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Scouting free agents a lengthy process

Posted Mar 12, 2012

A week before free agency opens, Bills Pro Personnel Director Tom Gibbons is in his second floor office at One Bills Drive reviewing game tape of a couple of NFL clubs from last fall. It’s early March, and he’s likely reviewed this tape more than once, but the veteran scout is being thorough as usual.

At this time of the year the free agent game plan for the Bills is in place, but he and his right-hand man, Pro Personnel Coordinator Rob Hanrahan, are tying up any loose ends before the free agent market opens.

“The contingency plans are finalized about a month prior to free agency,” said Gibbons. “Like everybody else you don’t know who is going to be out there, but all the grades have been submitted and everything is in. Our needs have been identified and we know what we have to go after to fill holes in the roster. Once free agency opens up we have everything lined up. Primary candidates, secondary candidates that we need to have lined up and that’s the way we attack it.”

The process that leads up to this point however, begins in training camp. As the preseason begins Gibbons and Hanrahan hit the road advance scouting some of the Bills’ first opponents in the regular season. At the same time they’re putting together an individual report on every player on that team. Those reports are then part of the team scouting report that’s handed to coaches to help them put together their game plan for their opponent that coming Sunday.

“The week before every game during the season, we’ll have reports put in on the entire team,” Gibbons said. “It also goes into the database and we’ll put a specific grade on where that player is ability-wise at that point. So we track them throughout their career and we’ll get a report in on every player in the entire league throughout the season. That just builds up.”

The reports aren’t nearly as in depth as the college player reports because all the background information and character issues have already been covered when they came into the league. Pro scouting reports focus on one thing, playing ability. A grade will be assigned to each and every player in the league, not just players in a contract year.

That’s because should there be a need to add a player to the roster, something Buffalo has been all too familiar with due to injuries, the pro personnel staff needs to have viable replacement options at the ready.

Gibbons’ office is four walls of white board. The rosters of the 31 other NFL clubs cover a little more than two full walls, ceiling to floor. Half of one wall contains players that are available at the drop of a hat, a wall that Gibbons had to turn to more than he would’ve liked in 2011 with 17 Bills players on injured reserve at season’s end.

“We’ll keep experienced players that we can bring in and plug in at the top,” said Gibbons. “Our second row of players will be practice squad eligible players. Those players are usually in shape and ready to go and have been practicing with teams all year long. We’ll bring them in, set up workouts early in the week and get them in on Tuesday.”

Buffalo’s pro personnel department has had a good track record under Nix of landing some quality talent off the waiver wire as well. First, Assistant GM Doug Whaley handled it, but with his energies more focused on the college side now Gibbons has taken the lead on that front. In the past two years they’ve claimed players like Kraig Urbik, Scott Chandler, Lee Smith and Tashard Choice. Two starters, a frequent contributor and an experienced backup is not a bad haul.

In many cases it’s the college scouts that assist in evaluating the talent that’s often claimed after final cuts, like Urbik and Smith.

“We’ll assign the college scouts games to keep an eye out on young players that are on the bubble with their respective teams,” said Gibbons. “They’ll go to preseason games. If there is a particular spot on a roster that they’re loaded at for a position, and there’s a young player there we’ll make sure we get preseason reports. So if one of those players is released we’ll be ready to claim them and upgrade that way.”

As the regular season comes to a close Nix and Chan Gailey meet with Ralph Wilson to review the team and chart a course for the offseason.

“The process starts there and where we are as a team,” Gibbons said. “What our needs are, what direction we want to go and the glaring holes that need to be addressed. We’ll evaluate every player on the team and see where we’re at. We’ll prioritize what our needs are from that point and we’ll put together a list of the highest rated free agents that are out there based on our grades in our system.”

“I get a sheet every week from Tommy and our pro guys on who they think might be available,” said Nix. “We know what the cap is for everybody, within range, and we know what they have to spend. We look at their roster and you know they will probably franchise this guy and that means they can’t keep this other guy. That’s the way it works. Then we have a priority list and grade them all and some become available and some don’t.”

Gibbons and Hanrahan will go back and re-grade players they’re considering as free agent targets.

“We’ll go back this time of year and go back play-by-play and look at every play they played all season just to get it narrowed down,” he said.

The two biggest considerations when determining whether a prospective free agent is right for the Bills is the player’s production and their fit in Buffalo’s respective offensive or defensive scheme.

When free agency opens Tuesday afternoon Gibbons along with Nix, Whaley and Senior Vice President of Football Administration Jim Overdorf will be the ones making phone calls to the agents of players they’ve targeted. Overdorf handles contract negotiations while the other three focus on recruiting.

“It’s a big day and there’s a lot more to it with the contracts,” said Gibbons. “You don’t just pick a guy and he’s yours like the draft. You’re competing for players.

“I think when you get involved early on players you’ve identified and all of a sudden interest goes crazy on a player then you feel good because you identified something quicker than anyone else. And you did something to get that player to come here. That’s rewarding, but the negotiations and a million other things affect it. There are a lot more variables. It’s not as cut and dry as the draft, but that’s why it can also be exciting.”