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Packers, Steelers show finding, retaining talent equals success

Gary A. Vasquez / NFL
Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers are just two of the Packers' many draft picks to play big roles en route to a title.


Did anyone notice the flurry of activity last week? How about Thursday, when O.J. Atogwe, Bob Sanders, A.J. Hawk, and Pierre Thomas, among others, all got new deals? All the signings represented a mad dash by teams to fill holes before the collective bargaining agreement was set to expire. During the extension of negotiations, or if the CBA expires, there is no free agency.

CBA aside, let's focus on the last two names listed above. Hawk and Thomas re-signed with their original team. In fact, the Packers agreed to terms with another of their own players before the deadline, safety Charlie Peprah.

It brings to mind a method to overcome the mediocrity madness of the NFL: In a league where parity reigns supreme, a few organizations have shown that re-signing your own in combination with the draft is the best way to have sustained success. That means no splashes in free agency. That doesn't mean successful teams are dormant in this area, but all too often their moves to re-sign their own players are received with a collective yawn from the masses.

Track prospects leading up to draft
Keep an eye on the prospects teams like Pittsburgh and Green Bay will be scouting as the 2011 draft nears with NFL.com's pro days schedule and analysis. More ...

» Draft history: Packers' all-time picks
» Draft history: Steelers' all-time picks

They shouldn't be.

Look no further than Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who just refilled two holes with his own guys in Hawk and Peprah. In six years on the job, Thompson has shown a patience not seen in a lot of organizations, as well as an almost single-minded focus to build his club through the draft. There might be no better way to create, and more importantly, maintain, a winning club in today's NFL.

That sounds easy, but consider the Packers' last Super Bowl championship team was littered with free agents and trade acquisitions across the board: Sean Jones, Don Beebe, Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard, Keith Jackson, Eugene Robinson, Andre Rison, and the biggest free-agent acquisition of all-time, Reggie White. When Thompson was hired in 2005, he inherited a quarterback in Brett Favre whose only ring came in part because of those veterans. But instead of taking the proverbial bait and trying to acquire another ring quickly, Thompson created a Super Bowl squad piecemeal, patiently and, for the most part, organically.

First, with Favre looking for help, Thompson went with a quarterback as his administration's first draft choice. Let's just say Aaron Rodgers worked out alright. From there, Green Bay drafted Greg Jennings, Hawk, B.J. Raji, and Clay Matthews. One of the few starters Green Bay didn't draft, corner Tramon Williams, is a good example of organizational patience.

Williams played decently at corner after veteran Al Harris tore his ACL in 2009. Thompson didn't feel that the injury or Harris' age were conducive to him being able to handle things in 2010. Rather than acquire insurance, Green Bay rolled with the punches on the young and inexperienced Williams, who became a Pro Bowler after clearly just needing an opportunity.

Now this might run counter to my last article, when I drew plenty of argument from Packers fans regarding my suggestion that Clinton Portis could help the club. With Ryan Grant's ankle injury, and James Starks still being an unknown commodity, I thought Green Bay might be an interesting destination for an aging player who wants to win, still might have some tread, and can block. While I was never suggesting Thompson would jump at Portis, it's understandable why Packers fans said it would never happen. Big-name free-agent signings are sexy -- Thompson doesn't do sexy. He has mostly retained his own, and thus, is likely to roll with the young Starks. That's his M.O.

There was more than a hint of irony when Green Bay, always conservative in free agency, played Chicago in the NFC title game, a team that made the biggest splash in free agency last offseason with the signings of Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna. Later on that same day, another organization that handles its business similarly to Green Bay was closing the deal in the AFC. Like Thompson and the Packers, the Steelers' front office has exhibited patience, re-signed their own, and built through the draft.

If you take a close look at Pittsburgh's core, it's all homegrown. Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu ...all Pittsburgh draft picks. There are always exceptions to the rule, but when you look at these two organizations, they've proven the best formula to winning is draft well, and retain. It's that cut and dried.

This is not to say that signing free agents is a bad idea. In fact, Pittsburgh would've never made it to the Super Bowl without the addition of Flozell Adams. Say what you want about big Flo', but next to Maurkice Pouncey, he was probably the most consistent performer on a line hit hard by injuries in 2010. In 2006, Thompson went after Charles Woodson to bolster a secondary that needed an upgrade, after it was deemed Ahmad Carroll was not the answer as a starting cornerback. Obviously, that acquisition panned out, culminating in Woodson winning Defensive Player of the Year last season.

But the point is, neither of these organizations makes a habit of competing on the football field with people who didn't grow up in their building. That's why Thompson's biggest move last offseason was re-signing Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher to maintain continuity on the offensive line.

David Stluka / Associated Press
Peyton Manning is a prime example of homegrown talent in Indianapolis, being one of 20 starters who's never played for another team.
Colts', Packers' and Steelers' 22 starters from 2010
Team Whole career with team Began elsewhere*
Colts 20 2
Packers 19 3
Steelers 18 4
* Played a regular-season game with another team

If Pittsburgh and Green Bay remain somewhat averse to building through free agency, then Indianapolis downright abhors it. Outside of a couple small deals and kicker Adam Vinatieri, the Colts are as organic as Whole Foods and tasteless yogurt. Team president Bill Polian has been quite shrewd, knowing when to let guys test the market, and when to re-sign a player, such as will be the case with free-agent-to-be Peyton Manning.

It was not a surprise when the Colts opted not to retain the oft-injured Bob Sanders. It was surprising when castoff defensive lineman Raheem Brock had such a nice season for the Seahawks, as the Colts haven't had an abundance of personnel missteps over the years.

Taking a look around the league, there are other teams that, once upon a time, took one too many drinks of the party punch, and have now seen the light. The Cowboys would be a prime example.

"…you'll notice that Dallas has been extremely conservative in the past few years," Pat Kirwan explained in his Monday chat on NFL.com. "No more flashy moves. That didn't get them a championship."

Another example? The 49ers. Gone are the $80 million deals for the Nate Clements of the world. San Francisco is spending its money in the one place it deems most important, at the top. It remains to be seen whether new coach Jim Harbaugh and the Niners, or the Cowboys, will win being conservative in the marketplace.

Just as $50 million deals for the likes of Leonard Davis haven't won championships, what Thompson, the Rooney family, and Polian do -- draft and retain -- has. When examining these three organizations, the roll call of free-agent busts is short and the indicators of success are long, like winning four of the last six Super Bowls.

News and notes

» It might have not made Dateline NBC, but one little nugget that flew under the radar this week was the Eagles losing salary cap analyst Adam Katz. Philadelphia been known as a fiscally smart organization, and Katz has negotiated contracts for the club. His leaving for law school might not have major repercussions, but finding qualified people in this murky area is not the easiest thing to accomplish.

» Spent some time with NFL.com colleagues Steve Wyche and Michael Lombardi on last Saturday's Total Access. Both wondered aloud what Miami is going to do at quarterback, but I couldn't agree more with Wyche's assertion that the Dolphins should look into potential free agent DeAngelo Williams. Why not?

Ricky Williams turns 34 soon, and it's debatable whether general manager Jeff Ireland wants him back. Ronnie Brown is a free agent, and will probably ask for feature back money that Ireland's not going to pay. You Dolphins fans ready to roll with Lousaka Polite and Patrick Cobbs (also a free agent) in the backfield? Behind the ineffective Chad Henne?

Panthers must address biggest hole
With the Panthers holding the top slot, there has been talk that they will take a defensive lineman, but Carolina must fix its QB quandary, says Michael Lombardi. More ...

» I've noticed a lot of fans have been talking about Carolina and Denver moving down to acquire more picks. It's not that easy. Few clubs -- if any -- want to pay the king's ransom to move up to get the top pick, or second overall choice, in the draft. The risk/reward just isn't there, especially not this year. The 2011 draft is deep at several positions, particularly on defense, but that's because of the overall talent that will be spread out over the entirety of the rounds. Really, there's no clear-cut No. 1 or No. 2 pick, which makes the possibility of a team trading with Carolina or Denver even more unlikely.

» And speaking of Denver, I am beginning to wonder why John Fox named Kyle Orton the starter so early in the offseason. I'm not the only one. Whether it was a ruse to increase Orton's trade value remains to be seen. But the longer Orton plays, the better the chance that Tim Tebow becomes a wasted pick.

» In mentioning the 1996 Packers up above, I wonder how many people remember who Brett Favre's backup was during the title run. Hard to believe, but in yet another Ron Wolf acquisition, Jim McMahon picked up his second Super Bowl ring with those Packers.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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