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For NFL Fans, the Fireworks Begin on March 13

Jimmy Graham - November 2018

Jimmy Graham (80) is defended by New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Anxious NFL fans have spent the five-plus weeks since the Super Bowl feeding their habits on anything they can find: news snippets, rumors, gossip, wild speculation. Tomorrow, however, we’ll be experiencing real news and important doings. More specifically, at 4:00 pm (Eastern Time).

At that moment, All 2018 player contracts expire, and the free agency period begins.

By that moment, teams must have exercised options for 2019 on all players having option clauses.

By that moment, teams must have submit qualifying offers to their Restricted Free Agents.

By that moment, clubs must have submitted minimum salary tenders to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their players with expiring 2018 contracts who have fewer than three accrued seasons of free agency credit.

Free Agent Pool

This season, I count 670 players who are about to officially become free agents, 338 on the offense 307 on the defense, and 25 kickers or punters. I’m including restricted free agents and exclusive restricted free agents. I believe the trend is to have shorter-duration contracts, which means more free agents – and more fireworks – each year when free agency commences.

It used to be that the Packers had maybe a half dozen players become free agents when their contracts expired. This year, however, they have 10 unrestricted FAs, three restricted ones, and seven exclusive rights FAs. Since there are 670 FAs, and 32 teams, that works out to 20.9 free agents per team – about where the Packers stand. They were at 21, but DE Fadol Brown just inked a 1-year deal with the Pack.

There are 29 FA quarterbacks, the most accomplished being: Tyrod Taylor, Nick Foles, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Robert Griffen III. Brett Hundley is also on this list.

Though we think in terms of two starting safeties and two starting cornerbacks, there are 70 FA cornerbacks but only 43 FA safeties. Similarly, there are 56 FA OLBs, but only 33 FA ILBs. There are lots of wide receivers, 81, to choose from.

Free Agent Frenzy

The wheeling and dealing will happen fast and furiously Wednesday afternoon. My recall from last year is that within ten days about 80% of the top half of the players on each positional list had been signed up. Of the top ten or so players on each positional list, half or more of them are usually picked off within the first two days or so.

A bunch of the most coveted players will be signing contracts within the first hour.

Draft Planning Depends on FA Signings

Fans always enjoy speculating on the draft, which begins on April 25. People in sports media enjoy it even more, as it gives them a reason for being employed during the off season. The truth is, however, that all talk about which players a team should draft is premature – it should until the free agents have been largely dispersed.

By around March 25, nearly all the meaningful free agent signings will have occurred – at which time teams’ needs will largely be known, and speculation of who should be drafted by which teams can begin in earnest.

Packer fans are obsessed with two numbers right now: 12 and 30. They should be cautioned, however, that about as often as not teams trade away such picks, for better picks, or for more but less desirable picks, just before they go on the clock.

Even under GM Ted Thompson, the Packers traded up or down fairly routinely. In 2016, he traded up nine spots to get Jason Spriggs; in 2013, he traded down six spots to get Eddie Lacy, and down 21 spots for David Bakhtiari; in 2012, he traded up sight spots for Jerel Worthy; in 2009, he traded up 15 spots for Clay Matthews; in 2008, he traded down six spots for Jordy Nelson; in 2005 and 2006, Thompson also maneuvered at draft time to acquire Nick Collins and Greg Jennings.

Chances are about 50/50 that the Packers won’t even be choosing at overall selections 12 and 30 come April 25.

Will Green Bay Finally Step It Up?

Just think of how big a deal free agency is nowadays for setting one’s roster. And yet for 13 years, and right up to 2017, Ted Thompson, almost alone among the league’s general managers, would as often as not go entire seasons without signing up a free agent who had been with another team.

Even under Brian Gutekunst (or the triumvirate if you prefer), the Pack only signed up five FAs in the 2018 off-season: Jimmy Graham, Tramon Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, Davon House, and DeShone Kizer – and two of these were formerly Packers. The only less active teams were the Falcons and Ravens, with four each.

The results weren’t good. Two went on Injured Reserve after three games. The tight end underperformed and also suffered two serious injuries. The reserve QB sat on the bench all year. That leaves Tramon, who played nearly every defensive snap – unfortunately, he performed marginally while doing so.

In contrast to the 2018 Packers, the Jets signed 25 FAs last season and the Raiders were close behind at 22. Most teams signed at least 10 FAs.

It would seem that around ten FA signings would be about right, leaving the previous roster somewhat intact. Chicago, however, with its new coach and fourth year GM, signed up 19 FAs – and despite all those personnel changes easily won the NFC North division.

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Rob Born

Someone else said it first but I popularized it: “Athleticism is important in athletic pursuits.” It took three years, but the Packers finally listened. My new mantra: “Trading down is fine, but never trade up.”

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