NFL free agency: Choosing the right players

We’re just hours away from the start of NFL free agency. At 4 p.m. today, players without contracts for the 2014 season are free to sign with any team of their choosing. Over the years, free agency has been a mixed bag for the Eagles, yielding franchise players (Ricky Watters, Asante Samuel) and disappointments (Nnamdi Asomugha, Stacy Andrews).

But what goes into deciding which players receive contract offers? Scouting, past performance etc. play a huge role, no doubt, but in today’s NFL general managers want the best chance for return on their investment throughout the life of the contract. To gather that information, Howie Roseman turns to Peter DeLuca, M.D. and the rest of the Eagles’ medical staff.

Dr. DeLuca is an orthopedic surgeon at Rothman Institute and head team physician for the Eagles. He’s been the head team physician for a decade now, and has seen free agents come and go—some with contract offers, and some without. What role does injury history play in that decision?

“It’s critical, of course,” he admits. “But the challenging part is the limited time in which we have to make decisions.”

While players can’t sign until this afternoon, teams were allowed to negotiate with potential free agents starting on Saturday. As of yesterday afternoon, Dr. DeLuca had a list of players in whom the Eagles have interest. Visits may start as early as tomorrow.

“And once these guys are in town, they’re here for 24 hours,” he clarifies. “That’s all the time you have to gather information.”

It’s not as if Dr. DeLuca and the staff are starting from a position of advantage, either. Until 4 p.m. today, he admits that what he knows about a player’s history is “not much different from what any fan knows.” He can do a Google search, watch NFL Network, but he hasn’t seen an x-ray or an MRI.

“So I might know the injuries they’ve had,” he says, “but not their extent.”

As of this afternoon, the head athletic trainer can call a player’s former team for a report on any current or past injuries a prospective free agent might have suffered—but that doesn’t amount to much more than a conversation. Once that player arrives in Philadelphia, the onus is on the Eagles to gather the necessary information.

“If a player gets into town at 8 p.m. for a visit the next day, we might schedule a 6 a.m. MRI,” says Dr. DeLuca.

It’s the NFL, so everyone’s got a few bumps and bruises. But what are the red flags? Which injuries give front offices particular cause for concern?

“It varies by position,” Dr. DeLuca says. “Offensive, defensive linemen—there’s a lot of stress on their knees. So that’s something I need to consider. If they want to bring someone in on a five-year deal, and I see something on that MRI, I might tell them ‘That knee can’t hold up for another five years.’ Then it’s up to Howie and the front office to re-negotiate.”

Or walk away entirely, as the case may be. While Dr. DeLuca says he’s never failed a player on a physical, teams have been known to ask players to sign waivers—an agreement that the player will not file a grievance or take other action against the organization should an existing injury or condition prevent him from playing.

It’s sure to be a busy week at the NovaCare Complex, as the front office and medical staff begin working to round out the 2014 roster. While the team hopes to catch any potential problems before it’s too late, it’s not an exact science, and injuries can linger or re-appear without warning.

“We’ve brought in players before coming off injuries—they work out well, their exams go well, and when we perform MRIs on the previous injuries, they turn up clear. But the player never regains his pre-injury form,” laments Dr. DeLuca. “It’s like the NFL Draft—you do your research, you check into everything, but you’re never completely sure. But 90, 95 percent of the time we do get it right.”

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