Inside the mind of an NFL GM

Vinny Cerrato (right) says teams have to stay flexible during this shortened free-agency period. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The NFL is about to embark on its wildest free-agency period ever. Because of this year's lengthy lockout, hundreds of players will be signed in a matter of days, in addition to rookie draft picks and rookie free agents. A supplemental draft also will be held.

The AFC North blog contacted former Washington Redskins general manager Vinny Cerrato for insight on what 32 front offices will be facing in the next several weeks.

Here is Cerrato's guide to navigating through this unprecedented stretch:

Cerrato's GM rule No. 1: Teams must set priorities

All 32 teams have a lot to accomplish in a short time frame. Cerrato said he would first determine what's most important. Then, he would delegate responsibilities.

"I'm the GM, so I'm working on unrestricted free agents at midnight (when free agency begins), along with my owner and my head coach. The undrafted rookies, I'm giving that to whoever my assistant contract [salary cap] guy is -- all teams have a couple. He goes with a couple coaches and probably my college scouting director and scouts. They're working on the undrafted, because those guys aren't going to hurt you. The unrestricted free agents that teams are talking to are going to make you or break you. But you're doing both at the same time."

Cerrato's GM rule No. 2: Take advantage of 72-hour window

An interesting wrinkle in this year's collective bargaining agreement is the 72-hour window to allow teams to negotiate with their own free agents. This gives clubs a chance to keep coveted players before they hit the open market.

Cerrato compared this period to the NFL combine and said teams are already getting a head start.

"I think this -- teams are already talking to agents. So, for teams and the guys that you want to re-sign, agents should have a feel for who else is interested. What's going to happen is, during that three-day window, the agent is going to know what the market is for that player. So he will let the team know if the player wants to sign early, here is what the market is. Then, it's going to be up to the team whether they want to pay that market value or if they don't believe that's the market. Some teams may say, 'No, let's see what the market is and then we will sign him.' Or some teams who really want the guy back will pay that."

Cerrato's GM rule No. 3: Trust in your research

Because of the lockout, teams have not been allowed to directly contact players for the past four months. It will be difficult to know who's in shape and who's not, not a good situation when you may be spending huge money on a free agent.

"It's the same situation you have with all your players and the homework that you've done on a guy. You're not going to want those kind of players who aren't going to work and don't love football. You don't want to pay that guy a lot of money. You gotta know the guy, because you've had plenty of time to investigate. So you're going to have a feel for what they're going to come in like. But the thing about it is you don't even know how your team is coming in. So the coaches have to gauge everybody when they get there and see where they're at. Otherwise, everyone is going to have [muscle] pulls. But you still have to go by the free agent's talent and abilities and what you see on film."

Cerrato's GM rule No. 4: Mandatory spending changes landscape

Under the proposed rules of the new CBA, teams will be required to spend close to the salary cap. This will force normally reserved teams, such as the Cincinnati Bengals, to become players in free agency.

Therefore, Cerrato believes flexibility is key for GMs, because unexpected things will likely take place.

"What's going to happen is you're going to have some teams come out of left field. For example, Tampa Bay can come in and blow teams away with whoever -- [and sign Ravens guard] Marshal Yanda if they wanted to. So you have to have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, because you don't know. In prior years, at midnight there were probably eight to 10 teams that were legitimately going after free agents, and everyone else was just waiting. Now you're going to have a lot more teams working and with a ton of money to spend."

Cerrato's GM rule No. 5: Coach-GM balance will be critical

You've seen it many times: GMs and coaches disagreeing on who should make the team.

This presents an interesting conflict of interest. The front office picked a rookie or signed a free agent and has vested interest in that player, but the coach who works with that player every day may not like what he sees.

According to Cerrato, the disagreements between a coach and GM could be multiplied this year without proper time to evaluate players in minicamps and offseason workouts.

"A coach's mind frame previously has been, 'OK, let's evaluate and as we get closer we can pick out teams.' Now, I don't think they're as much into evaluating and developing. I think their mind frame is: 'We gotta prepare to play a game.' So that hurts all these rookies. What happens when a coach comes in and tells you ‘We want to cut the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks, because they can't help us right now’? How are teams going to balance looking at the big picture or looking at how do we win today? That's going to be of interest."

Without a doubt, there are a ton of issues teams will face this summer. The clubs that are most prepared for the unknown will thrive, while others will be left behind.