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How to win free agency — ex-NFL executive lays out the rules

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This four-step plan is worth paying attention to

NFL: Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers
Larry Warford
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

How do you use NFL free agency to help your team improve? Well, you don’t just blindly throw money around to the players with the best stats or the most recognizable names. You need a plan, based on your budget, your schemes and your current roster.

Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, writing for The Ringer, has laid out the “Four Rules of Free Agency.” Let’s look at each of Lombardi’s rules, what he says about them, and how they apply to the New York Giants.

Rule No. 1: Then Is Then, Now Is Now

This is the “don’t pay for a player’s past, pay for his future” rule. Lombardi uses the example of the Giants signing the in-his-prime Olivier Vernon while the Miami Dolphins replaced Vernon with Mario Williams, who they recently cut after Williams, predictably, had an awful year. Lombardi writes:

Had the Dolphins kept Vernon to pair on the opposite side of Cameron Wake and an emerging Andre Branch, their dominating pass rush could have hidden their poor cornerback play. Maybe it’s dangerous to overpay good-but-not-great players; it’s certainly something that Bill Belichick has consistently avoided in New England. But it’s much worse to overpay washed-up players. You’re draining your salary cap for no real reason.

This rule is also instructive because of Adrian Peterson, the once-great Minnesota Vikings’ running back who has been making goo-goo eyes at the Giants in recent weeks. Lombardi writes:

Maybe Peterson isn’t completely done as a productive NFL player, but Father Time is parked outside his house with the engine running. If he’s released by the Vikings, will a needy team reward him for past performance with a meaty deal? History says yes. And it might even work for a few months. Declining players can fool teams by appearing young and vibrant in the offseason and even September and October. But guess what happens as the weather turns in November, December, and January, right when the games count most? Father Time throws them in the football hearse and drives away. Stay away from declining veterans.

Translation for the Giants: Stay away from Peterson.

Rule No. 2: Don’t Be Lucy

Basically, Lombardi is saying here that teams spend too much time looking in the wrong places. Lombardi writes:

... they search where the light is brightest instead of addressing their harshest needs. Remember the 49ers last spring? They brought in offensive guru Chip Kelly but kept an unwinnable Colin KaepernickBlaine Gabbert platoon. How could Kelly fix THAT? And why would Kelly even take the gig without a promise to try to obtain a better quarterback? Besides selecting Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel in the sixth round, the 49ers completely ignored their most glaring need. Within a year, they dumped Kelly and brought in Kyle Shanahan. You have a better chance of seeing Shanahan play his father at QB than you do of seeing him run Kaepernick and Gabbert back out for another year.

What does this mean for the Giants? It means make sure they know what their biggest areas of need are, and don’t get distracted from using their limited resources to try and improve those. Don’t spend just to spend.

Rule No. 3: Behave Like Mike McDermott

Lombardi uses a movie reference to say, basically, don’t believe everything a player’s agent is telling you. Lombardi writes:

Most agents will admit that if they have two teams willing to pay a king’s ransom for a free agent, they are extremely fortunate. Normally, it’s only one team. So they have to create the illusion of a second bidder to bump up the prices — a skill that many of them have mastered over the years. Clubs rarely realize their “tell.” ... Know your poker table and learn the players’ tells.

Agents love drumming up the illusion of a developing market, and many times they do a brilliant job of fooling one or two teams. Especially the desperate ones. Some advice: Find your bargains at Costco, not during the first few days of free agency. Only April brings the real discounts, once the supply and demand shifts and panic starts to set in with players and agents. Until then, know the tells. To paraphrase a famous line from Mike McD, if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, then you are the sucker.

What does this mean for the Giants? First, I’d say don’t throw more money than you are comfortable with at Jason Pierre-Paul. Second, spend wisely — and carefully — on the offensive line.

Rule No. 4: Scout Inside Out, Not Outside In

Lombardi writes:

This phrase comes from the legendary Bill Walsh, and right now, it’s one of the biggest reasons the Patriots compete for Super Bowls every year. The Patriots are terrific at understanding which players fit best in their system — it’s why they keep unearthing a never-ending supply of Chris Hogans, Alan Branches, and Kyle Van Noys. They scout inside out. So many other franchises fail because they keep changing their schemes (and when they do, many of their players might not fit in the new one), or because they don’t understand their own scheme well enough to find and develop the right players for it. They scout outside in. ...

Teams that succeed in free agency know exactly what their scheme requires at every position, then find players to fit those requirements. The Giants did it with defensive tackle Damon Harrison. The Falcons did with center Alex Mack. The expensive deals they shelled out were definitely worth it, because Atlanta and New York scouted inside out.

What does this mean for the Giants? It means find a wide receiver who complements, not duplicates, the skills of the players they already have. It means find an offensive lineman who can do things that will help Eli Manning succeed. It means, basically, make sure you understand what your offense needs before you throw money at players trying to fix it.

Lombardi’s recommedation for the Giants?

Sign Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford. Here’s why:

... he would give them a solid run blocker who could also help protect the inside of Eli Manning’s pocket, allowing Eli to step up in pressure (which is when he really excels). If the Giants don’t use free-agent money and/or draft picks to fix their offensive line, the last few years of the Eli Manning era will zoom by faster than you’d think.


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