If you’ve been an NFL fan for a while, you’ve probably heard the whole adage, “Build your team through the draft.” And like many sayings that become clichéd talking points of Monday morning quarterbacks, it loses its meaning and tends to go in one ear and out the other. But clichés become clichés because they happen so often; the truth is in the repetition.
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders echoed the team building cliché in a different way on the most recent edition of the Off the Charts Football Podcast with Matt Manocherian of Sports Info Solutions. He essentially says that a team’s focus in free agency should generally be about retaining the good or great talent they’ve drafted, rather than bringing new talent into your team.
Scouts spend nearly a year on the road, visiting schools, talking with coaches, fellow scouts, etc. to identify the talent they want to invest in when the NFL draft comes around. Part of this is based around what the team identifies as a weakness, such as Quarterbacks. Sometimes teams have put together a good enough roster through great drafts and solid free-agency spending that scouting and drafting truly become about taking the best player available. In either case, once the college season is over, and most of the scouting reports have been submitted, we enter into the all-star game season.
Scouts and team executives head to St. Petersburg, Florida, and Pasadena, California for the East-West Shrine Bowl and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl respectively. Both games will have players that will make it somewhere in football, whether it’s the NFL, the CFL, or even the XFL. But the main game is the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Not only are there scouts, executives, and coaches, but swarms of media members and other football people come to the Senior Bowl to watch practice, network, and have some drinks at Veet’s. This week allows teams to spend private time interviewing various players at the game, and see what their practice habits are like.
After that it’s on to the NFL Scouting Combine, where head coaches and general managers address the media to speak publicly for the first time since their respective seasons ended. Players also do interviews with both the media and teams that request to do so, and have a full day’s worth of medical tests done. They get measured, workout, and athletically tested along with various field drills to test their ability to play the position they’re expected to play at the next level. They do almost all of this in what essentially amounts to extremely tight underwear.
From there, players head back to their universities to finish classes, train for their pro day, or work with position-specific trainers, such as Duke Manyweather for offensive linemen (who has been training Louisville’s Mekhi Becton), or Jordan Palmer for Quarterbacks (Who has been working with LSU’s Joe Burrow, and has spent the last two offseasons with Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Kyle Allen).
It’s quite a process if you’re a player, going right from the end of your own season, into the draft cycle, and then drafted onto your new team. You don’t get much of a rest or time to yourself until after your rookie season is over. Thankfully for them, and for the teams drafting these rookies, not everything relies on them.
That’s when we hit free agency.
While this year’s free agency period is certainly unprecedented due to the COIVD-19 pandemic, it hasn’t stopped the NFL from allowing teams to sign and trade for the players they want. The frenzy this year was particularly wild, with several trades involving Deforest Buckner to the Colts, and Stefon Diggs to the Bills. Of course the biggest move was Tom Brady leaving the Patriots after more than 20 seasons, to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All of these moves, and more, affect how we expect teams to draft come late April.
There are just as many strategies to free agency as there are to the draft. Teams like the Bengals had been extremely cheap, until this offseason. Teams like the Redskins tend to make big, splashy signings, such as Landon Collins last year. But there are two teams whose strategies stand out to me, as good examples of what to do, and what not to do. In an article by Steven Ruiz of USA Today, he broke down all 32 NFL teams and how they address free agency through their level of activity (how many free agents they sign), the money they’ve spent on those free agents, and how impactful they were using Sports Info Solutions’ proprietary metric, Total Points.
The New York Giants under Dave Gettleman spent $233 million dollars on 18 free agents, adding 25 total points to their roster. The Giants finished the 2019 season at 6-10, and while spending money and getting new players is nice, the roster still has many holes, and it’s hard to justify the money they have spent when the team doesn’t seem like it will be capable of taking a step forward.
The Buffalo Bills under Brandon Beane have taken a different approach, spending $164 million on 29 free agents, adding 29 total points to their roster. While each individual player may not have the same level of impact as the players the Giants have signed, they have also collectively added more total points than the Giants, while spending $69 million less than the Giants. In addition, the Bills finished the season at 10-6, with a playoff berth. It has not kept the Bills from signing big free agents or trading strong draft capital. In 2018 they shelled out a big contract for Star Lotulelei, in 2019 they made Mitch Morse the highest paid Center in NFL history. In 2020, they traded their 1st round pick, along with a 5th, 6th, and a future 4th to acquire Stefon Diggs and a 7th round pick from the Minnesota Vikings, to hopefully push their offense to the next level.
The Bills understand that by drafting well, retaining your good talent, and spending prudently to build a team with depth, and strength across the board. The Giants, after several double-digit losing seasons, and multiple high draft picks, have their backs up against the wall, and are forced to spend lots of money to try to achieve as many wins as possible to save jobs in the personnel department. But when you keep spending good money after bad, it will never amount to wins. And worse, when you start trading 3rd round picks for players like Leonard Williams, you lose not only the capital of that pick, but also the cheap contract that 3rd round pick would be on during his rookie career. Plus in the case of Leonard Williams, you either let him go in free agency, sign him to a long term deal (spending more money), or franchise tag him.
The lesson, if there is one to be learned here, is that building a team in the NFL is not going to come through signing multiple big-name free agents. It is by using your capital intelligently, both in cash, and draft assets, you can slowly build a competitive NFL team. But if you consistently miss on draft picks, spend large amounts of money on free agents that don’t give you a major impact and trade away other assets that won’t stay on your team, you can’t achieve winning. Your coaching staff and front office will likely be fired and a new staff will have to come in to fix the damage and hopefully be given enough time and patience to build the team the right way. If not, the cycle continues, and your organization will be mired in mediocrity.