How Contending Teams Have Success in the NFL Draft
It's a pretty simple philosophy on the surface. Build through the draft, gain key components each April, and add a couple of under-the-radar veterans to the mix in free agency.
This front office model has been utilized by nine of the last 10 Super Bowl winners.
As simple of a philosophy as it might be, in order for it work, a front office needs to ace the draft. It needs to do multiple things in preparation for the annual event and then navigate the board like Richard Gere in "Chicago"; in essence, play the Geppetto to other team's Pinocchio.
The best organizations over the last few years have done just this, and April's draft was a prime example. The Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers navigated the three days of the draft about as well as their fans could have hoped for.
In the process, teams like the Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals and even the New York Jets may have caught on. Meanwhile, up-and-comers such as the Cincinnati Bengals and St. Louis Rams proved that their copycat philosophy is working to a T.
Lets take a look at the key components of success prior to the draft, during it and immediately following the event. The "insider" view, if you will.
The San Francisco 49ers did not pick a single time in their original slot during the first two days of the draft. Instead, they made a total of four trades and picked up an additional third-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
General manager Trent Baalke and Co, targeted both Eric Reid and Cornellius "Tank" Carradine with their first two selections. They ended up trading up from No. 31 to 18 in order to nab the Louisiana State safety and then traded down from No. 32 to 40 in order to select Carradine.
San Francisco was able to do this without mortgaging its draft picks because it came into the draft with a multitude of selections (13). This process started on draft day last April and continued through into the offseason where San Francisco traded Alex Smith, a backup quarterback, to the Kansas City Chiefs for two high-round picks.
The 49ers were also able to focus on one or two areas of needs because of their loaded roster and a couple of trades that took place prior to the draft. They sent a sixth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for Anquan Boldin to get a No. 2 wide receiver opposite Michael Crabtree.
San Francisco then swapped out a couple late-round picks to bring in Colt McCoy as a backup to Colin Kaepernick. This enabled it to focus on a couple areas of needs and acquire value in the process.
Meanwhile, the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens were in the same boat. General manager Ozzie Newsome was operating under the proverbial eight ball after losing key components to the championship team, but he made a few under-the-radar signings in order to bolster a unit that was ripped apart in free agency.
The additions of Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff, Chris Canty and Marcus Spears gave Baltimore an opportunity to target a few areas of need without reaching in earlier rounds.
Use of Compensatory Picks
Compensatory selections are pretty big in the grand scheme of things. As most of you already know, they're awarded to teams that lose more quality free agents than they acquire in a given season. The purpose of this model is to create competitive balance around the National Football League.
Some teams are much better at utilizing compensatory picks than others are. Those teams ask themselves a simple question. Is the player we are losing worth the third-round pick we are set to acquire?
In most instances, the team receiving the compensatory selections comes to the conclusion that finding a cheaper alternative at a specific position is the best way to go in terms of building long-term salary cap flexibility.
The Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers were among the playoff teams to be rewarded mid-round compensatory selections based on 2012 free-agent losses (via NFL.com).
|Team||Free Agent Loss||Comp Pick||Player|
|Houston||Mario Williams||Third Round||Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU|
|Baltimore||Ben Grubbs||Fourth Round||Kyle Juszczyk, FB, Harvard|
|San Francisco||Josh Morgan||Fourth Round||Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina|
|Atlanta||Curtis Lofton||Fourth Round||Levine Toilolo, TE, Stanford|
|Green Bay||Scott Wells||Fifth Round||Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State|
|Baltimore||Cory Redding||Fifth Round||Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin|
Outside of San Francisco's selection of Marcus Lattimore, it doesn't seem than any of these teams received equal value with their compensatory picks. Even with the 49ers, it all depends on the health of the South Carolina product.
That's not really the point.
These selections enabled them to move up in the middle rounds to target a specific player or two. As it relates to Green Bay, would it have traded up in the fourth to draft Johnathan Franklin if it didn't have an additional pick in the fifth?
The Atlanta Falcons also traded up in the first round to select former Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant. In the process, Atlanta yielded its third-round selection to the St. Louis Rams. Again, having an additional fourth-round pick made it easier for the Falcons to make this trade without mortgaging the draft. In the end, it picked up a player at a target position with its fourth-round comp pick.
This story has been repeated over and over again throughout the years. It's not only about the player a team selects with its comp picks; it's more about how the team is able to move up in a given round to nab a player.
San Francisco traded up from No. 31 to 18 in the first round to select Eric Reid. Considering we know how much general manager Trent Baalke value draft picks, I am not too sure the 49ers would have yielded their early third-round pick to the Dallas Cowboys if they didn't have a fourth-round comp pick.
As it is, San Francisco had the ability to make a luxury pick in the fourth round in the form of Lattimore, who would have been a top-20 pick if he hadn't torn up his knee this past season at South Carolina.
That's what I am talking about as it relates to playing the game with every single possible asset at your disposal. San Francisco, among many others teams, did that to a T last weekend.
At some point, the San Francisco 49ers had 14 picks in the 2013 NFL draft. They ended up selecting 11 players and made a trade for a mid-round pick the following season.
In fact, San Francisco and Baltimore, the two teams that faced off in the Super Bowl, had the most picks in the draft.
That's just plain ridiculous.
San Francisco acquired a second-round pick in 2013 and a conditional third-round pick in 2014 for Alex Smith. It then turned that '13 pick into Tank Carradine, a seventh rounder in 2013 and a third-round pick in 2014.
On the other hand, Baltimore used its stockpile of picks to trade up for Arthur Brown in the second round. Matt Miller had the Kansas State product with a first-round grade, which means the Ravens received great overall value with the 56th pick. They also filled a need at right inside linebacker, where Brown is slated to start as of now.
The Green Bay Packers traded down multiple times with San Francisco, first in the second then again in the third. In the process, Green Bay picked up selections in sixth and seventh rounds. This enabled Ted Thompson and Co. to use a fifth and sixth to move up for Johnathan Franklin in the fourth.
Miller had the UCLA product as the top overall running back in the draft with an early second-round grade. Talk about amazing value and an ability to play the board.
The St. Louis Rams were able to trade up into the top 10 to acquire the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in the draft in the form of Tavon Austin. They then made a move down later in the first round from No. 22 to 30 with the Atlanta Falcons.
In the end, St. Louis yielded a second, third and seventh rounder to move up from 16 to eight. It also picked up a third rounder from the Buffalo Bills in that deal. As it relates to the trade down later in the first round, the Rams picked up a third and a sixth rounder from Atlanta.
That's the type of play a team with multiple draft picks and an ability to navigate the draft can make. In this, St. Louis seemed to "copy" what we saw from the two defending conference champions.
Value and Need Combination
It's fine and dandy to go for value with each pick, but every NFL teams has holes to fill. Just look at the two teams that met in the Super Bowl this past February. Both San Francisco and Baltimore needed to fill a couple of holes relatively early and both did. They also did so by acquiring value with each early pick.
The same cannot be said for teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and New York Giants, all of whom reached for need positions.
This is what separates the good front offices from those who constantly struggle finding a combination of value and need. While both New York and Chicago rebounded with solid drafts after the first round, it seems that Dallas either went value or need with the rest of its selections.
This just isn't sustainable in the ultra competitive NFC East.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles, who had a stellar 2012 draft class, picked up value up and down the '13 draft.
The selections of Bennie Logan, Matt Barkley and Jordan Poyer in the mid-to-late rounds represented both value and need. We already know that Philadelphia was attempting to address the quarterback position, and it nabbed Matt Miller's 33rd ranked prospect with the 98th pick.
Interestingly enough, Poyer fell to the Eagles in the seventh round. While there were some concerns about his speed and ability to play on the outside, Miller still had the Oregon State product with a mid second-round grade.
Even a team in the NFC East without many picks, the Washington Redskins, found ridiculous value at need positions.
They nabbed two starter-caliber safeties in the mid-to-late rounds. Phillip Thomas received a second-round grade from Miller but fell to Washington at No. 119. Meanwhile, Bacarri Rambo was selected over 80 spots lower than where Miller had him ranked.
The same cannot be said for Dallas, who reached for need throughout the draft.
Front Office Unity, Refined Philosophy
Rarely do bickering general managers and head coaches work out too well come draft day. We have seen this in the past with Al Davis and the myriad of coaches that went through the Oakland Raiders organization during his long tenure in Northern California.
A more recent example would be Bill Parcells and Jerry Jones in Dallas. Their struggles in terms of drafting were directly related to opposing front office philosophies.
Now look at some of the most successful teams in the National Football League.
Robert Kraft just sits down and lets Bill Belichick do what he pleases come draft day. As the ultimate final say in the New England Patriots organization, Belichick has yet to let his owner down.
While Jed York is involved in behind-the-scenes work and is a fan of football with the San Francisco 49ers, he lets Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh, who work extremely well together, make the player-personnel decisions.
Whether it was Brian Billick before or John Harbaugh now, general manager Ozzie Newsome seems to work very well with his coaches when it comes to draft strategy.
Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy with the Green Bay Packers as well as John Schneider and Pete Carroll in the Pacific Northwest are also prime examples of this.
Do you think it's a coincidence that each of these teams have dominated the draft over the last three or four seasons?
Long-Term Philosophy over Quick Fixes
It's fine and dandy to look for short-term fixes at need positions, but NFL teams have to find a happy medium between that an reaching for mediocre talent early.
One such case study is the Dallas Cowboys, who selected Travis Frederick with the 31st overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Ryan Cook, who started 11 games at center in 2012, ranked 25th among centers in pass protection (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
It goes without saying that center was a position of need.
That being said, Frederick represented absolutely no value towards the back end of the first round.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had the Wisconsin product ranked as the 100th best player in the draft, which represented an early fourth-round grade. He was even selected ahead of the consensus No. 1 center in the draft class, Barrett Jones, who went to the St. Louis Rams in the middle of the fourth round.
This doesn't equate to success moving forward. While Frederick is an immediate upgrade in terms of run blocking along the Cowboys offensive line, he isn't going to be an above-average starter in the NFL.
Why go for Frederick that early when Brian Schwenke and Jones were available in the middle rounds? Wouldn't Dallas have been better off going with Matt Elam or Jonathan Cyprien, two players that also represented need? That's a question Jerry Jones will have to answer.
Meanwhile, a team like the Cincinnati Bengals decided to go full out with value in the first round. They selected Tyler Eifert, who I had as a top-15 pick, with the 21st pick. Cincinnati did so just a few years after selecting Jermaine Gresham in the first round back in 2010.
The Bengals were then able to acquire both value and need later in the draft. They picked up Margus Hunt with the 53rd pick and former Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter in the fourth round.
Again, the Bengals' philosophy was to find value at need positions after acquiring the talented Notre Dame product in the initial round. While neither Porter or Hunt represented tremendous value where they were selected, no one can come to the conclusion that Cincinnati reached at areas of need.
Being Callous and Cutthroat
The Baltimore Ravens did not want to match the three-year, $15 million contract that Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans back in March. While Reed was still a decent starting safety this past season, it is readily apparent that his game has regressed to an extent (via Spotrac).
According to Pro Football Focus, Reed was the 59th-best safety in the NFL in 2012 (subscription required). It made little sense for Baltimore to dole out $5 million per season for his services.
Instead, Baltimore gave Michael Huff, who is four years younger than Reed, a more reasonable three-year, $6 million contract (via Spotrac).
While it must have been hard for general manager Ozzie Newsome to cut ties with one of the faces of the franchise, it's a move that just needed to happen.
The very same can be said for Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers. Once it became apparent that head coach Jim Harbaugh was fully intent on riding the ridiculous abilities of Colin Kaepernick, the next logical solution was to trade Smith.
Say what you want about a quarterback "losing his job" due to injury, but a reasonable argument could be made that San Francisco wouldn't have made the Super Bowl with Smith under center. He just isn't the type of quarterback that can lead a team to a win after falling down 17-0 in the playoffs. This is exactly what Kaepernick did in the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Ultimately, San Francisco dealt Smith to a situation of his liking and received tremendous value in return. There is no need to rehash the stockpile of picks San Francisco ended up receiving for Smith, but the philosophy from the top down seemed to represent championship-caliber thinking from the 49ers organization.
In the end, this story has been repeated over and over gain.
We saw Brian Urlacher fall out of favor within the Chicago Bears organization and Baltimore deal Anquan Boldin to San Francisco when it wasn't prepared to pay the veteran receiver the $6 million is set to earn in 2013.
It might be a cold philosophy, but contending teams fully understand when to cut ties with certain players.
The same cannot be said for the likes of Brian Hartline in Miami or Anthony Spencer in Dallas. Paying role players "elite" money isn't sustainable in the NFL today.
Reading the Book, Following by Example
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that some talented young teams have pretty much copied the philosophy of the most stable franchises in the NFL.
Lets take a look at a few.
It appears that Cincinnati has had a third consecutive successful draft and are now legit threats to take over the AFC North. Its strategy going into each draft has been to select value over need. Let's look at the Bengals 2012 draft as an example of this.
|2012||53||Devon Still||Defensive Tackle||41|
|2012||83||Mohamed Sanu||Wide Receiver||48|
|2012||116||Orson Charles||Tight End||58|
|2012||166||Marvin Jones||Wide Receiver||66|
While Cincinnati did not get the same type of value in the 2013 NFL draft, they still did bring in six players that I personally had with third-round grades or better. That's how you build off two successful seasons on the field and find depth at certain positions.
St. Louis Rams
Our very own Brad Gagnon broke down what St. Louis has already acquired in the now infamous "Robert Griffin III" trade from last March.
It's a who's who of talent coming to St. Louis. The names include: Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Isaiah Pead, Alec Ogletree, Stedman Bailey and Zac Stacy. This doesn't even take into account the 2014 first-round pick the Rams acquired in the deal.
While this trade has obviously worked out well for Washington, it has given the Rams ammunition to compete with San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC West for years to come.
I also wouldn't be surprised to see general manager Les Snead turn the '14 selection into even more picks. After all, it would take a page out of Trent Baalke's book in San Francisco with the Alex Smith trade.
Surprised? Well, you really shouldn't be.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was one of Ted Thompson's most trusted associates with the Green Bay Packers for nearly two decades. He has brought that very same front office philosophy out west to Oakland.
Handcuffed by multiple bad trades from the previous regime, McKenzie has lacked the necessary firepower to be a player in both the free-agent market and on draft day. The talented front office executive changed this last week.
He traded down multiple times, including out of the top 10 with the Miami Dolphins. McKenzie then nabbed D.J. Hayden, who he was targeting all along at No. 12, while picking up a second-round pick Oakland lost in the Carson Palmer trade a couple of years earlier. That selection was used for Menelik Watson, a high-upside offensive tackle that projects to start on the right side of the line for the next 5-10 years.
McKenzie then went the value/need route later in the draft. He picked up Tyler Wilson in the fourth, Nick Kasa in the sixth and one of my favorite small-school defenders in David Bass from Missouri Western in the seventh.
While the sample size isn't large, McKenzie seems to be bringing some sort of balance and credibility to a Raiders organization that had been mired in mediocrity for a good decade prior to his arrival.
It's simple, but let me give you a bullet-point presentation of how to build a solid front office philosophy in the National Football League.
* Use compensatory selections as more than just picks. Of course I mean understanding that these picks, while not tradable, can be used to move other assets. The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were prime examples of this last weekend.
* Get on the same page. In order to be successful in the war room, front office personnel need to work in unison with one another. Anything short of this could cause a rift between specific decision-makers and force teams into the unenviable situation of having to make a snap-second judgment.
* Find value and need in every round. Some of the more successful franchises in the NFL have this down to a T. They're able to play the board their liking in each and every round. How else would you explain the 49ers getting Matt Miller's No. 5 overall player with the 40th pick in the draft?
* Give yourself some flexibility. No one was really shocked that Baltimore and San Francisco had what has to be considered two of the most successful drafts last weekend. They had the picks and flexibility to move up/down the board to their liking. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots trading out of the first round enabled them to create some sort of flexibility later in the draft. That's simply amazing considering that they had just five selections heading in.
These are key areas that some of the best organizations in the NFL focus on when they prepare for the draft. These are also key areas that go into building a consistent contender.
Some up-and-coming teams have followed suit.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.
Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.
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