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Why the Draft Is Infinitely More Important to Team Success Than Free Agency

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Why the Draft Is Infinitely More Important to Team Success Than Free Agency
Chris Chambers/Getty Images

Albert Haynesworth. Javon Walker. Jerry Porter. Three of the biggest free-agent busts in recent years. They beg the question: When will teams learn to not spend big money on questionable players? Even players who pan out, rarely turn weak teams into playoff contenders.

Every year, teams like the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots are contenders. What makes these franchises different is their commitment to building through the draft and to retaining their stars.

Yet, teams just don't learn, spending countless dollars on free agency while watching smarter, thriftier teams continuously make the playoffs.

Let's take a look at the exact reason the draft is more important than free agency. To do so, we'll examine the highest profile free-agent signings in recent years while also taking a look at the last several Super Bowl winner's roads to the championship.

 

Biggest Signings

 

2008: Asante Samuel, CB Philadelphia Eagles at Six Years, $57 million, $20 Million Guaranteed

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Asante Samuel was by no means bad in his time in Philadelphia, but he was hardly worth his massive price tag. Samuel helped the Eagles secondary immediately, as they ranked third in the NFL in 2008. From there, though, it was all down hill, as the Eagles ranked 17th in 2009, 14th in 2010 and 10th in 2011. They never won a championship in that span. 


2009: Albert Haynesworth, DT Washington Redskins at Seven Years, $100 Million, $41 Million Guaranteed

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Probably the greatest free-agent bust in history, Albert Haynesworth rode pure natural talent to insane wealth, only to become one of the greatest punchlines in NFL history. He set the Redskins' salary cap back for years as they struggled badly in Haynesworth's short time in Washington.


2010: Julius Peppers, DE Chicago Bears at Six Years, $91.5 Million, $42 Million Guaranteed

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As far as massive free-agent signings go, this one was a massive success. Peppers has racked up 30.5 sacks in his three years in Chicago, but the Bears are still not a perennial contender. Meanwhile, their pass rush has exceeded 40 sacks just once with Peppers in Chicago. He might be a solid individual performer, but he hasn't had the team impact expected.


2011: Nnamdi Asomugha, CB Philadelphia Eagles at Five Years, $60 Million, $25 Million Guaranteed

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Here is the biggest swing and miss from the past two years, as the Eagles gave tons of money to Nnamdi Asomugha. They quickly learned that the former star was very dependent on the Raiders' scheme, and he failed miserably outside of it.

 

2012: Peyton Manning, QB Denver Broncos at Five Years, $96 Million, $58 Million Guaranteed

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Here is the one exception to this rule. When there is a franchise quarterback available, every team without a franchise quarterback should be in the market. 

On its own, this info doesn't tell the whole story. Every NFL fan knows one player does not make a team.

Looking a little deeper, though, one can see the enormous amount of resources poured into these players. For the amount of money these players were signed for, each team could have paid an entire draft class (after the rookie wage scale was put in place).

Further, many of these signings came as either an effort to put a team over the top (think Asomugha and the dream team) or as an attempt to make a team relevant again (Haynesworth).

Basically, one player, not even a wave of free agents, can make a team. The only thing that can do that is drafting successfully.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the past few champions. You'll see a pretty clear theme.

 

2008-2009: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII on the strength of multiple long-time veterans, many of whom were drafted by the team. Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor were just a few of the Steelers draft picks to excel during the season.

Low-key pickups from years past also played big roles such as James Harrison and Willie Parker. Big-name free agents were nowhere to be found. 


2009-2010: New Orleans Saints

The Saints stand out in this list for one reason: Their best player was a free-agent addition. Drew Brees stands out as one of the best free-agent signings of all time, and he again proves the one exception to my free agency avoidance rule: When a franchise quarterback is available, all teams that don't have a franchise quarterback should try to sign him.

Outside of Brees, the Saints featured a lot of excellent offensive firepower from drafts past, such as Marques Colston, Reggie Bush and Devery Henderson. Jahri Evans, Will Smith and Carl Nicks were also key draft picks for the Saints.

 

2010-2011: Green Bay Packers

One of the poster teams for the "build through the draft" mentality, the Green Bay Packers took home the Lombardi Trophy on the strength of great performances from their draft picks. Aaron Rodgers cemented his status as an elite quarterback, while draft picks like Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Nick Collins all excelled for the Packers.

I have to mention one big-time free-agent addition for the Packers, though. Charles Woodson became a Packer in 2006, and he was absolutely instrumental in the Packers' big season.

 

2011-2012: New York Giants

Yet again, the Super Bowl champion was built through the draft. With an offensive corps consisting of draft picks Eli Manning, Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks, the Giants were stacked with home-grown offensive firepower.

Meanwhile, their emphasis on the pass rush paid off, as Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora were one of the best pass-rush trios in the NFL. All were former draft picks.


2012-2013: Baltimore Ravens

Led by one of the best GMs in the NFL in Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens rode a sea of emotion and years of strong drafts to a championship. One would be hard pressed to find a bad Ravens draft class, as guys like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Marshal Yanda, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed were all home-grown talent.

There are a few guys that were key contributors who weren't draft picks, including Jacoby Jones, Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk. None of them, though, were expensive, super high-profile acquisitions.

 

Summary

Each of the past five champions have been built through the draft with minimal free-agent movement. Only the Saints and Packers featured high-profile free agents, but that doesn't change their overarching draft-centered philosophy.

Teams that build through the draft successfully win games. Results don't lie. Big free agents don't pan out. Big-time draft classes do. That's why the draft remains the most important offseason event in football.

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