In advance of the opening of NFL free agency, ESPN Insider player evaluators Matt Williamson, Gary Horton and Field Yates teamed up to form the "pro-personnel department" for six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian and recreate the front-office free-agent evaluation process for ESPN.com. The foursome broke down every unrestricted free agent scheduled to reach the market in 2014 using the same process Polian used as a general manager.
Free agents were evaluated in four main areas:
• Speed: Does a player perform with above- or below-average quickness relative to his position?
• Production: How much of an impact does a player make over the course of the season relative to his position?
• Injury: Does a player have any health concerns that would prevent him from playing?
• Character: Does a player have off-field baggage or attitude issues? Or is he a positive influence on the field and in the clubhouse? Players were given a plus, minus or neutral mark in each category (though no pluses are given in the injury category).
They were then given a final grade corresponding to the value and term of the contract a team would be expected to commit.
A: $6 million-plus AAV (annual average value), three-plus years in term and/or guaranteed money
B: $2 million to $6 million AAV, two years or fewer in term and/or guaranteed money
C: $2 million or less AAV, two years or fewer in term and/or guaranteed money
D: minimum salary, one-year contract
Players with a plus or a minus grade slot between tiers.
Q: In the past, ESPN has used a 100-point scale to grade free agents. Why the change to letter grades?
A: The 100-point scale was used by Scouts Inc. in its player evaluations for past seasons. In 2014, Polian and Horton, Williamson and Yates took over the evaluation process, utilizing a system more reminiscent of the one Polian used as a GM.
Q: Past free-agent evaluations broke down players in a number of categories specific to their position. Why is there less detail in these player evaluations?
A: These grades are tied more closely to projected contract value than a player's individual traits. In short, these grades are more about supply, demand and production than a player's combine measurables. To NFL teams, those specific attributes are less important than a player's overall fit with a team's needs and schemes. That's what dictates the demand for a player. Players who have the most talent will inevitably appeal to -- and fit -- with more teams, which drives up their grade. You could be the best Cover 2 corner in the NFL, but if you can only fit with Cover 2 teams, the market will not be that big for that player and his contract value will be affected accordingly.
Q: What are the differentiations between the plus, minus and neutral ratings in the attributes?
A: A quick breakdown:
Injuries: In a sport with a 100 percent injury rate, there are no pluses. A minus means a player has serious red flags, such as multiple surgeries and/or concussions.
Character: A plus means he has exceptional presence, work habits and leadership. A minus is due to any reason for concern regarding his work ethic, focus or off-field habits.
Speed: A plus is an explosive game-changer at his position. A minus means he has inadequate speed at his position. A neutral score is adequate.
Productivity: Plus players will provide top production at their positions -- as measured by individual club metrics, not universal measures like common statistics. Neutral means average production, while a minus means below-average production for his position. All A-graded players should have a plus in production.
Q: Why are there so few highly graded players?
A: The reality of NFL free agency is that elite, A-level players almost never reach the open market. Teams will always try to sign their own best players first and foremost. If a player reaches free agency, one of two things has happened: A team is cap-strapped and has no choice but to let the player go, or the team has made the internal decision that the player is not worth re-signing. If his own team lets him walk away, and they're not in dire straits in terms of the salary cap, that should tell you something.
Q: How much does a player's age factor into a final grade?
A: Age is a very important component of the evaluation. In handing out free-agent contracts, you want to try to limit the dead money -- money paid to a player even after he's no longer contributing to your team. With very few exceptions (quarterbacks and high-end wide receivers), I would not give any player more than 28 years old a contract that took him beyond his age-31 season, even an A-grade player.
Q: Do any of the attributes count more than others in the evaluation or are they all equal?
A: This will vary from team to team as each club values these attributes differently. For example, some teams will value character more highly than others. Some teams might value speed at certain positions, such as linebacker, more highly than others. In the end, however, free agency is about two things: money and contract length. Therefore, production -- both past and projected -- is the ultimate arbiter. As stated previously, "the market" should not be a determining factor. "Meeting the agent's price" is almost always a mistake.
Q: Why don't any of the restricted free agents have grades?
A: The evaluation process for a restricted free agent is entirely different because the valuation requires draft pick compensation, as well as dollars and term. Grades for UFAs compared to RFAs would be like comparing apples and bananas, and with so few RFAs likely to change teams, it wasn't worth adding to the confusion.