How do you quicky replace 35-50 players? Part I

Note: This is the first of a two-part article, the second of which will appear tomorrow at 3PM ET

I was watching some film the other day - a habit that I’ve gotten into. I find that I can retain the issues or points that I will want to write about as long as I keep the watching part to about one quarter of the game. I tend to watch each play until I know what each player on the screen is doing on that play - it can take one viewing or several, but I don’t move on until I’ve got that one clear in my mind.  By halftime I’m cranking out notes to keep up. If I don’t take a break by the middle of the third quarter, I’m starting to miss things that I knew about earlier. It’s a simple problem with a simple solution - you do a quarter, write it up, do another, take a break or two, and eventually you’ve got a game. First, you need to find certain patterns, characters, specific plays that illustrate concepts which affect the outcome of the drive, half or game - or find a couple of personalities that might make it into a good Broncography. Once in a great while, you find something that brings all of them together. If you can keep it to 5,000 words or so, you might even get by with it as an article. That’s where this came in. Since I’m always looking for things that might help out or even become the subject of a single article, what I saw recently became more and more concerning as I watched players dealing with injuries, under pressure to improve a weakness that affects the outcome of a game. The starting point was simple, but what it revealed was a major concern.

In a recent article, I noted that 32 of the players from the 2008 squad that Denver has since pared from the roster are currently out of the NFL. We’re not counting those who managed to move on successfully, like Peyton Hillis who is playing his heart out in Cleveland, and who illustrates another key point - more players don’t fit the system, and have to be replaced with ones who can play. Alphonso Smith moves to Detroit and plays well, while Perrish Cox and Syd’Quan Thompson come in and find immediate success. What’s the total when you put both groups together and add those few who just didn’t want to play for a new coach and system? 40? 50? It’s a lot of players.

There are questions that every coach faces every single season, and before most games: which of my guys can I count on when things are tough? Of the players available to me, who is going to fold when the pressure gets highest, and who is going to be excited, driven and effective when they are needed most? Who can handle the pressure when they become successful? Who will start to take it for granted, and expect things to go well without maximum effort? Quite simply - who has it? Who doesn’t? It’s one reason that the half dozen or so top teams in the NFL have had their core players together for the longest time - those are the guys for whom those questions are already answered. When they run out on the field, the coaches know what they are going to get from them. The other players will tend to follow in their footsteps almost automatically. It’s a weapon rarely even mentioned, but one that can generate wins time and again. Where do you find those players?

What do You Pay for the Great Players?

Historically, the answers are varied and at times remarkable. There is the argued approach of spending large sums on a few players who could turn around a single game. I’m admittedly not a proponent of this approach, although others see in it a solid way to ‘shut down’ one or more aspects of the game. Denver has Champ Bailey, and while no player is perfect, Bailey’s skills border on the miraculous at times so if I complained too much about this approach, I’d have to be a bit of a hypocrite about it. Julius Peppers is another such player - he is a skilled pass rusher, a vicious tackler, and has quickness that is difficult to match, especially by offensive lineman, players who tend to lumber as much as they move. Few of them are light on their feet, which makes a player like Ryan Clady unusual in the extreme. At 326 lb, he is immense, quick and sure-footed. His arms are long, and his strength prodigious. The Clady’s of this game are rare - and can start bidding wars.

But Denver rarely tends to get into such issues. They will, almost without question, open the checkbook early on when it’s time for Clady to sign his next contract. They’ll be happy to do so, too. It’s not their usual approach, but Clady is anything but your usual player. The Broncos’ front office is far more likely to look for less expensive players who fit the scheme very well and teach them what they need to learn to get out on the field and do it right. It’s the JAG approach - just a guy - but a guy who has the correct height, weight, skillset, lateral quickness, pad level, etc, etc. Jason Hunter is a great example of such a player - he’s inexpensive, tall enough, strong enough, runs good enough routes, hits well and seems to have very good information-processing speed. All in all, he’s a very good acquisition at a very low price - an OLB who wasn’t making it in Detroit, for whatever reason. Theories will abound, but in fact, the outcome is all that matters. I wish Alphonso Smith well any time he isn’t playing Denver. And, from what I’ve seen so far from Dan Gronkowski at FB and at TE, Smith looks like a bargain to Detroit. After being dealt following his best preseason game as a Bronco, Alphonso came up with an INT in three straight games for the Lions. Gronkowski is being groomed as a TE/FB, and that will take time. He’s not a great player, but he fills a hole created by drafting Richard Quinn, who is starting to earn the Bust Award. Ouch. But filling holes is what it’s about right now.

For Denver, this has been the paramount key to remaking the team. I have used the term reloading, and that’s equally true, but when you inherit a team on which 32 of your players can’t get a job elsewhere in the profession, you have to replace a lot of players. Keep in mind that you’ll go substantially beyond just those 32. You’re not going to be perfect in making your choices, either, and you’ll be in the disapproving eyes of the media - for a little while. Then, when there’s a new story somewhere more ‘sexy’ than Denver, the media mostly moves on,  but you’ll still be replacing players. Where do they come from? 32 is a lot of people, and that doesn’t really cover the number that you’ll need. You can’t count the ones who don’t make it through training camp the following year, those who fall to injury or who retire due to age. While you can’t give a single number that will cover all of this, my estimate is that it’s between 35 on the very low end and probably 50ish on the high end. As an example, what Denver has done in terms of replacing their receiving corps is remarkable.

I know that the scouting department has been retooled, the manuals for the individual player positions rewritten, and both Brian Xanders and Josh McDaniels are spending long hours looking for castoffs from other teams that will fit in theirs. Kevin Vickerson and Jason Hunter are good examples of this - Bill Walsh claimed that this was the time of year that the good teams moved up to elite, if they were paying attention. I don’t know if that’s still true to the same extent - he made the comment in the early 1980s - but Denver has two good reasons to agree with him. But there are a couple of more common, better worked out manners for obtaining newer, hopefully better players.

The first one of these has been around since 1935, when Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell helped establish the NFL Draft. But with the pre-draft training, Combine, Pro Days, Draft, OTA’s, training camp, preseason and regular season of today, it’s fair to say that pro football has become a year-around opportunity for filling stadiums, beer cups and coffers. The effects of longer seasons and contests against players who are faster, stronger, and larger than ever before on the league’s players has been immediate. When you’re looking for players to beat those kinds of humans, you have to have a plan, some excellent scouting and a little bit of luck. Just to hit them all, let’s begin by talking about the largest crapshoot this side of the New York Stock Exchange.

The Draft

As dozens, more likely thousands of pundits, commentators and wags have noted, and millions of fans have agreed, the draft is, has been, and will always be a crapshoot. The top player taken may be a Jake Long, or a JaMarcus Russell, who thought that cashing his checks was his most important task since he had ‘made it.’ I worried that Knowshon Moreno was a bit small for the NFL, and that while he had not been injured prior to the draft, he seemed, from watching his movements and his physical attributes, that he might be susceptible to injury in the NFL. I hate having a point that time. On the other hand, I tended to believe Mike Mayock when he thought that Robert Ayers would be one of the best players in the NFL over time. He’s going in that direction, it seems to be a fast mover, and he may well make it. David Bruton and Darcel McBath were cheap at twice the price - Alphonso Smith may well become a top player, but he won’t do it in Denver anytime soon. Eric Olsen is a very large question mark, in any sense of the phrase. Given the situation, it’s a good thing that most of the OL picks look like they will be keepers - we’re going to need them. Demaryius Thomas looks to be a top player, and Denver has several good-to-great ones at wide receiver. Who would have thought that Denver would have trouble finding playing time for Eric Decker? The Draft is a crapshoot, no question.

So, how do you find ‘players’, the ones that Jim Goodman once noted that you draft because wherever they land, whatever position you put them at, “those guys are football players?” Spencer Larsen is one of those. And, how do you handle the ones that crash and burn on you practically right out of the gate? The first thing that the GM and coaches have to know is this: give up on buyers’ remorse. Cut the player (such as Jarvis Green), learn the lesson, move on. There’s nothing else that you can do. Some of those players will be winners with other teams, and that’s as it should be. You looked at that player because they had the talent. For some, the scheme that you play will be too difficult, the movements too different and the situation a poor fit, regardless of the time and research put into it. You sigh, wish them well, and move on. It’s all there is to do.

Buyers Remorse, Trades and the Draft

Denver has avoided one of the biggest traps of those who like or believe in rebuilding through the draft. It’s a phrase that you hear a lot, but what interests me is that mathematically, it’s impossible. The phrase is this:  “You have to build through the draft”. I consider the draft essential, but you can’t count on it to rebuild a team on its own. One limitation is the number of picks: since you’ll get seven players on the average, and perhaps four of those will make a name for themselves (five or six if you’re very lucky that year),  and a second limitation is where those picks land in terms of rounds. It’s a lot easier when you have five picks in the first two rounds, in theory, but the reality of the crapshoot aspect of the draft still comes in. The best you can hope for on average is four new, good players, at least a couple of which will take some time to develop. What creates a problem is that your turnover is usually that high - or more. Some coaches just decide to go with available free agents when possible, and use the draft as a backup.

That’s fine, too, but you have to deal with the issue of cost.  One of the things that is true about going after high-cost veteran players - like the ones that Mike Shanahan considered the players that his teams were just that one away from another Super Bowl ring - is that the last team with a hat in the ring and a check in the hat band is going to nearly always get that player. If it works, you’re a genius. If not, you were the one who overspent millions of dollars for that bum. Perhaps he is injured in camp, perhaps he hates the system, ala Albert Haynesworth. Perhaps he was the perfect piece on the field, but didn’t get along with the locker room and created problems. Brian Greise was supposed to be like that - his career was long, his accomplishments several, including a year in the club for those who are most popular - the Pro Bowl. At the same time, he was fired repeatedly, seemed to have ‘erratic’ down to a fine art and wound up as a pretty good commentator rather than a QB. Did some of his coaches have buyers remorse? Of course. But that’s the nature of that part of the game. Quite often, the ‘winner’ of the bidding is the team who overestimated the player with the greatest degree of enthusiasm. As Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats notes, this is known as the Winner’s Curse. Ask the Washington Redskins about that: they know.

On the other hand, many people considered Kyle Orton to be a ‘throw-in’ on the Jay Cutler trade. At this point, it’s clear that the trade will work out well for both teams. Orton commented this season:

Anytime you can add another year of experience it is a huge thing at my position.  I think I’m finally in an offense that has good players around me.  It is a system that I like and feel that I can succeed in.

Here’s hoping that he’s right.

Free Agency I

Free agency is viewed in vastly different ways by different coaches and GMs. A.J. Smith, GM of the San Diego Chargers, commonly notes his disdain for those coaches who go the free agency route. This isn’t to say that A.J. has never gone down that road, either - he was thrilled to pick up Kevin Burnett for the LB corps, seeing him as a ‘last piece in the puzzle’ before dropping out of the playoffs to the Jets that season. When Smith became short on DL players, he brought in former 1st-round pick Travis Johnson, a player who has been an enigma in terms of his performance, which was often less than optimally in line with his price tag. Smith seems to have found the right coach in Ron Rivera for just that kind of player. As far as Smith goes, has he held back too much? Traded too little? Stood pat with a pair of tens too often? I’ll leave it to you to decide, but one thing is certain. There’s no Lombardi Trophy in the case in SD. Somehow, the system has produced good teams and long runs of wins - but never the one that every team dreams of. It’s worth thinking about.

Denver, out of sheer necessity, has been using the free agency system extensively in the past two years to replace a vast and remarkable list of no-longer players. It was essential - no one was going to trade for those players. No one would pay them anything to get them on the field, and a few would pay them to leave. Some left with money still coming from the Broncos - ironically, and perhaps fittingly for these players, it’s callled ‘dead money’ - but it’s still in their pockets. No one wins with a team like that. I read last month that Denver is actually now one of the best with regard to keeping dead money minimal, and after that housecleaning, I was pleasantly surprised.

A few hardened fans noted after the Indianapolis game that they actually left after a loss with a good feeling about their team. Only time will tell if that’s whistling past the graveyard, or simply seeing the changes on the field, and reacting to what they’ve observed. However - from Ron Fields to nearly the whole of the Miami secondary - which beats being the Browncos all to heck - Denver is becoming a good team. Nate Jones, Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan are good examples of this. Elite? Not at all - not yet. But they are moving in the right direction, and that’s the only thing that McDaniels can do at this point. He was given lemons - it’s what he makes from it that will be his legacy.

The Roulette Wheel - Looking at the Practice Squad

This is perhaps the most interesting and potentially frustrating aspect of player replacement. A lot of top players - Antonio Gates is one such man - still go undrafted. More often than not, players like that spend a year or three on the PS before either taking the field or hitting the road. The Marquez Branson story is a perfect example - he lost points as a transfer from a junior college and moved to a ‘lesser’ school and conference. But he was learning to use the weight room, running routes, developing techniques for his blocking as well as his route tunning. He was promoted to the active team, and promptly blew out his knee. Since that was two major injuries in less than a year, Branson was done. NT Chris Baker wasn’t actually on the PS, but he wasn’t active on game days, and he worked daily on the scout team along with Everette Pedescleaux. He was learning to critique on a daily basis with Wayne Nunnely but he was still cut, as was PDX. That’s the peril of the PS. It can break your heart.

Or your facemask. PS player Ryan McBean became a good quality starter with Denver in 2009. But in the Week 1 loss at Jacksonville, he gifted the Jags with not one, but two nearly identical face mask penalties in a row - 30 unearned yards on the drive that would win the game for the Jaguars. The result - coincidence or not - was the immediate acquisition of veteran defensive end Kevin Vickerson. The message was pretty obvious - while it’s true that Vickerson is a good player with a decent background, McBean certainly got the message. There are lots of people who want your job. Do it well - or someone else will take it. Josh McDaniels believes in two things - winning, and doing it without making dumb mistakes.

Since NFL Europe closed, there’s no real development league for football. Mistakes are up. Your PS is one thing that has to fulfill that role. It’s nice to see when it works, and Matthew Willis and McBean - along with Marquez Branson, and I wish both Willis and Branson speedy recoveries - are examples that show how important that squad is. Just this weekend, Denver brought up LB Kevin Alexander and S Kyle McCarthy to increase the team’s depth in light of the recent rash of injuries to the defense.

There are other ways to acquire players. In Part II tomorrow, we’ll go over the waivers system - its advantages and disadvantages - and revisit the free agency system.

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

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