On developing players

After writing an article on CFAs last week, a subject that’s kind of close to my heart (I love a good underdog story - who doesn’t?) the whole issue of player development has been swirling around in my head. The NFL can be amazingly shortsighted at times, and the area of creating a system to develop players has been one glaring hole in the entire NFL system that the league seems bound and determined to ignore. With the issues of a rookie salary cap on the table currently (and like most folks, I’m in favor of one), the issue of CFAs has also taken on a greater perspective by a lot of people, including agents, the players themselves and the NFL teams. Since this is the first year in memory that CFAs weren’t placed under contract immediately after the draft, it’s also been an opportunity to look at what circumstances might benefit all sides in terms of signing these players.

Back in early May, Jack Bechta wrote a nice piece on CFAs and their role in the NFL and commented on the need for a better policy for the teams to pick the CFAs. Under current rules, immediately after the draft teams take on a ton of CFAs, and few of them are really researched or given an opportunity to show the teams much. They might fit the team’s needs, and they might not - there isn’t the kind of attention to them that draft choices get, for obvious reasons. The CFAs are often dependent on injuries to get any playing time, and more than half of them don’t even make it onto the practice squad.

It’s easy to say that this is simply because they’re not NFL material, but as I talked about in the CFA article, quite a number of these players not only make the NFL, but play substantial roles in helping their teams win. They may have to bounce from team to team to achieve that (as Mike Vrabel did), and that really speaks more to the need for teams to know the players and how they could be good fits than to the players' skill levels. The line between a fourth-round pick and a CFA can be pretty thin.

If the NFL ever becomes serious about player development, the number of players on the training camp roster (80) final roster (53) and practice squad (8) needs to be extended, and I’ve been heartened to see that coming into the CBA negotiations. Although it may only be on the table for this year, it should become a long term agreement. Bechta commented:

I always thought there should be a one or two day delay in signing undrafted free agents after the draft. Myself and other agents strongly feel that the current system moves too fast, without structure and is unfair to the group of about 400 players who eventually get signed. I personally have a few guys who didn’t get drafted and I am using the delay and the time to my advantage to forensically go over each and every team’s roster and their picks to see where the best place is to place my clients. As opposed to being rushed and pressured into making a quick decision before the team in question moves on to the next player, this year, agents will have time to be calculating in advising their clients where the best place is to sign.

I think that would be a good start. The owners dismantled NFL Europe, even though they are still working on getting a bigger European profile and the fact that the league provided a developmental niche to the NFL that they badly need. The cost to each team was $500,000 per year, and the owners didn’t want to pay it. If that’s their perspective, fine, but I’d hope that they’d also recognize that by doing so, they no longer have a rational way to develop players. Expanding the available roster space is just one good sense approach. There are a lot of players with NFL skill levels who just need to be properly trained and developed by a team who is a good fit with their skill sets. Given the rates of injury over a 20-game (including preseason) schedule, having quality backups and developmental players is becoming a necessity.

Often, when a draft pick or a trade acquisition comes along, folks talk about them as if the strengths and weaknesses that they carry at that point (or did at some point in college) are somehow etched in granite and will always be that way. I’ve talked a lot about how often the scouting reports out of college contain info that was accurate a couple of years earlier, but no trace of those specifics still lingers once the player has been well coached and practiced on better technique. The same is true as far as drafted or traded players goes. For example, I read a lot of Philly site comments when Denver picked up Joe Mays, and nearly all of them were to the effect of “Don’t let the door hit you...”. That was mostly surprising to me since Mays had put up incredible special teams tackles, and few of the comments even made note of that. Just as importantly, Mays came from a small school, took some time to get his bearings in the NFL and showed Denver last year that he’s learning and improving rapidly and may have earned his way into the starting Mike position (it’s also true that Philly had a numbers situation at LB, and that came into the equation of his departure). Changing their play to overcome weaknesses is a matter of player development, and that process never really ends until the player’s career does.

Players develop in a lot of different ways, and it’s not just on the teams to make sure that the players are continuing to improve their game. Mays is a good example of this: he was working out hard with Brian Dawkins back in early March and focused on taking the starting Mike job. The guys who put in serious work in the offseason are often those who come back to training camp and take away a starting or rotational job. You’d love to have a team full of elite talent, but quality depth often saves a good club from a lost season when injuries take their toll over the course of the season. Look at the roster of the SB Champion Packers to get a good idea of how important that is.

Developing the Broncos

How about Denver’s ‘new’ approach? While I’d admit that I often see the glass half full in life, it’s hard to say that Denver hasn’t made a series of offseason changes that should work to the best advantage of the process of player development. Here are a few specific examples of what I mean by that:

Recently, LB coach Richard Smith was interviewed by Gray Caldwell regarding his new situation in Denver, and about the players that were drafted (That’s been a nice side effect of the lockout - I think that they’re running a few more bio and analysis articles about the coaches and the game than I usually see at this time of year). As you’d expect, the subject of Von Miller was covered in some detail, but in reading the quote, one thing stood out to me. Here’s what he said:

I hope we continue to do that... But what happened is there was a need in that area. When we converted from a 3-4 over to a 4-3, when you look at it, we needed to get some players in this particular position. Having an opportunity to get Von Miller, not only did we do a very good job of evaluating him and watching him at the combine -- I personally went out there and worked him out, and John Elway and (General Manager) Brian (Xanders) and John Fox jumped on a plane and went out there to watch this personal workout with him. Also a third equation was we brought him in here and spent a day with him. From that standpoint, we know all his strengths, all his weaknesses and what he's got to get accomplished. He's got freak ability and I think it's hard when you have an athlete like that, with that type of ability, he's got all the stuff you can't coach. Now it's an opportunity where he's going to get bigger and he's going to get stronger, he's going to learn our system, and then it's our job as coaches to put him in positions where he has the ability to be as successful as he was in college.

Parts of this stuff we’ve seen before. EFX has looked very hands on, and they also are clearly working with the position coaches to a large extent in developing player evaluations, which are things that I like to hear. Smith has a lot of experience at coaching LBs and like Ron Milus in the defensive secondary, he’s tended to confine his coaching to a specific area of the team (LB and DC, mostly), and he’s had the benefit of a lot of top players to work with. He knows his business. Since Smith moved into the NFL as a defensive assistant, he’s worked extensively with LBs. He’s also been a special teams coach and defensive coordinator, but he’s become particularly well known for his LB coaching, in much the same way as Milus has been a defensive secondary guy and Wayne Nunnely has been a defensive line guy.

That’s an optimal situation - you’ve got guys with excellent reputations coaching specific positions that they’ve had success with, and Denver has started giving them players who create the strongest chance of success on both sides. Strength coach Rich Tuten has a top-notch reputation around the league in his area, and he’s involved with every player at every position in some degree. It seems like this time, the coaches were chosen for specific needs just as the players are. That hasn’t always seemed to have been the case in Denver over the past decade.

But when I read the above answer by Smith, the one thing which really jumps out at the old teacher in me is this: he’s talking about how Miller is going to be developed. Sure, I’d love it if he could get into more detail - what exercises and drills do you choose for him and how will he train, for example. But consider this part in light of player development:

I think it's hard when you have an athlete like that, with that type of ability, he's got all the stuff you can't coach. Now it's an opportunity where he's going to get bigger and he's going to get stronger, he's going to learn our system, and then it's our job as coaches to put him in positions where he has the ability to be as successful as he was in college.

Smith understands that there are challenges to coaching a truly elite player that you may not have with others on the team. You have to keep him challenged. You have to understand how he takes coaching - which in Miller’s case, from everything that I’ve ever heard or read, is very well. You have to get him bigger and stronger, which will involve communication among Miller, Smith and Tuten (and/or Tuten's assistants, but I tend to suspect that Tuten will be the guy to put together the program of a player of Miller’s value). You have to get him to understand the system so well that he’s going to do naturally and instinctively the things that you want him to do for you, some of which might be different from what he did in college. You also want to give him, as they did his senior year at Texas A&M, a specific role that’s tailor-made to the strengths that he brings to the field that you aren’t going to see with other players. You want to bring out the best in his abilities. It sounds so obvious, so automatic that it’s sometimes hard to recognize that it isn’t really the norm in the NFL.

Look at Brandon Lloyd’s situation last year: he went from a player who fans expected to be a head case to being the league's leading wide receiver in terms of yardage. What I love about Brandon’s case is that he had the fortitude to sit down with a teammate that he deeply respected - it happened to be Kyle Orton, in this case - before the season and talked through the things that he wanted to work on as a person as well as as a player. That’s a step that not everyone has the personal integrity to take, and I strongly commend him on that. But from that point on, Lloyd rightfully gives a ton of credit to Orton and Josh McDaniels. Lloyd took a while to find his road, but as he’s said - the talent has always been there. From one perspective, he’s always been a 1,500-yard receiver: it just hadn’t manifested yet.

With the trust of Coach McDaniels and Orton as well as the coaching of then-WR coach and current QB coach Adam Gase, Lloyd was able to bring that out on the field. You always heard that Lloyd had incredible talent, but that he hadn’t gotten himself together to bring it to fruition. I love it when someone does achieve that, and Lloyd, Orton and McDaniels all deserve some credit in his development. Obviously, Brandon deserves the lion’s share.

To come back briefly to Miller and Smith:

...not only did we do a very good job of evaluating him and watching him at the combine -- I personally went out there and worked him out, and John Elway and (General Manager) Brian (Xanders) and John Fox jumped on a plane and went out there to watch this personal workout with him. Also a third equation was we brought him in here and spent a day with him. From that standpoint, we know all his strengths, all his weaknesses and what he's got to get accomplished.

And that last sentence is a much bigger issue than we often think. Bill Belichick has said that if a member of his staff grades a QB out as a top first-round talent, and that QB goes to another team and fails, he doesn’t consider that to be a lapse on the part of the scout. A different team, with different coaches, systems, strengths and weaknesses may just not be a good fit for the needs of the QB. The same is true for any player, at any position on the team. How the coaching analyzes a player and develops a plan for maximizing their performance is essential to how well the player develops.

We picked up two new safeties in this year’s draft in Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. They’re two of the luckiest young men in the NFL - next year, they are going to be coached by Rich Tuten, Ron Milus, Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey. They are also joining a group of defensive backs that’s overall either very young or getting older - Renaldo Hill, Andre' Goodman, Champ and Dawk are on the older side (although I honestly don’t see that Champ’s performance is really aging at this point), while players like David Bruton, Darcel McBath, Cassius Vaughn, Syd’Quan Thompson, and Perrish Cox are all at the early stages of their careers. John Elway has announced a three-year rebuild, and it’s off to a good start - they’ve got players who will be peaking, in NFL terms, right at about that three-year mark. Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter are being given a chance to develop under Dawk for at least a year, Champ most likely for several, and Ron Milus is a top-flight DS coach. They’ll be learning their physical training under Tuten, himself a well-respected coach.

Across the League

The issue of player development is not just about the Broncos, obviously.  The Steelers made it to the Super Bowl again, and fell just short due to a grand performance by Green Bay. The Steelers C-OG Doug Legursky, who stood in for Maurkice Pouncey in the SB, told PFW he's working out five days a week in the offseason as he tries to stay in shape. He believes he recognizes opponent tendencies well and has good strength but wants to improve his pass-blocking technique. He may be behind Pouncey on the depth chart, but he’s making sure he’s prepared when his chance comes, whether at guard or center.

Back in 2008, Aaron Rodgers had a heck of a first season as a starter for GB, and he managed 4,038 yards, a 63.6% completion rate and a QB rating of 93.8, a performance which most first-year players (after sitting behind Brett Favre for three seasons) would be happy with. Not Rodgers. He and his coaches had found a small glitch in his footwork while breaking down his film, so Rodgers spent his offseason working feverishly to improve his footwork. The result?The following year, his yards rose to 4,434, his completion percentage to 64.7 and his QB rating to 103.2. The year after, he guided the Pack to a SB title. Rodgers is never satisfied, and that’s a key element that no coach can instill into the player. It has to come from within.

Keith Bulluck was longtime a linebacker for Tennessee before being picked up as a backup by the NY Giants last season. He’s 34 and a year removed from a severe knee injury; he’s currently working out in California. A lot of teams would look at those facts and pass on him, but there’s more to it this season. This is going to be one season in which experience will probably count more than it has in the past - there’s going to be less time to absorb scheme changes, to meld with teammates and to learn the system. Bulluck has played in multiple schemes, knows the game of football and has worked tirelessly to get into peak physical shape. As a result, he may end up with more snaps next season simply because he knows the game and he’s done whatever he’s needed to to get and stay in top shape . He’s committed to his own personal development as a linebacker. With the rookies likely to be lost for quite a lot of the season, he may reap the rewards of that circumstance.

Conclusion

Improving player development in the NFL is going to require a multitude of factors. Rosters need to be expanded, so that sufficient players are available as injuries play their role in the season. Teams need a structure for development that works: right now, if you stash a guy on the practice squad, you can lose whatever work you’ve put into him if another team is willing to put him on their 53-man active roster. Teams need more players to work with, and a way to develop players without fear of losing them.

The players will always have a personal responsibility to pick up the pieces in the offseason and make sure that they’re getting whatever additional coaching and training they need, as well as taking some time to rest the small dings and injuries that develop over time, and then put in the effort to maximize their conditioning before returning to OTAs and camps. Players like Brian Dawkins are always in peak condition because they make the effort, year in and year out. It’s a lesson that I hope he’s able to pass on to his two new charges. My own teacher used to refer to putting an emphasis on the Six P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. The players need to maintain their part of the bargain.

But the league itself needs to take a long look at their beliefs about player development. Now that the NFL has trashed their European development league, how will they go about replacing that function?

It’s a question that I haven’t heard an answer for, but it’s one that needs the attention of owners and players alike.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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