Free Agency 101 with Bill Polian

Bill Polian (Rich Arden/ESPN Images)
Bill Polian with Michael MacCambridge’s America’s Game book. (Rich Arden/ESPN Images)

For the third straight year, NFL Front Office Insider Bill Polian will be a key contributor to ESPN’s offseason coverage, especially with today’s start of NFL free agency (4 p.m. ET).

Since the onset of free agency marks the official start of the new league year, Front Row asked the six-time NFL Executive of the Year – who has two dozen years of experience building teams – to school us on the subject. Polian’s “syllabus” includes his free agency philosophy and a recommended reading list.

Free Agency 101 with Bill Polian
March 11: “If this is the start of the school year, the tuition is awfully high and it escalates on a daily basis, so be careful what courses you sign up for. . . You’re almost never getting good value because the courses taught by the superstar professors are already filled, so you might be buying a graduate assistant at the cost of let’s say [renowned historian] Arthur Schlesinger.”

→ Make roster additions with care if your team is rebuilding. With teams re-signing the best players to long-term deals or putting the franchise tag on them, Polian says the real difference-makers will come from the draft. What you look for in free agency, he notes, are players who can contribute. “You can find some very good building blocks and very good value out there, but it is almost always not among the so-called ‘name’ players.”

→ Pick up a “tone-setter” if your team has some building blocks and is looking for leadership. Polian did this with [former Colts defensive end] Chad Bratzke to help create a professional, winning atmosphere among the team. In this scenario, Polian notes you’ll likely overpay.

→ Re-sign your own players first if your team is strong. “Those players get paid real cap dollars!” Polian says. He also advises teams in this situation to remain disciplined so they have the money to re-sign players in the future.

Polian’s Recommended Reading:
• Tony Dungy’s The Mentor Leader
• David Harris’ The League
• Marv Levy’s Where Else Would You Rather Be?
• Michael Lewis’ Moneyball
• Michael MacCambridge’s America’s Game
• Bill Walsh’s Finding the Winning Edge

Lastly, Polian offers a warning: “Never sign a big-name player from somebody else’s team who makes more money than a bellwether on your team. You’re asking for real trouble in the locker room by doing that.”

→ “The salary cap is finite and there are no exceptions.”

→ “You had better do your homework well in advance of this and you better continue to do your homework throughout this whole process. What this is about is getting maximum value for your money. It’s not fantasy football.”

Grading System
→ Polian suggests a team-specific, player-specific and dollar-specific approach. “There are 32 places that a player can land. Just as there are many schools that people can go to, there are many courses they can choose. The question is what’s right for the team and what’s right for the player.”

Polian’s free agency tracker

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