First of all, how do we define success in the NFL? Does it all come down to winning the big game, the Super Bowl? Partly it does. But I would also contend that avoiding the up and down, boom and bust cycles that most teams go through is also part of the definition. So we will be looking at the teams that have won the last 10 Super Bowls (Seattle, Baltimore, New York Giants, Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and New England) as well as look at the teams that have been able to be the most successful over the same period. I charted the top half of the NFL and found that the same teams listed above were the same teams that consistently had winning seasons each year.
I can't seem to import the Excel charts I made up (or jpegs I made of the charts). I apologize for my technical incompetence.
I have always been impressed with the GMs that could impact their teams through the draft. From Bill Walsh in San Francisco in the 80's, Bill Polian’s work with Buffalo in the 80's and later with Indianapolis, Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson in Green Bay to Kevin Colbert in Pittsburgh. These men were able to assemble great talent even though several of them are working for small market teams such as Green Bay and Buffalo that sometimes don’t have the resources of the larger market teams.
A recent addition to the GM brotherhood, Seattle brought John Schneider over from the Green Bay organization in 2010. He immediately began making an impact with his drafts culminating in a Super Bowl win in February. His first draft in 2010, he picked up Russell Okung his new left tackle, starting FS Earl Thomas, starting WR Golden Tate, starter CB Walter Thurmond, DE E.J. Wilson (bust), starting SS Kam Chancellor (who some think should have gotten the nod for MVP in the SB), finishing with 2 TEs and a DE (one of the tight ends is Jameson Konz who the Broncos signed to a future contract in January). First year, 5 current starters (I included Golden Tate in this even though he signed with Detroit this year).
In 2011, he drafted T James Carpenter who slid over to become their starting LG, G John Moffit whom the Broncos traded Sealver Siliga for and abruptly retired in November (and has been accused recently of punching a man in the head and possessing marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy. Whew! Glad he retired), backup LB K.J. Wright, WR Kris Durham who got injured, cut and plays for Detroit now, All Pro CB/Blowhard Richard Sherman, DB Mark LeGree who is playing for Buffalo, starting CB Byron Maxwell, DE Lazarius Levingston (injured and cut) and starting OLB Malcolm Smith. Second year, 4 more starters.
2012 rolled around and Seattle drafted starting OLB Bruce Irvin, starting MLB Bobby Wagner, starting QB Russell Wilson, RB Robert Turbin, DT Jaye Howard (cut and signed with Chiefs last year), LB Korey Toomer (injured), backup CB Jeremy Lane, DB Winston Guy (claimed off waivers by Jacksonville), starting RG J.R. Sweezy, and DE Greg Scruggs (on PUP list last year). Year three, 4 more starters plus Turbin.
It’s obvious that John hasn’t hit on every pick, and many of the picks have been cut, cast off, injured but picked up by other teams. This goes to show what an excellent scouting department can do. They have garnered extra picks each year John has been running the office so they have had 9, 9, 10 and 11 picks to work with. His coach Pete Carroll, a former defensive back, has a particular need in his defensive scheme for larger sized cornerbacks and safeties. To that end, John has taken a shotgun approach to drafting defensive backs, targeting 3 in 2010, 3 in 2011, 2 in 2012 and one more in 2013 to fill the spots in the Legion of Boom. John’s results so far, keeping in mind that these are fairly recent drafts and aren’t complete yet, I calculated that Schneider is running 16 productive picks (starters and backups) in 28 tries for a 57.1% success ratio.
Down the coast, at Seattle’s rival the 49ers, Trent Baalke is running the draft similar to what Jimmy Johnson used to in Dallas. He trades up and down the board, fortified with extra picks from previous seasons. For instance, he traded Alex Smith to Kansas City for second round picks in 2013 and 2014. Last year’s second rounder was the 34th overall. Baalke traded down with Tennessee for the 40th pick and a seventh rounder last year and a third rounder in 2014. By the time he was done (assuming he doesn’t play with the second rounder this year) the Alex Smith trade netted the 49ers two second round picks, a third rounder and a seventh for what was essentially a backup QB.
One of my favorite GMs in the game is Ozzie Newsome of the Ravens. He is one of the better talent evaluators in the league. In the last ten years he has drafted Haloti Ngata (5-time All-Pro Nose Tackle), starting guard Chris Chester, P Sam Koch, starting SS Dawan Landry, 2-time Pro Bowl G Ben Grubbs, 3-time All Pro G Marshal Yanda, 2-time All Pro FB Le'Ron McClain, starting LT Jared Gaither, QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, T Michael Oher (he of The Blind Side fame), OLB Paul Kruger, starting CB Lardarius Webb, TEs Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, starting DT Arthur Jones, Broncos current OT Ramon Harewood, starting CB Jimmy Smith, starting C Gino Gradkowski, starting WR Torrey Smith and starting OLB Courtney Upshaw. Over the last nine years Baltimore has 24 productive picks in 56 tries for a 42.9% ratio. That’s enough to keep your team perennially in the mix for the playoffs. He has won 2 Super Bowls in 14 years and most years gets a pile of compensatory picks for expensive veterans that leave and are replaced by guys in the draft.
How are the Broncos doing in the draft? I keep seeing a lot of criticism of the Front Office’s drafting ability.
In 2011, they picked Von Miller as our pass rusher of the future. I know this looks a little hazy after a year of suspension and injury, but Miller is still one of the elite pass rushers in the league. They picked up Rahim Moore (starting safety), Orlando Franklin (starting right tackle), LB Nate Irving (jury’s still out. I keep thinking of the Mike Holmgren quote about players needing 3 years before they can be graded, this is his year to shine or bust), S Quinton Carter, TE Julius Thomas, LB Mike Mohamed (bust), TE Virgil Green, and DE Jeremy Beal (bust). In 2012, they picked up DE/DT Derek Wolfe, backup QB Brock Osweiler, RB Ronnie Hillman (he could be a bust unless he gets his stuff together this year), CB Omar Bolden, C Philip Blake (bust), DE Malik Jackson, and LB Danny Trevathan. So far Elway and Co. are hitting 11 for 16 or 68.8%.
Throughout this exercise I have not been using the 2013 draft as I believe it is way too early to declare anyone a hit or a bust, but last year’s draft has some great potential hits. Sylvester Williams struggled as a rookie but showed some flashes of what he could be in a year or two. Montee Ball showed enough that the team seems intent on handing him the starter reins. Kayvon Webster was thrown into a starting role as the CB ranks were decimated by injury. He struggled but has the speed to be a future starter. Quanterus Smith spent the year on IR, and fans are hopeful of the potential we drafted him for. I think that the Broncos are doing alright in the drafting department when you compare them with the other great drafting teams.
Speaking of Compensatory Picks, when the picks were handed out this year, the 49ers won again. Baalke let Dashon Goldson, Delanie Walker and Ted Ginn walk last year and the 49ers were awarded a third-round pick in the 2014 draft. He now has 11 picks in the upcoming draft. He had 11 picks last year and 10 in 2011.
I love this attitude. I would like to see the Broncos employ this more often. Give Wimpy his burger today for money (more picks) tomorrow. GMs desperate to keep their jobs will often part with picks in future years to get the guy they think they have to have today to turn things around. Inevitably, it doesn’t, leaving the collector of future draft picks with even higher picks in succeeding years.
No team is even close to matching the Raven’s haul in compensatory picks since they started in 1994. Ozzie is up to 41 extra picks during that time (next closest are Green Bay and Dallas). He has used the system to keep the Ravens competitive over the last 21 years. Instead of overpaying for declining players, he lets the replaceable veterans walk and make it payback dividends the next year in extra draft picks. Last year, competing teams ponied up $75 million for Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe and they let Carey Willams and future Hall of Famer Ed Reed walk as well. Reed only lasted half a season with Houston before being cut and Kruger and Ellerbe never lived up to their contracts. For letting these guys get away, Baltimore came away with a league leading 4 picks: a third-rounder, two fourths and a fifth.
Much of the battle to remain competitive in a salary-capped league lies in the ability to accumulate draft picks, and scout and draft players that fit your system that can be coached and taught to bring them to their full potential. And then retain the indispensable players and let the replaceable ones walk, gaining more draft picks for the future. If a team can follow this procedure, they are likely to stay in the top half of the league for years to come.