There have been different models used in terms of how to build a National Football League franchise. Prior to the salary cap era teams could utilize a philosophy that some of the largest markets in Major League Baseball still work under: buying your way into contention.
While this hasn't exactly worked in MLB over the last few seasons, the lack of a salary cap does give larger-market teams a competitive advantage.
We saw this in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers of the mid-1990s when they added a wide array of veteran talent in order to contend for a Super Bowl. In the end, the 49ers "bought" themselves the Lombardi Trophy. This was one of many hallmark moments that led to the creation of a hard cap around the league.
For all intents and purposes, this has created the best two-decade stretch in the history of the league. Some may point to a watered down product and the existence of parity in shooting down that claim. But you cannot say that having smaller-market teams like the Green Bay Packers compete on a consistent basis is a bad thing for the NFL.
The creation of a hard cap has forced front office philosophies to change. Some organizations were quick to roll with the changing times, while others still struggle understanding what it means to remain relevant in the modern era.
Today's article is going to focus on how your favorite NFL franchise can rebuild from its current state as bottom feeders.
Models of Reconstruction
What do a vast majority of the most successful NFL franchises have in common? They possess a true top flight or "elite" quarterback. Since the Brad Johnson-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII every single team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy has had a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.
The list above includes six future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and a combined 30 Pro Bowl appearances. What is the common theme here? If you have that franchise type under center your chances at contention increased a great deal.
The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers may be the only team on that list to win with a "game manager" at quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger was in his second season and was not the primary reason they brought home the Lombardi.
Acquiring a franchise quarterback is easier said than done. There are so many logistical concerns as it relates to being able to do this. Prior to the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement and an implementation of a rookie wage scale, selecting a quarterback in the top five of the NFL draft was a risky proposition. The franchise was practically putting all their balls into the basket of a player that had yet to play a down in the NFL. If said player fizzled out at the next level his franchise would be set back for at least five seasons.
We saw this with the Oakland Raiders when they made JaMarcus Russell the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft and gave him $32 million guaranteed. Russell became the quickest first pick to be released and cost Oakland an average of nearly $11 million per season.
Since 1998 the likes of Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Vince Young and Russell have gone in the top five of the draft. Franchises don't just invest a great deal of money on young quarterbacks; they invest a lot of time. If you are selected early and play quarterback you are expected to be starting in relatively short order. The money and time spent on grooming a bust can have a long-term effect on the success of a franchise.
With the implementation of the rookie wage scale things have changed quite a bit. Teams no longer have to worry about investing a huge long-term contract on an inexperienced starter. Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, received $22.1 million (all guaranteed) over the course of four seasons from the Indianapolis Colts. That's nearly $10 million less than Russell received six years earlier. This makes it easier for franchises to bite the bullet and spend a high pick on a quarterback.
Another logistical concern is the talent level of a product entering the league in a given year. 2004 saw Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger all go within the top 11 of the draft. Meanwhile, Alex Smith was the No. 1 overall pick of the San Francisco 49ers the following season.
A more recent example would have you look at Luck and Robert Griffin III going one and two in the 2012 NFL draft. Both are viable franchise quarterbacks, as evidenced by their performances as rookies this season. It may be a bit too early to tell, but the 2013 version does not seem to have one specific "franchise-type" guy. This means that the likes of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs are going to have to remain vigilant in terms of looking at that position early.
Either way, building your franchise around a quarterback seems to be the most successful model of reconstruction in the NFL today. This doesn't mean that it's the only way.
Go the Defensive Route
From 1996 to 1999, seven of the nine players that the Baltimore Ravens selected in the first two rounds of the draft were on the defensive side of the ball. That list includes future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, who has to be considered one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. Other draftees during that span include: Kim Herring, Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper and Duane Starks, all of whom played pivotal roles in winning the Super Bowl in 2000.
Baltimore won Super Bowl XXXV over the New York Giants 34-7 despite the fact that it had Tony Banks under center at the start of the season and switched to Trent Dilfer later on. It ranked 14th in points and topped 400 yards just twice during the regular season that year. Equally as telling, Baltimore's offense averaged a putrid 225 yards per game in its four postseason wins, Super Bowl included.
Why did it win the Super Bowl?
Ray Lewis and company held opposing offenses to a tad over 10 points per outing as Baltimore led the NFL in turnover differential at 23.
The 2006 Chicago Bears represent another case study in this philosophy. They won the NFC despite having a starting quarterback throw just three more touchdowns (23) than interceptions (20).
When all was said and done, Chicago won 13 regular season games and finished with the second-best scoring differential in the entire NFL. The primary reason for this was the fact that they utilized a homegrown approach in terms of building a defense.
All five of the Bears Pro Bowlers that season were originally drafted by the club and came on the defensive side of the ball. Future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher joined Tommie Harris in the starting lineup, while Lance Briggs, Nathan Vasher and Mike Brown were selected as reserves.
Chicago ended up going down to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl as Rex Grossman was picked off twice. The Bears are now, seven years later, right in the thick of Super Bowl contention with another dominating defense.
From 2003 to 2010 the San Francisco 49ers were irrelevant in the NFL following 20 years of complete and utter dominance. They failed to finish over .500 in any of those eight seasons, finishing last in the NFC West two separate times.
One of the primary reasons for their lack of success during that eight-year drought was an ability to actually find quality players in the draft. From 2003 to 2005 San Francisco went to the offensive side of the ball in that annual event, finding little success.
While Alex Smith did lead San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game last season, he was nothing more than a marginal starting quarterback in each of his first six seasons and has since been replaced by Colin Kaepernick this season. Vernon Davis, the only other first-round pick during that span, seems to have panned out.
It’s the other two offensive players selected during that four-year span that set San Francisco back a great deal. Offensive tackle Kwame Harris was picked up with the 26th overall pick in the 2003 draft; he went on to start just 44 games for the 49ers and was out of the league by 2008.
Rashaun Woods, who San Francisco selected the following season, has to be considered one of the biggest busts in the history of the NFL. He played a total of one season in the league and caught just seven passes.
While the 49ers didn't necessarily focus on defense early in the draft following those disastrous early-round selections, they have had success selecting on that side of the ball throughout the draft since.
Current starters Patrick Willis, Ray McDonald, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown were all picked up in the 2007 draft. Meanwhile, the likes of NaVorro Bowman, Chris Culliver and Aldon Smith have been selected over the course of the last three seasons.
That right there is the core of one of the best overall defenses in the National Football League and is one of the primary reasons San Francisco is contending for a Super Bowl this season.
A Model of Futility
A lot of the focus of this article has had to do with the NFL draft; there is a reason for that. After the NFL introduced the salary cap in 1994, teams had to find another avenue to contention. No longer could clubs “buy” their way into contention.
This didn’t stop teams from attempting to.
The Washington Redskins have been notorious for it in recent seasons. Starting in 2000, owner Daniel Snyder sought to bring in some of the highest-priced free agents in the National Football League. What followed was a disaster of unforeseen circumstances.
That season saw Washington sign Jeff George to a four-year, $14.8 million contract to back up another high-priced quarterback in the form of Brad Johnson. They also signed veteran castoffs Deion Sanders (seven years, $56 million) and Bruce Smith (five years, $23 million).
Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well for Snyder and company. Washington finished the 2000 season with an 8-8 record and in third place in the NFC East. George took over for Johnson in November of 2000 and proceeded to lead the Redskins to just one win in five starts. In total, the enigmatic quarterback won just one of his seven starts and was released after just two weeks passed the following season. Despite an $8 million signing bonus, Sanders played just one season in D.C. and was out of the league for three years before the Baltimore Ravens signed him for depth in 2003.
The list goes on for Washington.
Jeremiah Trotter (seven years, $36 million in 2002), Adam Archuleta (six years, $30 million in 2006) and Albert Haynesworth (seven years, $100 million in 2009) come to mind first. None of those players made any type of substantial impact in Washington, while the franchise suffered through just two winning seasons from in a 12-year span from 2000-2011.
In 2011, the Philadelphia Eagles were billed as a “dream team” after it brought in the likes of Jason Babin, Nnamdi Asomugha, Vince Young and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, among others. Babin has since been released and Asomugha is just a shell of his former self. Meanwhile, the Eagles possess one of the worst records in the NFL this season and are in an unenviable salary cap situation. This may end up costing head coach Andy Reid his job and has forced Philadelphia’s top brass into reconsidering exactly what it is doing in terms of building a roster.
There are other examples, but those two come to mind first. The moral of the story here is the fact that you cannot buy your way out of a hole in the NFL. Instead, there is a process that franchises have to go through in order to become viable, once again. That process doesn’t include doling out hundreds of millions to high-priced veterans who may or may not fit your scheme all too well.
Remodeling the Interior
Anyone that has ever purchased a used car understands that you can tell how well the previous owner kept it up by looking at the condition of the interior. While there might be a ding here or there on the outside, this is to be expected; same goes for an NFL franchise.
The examples that I utilized above might have had shiny new toys to play with, but the foundation was a stable as a house of cards.
Every successful franchise in the National Football League today built their organization from the inside out. This means that they utilized the draft as the primary way to rebuild and build again.
One of the most glaring examples of this is the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick. Over the course of their decade-plus of contention they have utilized the ideal of building the roster internally. While this may take a great deal of restraint, and sometimes callousness, it has worked out a great deal for the previously dormant franchise.
A total of 17 of their 24 current starters were originally drafted or signed by the Patriots out of college. Compare that to a team like the Washington Redskins who have 11 current starters who were original members of the club and you come to a certain conclusion: continuity does mean something.
By all accounts, New England is a team that is bigger than the sum of its individual parts. It doesn’t hesitate letting the likes of Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Damien Woody, Daniel Graham, Deion Branch and Brandon Meriweather go in free agency or via a trade if it benefits their bottom line. Why overpay for someone that other organizations overvalue? This has been the Patriots' M.O. and it continues to work to this day.
By virtue of being able to remain financially feeble, New England has maintained a level of excellency over an extremely long period of time. Those departures I listed above were replaced by future draft picks. In a continuing cycle of reloading New England has been able to acquire and accumulate extra draft picks in each of the last seven seasons.
For the first time during this run, the Patriots utilized those surpluses of picks to trade up in the initial round and draft players that they coveted. Enter in the equation Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower; who have both had major impacts as rookies in 2012.
Of course you have to draft well when utilizing the philosophy of building your roster internally. New England has had it fair share of draft-day blunders during its recent run. Terrence Wheatley in 2008 and Ron Brace in 2009 come to mind first. This still doesn’t discount the fact that New England has been able to pick up Pro Bowl caliber players with additional picks later in the draft.
Rob Gronkowski came to New England in a trade with the Oakland Raiders in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. This story has been repeated over and over again.
The Patriots have not avoided the free agent market altogether. Instead, they look for bargains to supplement the talent that they drafted. Brandon Lloyd and Aqib Talib (via trade) are prime examples of this.
There are two other franchises that stand out to me: The Baltimore Ravens, under the leadership of Ozzie Newsome, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. While I have already touched on Baltimore’s success in terms of building through the draft, there is a reason that their primary competitor in the AFC North have refused to go quietly into the night’s sky.
Since taking over as Pittsburgh’s general manager in 2000, Kevin Colbert has been a magician in the player personnel department. I dare you to name one top-tier free agent that the Steelers have brought in over the last decade, but they continue to rebuild and reload through the draft.
The only player that is currently starting for the Pittsburgh Steelers that wasn’t an original member of the club is Ryan Clark, who they acquired from the Washington Redskins in 2005. Overall, 43 of the players currently on their active roster were either signed or drafted by Pittsburgh out of college.
It hasn’t been without hiccups for this franchise, either. They weren’t in a stellar salary cap situation last offseason and aren’t going to be under the threshold any time in the immediate future. This is where building from within helps a great deal.
Other teams have started to follow suit. The core of the San Francisco 49ers team is built through the draft with some free agent acquisitions mixed in. They have what promises to be about 14 draft picks next April—an amount I can guarantee they won’t use when all is said and done.
After going out there and attempting to build a contender by signing Cedric Benson and Terrell Owens, among others, the Cincinnati Bengals have finally gotten the memo. Most of their primary contributors over the course of the last two seasons have been homegrown players. Of course, it all starts and ends with A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, their first two picks in the 2011 NFL draft.
What can teams that have currently hit rock bottom learn from this?
There are a myriad of different teams that are in need of some new blood as it relates to organizational structure and front office philosophy. A team like the Oakland Raiders may be trending towards what we have seen with some of the most successful franchises with the addition of first-year general manager Reggie McKenzie. The talent observer comes from the Green Bay Packers, another successful model rebuilding teams can use. I look for them to continue to mold their philosophy in that manner.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles are two franchises that I am keeping an eye on following the 2012 season. They all need to actually get with the game and understand that the fundamentals of building a championship-caliber roster have changed.
Are the days of being able to build a roster through free agency over?
Kansas City has a ton of young, homegrown talent on its roster. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Chiefs need to go out there and attempt to find a franchise quarterback. No, I am not talking about a retread like Alex Smith, either. While Smith should earn a starting job somewhere, he isn't and shouldn't be the solution in Kansas City.
The problem with this is that the 2013 NFL draft seems to be a bit scarce when it comes to franchise level signal callers. If Kansas City decides to move in a different direction in the front office, its new general manager will have a difficult decision to make.
While I did lambaste the Eagles for spending a ton of money on free agents, they still have a solid young core of homegrown talent. LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson come to mind on the offensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, 2012 draftees Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin are nice starts on defense.
Philadelphia should continue building through the draft and only supplementing in free agency. I wonder if general manager Howie Roseman will go in that direction with Andy Reid most likely out of a job following this season.
Whether a team decides to build its roster with a franchise quarterback isn't really the point here. Though it would help, circumstances sometimes disable their ability to do so.
Instead, it is all about building from within and understanding the current salary cap and structural of the league today. Those bottom feeders that make the decision to get with the times can turn it around just as quickly as teams like the San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts have.
If not, they're looking at another relatively long stretch of irrelevance in the NFL. It really is that simple.
I am head sports editor at eDraft. Get your fantasy sports fix on over there.