How to build a successful roster

BY foxsports • February 27, 2011

The NFL is known as a copycat league. Teams study each other all the time, but are they willing to change or adjust their ways?

This year’s Super Bowl participants, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, are two teams who clearly believe in the philosophy that you build your roster through the NFL Draft and not through free agency.

Obviously, building the roster is very important, but what’s the best path to sustained success?


Build Through the Draft

“Oh man, I love it. Is that awesome? I think both teams combined maybe had four starters that they got through free agency,” St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney said this week.

“The vast majority were draft picks, a couple of street free agents here and there, but those two organizations, they've done it the way that everybody else aspires to do it. Putting it together with the foundation of hitting on their draft picks, and doing a great job keeping their guys.”

Thirty-two out of the 44 starters for the Steelers and Packers were originally drafted or signed as undrafted free agents by those teams.

Ted Thompson, Packers executive vice president, general manager and director of football operations, learned his philosophy from one of the best personnel evaluators in NFL history.

“From (former Packers general manager) Ron Wolf, first and foremost. He's who I went to work for in '92, and he was a strong believer that you build the core of your team around the draft," Thompson said. "Certainly free agency is another avenue, but you do that a little bit more selectively. That's just the way we were taught.”


Study Other Teams

In the NFL, success leaves clues.

"No question about it, I was very fortunate to come from the Patriots and see what we did in New England,” Atlanta Falcons general manager Tom Dimitroff said earlier this week. “Then when you look at the upstanding organizations that are led by great ownership on down to the general managers and on to the entire coaching staff and you see how they put together the team, not only schematically, but also when it comes to personnel . . . I definitely do hone in on the outstanding good teams.”

For an up-and-coming team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, mining the draft for talent is the way to go.

“Obviously in Tampa, it’s a cliché — a lot of us like to sit here and say we want to build through the draft. But we’re absolutely going to do it that way, and that’s the way we’ve been developing. Clearly the two teams that just played in the Super Bowl have the same mindset, and so that’s an encouraging blueprint to where we want to be. So we’ll stay the course. It doesn’t affect us. Not the way we’re looking at it. I don’t want it to,” Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said.


One Size Does Not Fit All

While the Steelers and Packers have built their rosters almost exclusively through the draft, there isn’t one set way to build a roster.

"I personally don't like to be categorized as a draft guy or a free-agent guy. I think you truly believe that you need to compare both sides going into every year and decide where the strengths are and where the weaknesses are and if you can fix them in the draft or in free agency,” Dimitroff said. “I know that was something that I was very particular about coming into Atlanta to make sure that I didn't get pigeonholed as one type of team builder.”

Dimitroff’s right. For years, the New England Patriots, whom Dimitroff worked for prior to the Falcons, have been willing to add veteran players (Randy Moss, Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau, for example) to their roster whom they thought could help them win a Super Bowl.


Draft For Value Instead of Need

One of the biggest mistakes teams make in the draft is reaching for players to fill a need instead of drafting the best player on the board.

“We feel very strongly that our best policy is to try and draft the best player, because you never know,” Thompson explained. “This whole drafting for need, this isn't fantasy football. As you can tell from our team this year, what you think you have at a position could go away with one sprained ankle or one bad knee or something like that. You think you're all set, but you lose 'em all in one play in the first quarter of a game. So it just makes more sense to us if we stick with the best possible player we can put on our team, regardless of the position; that's the best policy.”


Patience is a Virtue


While this NFL is a very what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, taking a patient approach to building a team is a must, something the Washington Redskins, for example, haven’t been willing to do over the years.

The Falcons, on the other hand, have quickly become one of the NFL’s top teams in a short period of time because they understand you can’t go for the quick fix.

"Patience was a big thing,” Dimitroff said about his approach when taking over the team in 2008. “It was very enticing because you had an owner in Arthur Blank who is very generous and willing to open up the purse strings if in fact we needed to do that. We have a city that is very attractive to a lot of football players. We really believed that we would have an opportunity to have some of the first choices in free agency circulating through the National Football League. That was very attractive to me. I mention that several times to Arthur that we could build this systematic and calculated. I'd say, 'Let's not be swayed by emotional decisions.'”

Emotional decisions can lead to desperate decisions. Teams really have to stick with their plan.

“Let's make sure that we are very systematic in our approach. I think that we've done that so far. We need to continue to do that going forward. We still have a few tweaks to make going forward,” Dimitroff explained.


Coaching Staff Continuity


It’s one thing to keep the roster together for a sustained period of time, but keeping the coaching staff intact is also a good idea. It’s hard for players to continually improve if the coaches keep changing.

"We're very fortunate to have a coaching staff that's basically been together for three years,” Atlanta’s personnel chief explained. “We lost some of our entry-level coaches early on, then unfortunately we lost (quarterbacks coach) Bill Musgrave off to Minnesota. But we've kept a good group together. I was talking about how important it was to have cohesiveness in the locker room; it's also very important to have the guys who are controlling the locker room stay together. It's a really good group in my mind. We, myself and (head coach) Mike Smith, see building teams through the similar lenses. We are very congruent with our thought processes as far as building; as far as the type of players that we want in here, the type of schemes that we want to scout and coach. I think that's very important. Again, being on the proverbial same page is very important to us.”

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