We're kicking off a new series that looks at some of the best teams in the NFL, how they've built their rosters over the last decade or so and what, if any, lessons the Falcons can take away from those teams. We begin with a team I admire a great deal in the NFC North's Green Bay Packers.
To be clear, I don't like the Packers, but I have two Packers fans in my immediate family and I respect the hell out of them. General Manager Ted Thompson is one of the best in the business, and when fans and front office types talk about building a team from within, they're talking about the Packers. There are few teams in the NFL who have done it better, and even fewer who are more fanatically dedicated to maximizing the draft.
2005-2014 Records and Success
2007: 13-3, Lost NFC Conference Championship
2009: 11-5, Lost NFC Wild Card Game
2010: 10-6, Won Super Bowl
2011: 15-1, Lost Divisional Round Game
2012: 11-5, Lost Divisional Round Game
2013: 8-7-1, Lost Wild Card Game
The Packers emerged from a lousy mid-2000's period to make the playoffs six times in seven years, winning one Super Bowl in that span.
Roster Building From 2005-2014
The Green Bay Packers under Ted Thompson have strongly believed in building in the draft, and the seeds of their success in 2009 and beyond were planted as early as 2005.
That's the year the team drafted Aaron Rodgers, the young UCal quarterback with the funky throwing motion. He fell in the first round and the Packers snapped him up, sitting him for three long years behind Brett Favre as he worked to learn the game, hone his mechanics and turn the chip on his shoulder into a granite boulder. They added Nick Collins, who would play an integral role on some of these teams, and useful role player and linebacker Brady Poppinga the same year.
The Early Years
2006 was more of the same for the Packers, who studiously avoid big name splashes in free agency. They hit on A.J. Hawk, Daryn Colledge, Greg Jennings, Jason Spitz, and Johnny Jolly that year, following that up in 2007 with James Jones, Mason Crosby and Desmond Bishop. It's worth noting that 2007 1st and 2nd round pick Justin Harrell and Brandon Jackson were disappointing players, but the Packers had so many picks they were able to hit on multiple players regardless.
In 2008, the Packers continued to re-tool their offense with Rodgers' development in mind, drafting Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Josh Sitton, Breno Giacomini and Matt Flynn to bolster the offense and give them a backup quarterback of the future. 2009 was the opus of Ted Thompson's GM career, bringing in B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, T.J. Lang, and Brad Jones to shore up the line and defense.
Look at those draft classes again and see how many starters the Packers got and, more importantly, developed. They had their QB of the future, three good-to-great receivers and a capable receiving tight end, multiple starters on the offensive line and key starters at linebacker, defensive tackle and safety. It's impossible to look at that haul and not be impressed by the value they found all over the board. If you want to laud the Seattle Seahawks for finding terrific value in the later rounds, you have to acknowledge the Packers did it a few years earlier, and they found arguably the best quarterback in the NFL, to boot. That's not even mentioning the team finding Tramon Williams as a UDFA, one of their most important players and one of the league's better cornerbacks for a a spell.
Those additions fueled the team's meteoric 2010 rise, along with one of the few major outside signings Thompson allowed himself, in the form of Charles Woodson in 2006. Woodson was good-to-excellent for the team for years, but he was never more integral to their success than in 2009 and 2010, when the Packers started their run of success.
The 2010 draft capped it all off, adding key role players in Bryan Bulaga (an injury-prone disappointment who nevertheless played a real role for the 2001 Packers), DB Morgan Burnett, G Marshall Newshouse and RB James Starks. We all know how the 2010 season ended—and who the Packers trucked over to get to their Super Bowl win—but it was Rodgers' coronation and it helped to confirm that you can, in fact, built a strong roster through the draft, even if there are legitimate holes (offensive line, in particular) that would plague the Packers in the years to come.
The 2011 draft was, strikingly, one of the worst of Thompson's tenure. Derek Sherrod hasn't been great, and most of the players the team picked up have been role players at best. He struck gold with dynamic receiver and returner Randall Cobb in the second round, though. The 2012 draft was even worse—only Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy have a real shot to become quality starters—and 2013 is promising with Eddie Lacy and Datone Jones, but it's an unfinished sort of class, considering we're just in 2014.
So what's the verdict, here? The Packers don't actually have the best hit rate in the draft, and they're incredibly reliant on it for their success. Even so, they've built a team that consistently makes the playoffs, has a Super Bowl ring in the last five seasons and consistently retains its own best talent. The key has been that they've hit big on a handful of players, they've managed to stock their talented roster with key roles players and they've been able to paper over weaknesses through smart scheming and true standouts like Aaron Rodgers, who can survive behind a middling offensive line.
A team with perpetual Achilles heels along the line, at running back and at times on the defensive line and secondary shouldn't be good on an annual basis, but when you make it a priority to have a ton of draft picks and you're savvy enough to acquire players like Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews and develop them, you'll rarely have a bad team. If you can make it to the playoffs and build a strong team around those elite guys, you're a hot streak away from a Super Bowl win, as the 2010 Packers attest.
Lessons for the Falcons
The Falcons already largely attempt to build this way, but they dabble in free agency and trades with greater frequency and are known for trading up in a way the Packers simply do not. As we've discussed with varying degrees of calm and rationality, fewer picks means fewer chances to hit on picks, and free agent signings can be a crapshoot with real monetary consequences attached for those who don't work out (Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards).
The Packers are an extremely unusual team, however. If you look at the 49ers and Seahawks, two teams with terrific track records over the last four-five years, they've used free agency and trades to supplement the roster. The closest analogy for the Packers' might be the current Cincinnati Bengals, who have largely gotten it done via the draft and and have built a perennial contender, albeit one without the success of the Packers from 2009-2013. The Falcons shouldn't necessarily build 95% through the draft—their 2013 free agent signings were necessary to give the lines some bulk, for example—but they should look at the Packers' success through sheer number of draft picks and mull making their 2013 class more the norm than, say, 2011. Trading up makes sense at times—even Thompson's done it—but perhaps not habitually. The best lesson of all is that you must have the infrastructure in place to draft the right guy and develop him, or perhaps Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb never become what they are today.