Is It More Important for NFL Teams to Build Through Free Agency or the Draft?

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Is It More Important for NFL Teams to Build Through Free Agency or the Draft?

It's a question that gets bandied about in NFL circles every single offseason: Is it more important for teams to build through the draft or via free agency?

NFL fans are notoriously fickle and want their teams to open up their wallets and make a big splash in free agency, but is that the best way to compose a championship-quality 53-man roster?

In order to answer the question, it's important to study how the league's top front offices conduct their offseason approach.

 

The League's Top Teams Draft Well, Year In and Year Out

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Packers GM Ted Thompson is a huge proponent of building through the draft.

If you examine the very best organizations in the NFL, the answer begins to crystallize: The best way to build a roster is through the draft. 

Look at the final eight teams in this past NFL season: the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and New England Patriots. All of these teams have had significant success in the draft process, both in early and later rounds.

With the rookie salary cap having been significantly altered with the ratification of the league's new collective bargaining agreement, draft picks are more affordable. Teams no longer have to sell the farm to pay a top-10 pick, making it fiscally responsible to build through the draft.

Recent history shows that you simply must build the core of your team through the draft. This year's Super Bowl teams, the Ravens and 49ers, prove that.

Both starting quarterbacks, Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick, came via the draft, as well as the core of both offensive lines: Michael Oher, Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele in Baltimore and Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis and Joe Staley in San Francisco. Both teams have drafted well at the skill positions, and both defenses are rife with talent selected in both early and later rounds of the draft.

However, it's not enough to just say you're "building through the draft." You must draft well in order to succeed.

 

The NFL's Lesser Teams Haven't Drafted Well

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
NFL teams must draft well if they want to succeed. This picture illustrates that.

Conversely, it's no surprise when examining some of the league's bottom-feeders over the past few seasons to find that they've drafted quite poorly.

Look no further than the teams holding the top three selections in this April's draft: the Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders.

The Chiefs swung and missed with three first-round defensive linemen (Glenn Dorsey, Tyson Jackson and Dontari Poe), eventually costing former general manager Scott Pioli his job. Pioli was also unable to draft a competent quarterback to challenge incumbent Matt Cassel.

Former Jaguars general manager Gene Smith set the franchise back with the first-round selection of quarterback Blaine Gabbert in 2011 and was roundly criticized for his wont to draft players from smaller schools.

In the final few years of former Raiders owner Al Davis' life, it seemed as if Oakland was trying to give its draft picks away. The Silver and Black didn't have a pick in the 2012 draft until the third round, which is no way for a new general manager (Reggie McKenzie) and coach (Dennis Allen) to build a winning franchise.

These examples illustrate the need for teams to hit on their draft picks. You can sign all the free agents in the world, but if you aren't stockpiling your team with young, inexpensive talent, you simply cannot win in today's NFL.

 

Free Agency Should Supplement Your Roster, Not Define It

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Free agents like Manning and Brees don't come along often.

For every Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Reggie White and Kurt Warner, there are dozens of free agents who haven't led their teams to success.

Free agency cannot be the primary method of building a championship-quality roster, but it's critical in terms of filling needs and helping to push a team over the hump.

The Giants signed Antrel Rolle to a free-agent mega-deal in the 2010 offseason, and he helped lead them to Super Bowl XLVI triumph. Charles Woodson was an inspired signing by the Packers in 2006, helping the team win a championship. Bryant McKinnie, signed by the Ravens in 2011, started at left tackle for the team on their recent run to the Lombardi Trophy.

Those teams used free agency to add to a roster already rich with talent acquired via the draft. That is the recipe for success in today's NFL.

Look at the 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I'm a big fan of general manager Mark Dominik and believe he is capable of building a sustained winner. He was roundly praised for his major expenditures in last year's free-agent market, as the team signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright to lucrative contracts. The team finished 7-9.

It's not enough to just splurge on quality free agents. Teams must draft well to succeed.

 

In Conclusion: The Draft Is More Important, but Free Agency Shouldn't Be Ignored

Is it more important to build via the draft or free agency?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Is building through the draft more important than through free agency? Yes, it is. Filling your roster with cheap talent is necessary for sustained success.

Free agency is also important, but teams need to make sure they are signing the right player to fill a specific need, rather than selling the farm for the best player available, which rarely (if ever) works.

This exercise should highlight, now more than ever, just how important it is for teams to employ a quality front office. In order for franchises to be perennial contenders, they must draft well, and they must be smart and judicious in the signing of free agents.

That's how to build a championship-quality 53-man roster.

 

Nick Kostos is the executive producer of the SiriusXM Blitz, hosted by Rich Gannon and Adam Schein, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter.

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