Free agency is an incredibly exciting time of the year. The action is fast and furious for about 10 days, with fans living and dying with every rumor. Free agent signings are like Christmas presents. Everyone has a wish list, but you never know what you'll get. When the signing is the player you wanted, it makes the deal all that much sweeter. There are disappointments as well, but that's all part of the fun.
As fun as free agency is, it still takes a backseat to the draft. Free agency is how you fix roster holes and find immediate answers to needs. It isn't how you build a team. The NFL Draft is the lifeblood of successful teams. You want to find young talent and you also want to find players who your staff can develop. One of the problems with acquiring veteran players is that they are set in their ways.
Back in 2010, everyone thought Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan would make a great combination for Washington. Shanahan was a proven quarterback guru and offensive genius. McNabb was a borderline Hall of Fame player. Both were rooted in the West Coast Offense. What could possibly go wrong?
Shanahan was more dictatorial than McNabb was used to. While the offense was similar, there were some big differences. Shanahan wasn't a big believer in screen passes, something McNabb did very well during his time with the Eagles. What seemed like a great pairing of coach and player turned into a disaster.
Young talent is also critical for financial reasons. Seattle has some key players on rookie contracts. Left tackle Russell Okung, safety Earl Thomas, linebacker Bobby Wagner, cornerback Richard Sherman and quarterback Russell Wilson are all cheap, relatively speaking. As those players get to free agency, Seattle will have to pick and choose who stays and who doesn't. Think of it this way. Darrelle Revis has made more in half of a season than Sherman has in his entire career. There really can be a drastic difference with rookie deals and second contracts.
Free agency has only been going for a couple of weeks. What's with the draft talk? Free agency grabs the spotlight in early March, but this is the time when the focus shifts back to the draft. January is all about college all-star games, such as the Senior Bowl. February focuses on the Scouting Combine. March starts with free agency, but then college "Pro Days" become hugely important. While the Eagles have spent a lot of time working the free agent market in recent weeks, they have also continued to prepare for the draft.
You'll read a lot of stories about head coach Chip Kelly, assistant coaches, scouts and general manager Howie Roseman all attending various Pro Days. This is one of the most mis-understood parts of the pre-draft process. I listened to Dan Patrick's radio show the other day. He does a terrific job of mixing sports and entertainment. I love listening to his show, but I had to flip the channel when he started talking about Teddy Bridgewater's Pro Day. Most draft analysts and reporters who were at the Pro Day said Bridgewater didn't have a good performance. There was a lot of criticism for him out there. Patrick started to talk about how everyone was willing to forget three years of game tape and focus only on the workout. Ugh.
Pro Days are only a very small part of the scouting process. Game tape is still going to be approximately 90 percent of a player's grade. Pro Days don't replace that. They do have a point, though. Scouts, coaches and personnel executives can't watch Bridgewater run the Alabama offense any more than they can watch A.J. McCarron run the Louisville offense. If both guys were at the Senior Bowl, they could compare how the prospects looked in that situation, but neither prospect was at the Senior Bowl. Pro Days allow evaluators to see prospects in a generic setting. The quality of opponents isn't a factor since there are no defenses. It doesn't matter what kind of offensive line you have since they're not part of the workout. It doesn't matter what kind of skill players you have. Evaluators are focused on the quarterback and how he performs, not who makes what catches and things like that. A bad pass that looks spectacular due to a circus catch will still be graded as a bad pass. Pro Days simply give evaluators a chance to compare apples to apples.
No credible scout or coach would watch a Pro Day and decide a prospect wasn't good. The workout might confirm some worries that they had about the player. Or the workout could expose a flaw that the evaluator wasn't sure about from watching game tape. In a controlled environment, you can see the little things easier.
Beyond the workouts, Pro Days have other value. Coaches and scouts get to see how a player acts in a certain situation. Is he relaxed or too stiff? Does he treat this as business or is he joking around too much? Does the pressure of the moment get to the player? Some Pro Days feature a who's who of NFL coaches and general managers. That can affect a player. If it does, some people could hold that against him. They might question how the prospect handled pressure situations.
Pro Days also give a chance for coaches and scouts to interact with the prospects. Many times they have met with the players at the Senior Bowl or Combine, but a Pro Day is held at the campus facility and that makes the player more at ease. He is more likely to be himself there than in an awkward setting like an all-star game or the Combine.
Kelly has gone to a ton of Pro Days already this year and there are a few more on tap. Kelly must like seeing players in person. Not just stars, either. Last year, Kelly went to the Pro Day for LSU and Alabama. The Eagles drafted
One thing you have to be careful of is assuming that attending a Pro Day means the team likes a player for sure. It could be that the team is on the fence about a prospect and goes to his Pro Day, only to decide he isn't for them. Last year, the Eagles sent a huge contingent to West Virginia to see quarterback Geno Smith workout. That generated a lot of talk about the Eagles taking Smith with the No. 4 overall pick. Makes sense, right? The Eagles obviously didn't like what they saw all that much. They passed on Smith with the No. 4 pick and then again in the second round. That doesn't mean Smith wasn't a good prospect or won't have a solid career. The Eagles just didn't think he was right for them.
Good teams are going to check out a lot of players. Some they will love, some they will like and others they will not be impressed by at all. The scouting process is about finding prospects you want, but part of it is figuring out which players you don't want to draft. The draft is too important to do this casually. Do as much research as possible. Part of that means going to a lot of Pro Days.
Kelly has probably gone to more Pro Days than any other coach. I wonder if part of this is due to the fact that Kelly is unique with his vision to running a team. He needs players who will buy in to his way of doing things. That means the sports science stuff, practicing at a quick tempo, playing a certain way and things of that nature. Not all prospects are going to want to hear that they should sleep 10 hours a night. Not all prospects are going to want to drink smoothies and do the nutritional stuff that Kelly promotes.
There are also questions of scheme fit. Kelly needs defensive linemen who can play the 2-gap technique. Part of this you can see on tape, but it also helps to talk to a player and see if he's got the right attitude. It is harder to engage blockers than it is to shoot gaps and penetrate. Not all players are willing to hone the technique needed to battle blockers. Think about wide receivers. Kelly preaches the importance of their blocking. Not all receivers want to hear that if they don't block well, they won't play much.
If going to Pro Days helps Kelly to answer any questions or get a better feel for prospects, then I'm all for it. The Eagles brought in a strong class last year. They also had a good haul in 2012. Let's hope they can duplicate that success. Three straight outstanding draft classes would really put this team in good position to sustain success and be one of the top teams in the league.