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Is The Draft Less Important Than We Think?

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Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images.

Every NFL head coach and general manager tells the gathering at their introductory press conference that, “I’m here to win a Super Bowl.”  Then, they usually add, “and you build championships through the draft.”

Yes . . . but. Get the smelling salts ready, Draftniks; it turns out that while the early rounds are very important, players selected by other teams and those who never get picked at all on draft days are nearly as important to a club's success. Undrafted free agents turn out to be more useful than even middle round picks, and late rounders are pretty well relegated to special teams and selling used cars.

The NFL’s best teams -- those that qualify for the Super Bowl -- often build conference titles through means less pure than drafting. Analysis of the last 20 Super Bowl qualifying teams (dating back to the 2003 season) conducted by Football.com indicates that picking up free agents and castoffs has been nearly as valuable as any other method of procuring talent.

Exactly 600 players have started at least three regular-season games for the 20 teams that have played in the Super Bowl (2003-2012 seasons). Here are the percentages of starting players for Super Bowl qualifiers and how they were selected in draft sessions:

  • Top choices (Rounds 1-2) with original team: 194 (32.3%)
  • Middle round choices (Rounds 3-5) with original team: 119 (19.8%)
  • Late round choices (Round 6 and later) with original team: 39 (6.5%)
  • Players drafted by other teams (all rounds): 137 (22.8%)
  • Undrafted Free Agents: 137 (22.8%)

It should be pointed out that players who were acquired by a new team before ever playing a snap for the team that drafted them (Exhibit A: Eli Manning) were counted in the fourth category above.

Individual teams present some fascinating contrasts. The two-time Super Bowl-participant Indianapolis Colts top all teams at retaining the largest percentage of their draftees. The 2006 and ’09 Colts sported 91.4 percent of their starters as Indy draftees. Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, a former top pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was a rare imported contributor to the Colts team that beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. 

The 2009 Colts were unusual for having only a single player drafted by another team: defensive tackle Antonio Johnson, two years removed from his fifth round selection by the Tennessee Titans.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who made three Super Bowl appearances in the last 10 years, fielded teams with the second-highest percent of the starters (89.4) who were their own original draft picks. Linebacker James Farrior, a first round choice of the New York Jets, was the most important Steelers player picked by another team, as he started on all three of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl teams.

James Harrison, whose length-of-the-field interception touchdown was one of the big plays of the Steelers’ Super Bowl win over the Arizona Cardinals, was one of the few undrafted players who made an impact for Pittsburgh. Harrison also started for all three Super Bowl teams.

The New England Patriots, the team with the most Super Bowl appearances in 10 years with four, have constructed their rosters in varying ways.  The 2003-'04 teams that each won the championship were relatively high in low round players assuming large roles. Of course, the most famous low draftee, quarterback Tom Brady, has been an important cog in all four title appearances.

The 2007 Patriots were well-balanced in all methods of player procurement, but the 2011 Pats were heavy on undrafted free agents. New England had 13 regulars who went undrafted, the most in the last 10 years. Baltimore and San Francisco, last season’s Super Bowl contenders, had nine and one UFAs respectively.

Most people believe every pick of the draft is incredibly important. But the recent free agent era has shown there is more than one way to build an NFL championship roster.