When free agency opens at midnight Feb. 27, the plan of the Bills and 31 other NFL clubs will be put into action as teams bid for the players they feel can best help their fortunes in 2009. What gets lost in that shopping frenzy is the painstaking seven month process that goes into identifying just what and who might be the best fit for improving the Buffalo Bills.
It begins in earnest in August. Armed with the free agent list for NFL players whose contracts are due to expire in Feb. 2009, the men working under Vice President of Pro Personnel John Guy get to work.
Pro Personnel coordinator Rob Hanrahan, Pro Personnel Analyst Kevin Meganck and Pro personnel assistant C.J. Leak get started by evaluating the prospective free agents in person while advance scouting Buffalo's opponents for the upcoming regular season.
"Even though you're advancing the teams you're still evaluating free agents at the same time," said Meganck.
Naturally having not played every one of the teams in the league in a 16-game schedule, it's up to the pro scouts to evaluate free agents on all the other clubs as well.
"As we go through the season we'll also try to get to a handful of other teams' free agents evaluated," said Hanrahan. "But often there's not enough time to get to everybody. So once the season ends we primarily focus on the free agents on each of the teams that remain."
The scouts will also go back and review some players they evaluated early in the season with tape from later in the year to make sure their reports are still accurate and current.
With upwards of 300 free agents across the league and hours upon hours of tape to review as well as reports to put together it's a process that requires a significant amount of time from the three scouts and their superior, Guy.
Much like the college scouting process, the men in pro personnel will make every effort to gather background information on the prospective free agents to make sure there aren't any off the field concerns.
Where the process really gets interesting is when the scouts meet with the front office executives and the coaching staff. It's then that the true needs of the team are reviewed and assessed.
"Usually there are two or three big meetings," said Meganck. "We'll start with our team and where our needs are and where our free agents are. So we finish our team first and then we get into the needs based on what we got out of the first meeting and go forward with free agency as far as who our main targets with respect to positions will be and lastly we narrow it down to specific players."
"We'll identify the three or four positions on either side of the ball that we're going to focus on," said Hanrahan. "From there you go to the list. So if linebacker is a position of need, we'll go to the free agent list and kind of narrow that down. We discuss it and review it, the coaches will review it, then we meet it again and narrow it down one more time. And then we'll identify primary targets."
Meganck, Hanrahan and Leak all have the freedom to offer their opinions on specific targets as the list gets whittled down. So they're all very much a part of determining the course of action that's ultimately taken.
"Once they highlight a particular player or a group of players there's a meeting with coach Jauron and the coordinators and our top executives will be there and decisions will be made on which direction we want to go," said Hanrahan.
"If my opinion is needed I offer it, otherwise I sit back and listen and interact with them when necessary," said Leak, a first-year scout and former Bills practice squad player. "It's about evaluating and just from what I've learned being in schemes and lining up at five different positions as a player I try to apply that knowledge to this line of work."
"It's similar to the college draft process," Hanrahan said. "Once we target a particular position and narrow it down to guys, we'll run down all of our strengths and weaknesses on a guy and what we think and whether we see him as better or worse than another particular player."
The scouts admit there are often varying degrees of opinon on players, but in the end a consensus is reached as to who would be the best fit for the Bills.
Last year one of those primary targets was Kawika Mitchell, which Buffalo was able to sign on the first day of free agency.
Right now the Bills' plan for free agency this offseason is in its final stages, but it's not set in stone just yet and there's a reason for that. Too much can still change between now and Feb. 27.
"We have an idea of positions we're trying to look for, but with all the franchise tenders and guys re-doing their contracts you've got to wait because a guy that you might have as a number one target could re-sign with the team he was on the day before free agency," said Hanrahan. "It's like a moving scale and you've got to be able to adjust to it."
"If your number one target at a given position isn't there you may not see the guy below him on your board in that same light and you may go in a totally different direction at a totally different position on the other side of the ball."
There are also instances where even when a specific position might be identified as a top need, there might not be quality talent in the free agency pool to address it. In those cases the Bills try to formulate a contingency plan.
"That's a good example of how we got Marcus Stroud last year," said Meganck. "We wanted a big defensive tackle and there might not have been that guy in free agency to get and Marcus became available via trade and so we adjusted with a different game plan."
Still the men realize they're not always going to have the right player to fill the need every single year. The free agent class is relatively thin at certain positions this year like defensive end where Buffalo could use a boost for their pass rush.
"You have free agency, the draft and street free agents that might come out on the waiver wire," Meganck said. "There are a lot of different avenues, but you're not going to fill every need. You have to be aware of that when you look at your free agent board and if, for example, there's not a receiver that a fit you have to move on."
Obviously when targeting free agents, money also becomes a big factor as it can affect how you want to address the needs your club might have.
"Do you want to go get one elite player or two or three good football players," Hanrahan asks hypothetically. "They're above average and they can help your team, but they're not going to be a dominant difference maker on every play. But they're still legitimate solid players that are going to upgrade your team. It just depends on what your philosophy is and what your needs are and how you choose to attack it."
Though the men in Guy's personnel department don't make the end all, be all decisions when it comes to the team's free agent approach, they take pride in knowing that without them the plan would not exist.
"When the team is able to lock a player up early in the process, like Kawika, that is a quality person off the field and a quality player on the field it definitely brings you satisfaction," said Meganck. "It makes you feel a little better about all the long hours you spend watching tape approaching such a critical time in our offseason."