It’s important for NFL teams to approach free agency the same way a car owner looks to upgrade his ride. It might be nice to add a spoiler, turbocharger or a cool sound system. But at its core, it is an inside-out approach. It’s the engine that needs hard examination first.
Talk to Mike Giddings, and he is clear: Self-evaluation is where the process starts.
“Winning free agency is winning it with filling needs,” explained the owner/president of Proscout Inc.
The only way to identify those needs: honest and accurate self-evaluation.
Think of it this way:
If you’re looking to grow as a person, the first thing most coaches, mentors or even books advise is for you to know yourself. It’s much easier to instill new habits, break away from old lines of thinking and create positive change if you are first honest about who you are. To be clear, done well, this is no holding back. What’s the old axiom? If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. Evaluation is hard.
NFL teams aren’t built any differently. The evaluation process runs wider and deeper. These are billion-dollar organizations that are comprised of dozens of players, coaches and personnel. But just like you must know yourself to spur growth, player evaluation is critical for team growth and success.
It’s stepping away from coaching — so critical in season — to be an unemotional evaluator out of season.
Giddings uses a color-coded system as an evaluation tool. ProScout categorizes players blue, red, purple and so forth – blue being the top tier. Of 2,100 players Giddings evaluated during the 2020 season, a little over 200 of them earned the blue classification – about 10% of the league.
When I spoke with Giddings on Tuesday – the second day of the legal tampering window and a full day before the official start of the league year — 80-90% of free agents that he had rated blue or red had been franchised or reportedly agreed to terms on new deals.
“The blue/red players — that’s where probably in last three or four weeks, if you identify a need, in the communication period, you found out what it would cost to get him, and actively have a plan to go get him, and have a plan B if the price gets too high,” said Giddings. “Putting the value on a player and then sticking to it is the hard part — not to pay blue money to a red player, red money to a purple player.”
Essentially it comes down to this: if you can find a blue player that fills a need and it’s a good wage — that’s a win-win.
By and large, Giddings underscores the importance of drafting blues. “Some teams go into the draft and fill the need — take the dang blue. And I’m the need guy! But if I’m any good, I’ll go find the purple to fill the need.”
Those purples are crucial as we move into the next couple weeks of free agency.
“Identifying the blues are easy,” said Giddings. “Deciphering who can play red, purple, grey and the guys that I can kick up. Maybe the red that I can get a blue box from. Who’s a purple quarterback that I can make red to fill a need?”
With blue/red talent — and dollars — spent in the first 48 hours of free agency, now it shifts to a buyer’s market. Here is when patience pays off and the sales pitch begins. Come play here. It’s a good fit — you will excel. Ultimately, if the productivity graph soars above the money graph then perhaps a pay raise like the one Nelson Agholor just received is in the future.
The correlation between success and money committed to blue/red/purple players who fill needs is real.
“What I preach is: formula. Fill six of your top eight needs and have 10 or more blue players — that’s my playoff guarantee axiom.”
A season ago, Giddings contended it was Tampa Bay that won free agency. It wasn’t an anomaly. In 2019, it was Tennessee. In 2018, the L.A. Rams. In 2017, Philadelphia. History tells us where those teams wound up by season’s end: Super Bowl champion, AFC Championship runner-up, Super Bowl runner-up, Super Bowl champion, respectively.
Who comes out victorious at the end of this year’s free-agency “season” remains to be seen. But it starts with an honest look at the vehicle in the garage and a candid evaluation of its current makeup. Only then can the evaluation turn to what could be brought in to make the road smoother or the engine more powerful. When those moves are made, it must be with a commitment to retooling by addressing the needs in a disciplined way.