On Wednesday, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that 13 NFL teams have over $10 million in cap space. Plenty of players, like Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace and Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Paul Kruger, cashed in during free agency. Others, like Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril and Arizona Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall, took less than market value.
With plenty of teams having more than enough money to spend, that raises an interesting question: How is a player’s value determined according to NFL teams? This article breaks down how the teams where I was employed went about figuring out what each player in the NFL is worth.
Most NFL teams break up their scouting departments into two categories. Teams have a college scouting department that focuses on upcoming draft selections. They also employ a pro personnel department that focuses on scouting players on other NFL teams. This piece focuses on the latter.
Pro personnel departments will have a scout watch for at least three games in any one season of every player on every NFL roster. Typically a department of three scouts will split the NFL up, so two scouts will watch 11 teams and one scout will be responsible for 10 teams.
Each scout will write a scouting report on each player on every 53-man roster as well as each player on practice squads. A typical report will include the strengths, weaknesses and a summary of the player’s skill set and talents.
Heading into the season, the pro department will meet with the salary-cap department and go through a report of players whose contracts expire at the end of the season. When a player has been on full pay status, i.e. on the active, inactive or injured reserve list for six or more regular-season games, he receives what is called an “accrued” season.
If a player has four or more accrued NFL seasons and his contract expires at the end of the league year, that player will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA). As a UFA, the player is free to negotiate a contract with any NFL team.
With the list of UFAs in hand, the pro scouts will focus more attention on those players when scouting each particular team. The scouts will still write up a report on each player but will write a much more in-depth report on players whose contracts are about to expire.
Once all the reports are written, each scout will assign a grade to each player. Some teams will grade players as if they are in school and use A, B, C, D and F. Pluses and minuses are added as well. Other teams use colors like high school scouting services do. A blue player is one of the best in the NFL. Red is for a top-line starter.
Depending on the team, there can be six to 10 color grades in a scale. However, almost universally on teams that use color grades, brown is the worst color a player can be graded, hence the connotation. Arrows up or down can be added to show if a player is ascending or descending in talent.
After scouts grade each player and file reports, teams stack players at each position to determine who is the best in the NFL, their conference and their division.
Using Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson as an example, he would be graded as a blue player in the color grading system. In the entire NFL, he would be stacked as the top runner. In the NFC, he would be graded along with all the other NFC running backs like Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, San Francisco's Frank Gore, etc.
In the NFC North, Peterson stacks up against Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears, Mikel Leshoure of the Detroit Lions and Alex Green of the Green Bay Packers. Though Joique Bell of the Lions and DuJuan Harris of the Packers both played quite a bit in 2012, most teams will use the player who played the most snaps and list them as the starter. Backup players who were key contributors would be noted on the side along with their grade.
Once the entire NFL is broken down, teams stack pending UFAs by position and grade. If a certain team like the Miami Dolphins knows it will be in the market for a free-agent wide receiver, it addresses that position first in meetings. The entire pro scouting staff will sit in meetings and watch the players together. This is a chance for the two other scouts who have not studied this particular player to form their judgments and produce scouting reports as well.
Going into the meeting, there may have been a certain player graded as a red and another graded as a green (solid backup). But after the meeting of all three scouts, a consensus grade may cause the green player to leapfrog the red-graded player. Once this stacking process is done for all pending UFAs, the scouting department on the pro side will again meet with the salary cap department.
They will look at players under contract for the coming season or even longer and decide if such player could be cut due to cap restrictions. Former Denver Broncos outside linebacker/defensive end Elvis Dumervil and former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha were recent examples of this issue.
After looking at all the potential salary-cap cuts, the pro scouting department will stack the board again with those players included. Most teams will have two sheets, one with UFAs only and one with UFAs and cap-casualty possibilities. This will allow the team to forecast better and project into the future with more clarity.
Once all of these grades are compiled and stacked, the team will bring the general manager, head coach and positional coaches together and watch the top five to 10 players the organization will target in free agency. Again, with so many different opinions, the stacking order can change greatly.
This is also where the team’s medical department will get involved. Most players have a medical grade assigned to them coming into the NFL. If a player has suffered numerous injuries in the NFL, the team doctor will adjust this grade as well.
Purely on talent, a player may receive a red scouting grade and be a major target in free agency. But once the medical reports are added into the total picture, that player may end up with a green overall grade. This is typically where fans use their heart over their head. Even though a particular player has been a solid starter for many years with a team, his current team knows more about his injury history or other issues, and so its grade may be harsher.
Once they establish the final grading process, the general manager, the pro scouting staff and the salary-cap department will meet again. This is the meeting that really drives free agency. They assign each UFA a contract value amount based on current contracts at the position in the NFL.
Take the wide receiver position in free agency this year. Most people knew the Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins would be players in the free-agent market for a pass-catcher.
Using the Dolphins as an example, after they gather all the scouting grades and medical grades, they set the board and rank the available wide receivers. Let’s say hypothetically their final stack was Mike Wallace and then Greg Jennings, Wes Welker, Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola and Donnie Avery.
Looking at the top-paid players at the wide receiver position, general manager Jeff Ireland and his staff will determine where Wallace falls into those contracts. Does he deserve to be paid like a Calvin Johnson or a Larry Fitzgerald?
Though an exact figure is rarely given, a high number for yearly average salary and a low number are established. The high number is the point the team will pay up to secure the player but not eclipse, and the low number is used to start the negotiations.
A price point is put on Wallace, but one is also attached to Jennings, Welker, etc. Teams will do this exercise as preparation for a fallback plan. If the Dolphins had established a ceiling for Wallace but the Vikings were willing to outbid Miami, the Dolphins would need to know who to move on to next.
In this example, the reverse happened with Wallace going to Miami and Jennings ending up in Minnesota. Hypothetically, the Dolphins may have been willing to pay Wallace $12 million per year, but if they lost him to another team, they could move on to Jennings, but only for $6 million a season.
NFL teams do this for every player in the NFL. Then, based on history, production and need, teams build their rosters. It is why there are so many cap casualties each season. If a team feels like a veteran player making $4 million a year is on par with a younger player making $1 million, simple economics will win out.
Each team has a different formula, and that is why there is so much movement in the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens felt as if they got the best value they could out of veterans like Paul Kruger, Ed Reed and Dannell Ellerbe. They established a price point they believed each player was worth. Once the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins, respectively, went above that dollar figure, the Ravens turned their attention to Elvis Dumervil, Marcus Spears and Michael Huff at a fraction of the total cost.
On the reverse side, the Browns, Texans and Dolphins paid more for those players in hopes that they are the missing piece to a championship. No one formula is perfect, but as the old saying goes, “Every man (or in this case, player) has his price.” It is up to each organization to determine what that figure is.
The teams that find the answer have continued success. The ones that do not usually replace those staffs that got them in their current hole.