By Paramveer Dhariwal
Since the advent of free agency, NFL general managers, coaches, fans and pundits alike have debated its efficacy. On one side of the debate are those who believe teams should be built slowly, utilizing the draft as the primary means to acquire talent. Players are allowed to grow and reach their prime together. It also avoids the risk that comes with paying a free agent an exorbitant amount of money, only to see them get injured or not produce. The other side of the argument says the draft is mainly a crapshoot, and that teams should be built with identifiable talent that has produced at the professional level.
I have often pondered this very debate, and decided to do a bit of research to see what I could find. I decided to examine the rosters of the last 6 conference champions, to determine what percentage of their players were acquired via draft, free agency, trade, undrafted free agent, or waivers/street free agent. I began this exercise with no end goal in mind. That is, I wasn’t trying to prove that one way of building a team was better than another. I simply wanted to determine how the best teams in the NFL were built.
Below, I will break down each team’s roster, followed by my analysis.
The most striking characteristic is the percentage of each roster that was built via the draft. Only the Patriots were below 50%, and three teams were 60% or above. (That the Patriots were below 50% in this category lends credibility to my belief that as great as Bill Belichick is, he is overrated as a drafter). This lends credence to the theory that championship teams are built in April. Going down the “Average” column, we see that only 3% of rosters were built via trade. Trades are rare in the NFL, and so this came as no surprise. But what did surprise me is that over ¼ of the rosters were built either through undrafted free agents, or street free agents/waivers. That is almost twice the amount of free agents. Not only does this diminish the claim that teams must splurge in free agency to win, but it also is a testament to each of these team’s front offices. Not only do they utilize the draft well, stay away from risky free agents, but they also leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding talent. Undrafted free agents and street free agents/waiver pickups are not foreign to these team’s general managers or scouting departments. Every avenue to acquire talent is an option. There is not only a willingness to use the avenues, but an ability to use them well.
When we break down the starters on each side of the ball, we see some interesting trends. The percentages for each team are very similar between offense and defensive starters. Further, the percentages of offense and defensive starters are similar to the percentages of the entire rosters. This shows two things: Firstly, successful front offices have a balance between the way they build their offense and their defense. They see the offense and defense not as two separate entities, but as one whole; part of one entity. (This could also be why these teams have strong special teams units, as well). Secondly, that the entire rosters have similar percentages as their starters, shows that these front offices do not have preconceived notions as to where players should fit on their roster. That is, whether you are a high draft pick, or a street free agent, you have a fair opportunity to make the roster in some fashion.
This quick exercise has shown us a few things. Firstly, that the best teams in the NFL utilize the draft as their main means to acquire talent. The draft is the best avenue for young, and perhaps more importantly, cheap, talent. Once you have enough young talent on the roster, that talent can grow together, and reach their primes together. Sprinkle in a few free agents, and you have a very good roster.
At a greater level, we see that each of these teams has a plan. The General Manager, the coaching staff and the scouting department are all on the same page when it comes to how to build a team. Not only is the majority of the talent from the draft, but the talent is evenly spread out on offense and defense. But this talent can only be successful with a good coaching staff as well, which is what these teams have. Together, the GM, coaching staff, and scouting department, run a machine that identifies and acquires young talent, coaches them up, and once they enter their primes, win. This sort of “churning out” of talent, this system that spans several years (or even longer), reminds me of a college football powerhouse that is at the top of their conference every season, and reloads every offseason.
Ultimately, I think a strong draft with solid, but unspectatlur free agent signings is the best way to build a team in today’s NFL. It is why I think Seattle will be a very strong team this season. They added Percy Harvin and a few cheap but solid defensive free agents to a core that was mostly drafted. Conversely, I think Green Bay’s defense will struggle a bit early on as their young players such as Datone Jones and Nick Perry get acclimated to the NFL. I don’t, however, like the way the Dolphins and Colts went about their offseason: exciting signings, yes, but “quick fixes” that usually do not work.
Of course, it could be that the data collected here is just an anomaly; after all, six teams isn’t all that much of a sample size. This is why I am interested to see how each team, good and bad, performs this fall, especially in relation to how they were built.
To further this study, one may extend it to 5 years, 10 years, or even longer. Such study would paint a very clear picture on how good and poor teams are built. It’s yet to be seen what such a study would find, but my guess is we would see a similar trend to the one we see here.
Paramveer Dhariwal is a 2010 graduate of Marquette University, where he majored in English. He can be reached on Twitter at @Got_Next.