I came across a fantastic article today. It was written by Paul Noonan at the SB Nation Packers site Acme Packing Company. It was an in-depth look at Packers general manager Ted Thompson's approach to free agency and why the Packers are rarely big players on the market.
Primarily I found it an incredibly fascinating and on point article about NFL Free Agency in general. Secondarily I found it offers Raiders fans a window into Reggie McKenzie's mindset with regard to how he values players on the free agent market and how he has built this team and will build it in future.
McKenzie served under Thompson with the Packers for many years. First as a scout and executive while Thompson was director of player personnel, and later as the director of player personnel himself with Thompson as General Manager. In total, they worked together for 13 years. During which time the Packers had great success, including the ultimate success in the NFL -- winning a Super Bowl... twice.
You can see a lot of similarities in McKenzie and Thompson's approach to running an NFL team. Free Agency may not look like a similarity at the moment considering the Raiders activity of late, but that's only because McKenzie has been building the Raiders from the ground up and has had a surplus of salary to spend and an average of 89% of which he was required to spend over the past four seasons.
As far as the piece by Noonan, he lays out 8 simple rules to which Thompson subscribes that explain why the Packers rarely make big splashes in free agency.
- Players drafted in the first 3-4 rounds are about as likely to succeed as free agent acquisitions, and if they fail, the financial impact is far less.
- For most positions, it is nearly impossible to sign a free agent, especially a well-known free agent, who will provide surplus value.
- Player who are considered "good" will always be overpaid in free agency.
- Running backs and inside linebackers are, respectively, the least valuable positions on offense and defense.
- If an "older" player possesses many tools and 80-grade athleticism (on the 20-80 scale), he will likely age gracefully, and may be worth signing if he plays a position capable of providing cascade value. (The Woodson/Peppers Rule)
- That said, football is fundamentally a young person's game, and young rosters will tend to be better than old rosters.
- I work for a team based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and NFL free agents will often require a premium to come here.
- For most positions, waiver wire fodder is as good or better than "medium salaried" veterans.
Let's take a look at these tenets and apply them to Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders.
1. McKnenzie loves his draft picks. We know this. It's why the idea of trading them away to acquire a player or a higher draft pick is not something he does. He either trades down, trades players for picks, or not at all.
2. There are positions which offer a better chance of value than others. The offensive line is one such area which explains why the Raiders have made that position group their top priority in free agency three out of the past four years.
3. McKenzie has no problem making players the highest paid at their position if he wants them (Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele). The Raiders certainly have had the money to do so. They are also often among those team in on big name free agents of late. But once the bidding gets too high, the Raiders usually bow out wisely because the return on investment is simply no longer possible.
4. The most interesting of all the Thompson philosophies from my vantage point is the lowered value on inside linebackers and running backs. The Raiders starting running back last year was sixth round pick Latavius Murray. Their free agent acquisition was Roy Helu Jr who, even though he signed day one, was not a blockbuster signing. This year they were reportedly interested in most of the big name running backs, but were outbid every time, meaning other teams simply placed greater value on the position than the Raiders. Likewise, the only inside linebacker the Raiders have been connected to is Erin Henderson, who hadn't really been on anyone's radar.
5. Funny that Noonan mentions Charles Woodson as a valuable older player signing considering McKenzie signed him several times in his career. Once in Green Bay and three times in Oakland. Woodson is the perfect example of a player who aged gracefully. In the 2014 offseason, McKenzie was criticized quite a bit for signing free agents in the 30+ club. Donald Penn, Justin Tuck, James Jones and Woodson ( who re-signed) worked out fairly well. There were some who didn't, but the success ratio was no higher than that of big contracts given to younger players.
6. Ideally McKenzie would prefer a younger roster as evidenced by what the Raiders have now. The veteran players from a couple years ago are mostly all gone. They bridged the gap to younger players, many of whom were original drafted. Only Penn, who will turn 33 this offseason -- returns on a short-term, financially friendly deal.
7. Oakland may or may not be a more attractive place to play than Green Bay, however prior to this offseason, it was the state of the franchise that was not as appealing to prospective free agents. Oakland is, however, in California, which is far more attractive geographically than Wisconsin. An example is Sean Smith, who is a California native and who was deciding between San Francisco and Oakland in order to play out his career. Donald Penn didn't want to leave his home state either. Life is pretty good over here on the left coast. With an improved team and franchise, there is no reason they should have to beg to have players come to Oakland.
Noonan went on to point out that in general, inside linebackers are basically outside linebackers who can't play outside linebacker. Or perhaps, another way to put that is outside linebackers can usually play inside, but inside linebackers can't necessarily play outside.
Perfectly embodying this concept is Malcolm Smith. He was signed last offseason to play outside linebacker, which he did fairly well. But when Curtis Lofton showed why the Saints cut him, the Raiders benched Lofton and moved Smith inside. They did the same thing with Rolando McClain in 2012, benching him and moving Philip Wheeler inside. And in each instance, it worked like a charm. When Nick Roach's career ended due to a concussion, the team attempted the same with Miles Burris, but that experiment didn't work out so well. Can't win 'em all.
Then this offseason, even with inside linebacker as a top need, what did the Raiders do? They signed outside linebacker Bruce Irvin. They have Malcolm Smith as well as last year's fourth round pick Ben Heeney who can both play inside and if they can add a guy like Henderson to a low risk deal, that would infuse some competition.
The final paragraph of Noonan's piece should be a lesson to the Jacksonvilles and Miamis and Washingtons and circa 2003-11 Oaklands of the NFL who consistently go for broke in free agency and consistently have little to show for it.
This is what it all comes down to in the grand scheme of things. Ted Thompson does sign free agents, but there are a lot of internal checks on doing so, and consequently the signings are rare, well-vetted, and ultimately tend to be successful. The simple fact is the more active you are in free agency, the more likely you are to lose. The game is rigged for those who play judiciously, and rigged against anyone who dabbles too frequently. Thompson will always be lambasted due to the very human preference to take action in the face of adversity. It is the strong, savvy, disciplined manager who can maintain his cool, and choose inaction in the vast majority of the time when it is appropriate.
Let that statement act as your crystal ball into the Raiders' potential future. Essentially what this means is enjoy these free agent spending sprees while they last, because is short order the Raiders could just keep re-signing their own talent while focusing on being competitive on the field instead of on the market.