Building a successful team doesn't happen overnight. The fans want to see instant results but it is unrealistic.
The rare exception occurs when a team hits it at quarterback, like the Falcons did last year. They drafted Matt Ryan and everything looked better right away. The receivers no longer looked lost. The offensive line that got blamed for giving up too many sacks in the Michael Vick era and a porous defense both improved. But there is still work to be done in Atlanta.
Don't get me wrong -- the Falcons are on the right course, stockpiling talent through the draft in the Thomas Dimitroff era. In Dimitroff's first year as GM, the 2008 draft produced four starters and at least three important role players. Run that kind of talent procurement out over the next three years and the Falcons will be built to last for a long time with well over 50 percent of their starters coming from the first four draft classes directed by Dimitroff.
To build a solid franchise, a number of principles come into play:
1. Stockpile draft talent; pick smart, with an eye on the future.
2. Make a big move only when necessary.
3. Try to avoid having to rely on the draft for immediate help.
4. Make a tough decision and cut losses when when necessary.
5. Know when the team is too good to make use of all its draft picks and sell a few for future years.
6. Stay ahead of problems.
Let's take a look at eight clubs that have done a good job securing talent in the draft since 2005. It is critical that teams have close to 50 percent of their starters for 2009 from the last five drafts. That gives teams four years of young veterans coached by the same staff and hopefully some help from this rookie class.
The world champion Steelers under the direction of GM Kevin Colbert always face the challenge of drafting young players who can make the roster and contribute on such a good team. Last season, only one rookie -- first-round running back Rashard Mendenhall -- had a single start for the whole season. Otherwise there were zero rookie starts. That's not a problem, because they employ Principle No. 1 -- eyes on the future. They do not expect rookies to start or even contribute that much in their first season.
I like to describe being drafted by the Steelers as getting accepted in a graduate school program. They are going to teach you how to play the "Steeler way" before they ever ask you to perform. The previous three drafts have put six starters and seven key backups on the roster.
Clubs love to say how much they love the guys they picked this year, which is fine, but I had to laugh when the Steelers were asked about their first-round draft pick this year, Missouri defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, the day after the draft. They described him as "light years away from being ready to play."
The Eagles had a good-looking draft this year, which is no surprise, and there's little doubt they are stockpiling talent. They know how to make a big move (Principle No. 2), and did so by trading for Buffalo's Jason Peters to stay ahead of the problems at offensive tackle (Principle No. 6). They enter the 2009 season with 8-10 starters from the 2005-08 drafts, and another four players in key backup roles. Their top three draft picks this season should be factors, but they don't need to rely on them to win right away (Principle No. 3).
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is a great-looking prospect, as are running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Cornelius Ingram, but if they aren't ready to perform at a high level on opening day, then Reggie Brown, Jason Avant and Brent Celek know how to get the job done.
Green Bay Packers
Making a tough decision (Principle No. 4) can be stressful on an organization. When the Packers severed ties with Brett Favre, the decision was met with a critical eye. But after examining the players drafted since 2005, it's clear that Green Bay has a well-built roster. There are upwards of 11 starters from the 2005-08 drafts and another half-dozen quality backups.
The Packers' organization wasted little time in this draft selecting players that can help them transform from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Because of the defensive conversion, we may see more rookies in the starting lineup than usual, which tests Principle No. 3.
New York Giants
The Giants won a Super Bowl two seasons ago and have really done a good job of packing their roster with talent. The Giants made the tough decision (Principle No. 4) in cutting Plaxico Burress, but the way they stockpiled talent at receiver in the past few drafts and how they drafted this year puts them in a position to continue to win. Remember when the Steelers let Burress go in free agency? Burress led the Steelers in TD receptions the previous year and without him they won a Super Bowl the next year.
The Giants go to camp with Steve Smith, David Tyree, Domenik Hixon, Mario Manningham, Sinorice Moss, Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden. That is enough talent to win with, and five of those receivers come from the last four drafts.
Baltimore has always been a team that drafts future Pro Bowl players. Joe Flacco (2008) is well on his way to being a future Pro Bowler. Haloti Ngata (2006) already is considered one of the best young defensive linemen in the league. The Ravens selected OT Michael Oher in the first round this year, which is fine, but look at what the Ravens have done in the past three drafts at offensive line: Jared Gaither was a 2007 fifth-round pick in the supplemental draft; Ben was Grubbs a first-round pick in 2007; Marshal Yanda was a third-round pick in 2007. That is a great example of a franchise stockpiling talent with an eye on the future. It doesn't hurt that the Ravens also have four backups from those draft classes.
New England Patriots
It's not easy for a rookie to make the Patriots' roster, so it will be interesting to see how many of the 12 draft picks can make the club. New England is trying to stockpile talent on an already good roster. Coach Bill Belichick knows how to make a tough decision (trading Ellis Hobbs), and stay clear of high first-round picks. They had enough firepower (six picks in the top 100) to move up in the draft, but instead they elected to move down and still get six players in the top 100 and also set themselves up with three picks in the second round next year.
The number of starters from the last three drafts is a little down (seven, plus the kicker), but it's easy to see why when you consider they have been aggressive in the trade market the past few years (Randy Moss, Wes Welker) and did a fantastic job drafting from 2001-04. The entire starting defensive line is made up of first-round picks from those drafts: Richard Seymour (2001), Ty Warren (2003) and Vince Wilfork (2004).
The Falcons aren't the only team beginning to put things together. Arizona and Miami also have built talented rosters. The Cardinals' new regime hasn't been at this stockpiling game long enough to evaluate fully, but in the last two years under Ken Whisenhunt, they are really starting to put some pieces in place. The additions of Levi Brown, Steve Breaston, Tim Hightower, Calais Campbell and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have been a good start and this draft appears to have a chance to keep the talent search rolling along.
The Dolphins, under the direction of Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland, got a good start last year. They made plenty of tough decisions in year one, showing veterans the door, drafting four starters, trading for two starters and picking up quarterback Chad Pennington. They orchestrated the biggest single-season turnaround in league history, but they need this draft and two more to build on it the right way.
I would be surprised if by 2011 the Dolphins' roster didn't have 14 starters from the last four drafts, and another 8-10 quality backups. The Dolphins will not waste time with players that don't show promise early and they will keep the competitive pressure on every man on the roster, applying all six principles of building a franchise.