ON THE CLOCK: Believing in building through the draft

Posted May 5, 2014

The third installment of 'On The Clock' examines one of the league's most proven methods of building a team.

The ‘On the Clock’ series on continues with a closer examination of one of the most proven methods of building a championship roster, and how long the commitment of building through the draft may take.

ON THE CLOCK: Rise of the right tackle | Kiko's story: drafting a rookie of the year   

Committing to the model

The Buffalo Bills, despite their lengthy streak of non-playoff appearances, have committed to the ‘build through the draft’ model. After four years of adding starters at critical positions with high draft choices like C.J. Spiller, Marcell Dareus, Aaron Williams, Stephon Gilmore, Cordy Glenn, EJ Manuel, Robert Woods and Kiko Alonso, the Bills roster appears as close as ever to reaching critical mass and rewarding the personnel department’s patience.

“The ultimate philosophy of how I was raised in this business is you build through the draft for a couple of reasons,” said Bills GM Doug Whaley. “You want your first, second and third round guys to be starters or at least contributors. Players taken in rounds four through seven should be backups and special teams guys with an upside who could help you more in one or two years knowing you can’t keep all of your home grown talent especially if they turn into stars.”

Buffalo currently has 13 projected starters on offense and defense for 2014 that were draft choices, just one less than Super Bowl champion Seattle (14), good for sixth-highest in the league.

“In an ideal situation you’re going to get three starters out of a draft class if you have all seven selections,” said former Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik. “If you feel like you have only one or two years with the quarterback you have depending on his age, you’re certainly going to be a little more aggressive to give it another run in the hope that you’re in position to win a Super Bowl. The reality of it is if you have a team with six to eight players on each side of the ball that have been drafted by your club or undrafted players signed by your club and they’ve only played for you then you’re doing something right and that’s the way to build it. Two is the standard with the guys contributing and three is what you’re really kind of shooting for.”

Buffalo, who landed three starters in the 2013 draft, is trying to make that jump to perennial playoff contender. Naturally they’re counting on the quarterback. EJ Manuel showed encouraging signs as a rookie in 2013. Whaley said their top priority is to make sure Manuel progresses, and this year’s draft class will cater to that priority.

“It’s a quarterback-driven league,” he said. “We’re going to pursue every avenue to make EJ as successful as possible. This draft is critical for us to add more pieces to get us over the hump. The players know what we’re building. This draft is important to take that next step.”

The process

There isn’t a personnel boss in the NFL who will say that the draft isn’t important. It’s one of the quickest ways to provide an influx of talented youth to your roster in a sport where the average career lasts a little more than three seasons. The painstaking process of making the right draft decisions takes more than a calendar year as we covered extensively in our previous installment. Even then it’s far from a sure thing, but most front office philosophies believe in the long-term success that the draft can provide.

“Every draft is important,” said Cleveland Browns GM Ray Farmer. “It is really the life blood of every organization. Some guys you take and you realize they are not going to be ready right away, but they have a greater upside. Other guys you take with the hopes they will contribute immediately.  After the draft no one cares where you picked them.  You just have to find the right guys, get them in your system and use them accordingly.”

Building through the draft can also be an exercise in contradiction. Every NFL club wants to contend every single year for a championship, but that’s not always realistic. That can often challenge a front office, especially one with a new general manager. They’re entrusted with getting the team back on track quickly while also accumulating long-range talent to make the roster strong for years to come.

“You have to look at the long-term health of your organization, and when you’re drafting you have to almost look at it with a three-year view and understand that when we are talking about certain positions, they may not be the biggest need right now, but in 2015, that may be our biggest need,” said Arizona GM Steve Keim. “So if you can continue to have rollover and develop young players that can replace those guys when either their contracts are up or players move on, I think ultimately that’s the way you’d love for it to go.”  

Success stories

There are teams that have committed to the draft building model for developing championship rosters for decades. NFL clubs like the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers have long subscribed to constructing their teams with draft choices and developing those players into All-Pros. Then they supplement that talent with more draft choices to groom behind them. All three franchises have won Super Bowls since the turn of the century with the Giants and Steelers each winning a pair.

The most recent success of building through the draft came with the now defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Yes, they’ve made a couple of trades and free agent pickups that have certainly aided in their recent success. On the whole however, general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll have drafted astutely. They’ve acquired defensive players built to neutralize today’s wide open passing games while building an offense that was ground-based and productive.

"The players know what we’re building. This draft is important to take that next step.”

-GM Doug Whaley| MORE >

Currently Seattle’s entire back seven on defense is made up of their own draft choices between 2010 and 2012. Their entire offensive line in 2014 is projected to be made up of their own picks covering their draft classes from 2009 through 2013.

That figure of 14 projected starters for 2014 being draft choices for the Seahawks might still increase based on the team’s selections later this week. Right now it’s tied for the fifth-highest figure in the league, based on the depth charts listed on The only teams with more are Pittsburgh (18), Green Bay (17), Minnesota (17), New England (16), Atlanta (15), Cincinnati (15) and San Francisco (15).

Philadelphia, which like Buffalo has also been working to rebuild their roster since 2010, when current GM Howie Roseman took over, also endured a coaching change in 2013. The Eagles are projected to have 14 starters procured from their draft ranks. As Roseman sees it their commitment to draft building has put them position to contend annually.

“We look at it like we have to increase the talent level on our football team. Ideally, if you have four good drafts in a row, I don’t see how you’re not going to be a really good, talented football team,” Roseman said. “So we need to build on the last two drafts and continue to get good players and try to get as many guys who make a difference as possible. We’ve increased the depth on our football team over the last couple of years and have added some good players. If we can build on top of that, I think that would be really promising for our future."

Time is short

Nevertheless teams are drawn to the ‘buy now to win now’ approach believing enough proven players will translate into winning results sooner rather than later. And the pressure to win sooner is always there.

Even teams committed to the draft approach often thrust second and third round draft choices into starting roles right away despite the fact that they might not be ready. It’s sink or swim on the field so personnel departments know if they have to find the next solution with the clock on their job security ticking along with that of the players.

“You don’t have time nowadays,” said Whaley. “You have maybe three years, so that’s hard.”

It’s particularly difficult when you’re building a roster from the ground up, much like Bills current Special Assistant Buddy Nix was doing when he took over as Buffalo’s general manager in 2010. He knew Bills fans wanted a quick return to the playoffs, but Nix was committed to methodically building the roster back up through the draft.

That’s where teams often have a delicate balance between personnel and coaching. Coaches want players that can help them win now and the personnel department wants a consistently competitive team year after year. 

The only time the Bills strayed from the plan was the signing of Mario Williams in free agency in 2012, when Nix felt it was prudent to land a big fish.

“We felt like we needed a cornerstone to build around. A building block,” he said. “Something that offenses had to game plan for and we didn’t have that guy yet. So we felt like Mario was a big piece of the puzzle for us. But except for him, we built this roster with draft choices and again, it’s a slower process.”

A different path

“If you feel like you have only one or two years with the quarterback you have ... you’re certainly going to be a little more aggressive to give it another run"

-Former Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik | Bills to draft best available?

The pressure to win now can also compel NFL general managers that subscribe to the draft model to move away from it. There are a host of different circumstances that can lead a club in such a direction. Misses on draft choices year over year and career-ending injuries to essential players are just a couple of examples. In some cases it’s the right choice.

Denver, New Orleans and the New York Giants are three of the most recent examples. All three teams have proven veteran quarterbacks, but there is a limited amount of time in which those players will remain at the top of their game. All three teams were active in free agency this offseason. Denver took on big contracts for a second straight offseason. The Giants were uncharacteristically active and New Orleans found a way to spend big money.

“I think you deviate if you feel your window is getting tight,” said Dominik. “If you feel like you have only one or two years with the quarterback you have depending on his age, you’re certainly going to be a little more aggressive to give it another run in the hope that you’re in position to win a Super Bowl.

“New Orleans has done a good job. They’ve built a good football team, but they were aggressive in free agency with the safety position and the back end of their roster. That’s because they have Drew Brees and they’re trying to be in position to win another championship before Drew Brees doesn’t play football any longer. Who you have playing quarterback will certainly impact how active you are in free agency.”

It’s the teams that take their free agent shopping to the extreme that often don’t see a good return on their investments.

“If you go back and look at the hundreds of studies done the teams that are consistently winning in the NFL they’re the ones that are drafting well,” said ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay. “They’re not giving up picks. They’re not going three years without a first or second round pick like Carolina did. They’re not jeopardizing nine first or second round picks like Washington did over an eight-year span. Those are the teams that bounce up and down and end up relying on free agency and wind up overpaying.”

Recent history favors draft builders

Trends can and will change in the NFL, but buying an NFL title in free agency almost never comes to fruition. In fact recent history has favored the ‘build through the draft model’ more than ever.

The last four Super Bowl champions have either been long time proponents of constructing their rosters that way (Baltimore, Green Bay, NY Giants) or have recently committed to it under a new front office regime (Seattle).

To make it happen a team naturally needs to have a top notch personnel department so there are more hits than misses, and in the draft no one is perfect. However, the overall model of drafting to fortify and maintain your roster is tried and true.

“That is the ideal way,” said Nix. “Really and truly, it is the only way to build for the long haul, in my opinion. You’re still keeping your (salary) cap in line, and you’re hopefully replenishing your roster with more good players coming in with each draft year after year.”

ARIZONA 6 7 13 10
ATLANTA 8 7 15 8
BALTIMORE 8 6 14 8
BUFFALO 6 7 13 9
CAROLINA 5 5 10 5
CHICAGO 4 5 9 6
CLEVELAND 7 5 12 9
DALLAS 8 5 13 10
DENVER 5 5 10 9
DETROIT 6 4 10 5
GREEN BAY 10 7 17 9
HOUSTON 7 6 13 10
KANSAS CITY 6 8 14 9
MIAMI 6 4 10 9
MINNESOTA 8 9 17 11
NEW ENGLAND 8 8 16 10
NEW ORLEANS 7 3 10 6
NY GIANTS 7 4 11 8
NY JETS 6 7 13 10
OAKLAND 5 3 8 6
PITTSBURGH 9 9 18 12
SAN DIEGO 6 8 14 11
SEATTLE 6 8 14 12
ST. LOUIS 6 8 14 12
TAMPA BAY 1 7 8 8
TENNESSEE 5 7 12 9