As professional arm-chair quarterbacks, fans have all the answers. We know who should be signed in free agency and for how much. We know what college QBs will be the best and which will flame out. We know which college players will be a success and which ones will be a bust. Of course - we know all these things AFTER they've happened. We're masters of hindsight.
What about the people who actually run an NFL team? If they're only successful in gauging these things in hindsight, they won't last long. It's why building an NFL team that can win consistently starts at the top with the people in the front office. That includes the owner(s), the general manager and the scouts. So, how do these men and women contribute to building a winning ball club? Let's take a look below.
Free Agency and Drafting
This is quite possibly the most critical area for the front office. It is in these areas that a front office can have the most direct impact on whether a team can consistently win or is in perpetual "rebuilding" mode. Identifying talent is critical, but it has to be more than that. The talent has to fit into the culture established for the team. The players need to be able to perform well in the current schemes.
Where the draft is concerned, evaluating whether a college player can contribute at the next level is difficult to say the least. Unless you're constantly picking in the top 5, you're always looking at hundreds of players and considering whether their strengths and upside outweigh the negatives. Do you draft best player available, or do you address team needs? Do you take on a project player with big upside or do you get the player that can contribute immediately? Do you take a player in the late first if you fear they won't fall to you in the second? Do you trade picks to move up in hopes of getting a difference maker, or keep those picks with an eye towards adding depth?
That doesn't even consider everything that leads up to the draft. What schools do you scout? Which pro-days do you attend and what smaller schools do you put on your radar for evaluation? The list of questions is endless. It takes good scouting, savvy management and a little bit of luck to do well in the draft.
As for free agency, this can be even trickier. You have to weigh your team needs versus the potential in the draft to determine if you're even going to play in free agency. And while these players are "proven" commodities in the NFL, they also come with a much higher price tag - making them a more "sure thing" for contributing, but also making the financial risk far more daunting. On top of that, the coveted free agent players will surely be approached by numerous teams, so the front office not only has to keep the finances in check, they also have to find ways to lure a player to the team without breaking the bank. Signing a player in free agency that doesn't pan out can set a team back drastically, while missing out on good free agents can be the difference in being an average team or being a playoff team.
Following along the lines mentioned above, it's this aspect of the front office that is often overlooked but is oh so critical. With a rock solid salary cap in place every year, the NFL has leveled the playing field. Clubs are forced to get creative financially while also trying to maximize every dollar that they spend. On top of that, once you are successful, contributing players will surely want bigger pay days. Paying those players means others may not get paid, and may have to walk. Likewise, backloading contracts may get you a loaded roster for one year, but could cost you dearly in subsequent years - forcing you to cut key players just to stay within the salary cap.
One need look no further than fellow NFC South teams in the Saints and Panthers. Both teams are drastically over the 2013 cap and will have to cut several key players just to get under the cap. Both teams will be non-players in free agency and will have to have a near perfect draft to stay competitive.
Working with the Coaches
Of all the things already mentioned, this ties it all together. The front office needs to work closely with the coaching staff to make sure that the players they go after - whether in the draft or via free agency - are the ones the coaching staff believes can contribute in their schemes. There are plenty of examples around the league of the front-office grabbing players that the coaching staff didn't necessarily want or need (Dallas anyone?).
On top of that, when players do come up for a big pay day, the FO has to weigh what the coaching staff wants/needs with the financial reality of not being able to just stack a roster. In an ideal world, a team would load all 22 positions with nothing but pro-bowlers, but the reality is that you have to pick your spots. If you spend heavily on building a huge offensive line, you may not be able to get play making receivers. If you get both of those, you may have to short-change the quality of players you get on defense. And all of this has to be done with the input of the coaches who have to make the best of the talent that they're provided with.
With all of that said, it's clear the Falcons have a good front-office. You don't get to 5 straight winning seasons with 4 playoff trips without a solid front office. While there have certainly been failures (Peria Jerry, Ray Edwards), there have been some big wins as well (Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones, Asante Samuel). Additionally, while the Falcons don't have a ton of cap room, they are under the cap and with some key cuts, they will have enough space to play in free agency if needed.
Next week, we'll focus on the contributions that the coaching staff makes to building a winning football team.