At this time every year, two teams are left standing with a chance at the NFL’s ultimate prize. What is it that separates Super Bowl teams from the rest of the NFL’s fallen soldiers? There are a good number of quality teams that can’t seem to take their game to the next level, so what are successful teams doing that allows them to be such high level contenders? When I look at my beloved Detroit Lions and I compare them to the 49ers and Ravens, the sheer number of differences is saddening. One glaring trait stands out for both teams, though, and it has clearly allowed these franchises to take their game to the next level—successful draft classes.
It is such a simple concept, yet it truly does separate the pretenders from the contenders. Good teams have good players, and the way to build a top-tier franchise is to build an army of depth in the draft. Just look at the Washington Redskins, who tried for years to bring in the flashiest free agents to putrid results. From the stubborn pile of lard known as “Fat” Albert Haynesworth to free agent bust Donovan McNabb, the Redskins tried and tried again to build their roster with over-the-hill veterans. Is it a coincidence that the ‘Skins finally made the playoffs with a first-year quarterback/running back tandem? Not so much.
Even teams that draft with great success only retain a smaller portion of their annual picks in the long term, but it is the success (or lack thereof) for two or three selections that determines its effectiveness. The 2008 Baltimore Ravens draft class featured several players who are no longer with the team, but do you recognize their first two picks? Some quarterback named Flacco and some running back named Rice, ring a bell?
The next year, Baltimore picked up starting right tackle Michael Oher, pass-rush specialist Paul Kruger, and eventual number one cornerback Lardarius Webb. Baltimore’s legendary defense still retains longtime starters like Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, but the Ravens have been quietly rebuilding their arsenal with a litany of young defensive studs.
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San Francisco, on the other hand, has actually had relative success with free agency. Justin Smith came over via free agency in 2008, and he has established himself as one of the NFL’s premier defensive lineman. Don’t be mistake, though—San Francisco has built their team through the draft. The 2010 draft class included star linebacker Navarro Bowman and starting offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, which help anchor the NFL’s best o-line. In 2011 they brought in pass-rushing sensation Aldon Smith, some quarterback named Kaepernick, and effective coverage-man Chris Culliver.
The 49ers assembled such a loaded team that last year, they simply drafted for depth. LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins were brought in at positions that already had well-established starters, and we may not know for several years just how good the ’11 draft class will be. The Ravens were able to add depth with running back Bernard Pierce and linebacker Courtney Upshaw, among others.
It’s not a secret, but the draft is the building block of every franchise. Teams like the Patriots and Steelers stay competitive year after year because they are able to successfully fill vacancies every April, and teams that survive long into January depend on playmaking from young players acquired in the draft. Teams get good in the draft, but adding onto rosters and picking up the right difference makers in the spring is what takes a franchise to Super Bowl level as well.