- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The equation hasn't changed for decades even with the addition of free agency. Championship teams are built through the draft.
Quick fixes are the exception more than the rule. A few years ago, the Saints, under the direction of Randy Mueller and Jim Haslett, changed 31 of 53 players and rebuilt a talent thin roster into a playoff contender by making the right trades and free agent signings. Maybe the Redskins will profit from their aggressive two-year fling in restricted and unrestricted free agency and the trade market.
Teams fill needs through free agency and trades. But the draft builds winners. Look around at the depth charts throughout the NFL and the numbers don't lie. Usually the team with the most draft choices groomed as starters are the division winners. The Packers, for example, have 29 drafted players, including 16 starters. They've topped the NFC North the past years. The Eagles still have 24 of their draft choices on their roster and have dominated the NFC East. The Titans have 29 players they drafted and the Colts 26. Subsequently, the teams have been battling each other for the past two years in the AFC South.
Years of quality drafting allowed the Steelers to have the edge in the AFC North until the Ravens caught up with their own good drafts. The formula works.
"The draft lets you build for the long-term," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations. "You can't build for the long-term if you don't use the draft. If your draft choices make it, you get them for a reasonable cost, which is important because of the salary cap. But if you have to do it all through free agency, it's costly."
Colbert uses the example of a spare tire. In free agency, the spare tire costs more than the original tire. The more spare tires you have to purchase, the less money is available. But the NFL isn't like the car industry. Cars devalue. But in football, the value of the contracts generally go up.
The Patriots and Ravens are showing the models of rebuilding in the salary cap era. Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli worked tirelessly to rebuild a Patriots roster thin on talent and heavy in payroll. They took two years to dig out of the cap mess. With limited cap room, the Patriots signed bargain basement free agents to build the back of their roster. That helped in their first Super Bowl run. But the long-term plan involved the draft.
Last year, they found a starting center (Dan Koppen), a starting defensive end (Ty Warren), wide receiver Bethel Johnson and a starting free safety (Eugene Wilson). Before that, they found a left tackle (Matt Light), a dominating defensive lineman (Richard Seymour) and plenty of receivers (Deion Branch and David Givens).
In Carolina, former coach George Seifert believed in getting veterans, many of them toward the ends of their careers. That drained the talent base so much the Panthers had a miserable 1-15 season in 2001.
General manager Marty Hurney concentrated on building a defense through the draft. Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Julius Peppers were taken in the first or second rounds. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan was a first-rounder. John Fox took over as head coach and molded the group into the best young front seven in the NFL and got the team to the Super Bowl in his second season.
It was no accident the Colts and Titans moved to the top of the AFC despite salary cap difficulties. General managers Bill Polian of the Colts and Floyd Reese of the Titans are pure football people. They work the draft hard.
According to a recent five-year study, the average team converts 24 percent of their draft choices into starters. The Colts and Titans were among the best. The Colts turned 15 of 37 draft choices into starters over a five-year period, a whooping 41 percent. The Titans have a 29 percent success rate, though they have a high number of their former draft choices starting for other teams.
The problem with free agency is that teams that draft well can be hurt. A player hits the free agent market in four years. Coach Jeff Fisher is among the best in coaching up young talent, but as long as the team is successful, he realizes he'll lose half of those choices when they get to their second professional contracts.
If things continue to go as well as they have for the Patriots, there won't be enough roster room to accommodate all of their draft choices. Three years of building has made the Patriots a deep team. They have nine draft choices, including six in the first four round rounds. Maybe six or seven could make the team.
But that's why the Patriots had no qualms in trading a second-round choice for halfback Corey Dillon. They have the ability to move up and down in the first two rounds of the draft to find players who fit needs on the team.
"The hope is you get four players out of every draft," Polian said. "Over a five-year period, you should have 20 to 24 drafted players on your squad. But you absolutely can't get everything done in free agency.
"A lot of times the players you might need in free agency may not be available that particular year. And if they are available, the cost can be too much you can't afford them."
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
Heavy emphasis is placed on free agency, but winning teams are generally built through the draft.