After honestly evaluating your talent
and gauging your franchise health
, it's time to make your plan.
Whether you know you need to replace a player soon, or you need to improve the overall talent, plan for the areas you are going to focus on in the following functions. Prioritize what changes are most important to you.
Does an improvement at one position affect multiple areas, like a stud offensive lineman? Great! But make sure you are adding to the talent, and not just moving the holes around your roster with trades, cuts, and signings.
RFA/Retirees Phase - Improve Roster Health
Before this phase I try to do my planning, cause trade blocks are already starting to move players. But many times this is the phase I really start looking at my roster. You haven't lost many chances by now though, cause this part is dead simple.
The RFA market rarely gets you a good draft pick, but in this phase you can keep all of the players for a year, and one or more of them for a 3-5 year contract extension. USE. THIS. EXTENSION!
You only get to keep one restructure and one re-sign (FA contract) per year without other teams getting their hands on your players. Those contracts can be reasonably priced. A Franchise Tag cannot be reasonably priced.
A 3rd-7th round pick that is even a key backup will almost always be reasonably priced, and the long contract guarantees you have one less hole. If you can sign a starter to a 5 year contract this way, you just got a much better long term picture.
Bidding on other RFAs? You can get some talented starters this way, but almost always a starter will have a 1st round RFA tag on them. If they don't, the owner may be betting on you giving him a nice low contract they can match. To actually win one of these, it has to be a contract they don't want to match. So this ends up being more like a Free Agency contract with an additional draft pick attached.
Oops, already mentioned above. Well, this part is pretty straight forward. You can control two of your best players every year, and if you have another player you don't want to lose you can control a third for big money.
I'm not gonna spend more time on this area, read the rules and make sure you don't miss any of these deadlines. This is the "lack of activity" that usually alerts the league that you should be removed and another person put in. Restructure you have an entire season. Re-sign is going on for another 72 hours from now...and this is a pretty normal amount of time. 3-4 days. Nothing hurts a franchise more than failing to retain two of your best players every year.
The salary cap auction is one of the most fun parts of every year. It is the easiest way to make an instant upgrade (no waiting for the rookie to add awareness), and the easiest way to put your team in salary cap hell.
My approach is to look at every, single, player to see how many of them are truly worth chasing. A 24 year old rising star can be kept on your team for a long time, if you win them. Might be worth all of that money.
More often, these are the 28-32 year olds coming off of their second contract. They have 85-99 AWR, are the class of the league, and will get paid like it. They also won't be stars the entire length of the contract. Don't enter a conflict in the middle east without an exit strategy, and don't sign a 30 year old star without knowing how you'll dump his regressing $15M ass. Taking 10M in penalties is not a good plan in most cases, and you aren't going to get a 1st round pick for your troubles.
There are a few Free Agency phases:
Pre-season - A 2-3 day time to get your rosters all the way stocked without having too much salary.
What can you get out of the Free Agency phases? Really targeted talent improvement. If you are careful, you can also fill in your depth in FA, but often the prices are not worth it. Mostly you should target starters that you don't want to be forced to draft. Better to have the option to go "Best Player"...wait.
We're not quite to the draft, but I'll cover that here. If your roster talent and health FORCE you to draft a certain position with your best pick, you aren't putting yourself in the best position. You absolutely should draft with an eye on who is on your roster. This year, 2 of the top 5 players are defensive ends. I have one of the best at LE, and a long term committment (expensive contract) to a very good player at RE. So even if I think the #1 player is a DE by a hair, a star WR or CB might be a better option.
Smart FA pick-ups (or trades) can turn a "no starter" into a "good starter." You don't have to have a 22 year old star to be at every position. Some should be held by...
An average athlete with high IQ
A great athlete with a low IQ
A regressing star that can hold it down one more year
Players in those three categories can be found in FA, but sometimes the cheapest way is through a trade. At this point in the offseason your 3rd-7th round picks are more valuable than ever before, and more teams are getting rid of the starter they no longer want than any other time.
This is a great time for that trade.
Another type of trade that can be easier here is for star talent. You have a high draft pick or a star player, they have a high draft pick or a star player, both of you want to strengthen a different function and rely on your depth for the area you are giving up on. Match made in heaven.
Lastly, draft chart trades. You know exactly where in the 3rd round you are, so one 3rd for two 4ths is a good trade in one way, and bad in another. The certainty gained in the offseason helps you use medium-level picks to pry players away from teams that were on the fence. You also can choose to trade down for a boatload of medium/late picks, trade up using a boatload, or move your draft resources to the next season if you prefer to skip using some of those tickets this year. Because some players just don't age like fine wine. A 3rd round player today may not get you a 3rd round draft pick in trade next year. But a DP for DP trade can work pretty well.
Rather than do another article on just the draft, I'll keep it short here. Draft strategies can be a very deep discussion, and one I'd rather not spill too many secrets from. So here we go.
Best Player Available (BPA) is my recommendation. If you read nothing else, read the next section in bold.
3 years from now when your draft pick is 24-27, the (insert good player) you had will be at or near the end of their career. But that player was the reason you passed on a star to pick a good but not great player.
Don't have those regrets. Draft the future star and look for a chance to move the other player to a different role on your team, or to another team for a 3rd round pick.
Also, part of value is scarcity. I've drafted a blocking FB in the first round of drafts before because it was both a weak draft, and a fantastic FB, the likes of which I rarely can find. Great kickers often don't wait past the 2nd round. Filter out scarcity (or note it) and get the best value. You're at 1.10? Wait on that posession WR. If you really want him, move back to 1.20-1.30 and get him and additional picks. Otherwise get an impact player.
Know not only what is most valuable to you, but gauge the player's value to the league. Maybe look for comparable
players. Search for all linebackers at least 6'2", at least 83 SPD, 77 STR, and at least 65 CTH (if that's why you value this player). Are they all 1.15ish talents? Or late 1st to 2.15? Do all of the WRs in the style you are looking for go in the top 5 picks? Maybe you gotta stop hoping he'll drop to 1.9 like Mike Evans did to the Bears. That was a crazy stacked top of the draft.
Get the best player available, make sure they fit the talent improvements you want, and use the whole draft to take care of the talent and health of your franchise.