Their names represent the most successful teams in the league over the last several seasons. The Packers are joined by the Steelers, Patriots and Colts.
They are four teams that represent seven of the last 10 Super Bowl champions. They are also the four teams that “Draftmetrics” draft analyst Tony Villiotti ranks as the best drafters over the last 20 years.
So, you want a more current list? OK, but it doesn’t change much. Throw in the Giants, Eagles and Ravens. Get the point?
You are what you draft. It’s just that simple.
So what is it about these teams that have made them so successful in the draft? They don’t all share a common philosophy.
What they do seem to share is a commitment to the draft and a conviction in their philosophy of how it should be done. Let’s examine their track records.
The Packers owe their success to thoroughness. General Manager Ted Thompson has found talent in every round, as evidenced by the emergence of sixth-round running back James Starks in the Packers’ run to the Super Bowl title last season. Matt Flynn is a seventh-rounder, Andrew Quarless came in the fifth round, Josh Sitton in the fourth, Jermichael Finley in the third and Nick Collins, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson in the second.
Thompson’s six draft classes have produced similar balance. They’ve all contributed to deepening the Packers roster; there are no weak spots in Thompson’s draft history.
That’s not to say Thompson has avoided misses; it’s to say he has minimized his misses by maximizing his hits. Two of those hits, of course, have become stars of the greatest magnitude: Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews.
Thompson professes to be a best-available-athlete drafter and his trade-backs would indicate he is. He traded out of the first round to pick Nelson and back into the first round to select Matthews, who wasn’t thought to fit on most boards where Thompson selected Matthews but, clearly, that’s where Matthews fit on the Packers’ board.
The Steelers’ road to success was paved in the first round. They are the kings of the first round, with seldom a miss. Their first-round picks over the last 10 years include Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, Lawrence Timmons, Rashard Mendenhall, Ziggy Hood and Maurkice Pouncey. Their last first-round bust is Troy Edwards in 1999; they picked Alan Faneca the previous year. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called getting the most for your money.
What the Steelers’ drafts lacked until last season was depth. They actually did a better job in undrafted free agency, with players such as James Harrison, Willie Parker and Nate Washington, than they did in the middle to late rounds of the draft.
Ten pick spots in their 2010 draft were involved in trades. It’s been a modus operandi that has served the Patriots well through their run of success, but now some are thinking “Team Belichick” may be over the top in its obsession for draft maneuvering.
The Patriots have three picks in the first 33 selections of this year’s draft – two of those picks, of course, are the result of trades – and consensus opinion is the Patriots better start hitting home runs in the draft, again, because their success is built on the strength of Tom Brady and several strong drafts between 2000 and ’05.
The Colts have been the best at getting immediate production from their drafts. Under Bill Polian, the Colts have also hit home runs late in the draft, with players such as Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon.
Polian did his best work from 1998-2004. Nearly everything he touched turned to gold instantly: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Dallas Clark, Robert Mathis and Bob Sanders.
In recent years, however, possibly because the emphasis has been more on need for the purpose of maximizing the Manning run, misses have started to out-number hits. Clark is Polian’s last big hit in the first round and recent drafts have produced some big misses.
If there is one conclusion that can be formed from analyzing the track records of the most successful teams, it would be this: Patience and persistence are the keys.
Vic Ketchman is a veteran of 39 NFL seasons and has covered the Steelers and Jaguars prior to coming to Green Bay.