As the free agent market opens at 4 pm today, everyone is well aware that NFL general managers across the league will be working the phones with their pro personnel department to convince player agents to have their client visit the team's facility or in more imminent cases start talking contract parameters. However, the role that players already on a team's roster play in convincing a prospective addition that their team is where they want to be can sometimes be as critical as the dollars and cents.
"I think it's a bigger part than anybody believes," said Bills GM Buddy Nix. "They expect to hear the same thing from me and front office people when they're in here because it's like recruiting in college. Back when I was recruiting in college I always told the prospects all coaches are going to tell you basically the same thing. They're going to tell you what you want to hear. They're selling. Talk to the players when you go out with them at night or you're with them in the dressing room and they'll tell you the truth."
For the most part that's what the Bills do during the free agency period. They encourage free agents to talk to the players on their roster.
"When these free agents come in here they listen," Nix said. "They know somebody on every team and they've normally got close buddies on every team. If those players say, 'You can't trust that guy. He'll lie to you, or he won't do that.' They'll tell him. They don't care. They'd like to have them on their team, but they're also not going to lie to their friends. I think you've got to treat everybody fair and have a good atmosphere in the building and that can translate to getting those guys to come."
Last year the free agency period was very compressed due to the NFL lockout, but it didn't keep Shawne Merriman from recruiting the likes of Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison, two players that became free agents after being released by their former clubs.
Merriman didn't give them a sell job. He just told them what he experienced when he was first picked up off waivers by the Bills in the middle of the 2010 season.
"Talking to Nick and talking to Kirk I didn't have to sell them a dream," Merriman told Buffalobills.com. "I told them, 'Hey when I first came out here, before I got here I was skeptical. I didn't know how it was going to turn out. I was leaving San Diego, a place I was very familiar with, coming to a team that wasn't doing so well record-wise. They didn't get a lot of TV play so all I saw was what was on paper, seeing 'L', 'L', 'L' and losing. So you didn't see the guys that were in the building.'"
Meeting players like Kyle Williams, Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson had him convinced that it was not the 4-12 football team their record indicated.
"These are stars and diamonds in the rough that people don't know about and I wanted to be a part of that," said Merriman. "I wanted people to say when Shawne got there playing along with those guys everything meshed well and we turned it around."
Merriman simply asked Barnett to come and visit with the team at training camp and get a better feel for the squad and what they had going on. Barnett obliged and he signed a day later.
"He fell in love like I did," Merriman said. "It didn't take long. I remember him coming through in camp and walking around the training room and he was already giving me the head nod before he walked out of the building. He stills feels that way. We all still feel the same way."
Meeting the players sold him just like it sold Merriman.
"What convinced me was the dedication of the players and coaches to move this team forward," Barnett said. "Having a lot of the key pieces to the puzzle with guys like Shawne, Kelsay, Williams, Dareus, Edwards and a lot of young talented players I could tell eventually we will be where we need to be, which is the postseason."
The case wasn't much different with Morrison about a month later.
"Kirk actually called me first and I missed his call and called him back," said Merriman. "I told him, 'Not only are you going to come here and get a chance to play, but you're going to play alongside guys as hungry as you are with the same type of mentality.' Kirk was happy with coming here and he wanted to play more obviously in 2011. But the kind of talent he was a part of obviously made him want to stay even though it didn't all work out."
"I'm more excited now because I'll have a full season to show what I can do," said Morrison, who just re-signed with the Bills last week and could be the team's starting strong side linebacker this fall. "I think that the fit was right for me in Buffalo. I still live in Buffalo. I still have my place here. In my mind when they told me they wanted me back I was committed to staying in Buffalo."
Once a free agent signee then experiences the game day atmosphere in Ralph Wilson Stadium come the regular season, if they weren't hooked before they are soon after.
"You can't match it. As much as I love San Diego and the city and their fans, it's hard to match a place like this in Buffalo. These people live for this out here," said Merriman, who likens the atmosphere to playing for his high school team. "When we're getting ready for the games the hair on your neck is standing up because you know there are 70-thousand people behind you saying, 'Let's go.' It literally feels like you're playing for them. You're playing for your town, your area, your city. That's the feeling I have here and it's one of the best feelings you've ever had."
"The fact that the fans are so great in Buffalo didn't hurt either," said Barnett of his free agent decision making. "It is a place where the essence of real football still lives."
"I've said this a thousand times. A lot of guys say right off, 'I don't want to go to Buffalo,'" said Nix. "And we face that a lot, but once you get them here it's hard to get them out."