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Nic's Franchise Fixer-Upper Part 1: Talent Evaluation
By Nic St. Marie
Special to gzl-football.com

Just about every year I get done with a season and say "where did it go so wrong? Am I no good at this any more? Why didn't I see that weakness when this started?"

30 other GMs every year say a version of this, even if a group of them are every bit as good as the SB winner...or think they are.

This is devoted to the talent improvement for a GM. I follow some pretty specific patterns every offseason, and I feel like sharing some methodology with you guys. Note that this is not the method of all methods, but simply the one that I use. Consider it on its own merits, not based on my successes and failures.

What comes first?

The Evaluation: Talent
You gotta know the health of your roster, and the talent evaluation. This ends being a chicken & egg relationship. I do the two together, but am going to describe them apart. You choose the order, I'm starting with the Talent eval.

Passing offense
Rushing offense
Passing defense
Rushing defense
Special Teams

Passing offense
Evaluate the efficiency, not the volume. If you pass the ball 600 times, your QB better be a top 5 QB in yards, and your WRs total yards will look great. That's trash for evaluation though. Look at yards per attempt (efficiency), and TDs vs INTs. In other words, the components that go into passer rating for the most part. The traditional passer rating statistic is actually a pretty strong summary of how well your offense functions with your QB.

Check out your receivers, and how their talent (or lack of) made things easier or harder on the QB. Obviously, check out your QB's ability and notice where they rate as players compared to the teams that are succeeding more than you. Note whether your TE adds to or limits your passing game. Move on to the OL. Look at their abilities (PBK, AWR) and stats to get a holistic view of their performance, because OL stats are not terribly insightful on their own. Pair that with what your eye test over the season told you.

Overall, when you are done you should have numbers that either add to what you already knew, or add a key insight you did not already have.

Run Offense
Everyone looks at the running back, and their talent levels are one of the bigger disparities in this league. But so many other pieces are involved in the run game that I think we overvalue the RB himself.

I examine my OL by looking for two things, beyond the basic talent evaluation. Of course I want to know how well they run block and what their awareness is at. But how is their strength, I see that as combined with their blocking proficiency to determine how well they block at the point of attack.

Secondly, how is the athleticism of my OTs and OGs, and how well does it pair with the HB's own footspeed. If I want to start a back with over 92 SPD, I want OL that approach 70/70/80 SPD/AGI/ACC. Of course, you type that in and find 2 players, so I used the word approach for a reason. 65/65/75 finds 25 players, and taking hits in one athletic category will help you find more.

Equally important on some plays is the ability of the FB to get out in front of a HB. You have a Blount-type in real life, who may have good (not great) top speed, but take a while to get up to it, and his FB will not struggle to get outside of the tackle and block the edge. But Shady McCoy needs to set up his blocks with an inside/outside threat. In real life he does that quite well. In Madden 2008, that type of back sprints for the sideline before turning up-field on many plays. It is imperative to have a fast FB for that type of back, or give up a certain percentage of outside runs. Best to avoid playbooks with an excessive amount of counters and sweeps.

All of that to say, check the speed of your FB vs the speed of your HB and see how well they mesh with your playcalling.

The ability of the TE is also important. Their strength, run blocking, and athleticism all affect their ability against DEs (sometimes beastly), LBs (somewhat equal athletes to much better), and DBs who are much faster. Vernon Davis was a huge weapon as a run blocker against all of them.

Pass Defense
I'm going to rank these in importance to me. I could probably do this for the functions above, but I'll do it here (honestly, not made-up) as a reference.

I won't spell out all the things to look for, but as a special note, I try to do well at getting a top 3 CBs that fit different situations. #1, a CB that can match up with a tall fast WR. Richard Sherman. Wherever that stud WR plays, Sherman keeps him from a 12 catch, 3 TD, 200 yard day. If you can get another shutdown guy, you're golden. Most of the time you can't, so getting a tall guy and a fast guy is my next best thing. See: Tyrann Mathieu & Steven Yates for most of my time here. Currently, Mathieu and (What's is name again?) Jacob Reed. It works pretty well, but much better to get two shut-down guys.

Run Defense
Run defense. This is all about the front 7. There are different approaches. Some GM's choose a DL that's full of athleticism, betting on one of the DT's penetrating to beat the interior runs, and fast LBs to clean up the rest. The all-speed front 7. Some (like me) choose to prioritize strength on the DL, with 4 guys at DT-level strength, and above-average strength in DTs.

The key to this all is the MLB. If he's no good, your run defense will suffer more than another other position. Linebackers are vital, and Safeties with awareness, speed, and tackling ability can really help stop long runs from happening.

Special Teams
Pretty simple. Tough to affect the other 10 players on 'Teams without the ability to do subs. Tongue-in-cheek, but I literally used to gather linebackers with run blocking ability in the RZL and key them in on Kick Returns. Razz

An advanced note: If you have a strong offense, maybe pairing them with a punter that's older and weaker, but has superb accuracy is a consideration.

What do I do with this?
So in my eval, I'll look for holes in talent that could benefit this function.

By now you should have a really strong picture of what positions are strong and weak. It's easy to mark all holes as "holes," but you don't have unlimited money and unlimited 1st round draft picks. Prioritize! You can only upgrade a couple ways before you have to tear other parts out.

Maybe I should have said this at the beginning. Make this into a list. I have an offseason list (fresh as of a week ago) of strong players, and holes where I want strong players. These are players I have under contract. I'm not going to use my 1st round pick or a $20M contract on any one of the 3-8 holes. I'm targeting the functions I want to improve to be an elite team.

The more honest your eval (My CB 1 is a CB 1, but only the 10th best in the league. Improving on him would be worth something to me), the less frustrating your games will be this season when he doesn't shut down the 99 SPD shorty, or 6'4" 95 SPD star you matched him up against.

If I have this list right away, the talent acquisition processes (Later parts of this series) will run a lot more smoothly than if you wing it based on your biggest want, or what catches your eye.

Strategic note: How the pieces affect the whole
Offensive success changes what sort of plays the defense faces, and defensive success changes what sort of offense is called. Inside of each, the run game efficiency affects passing efficiency, and run-stuffing makes pass-stopping downs much easier.

They are interconnected, but I evaluate each "function" separately.

If my defense is not very good, a run-oriented team is just going to fall behind and be forced to pass. The scheme will push you into something you are not good at.

If you have a great passing game and a high-scoring offense, invest in your secondary! Otherwise your hard-gathered offensive resources will be easily matched by more ordinary offenses with one or two stars.

If your goal is to run the ball and play defense, value all of the blocking positions on offense, and make sure you have the defense that can keep the game in reach for you. This means valuing both phases of defense highly enough to get stops against running teams and passing teams. If you make one elite, I recommend the pass defense. But you can't ignore the run defense entirely, or the other team can beat you at your own game.

Connect your talent in the right way, and you can maximize your talent without being the perfect team.
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