The end of restricted free agency came and no one bid for Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace.
With Pittsburgh up against the salary cap, another team’s dalliance with Wallace seemed foregone. Sure, he’d cost a No. 1 draft pick, but as a proven commodity, he’d be more of a sure thing than any first-round receiver a team could draft.
The difference is that Wallace would cost major dollars. A drafted receiver wouldn’t. And for all the advantages a team can get from drafting well, in a salary-cap world, the economics of good drafting are at the top of the list.
It’s simple really, especially with the new rules that dictate rookie contracts. Quality drafts not only make your team better, it makes it easier to get good players together for a period of time because they cost less and frees up cap space when and if a team does want to make an important foray into free agency.
“To me the draft is the best way to operate from a management standpoint,” Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. “If you are drafting well, it allow you to do a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
Saying a team must draft well isn’t a unique thought. Most teams see it as the base way to build a team, using free agency to fill in a gap here and there. Some teams, like the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, lean almost exclusively on the draft.
When the Packers won the Super Bowl two years ago, they had just two players on the roster that had been signed as unrestricted free agents, and both (cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett) had been acquired in 2006. Meanwhile, 29 of the 53 players had been Packer draft picks.
“You draft for the long-term investment for your team,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said during the team’s recent pre-draft press conference. “We don’t draft for the immediate need or perceived immediate need.”
The Cardinals have worked hard to move toward stronger, consistent drafts. The addition to the “120” board in recent years was done to take yet another variable out of the draft room during the selection process. Sliding picks like linebacker
Draft importance moves beyond money sometimes too. Even if a team does want to work in free agency, finding upper echelon talent at positions like left tackle, cover cornerback and quarterback is extremely rare. The draft is the only way to get them, usually.
“There is quality at certain positions you just don’t see in free agency,” Cardinals director of player personnel Steve Keim said. “And the few that do get to free agency, they break the bank. If you don’t draft well at least in some core positions, it will bite you in the end.”
Former GM Charley Casserly, now an analyst on NFL Network, thinks teams need to be able to both draft and use free agency wisely. But he added that one thing successful drafts gives a team is a better base in free agency, because teams always would rather re-sign their own players than have to get new ones.
The players already on the team know the system and the coaches. More importantly, the coaches understand them.
“The advantage you have with guys that have been around three, four, five years is that you know them as a player,” said Casserly (on Twitter @CharleyCasserly.) “You make fewer mistakes extending your own than by bringing in other guys.”
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said a miss in the first round “sets you back for probably four years.” The team is going to have to fill that now-vacant spot, Colbert figures, whether it’s with another draft pick or a pricey free agent.
The Steelers prefer to keep their own players, one of the reasons they don’t delve into free agency much. “But if we missed on a pick that we would want to be keeping as our own,” Colbert added, “it will set us back and distract us from what we need to be doing.”
Sometimes, it’s not about the money at all. Sometimes, it’s just about building a culture.
The Cardinals signed more free agents than normal last offseason, because there were so many holes to fill post-lockout. They’d like to avoid that scenario in the future, and Graves believes that too impacted the slow start.
“When you bring new (veteran) players in and start a new program, they just need time to get acclimated,” Graves said. “They need time not only to figure out their responsibilities but what is going on around them. When you have a chance to bring young players in and start them from the ground up, you have a much better opportunity for that process to be smooth.”