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.

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