A, who cost you $12 million a year, is he a success if he starts or is he a success if he helps you get to the playoffs? That’s what you run up against, the conundrum.
So the answer is if you apply a qualitative, did he help this team improve standard, it’s about the same as the draft, slightly above. Position wise the answer is that no particular position stands out above others, and there is no, at least in our experience, no clear outlier, no clear risky position as there is in the draft, for example, wide receivers.
In the first round, they have the biggest miss rate over time. There isn’t any that we came across in free agency that fits that bill. Again, it’s so tied to the cost and the dead money, and all of the other economics that are attached to it that it’s pretty hard to do something that is broad based. You can only do it based through your own individual prism. At least what we found was the results are mixed, just like they are with every other personnel decision you make.
Q. What are your thoughts about Greg Jennings? Is he worth $10 to $12 million a year? Do you see him as a viable long term, number one receiver?
BILL POLIAN: Well, worth is in the eye of the beholder. He’s got two things that sort of mitigate against a huge contract. One is an injury history and the other is that he’s 30 years of age and relief receivers, and I would categorize him as one, tend to begin to turn down at about 33 or 34.
So, how long a contract do you give him, and what is his potential to continue to play at a high level, given the injury and age history? Each individual club has its own individual metrics that would tell them that, and so I think that that’s where it’s going to go. I’m as anxious as you are to see who may step up for him.
But there are two concerns. There are clubs, we were one of them, that said if a guy’s 27 years of age or above, we’re probably not going to go for a long-term deal at big money. But if you feel you’re one quality receiver away and the physical exam turns out to be okay, you might do it. Again, that is what makes free agency interesting.
Q. There is a lot going on right now with the Wes Welker deal and paying slot wide receivers like big time wide receivers. Can you talk about the reservations about giving the slot receiver a top of the market deal, and just your opinion on that?
BILL POLIAN: Well, (Rob) Gronkowski is a slot receiver. He plays in the slot. I presume you’re talking about slightly built guys or smaller guys who are more quick than fast. Is that the definition of a slot receiver?
I don’t know that if there is any reservation about that other than injury and longevity. (Danny) Amendola has been injured. He’s a very good player, but you have to take the injuries into consideration.
That’s where it comes into play. I don’t think it’s necessarily small bodied or even more quick than fast guys. They’re productive and have proven to be productive. I don’t think they come along every day. So I don’t think there is a glut of them on the market. In Wes’s case there is age and in Amendola’s case the injury so that plays into it.
The one thing that I failed to mention in answering Mike’s question, is the obvious, everybody’s cap situation. How much are you willing to commit to any individual player given your cap situation, a flat cap.
It’s essentially a flat cap and the ability to field the team within that flat cap. All of those things come into play. I don’t think it has to do with a specific position or a specific body type. Free agency is much more, much more about individuals, their productivity, their injury history, their age and their cost than the draft is. They’re almost diametrically opposed.
Q. I was interested in what your perspective is of the impact of the three-day window the league has created prior to the start of free agency where the clubs are able to talk to the free agents to set up deals, I would imagine, without being able to sign them until Tuesday.
BILL POLIAN: Well, we discussed it when I was a member of the competition committee. I think it’s fair to say that everybody will be interested to see how it works out, what the results of it are. I wouldn’t say everybody was enthusiastic about it. We all had some reservation.
But, on balance, I think it’s fair to say that we felt that it was something that would at least bring some organization to what had been a very chaotic process. Agents can talk to clubs, they can go back to the old club with what one would assume would be a bona fide offer or some parameters. They can gauge who is interested and who is not interested.
So all of those things may bring a little more organization to it than had previously existed. But I’m going to be as anxious as you to see if we come out of the box with deals at 4:01 p.m., or if it serves as a way to sort of set the market before people begin to do deals.
In the NBA, as you know, you probably know better than I, but my understanding of the NBA and my study of it is they pretty much get all these deals done during the so called talking period, which is longer than ours, as I understand it. Then after the first flurry, then the market settles down.
Even if that were the case with our league, my personal opinion would be that that would be a good thing.
Q. You were mentioning markets earlier, and the market for elite quarterbacks was set in some way when Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120 million dollar deal with Baltimore. I was wondering if I could get you to comment on what that means for Aaron Rodgers going forward? He has two years left on a six-year extension he signed in ’08. Is the onus on the Packers now to do something for him now that Flacco has set this market?
BILL POLIAN: Well, the answer to that is maybe. The collective bargaining agreement provides rights for both sides. On the one hand, it provides a right for the players to have free agency. On the other hand, it provides, after a specified time and in Aaron’s case, it’s at the expiration of his contract. In the club’s case, it provides the right to use a franchise tag for up to three times on a player, and specific types of tags, if necessary.
Both of those are counter balances which I think it’s fair to say both sides. I’m talking about management counsel in the union now felt at the appropriate time to encourage the signing of long term deals. That is the union’s desire, and in some cases that meets with the club’s desire.
That is the landscape. It has nothing to do with anybody else. The only time anybody else’s contract enters into it is when there is a comparison is as you sit down and start negotiating. The question is when do you start negotiating? And that is the purview of the club.
Assuming that the player is willing, which he almost always is, that becomes the purview of the club. So they’re going to make each individual club is going to make his own decision on that. In Joe Flacco’s case, they did what you would expect him to do. They negotiated in the summer prior to his entering free agency, and ultimately on the eve of free agency, they got a deal.
That is the most common thing that happens in the league. I’m not saying that’s going to happen with the Pack, because certainly Mark (Murphy) and Teddy (Thompson) and Mike (McCarthy) are more capable than I at making the right decisions for their team. But that is the way things work because that is the way the collective bargaining agreement designs them to work.
We can’t predict what’s going to happen. But that is what the landscape is.
Q. I wanted to get your thoughts on Mike Wallace and high-profile receivers over the years that have not panned out in free agency.
BILL POLIAN: There are lots of high profile players that haven’t, regardless of position that haven’t panned out in free agency. So, as I say, I haven’t seen any specific position where I could say look, this is a clear picture here as to failure.
But, you’re right. The receivers tend to be high profile anyway. So when they fail, it’s a big issue. So the question of Wallace is that he is the guy who meets all of the parameters that you’d like. He is productive. He has great speed, which is always something that is desirable in a receiver. He falls within the reasonable age parameters and he hasn’t had a high history of injury.
When you look at all of the things that you use to try to decide whether or not you want to pursue a player, he checks every box with few question marks. There was some issue as to how effective his hands were this year. I don’t think it was a major issue, so there you have it. We’ll see where the market goes. He’s now 6’2″ and 220 pounds, so that may be a consideration for some teams.
But, in terms of the red flags that would cause you to turn away, he doesn’t have many. He’s a guy that most people will feel is pretty desirable but, again only the market will tell. This is in many ways like an IPO. There is a lot of discussion, there is a lot of analysis, but only the market will tell you whether it’s going to go or not.
Q. Three of the top pass rush prospects in this draft are from overseas, Bjoern Werner, (Ezekiel) Ziggy Ansah and Margus Hunt. I wanted to know what you thought of that overall, and what you thought of those prospects individually?
BILL POLIAN: Well, I think they’re all good prospects. You know, where I would put them in terms of how they stack up, I’m not ready to say at this point. They’re all good prospects. They all had, to some degree or another, have some instinctual problems because the game to them is not as natural as it is to some others. But they all have exceptional athletic ability and exceptional ability to turn speed into power.
So that’s the very interesting part. That is a rare commodity, and that is what you have to have to be an outstanding pass rusher.
The fact that they’re from overseas is interesting. We’re seeing more and more players of African, I don’t mean African American, but African heritage, beginning to enter the league. Margus is a track and field athlete who I believe came to SMU as a track and field athlete, and Bjoern is a product of, I think I guess it’s fair to say the football interest created by NFL Europe in Germany. You’d hope there would be more of those fellas. I don’t know if that’s the case or not.
But it certainly is a good sign for the growth of the game. More importantly, it’s about their athletic ability and their ability to have both power and speed at the same time. That’s what it takes to play and all three have it.
Q. With the Redskins, they have a decision to make with Fred Davis, what to pay him. I’m curious from your perspective, he’s coming off the Achilles injury, he’s one strike away from a year-long drug suspension. What would you see as a market for that guy? And two, they have to make decisions on Santana Moss, DeAngelo Hall, because their cap numbers are high next year. Can you go over your thought process, and when you decide to extend guys versus just flat out releasing them?
BILL POLIAN: Keep in mind, please, that I don’t know any of what goes on inside the locker room, inside the building, which is 50 percent of this process. I don’t pretend to be an expert or have any knowledge of that. That is the individual club that knows that, and that drives a great deal of their decisions. So we’re talking to some degree theoretically here.
The question is really related exactly to free agency. The period we’re in right now is one where every club is faced with the question how much do I pay a player based upon, A, his productivity, B, his availability, and C, his longevity, and D, his contribution to the overall cap situation?
So whenever you have red flag like injuries, like potential suspension or character issues, like age, like size, and age, injury, and to a lesser degree size, enter into the dead money issue. You have very, very tough decisions to make. I’ve often said you can’t be right in free agency. No general manager can be right in free agency. This system is designed to have you make mistakes the union wants players to get paid, and people are going to make mistakes here.
So you try to eliminate the mistakes, at least from my perspective, you try to eliminate as many mistakes as possible by taking as few risks as possible. Some people may see it differently. And that’s what makes the world go round. But what you’re describing in the case of the Redskins is three difficult decisions, and all of the mitigating factors come into play on virtually all of these players.
So when you have a high cap number, can it be restructured without looking at a lot of dead money down the line? That is the issue there. In the case of a player with suspension issues or injury issues, that is much, much more complicated, because you don’t know what you’re paying for. So that’s a much tougher one. But they’re both tough issues, that’s why this time of year is not fun for general managers.
Q. How would you handle the Darrelle Revis situation, and how do you think it ends up?
BILL POLIAN: Well, I can’t predict either one. I can tell you that as of now, keep in mind that all general managers deal with facts and not sound bites or noise. The fact is he’s an injured player who has not proven yet that he is what he was before he got hurt. So that’s point A.
Point B is that he is entering the season prior to his free agency and he cannot be tagged so he either reaches a long term agreement with the club, or he becomes a free agent. Those are the facts. How you balance them is the difficult part.
How can you negotiate when you don’t know what the player is likely to be? You can surmise, but you don’t know until he gets on the field. To me, that’s a very important issue. I presume that if they have an intention to keep him at some point they’ll enter into the negotiations. But the timing of that depends entirely on what they find out vis a vis the medical.
And, again, as I stated just a minute ago, that’s something that none of us in the media business know. The club is the repository of that information. That is what is going to drive the decision. I can’t predict what’s going to happen, but I can tell you what’s going to drive the decision, and that’s the medical.
Q. Now after all the moves the Chiefs have made with the trade for Alex Smith, and who they’ve locked up with (Dwayne) Bowe and Branden Albert, who are among the top two, three prospects that you would see now as being the No. 1 pick overall? And among the top quarterbacks, who best fits Arizona and Bruce Arians, and who would best fit Doug (Marrone) in Buffalo?
BILL POLIAN: I don’t know who the top pick is going to be yet. We still have a lot of work to do. The clubs still have a lot of work to do on the medical results and the psychological results and the background checks. We in the media won’t know what the results of that are unless they choose to make some of that public.
As I said to many of you last week at the combine, invariably, when the medical meetings take place today, tomorrow, and over the weekend, and the docs come in and deliver the results of the physical exams, invariably in every draft room in America, general managers go, oh, my Lord, when they find out a guy they have rated very highly has a physical issue. So that is always the case. That’s always the case.
Secondly, psychological checks and background checks are always important, and they’ll dictate in many respects where people will go. To some degree, pro days will play a part. But it’s only a small part.
You’re filling in missing pieces or areas like the (Manti) Te’o case where the player believes he can do better and probably will. So that process is ongoing. I can’t say who is first, second or third, because we then have to get all the information and then go to systems fit, and say who best fits our system? There isn’t a one size fits all answer.
We tend to think in the media that you rate him 1 to 336 or in the first round 1 to 32 and that is the way they should go off the board. When, in fact, that’s not the case at all. Teams have players rated as first round guys, but they might not even be interested in him because he doesn’t fit a need or because he doesn’t fit their system. So that’s a variable always there, and that’s something we tend not to focus upon.
The issue of the quarterbacks, I can tell you Geno Smith’s strength is the ability to throw the ball down the field. He’s got good arm strength, he has good athleticism, and can pretty much function in any system. He’ll have a little learning curve coming in from the spread offense simply because it’s different than the classic and standard NFL offense, particularly in taking the ball into center and handling the ball.
He does some of that at West Virginia but not a lot. The numbers indicate that. But he’s a guy that can pretty much fit into every system. He has a quick release, gets the ball out quickly. So that’s a real plus. In Barkley’s case, and I don’t know that he’s the second quarterback, by the way, but in his case, most people seem to feel he’s best suited for a west coast offense where he can deliver the ball quickly and get it out of there and not have to drive it down the field in big chunks on a steady diet and use his mobility to find throwing lanes.
He’s not a guy who is going to be a running quarterback. He does have some mobility in the pocket and his foot work is pretty good, and he gets it out fast. So, generally speaking, probably more well suited to west coast offense.
Bruce, I worked with Bruce for five years, and my feeling is that he can adapt his offensive scheme to pretty much any skill level at quarterback as long as the guy is a good decision maker, as long as he has the ability to see the receiver deliver the ball on time and do it accurately. Those three things are a must for quarterback play. I think whomever he has can do that, and he’ll adapt the rest of it.
For him, that’s not hard at all. He’s very adaptive and creative. He’ll figure out a way to make virtually any system work, as long as the quarterback has those well, actually it’s four things. Process information, see the receiver, anticipate his coming open get it out quickly, and be accurate.
Q. You were talking about receivers before and how maybe they begin to turn down about 33 or 34, and your reluctance to give out big money deals when they get to that age. Regardless of age, is that one of those positions in free agency that makes less sense than others, given maybe how teams can find guys in the mid to late rounds? What is the thought of finding them in free agency versus the draft?
BILL POLIAN: In free agency, you’re looking to fill a need. In free agency, you’re absolutely looking at the finished product. Those players are not going to get any better than they are now at 26 or 27. They’re at their peak. They’re not going to get better. They are what they are.
So, in theory, at least, you’re able to say, okay, I can plug this guy in, and he will perform at a certain level.
Now, there is the system issue. It’s been my experience that when a player is changing systems, it takes generally a year for him to adapt to his new surroundings to a new system, to new teammates, et cetera. They don’t come in as a general rule and instantly become successes.
When they’re within the same system, the odds are better that they’ll perform, but there is still, you know you make it a job change. We all know when you make a job change, there are issues that you have to deal with.
So as I looked at free agency as a general manager, what I’m looking for is the finished product. Now with the draft, no matter where you take them, they’re not the finished product. Like the kid at Jacksonville, taking three quarters of the year before they really get themselves acclimated to pro football, (Michael) Crabtree was the same way, took him the better part of the year. That is the general rule. Then they begin to ascend. But they’re in a growth process.
The guy you get in free agency, because, let’s face it, in most cases, a fairly decent amount of money, you want the finished product. So is it a question, of can I get a better guy in the draft. Can I get a better guy that can come in right away and perform at a reasonably high level right away? And know that he’s the finished product as opposed to one that I have to develop? That is the allure of free agency.
Now, as someone said earlier, there are a heck of a lot of failures there, and don’t forget that in any free agency class, and in this one particularly, the best players are off the market.
When we did the ratings for ESPN, we had A players and B players and C players. A good portion of the A players have been signed to long term contracts in advance of free agency or are off the market now. So you’re dealing with maybe the A minus players that are left.
But the fact of the matter is you’re looking for a finished product to fill the need.
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