Friday, March 27, 2015

Forces of change coming for the NFL

I wrote up a piece on how Chris Borland's retirement decision and Chip Kelly's success in the NFL both portend changes coming to the professional game.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why more teams should offer greyshirts

The world of recruiting is a huge selling point in college football. It's essentially the free agency period combined with the draft but taking place on a 24/7, year round schedule that allows college football to be a year round sport to cover and follow.

However, because recruiting is such a popular thing to cover and follow it's easy for people to make some serious mistakes in understanding what's going on in the recruiting world and either over or under inflate the importance of different aspects of the process.

Most people get caught up in how the recruiting services that cover the activity rank individual players and team signing day classes, despite the obvious flaws in their rating process that call into question exactly how much value should be placed there.

Even teams' staffs will get caught up in creating "momentum" and hype for their recruiting by signing top ranked classes that will draw in the highly rated players and keep their program on the radar as an "it" school that big time prospects want to attend.

You don't want to be the school that the top players don't think is the trendy choice and have to rely on finding, evaluating, and recruiting other prospects.

But here's where the mistake is made: The lesser known prospects aren't necessarily worse or less talented than the well known, highly rated ones. They are just less well known. Coaches don't like to have to turn over rocks to find special players, make connections, and do all that work only to have the alumni and fans say "What???? You took some 2/3 star player while the rival got the 4/5 star kid???? Argh, you're on the hot seat now!!!"

It's a perception based market out there and enough big programs haven't won yet by being more discerning to encourage a money-ball style approach at the collegiate level. College football coaching is becoming more and more like the stock market with perception shaping the reality of who gets paid and who gets the opportunities.

Don't believe me? Take a look and see how many top jobs go to former offensive coaches and how many go to defensive guys. Offense is sexy, it sells stocks. Fans will be more patient that a team that scores big points will figure things out on defense than they will be that a strong defensive team will figure out how to score points on offense.

One of the casualties of this trading game is the greyshirt offer, quietly a fantastic weapon for teams to use to fill out their rosters with valuable contributors but largely ignored.

The way the greyshirt works is this: Let's take the last recruiting class year of 2015. Program X sees a player they think has potential long term but who doesn't have many or any scholarship offers from other top schools. They then offer that player a greyshirt scholarship, which means that the kid defers enrollment at the school until spring of 2016.

In the meantime? They lift weights, try to stay in shape on their own, attend a few community college courses on their own (but not a full load) and bide their time. Then they enroll in the spring with a full scholarship. Their eligibility clock doesn't start until they are in the fall of 2016.

If a player is 18 years old when they initially accept the offer but 19 when they arrive on campus in the fall of 2016, then redshirt another season, they might be as old as 23 or even 24 during their final season with nearly six full offseasons in the same program under their belt.

This has tremendous value to a football program, some of which is misunderstood. To be clear, the practice of oversigning players and then asking a kid who thought he had a full scholarship offer to play immediately to take a greyshirt offer instead at the last minute is not an acceptable practice.

Here are a few of the misconceptions and key points with this approach:

1) Youth may indicate upside but age is better for a college team

If you're a professional team that is looking to sign a player to a big contract in a league where the salary cap dictates roster formation, you generally want the younger player. Why? Younger players are less likely to be injury prone and have a higher likelihood of improving during their contract.

College football on the other hand is a totally different ball game. The 17 year old senior in high school who hasn't started shaving yet but has big potential is an exciting prospect for what he'll become over the next 4-5 years of his life as an athlete, but college teams are limited to that scope of time to actually derive value from that player on the football team.

While pro teams are looking to sign the 23 or 24 year old who's already started to reach their peak in hopes of having them on a value contract during their prime years, a college team only gets the very beginnings of those players' peak years. Both the pro and the college franchise want as big a slice as possible of the window of time when a player is 22-24 years old, starting to really figure things out, and has youthful energy and stamina.

Before that period those players are inexperienced and often injury prone at the college level since they haven't developed the mass and technique to thrive in a contact sport. After that period they again become injury prone while starting to decline athletically while also becoming more expensive to sign.

In the age of 5-star rankings and the occasional all-star freshman who comes to college with a pro-ready body, everyone wants the players who can contribute IMMEDIATELY. That helps optics, stocks go up, more top recruits join in, and coaches get paid.

But most players are going to be considerably better at age 22 or 23 than they are at age 18 or 19. As Michigan State is constantly demonstrating, the redshirted upperclassman is almost always a much better and stronger player than the underclassman, even if the latter was a 4/5 star recruit and the former was only a 2-star player.

With offensive lines in particular you will regularly find that the teams with experienced upperclassman across the line are the much better units than the ones with talented inexperience. Every team wants their two-deep in a given year to be loaded up with experienced upperclassmen who have been trained in the same schemes, same techniques, and same strength and conditioning programs for multiple calendar years.

So that greyshirt offer that allows you to get players on your roster who will be 23 or 24 and much more fully maxed out in potential when you need them to be the leaders of your team.

These players are much more physically mature, they are emotionally mature enough to be willing to put in the hard work in the film room or in the gym to get the most out of the senior years they've waited six years to play, and they are capable of executing much more complicated strategies. Who wouldn't want players like that on their team?

2. There are many overlooked players out there with big upside who will accept a greyshirt offer

The types of players that don't receive big time offers but would be willing to accept a greyshirt are numerous. The main point to remember here:

Recruiting and timing is particularly cruel to high school players who are just growing into their bodies and only have a couple of years as a 16, 17, or 18 year old to impress and earn opportunities.

Thanks to early recruiting, that window of time is starting to shrink to when players are only 16 or 17. Imagine having to set yourself up for major life opportunities at that point in your own life.

Just a few examples of the types of players who are overlooked and miss out in this process:

The player who was injured as a junior or senior in high school. 

This happens ALL the time, perhaps a player tears his knee as a junior just when he was about to show real promise. He plays reasonably well as a senior but is still recovering his flexibility and strength so he doesn't wow anyone and doesn't stand a chance of winning a spot on a roster when teams are filling up scholarship spots with early recruiting to make sure they don't miss on the top, well known prospects that make their stocks go up as a program.

Offer that kid a greyshirt to allow him to spend a year fully rehabbing and re-working his body to get into prime shape and you might have a superstar that no one knew about. Or at least a valuable role player. The hard part is finding the kid who showed enough promise or has some indicator about him that will demonstrate his potential. Finding those types of players takes hard work and a willingness to take risks. Coaches don't like to do that, it could make their stock go down.

The late-bloomer

Recruiting services don't like taking risks any more than coaches do. The kids that get 4/5 star rankings are the "sure things" who already demonstrate the athleticism and size necessary to be great in the college game when they are 16 or 17 years old. Of course, that's only a limited part of the population. What about the kid who grows a ton as a 17 year old and needs some time to get used to his virtually brand new body? What about the kid who is going to continue to grow while in college?

And that's just physically, there's also the mental side. Hassan Whiteside has been 7'1" with a 7'6" wingspan and a 31.5" vertical for a long time but it wasn't until he was a 25 year old fighting for a spot on Miami's roster that he put all that together and suddenly became one of the best defensive centers in the game.

How many kids are emotionally immature in high school and haven't touched their full potential because they need to grow up mentally first? Virtually all of them, some more than others.

The kid playing out of position

High school coaches aren't just trying to groom kids for college ball, they are trying to win football games so they can get paid. The position a kid plays in high school is the one where he helps his team win.

In high school there aren't a ton of massive 280 pounders that can dominate the trenches for a team, nor does a team need kids of that size to accomplish that task. If you have a powerful and athletic 200+ pound kid on your football team there's a good chance that you'll put him on the defensive line because that's where he can do the most damage.

Perhaps that kid has the athleticism, speed, and mental approach to be a dominant linebacker in college but that isn't apparent on his tape as a defensive tackle demanding double teams and freeing up your ferocious but undersized 180 pound linebacker to make plays he otherwise couldn't make at high school and would never make in college.

Well that might be the case but not just anyone would necessarily know it. High school coaches will often try to set kids up in positions where they'll have college scholarship opportunities, it does help them get paid to create opportunities for their kids just as it helps college coaches to get players drafted, but they may not have a choice if they want to win or they may not even realize where a kids' highest potential is.

The athletic kid playing out of position might accept a greyshirt offer as his best option, then you can give him all the time he needs to learn the new position.

The rural kid

Some kids just don't get evaluated closely and since recruiting services and coaches aren't interested in turning over rocks to find players that won't sell stocks, and these players often don't have the same opportunities. Especially if they don't play for a power program that shows up deep in the state playoffs, don't have absurd size that helps them stand out, and don't attend the skills camps where recruiting services congregate to learn about the players out there.

More than a few poor, rural kids have ended up being special talents once they got a chance in the spotlight after years of hard work.

3. Long-term growth is better than short-term optics

If a coach can stick around with the same program long enough he'll see dividends from taking the long-view towards development and recruiting. If you observe Kansas State's football program you'll notice that they get a lot of really talented walk-ons from within the state that end up playing huge roles for them down the line.

Why? Because for years they've made a commitment to their walk-on program that has yielded results and given them credibility. If you're a rural Kansas kid who's got an offer to a lesser school but believe in your own talent, you may very well go walk on for Bill Snyder and hope to earn a scholarship down the road.

Hard work early on makes things easier down the road when the overlooked players will seek you out and are eager to take a greyshirt for the chance to be a part of your program. If you are winning and developing kids guess who else will want to come to your school?

Instead recruiting often works much like with the national economy, where companies are afraid of being left behind by the other financial services who manipulate debt to create the appearance of big profits or who sell mortgages to people who will never be able to pay them off. No one wants to take the long view and try to build something that will yield major results deep into the future even though it's a much more likely way to produce a program that ultimately accomplishes what everyone wants.

Who wants to do that when the rival just won a bunch of games with a freshman starter and is now winning over all the top recruits in the area? You think the boosters getting rich off get-rich quick schemes are going to apply the long-term view towards their vanity project, the football team? What about the alumni who took on massive student loans and are now trying to live at their parents' standard of living with entry level jobs? They are the type to be willing to wait around for the football program to develop young players?

The biggest losers in all of this are the kids who have major potential but never have the chance to earn their stripes because everyone is caught up playing the wrong game. Teams that offer greyshirts could have a chance to do something different and special if they can convince their fanbase and alumni to show that most remarkable of skills...patience.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

4 quick thoughts on the NFL's free agency period

It's the "silly season" for the NFL, and although I don't pay great attention to the league I've seen and heard a few things from the mainstream media that I've found either amusing or confusing.

It's important to remember that even in the sports media realm people are playing the politics game and that plays into how the media covers it as well as how front offices make decisions.

1. The hilarity of prospects improving their 40 times at pro day

I overheard some Michigan insiders this morning talking about how Devin Funchess could improve his draft grade by knocking his 40 time below the 4.7 mark he ran at the combine. This is probably one of the most ridiculous things about the evaluation process.

Funchess is who he is on the field. If he improves his 40 time from 4.7 to 4.65 it'll be through improving his technique for running the 40.

If he manages to run a 4.6 in Ann Arbor at Michigan's pro day that doesn't mean he's now going to be a faster runner when he's wearing an NFL uniform trying to beat a corner on a go route.

So why does anyone even care? Can't you tell from tape whether he's fast enough or not? The 40 time should only confirm what you can already see on tape. If teams are really changing their mind about whether Funchess is fast enough based on how he runs at his pro day they're either incompetent or strictly concerned with the optics of how it looks to their fans or the owner to draft him.

2. The NFL media's hostility to Chip Kelly

NFL media are typically NFL homers who worship the league and rely on sources within it to tell them how to understand what's going on within it.

NFL people don't like Chip Kelly. In two seasons he's completely overturned the way teams are managed and the way teams play on the field and made a lot of coaches look bad. You can win 10 games a year with Nick Foles or Mark Sanchez as your QB? That's a terrifying reality for other NFL coaches who have been completely incapable of doing anything of the sort.

There's a significant difference between coaching and coordinating a spread offense like Kelly's and a pro-style offense like what most other teams run. If Kelly's system takes hold in the NFL as a result of different owners realizing that they can put winning/ticket selling teams on the field without needing to hit the draft jackpot with a quarterback that means that more teams will hire spread coaches.

Many of the coaches and front office people currently in the NFL will not be able to handle that transition, and they'll be out of a job as the price of pro-style labor goes down to meet decreased demand.

They understand this and so they are eager to cast Kelly as a maniac who's trying to get back into college coaching "where he belongs." Once he's there they'll doubtlessly still criticize him, this time for not teaching his quarterbacks, whom all the fans will want them to draft, to run their schemes.

Ultimately the NFL owners use college football as a minor league system and their front office staff and coaches resent the fact that college football doesn't view itself that way and make its priority the teaching and development of NFL-style techniques.

All of this trickles down into the NFL media who then views Kelly with a jaundiced eye and goes to no effort to portray his moves positively.

"He's bringing aboard Mark Sanchez? What a joke, that'll never work!" Sanchez ended up going 5-4 while throwing for 7.8 yards per attempt, 14 TDs and 11 interceptions. Those were his best numbers as an NFL pro QB.

Now Kelly trades Foles for Bradford and it's "Foles is way better than Bradford! What is he thinking? That'll never work!"

Foles was only ever better than Bradford when playing in Kelly's system. I'm going to differ to Kelly's understanding of what will work in his system over that of the media who don't understand it and are fed hostile information about it every day.

3. The price of the proven veteran

The Patriots won the Super Bowl because they finally rebuilt their secondary into a unit that would allow Belichick to zero in on taking away the strengths of opposing offenses without giving up the world.

Of course, Revis' value was apparent after years of doing exactly that for the Jets and then demonstrating he still "had it" with the Patriots. He's actually not quite the lockdown machine he was in his New York days but he's still good enough to make life miserable for an opposing no. 1 target.

The problem? He's about to be 30 years old and the Jets offered him 39 million guaranteed in the first three years of the contract. Revis' athleticism is comparable to that of an NBA lead guard, what generally happens to those guys after they turn 30?

As wonderful a player as Revis has been, essentially as the anchor for an entire defense, the chances of him remaining that player aren't good enough to justify that investment. Unfortunately for New England, they've really struggled to draft and develop cornerbacks. Those pesky college programs just won't do their job and produce clearly superior DBs for Belichick to draft.

Perhaps the Patriots should invest more money in a DB coach, or Kraft could push for the NFL to create some kind of minor league system.

Unlike in Europe, there is zero incentive for NFL teams to invest in young athletes whom they have no guarantee of securing through the draft. If Manchester United wants young players to learn to play soccer a particular way they have U19 teams where they can pay them and teach them to do so. If New England can't find affordable players to run Belichick's coverages there's not much they can do about it.

4. The Cowboys' investments on offense

The Cowboys wisely determined that quarterbacks, even aging ones, are the players that winning teams build around because they are more likely to stay on the field in the modern era than running backs. Between that realization and Jerry Jones' terrible salary management that gave Romo all the leverage, they tied up a ton of money in their QB.

Then, they wisely invested in protecting him and setting the table for the rest of the offense by drafting multiple OL over the last few years and doing so very well.

Remember when the Texans decided to re-sign Arian Foster and allow their free agent OL to leave? How'd that work out for them? In 2012 before they re-signed him they went 12-4 but they've not won 12 total games in the two years since.

Arian Foster is doubtlessly a good back, but in 2012 he ran for 1424 yards and 15 touchdowns but has run for 1788 yards and 9 touchdowns in the two years since they re-signed him.

Right now the Cowboys have a great OL built on rookie contracts but they have to make some choices in free agency this offseason with their stud RB Demarco Murray and star WR Dez Bryant.

If they intend to keep building around Romo, they'll have to let Murray go in order to keep Bryant and maintain flexibility for the future when the OL that finally launched them to the top of the division is ready to get paid.

That flies in the face of what fans and media expect and tend to value, which is the star running back, but that player is simply not as important in the modern NFL. The Cowboys can build winning teams by re-investing that money on defense, preserving the OL that paved the way for Murray, and simply plugging in fresh meat for the grinder at RB.