I realized this morning that, barring a serious breakthrough in negotiations, I do not want to spend any more time writing about the NFL lockout. The idea of lawyers fighting lawyers instead of football players being out on the field just makes me ill. So, instead, I decided to focus on the draft. What you see in front of you is a classic example of new style of sports analysis The Best Sports Blog is bringing to the table: a breakdown of the steps needed to rebuild an NFL team from the ground up. NFL fans love looking at how to improve their teams but they oftentimes don't know where to start so here is my look at how to improve some of the worst franchises in the league the right way. Take a look, and let us at The Best Sports Blog Know What You Think!
This exercise assumes that the team in question is terrible. Perhaps not 0-16 Detroit Lions terrible but quite close: a team in need of a total philosophical and on field overhaul. If that were the case, here are the steps a front office would need to take to field a championship level team within three years.
1. Find a Quarterback.
This must take place in Year 1, though finding a true franchise quarterback can wait until Year 2 in some cases. If there is an elite option available then draft them. If not, or if the offensive line is too poor to be fixed in the offseason, sign or trade (but no more than a third rounder) for an effective stopgap. The quarterback is the most important position on the field and a franchise talent is needed to win, but it is not necessarily the first position to address.
2. Address the Offensive Line:
This must take place in Year 1, though upgrades may be made in Years 2 and 3. Every spot on an O-line should be filled by an effective player. If a full overhaul is necessary then that is what is needed; a team cannot contend without a capable offensive line. They do not all need to be first round blue chippers, however, some can be nasty starter types drafted in mid rounds or signed in free agency. In a rebuilding process, this should be accomplished in offseason 1 no matter what; even if it takes several draft picks (including a first round pick on a left tackle) and at least one free agency commitment to get it done.
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3. Address the Defensive Line:
This must begin in Year 1 but can be completed in Year 2 or, if the talent is not available to do it right, in Year 3. In a rebuild, there is something of a tradeoff between this and the o-line. It is rare to find a team in such horrible shape that full overhauls of both lines are needed. After addressing (and sometimes while addressing depending on the talent available) the o line, a team should look to field a capable defensive front. This means different things based on scheme. For a 4-3 normal technique, then that means at least one elite and one good pass-rusher, a middle player with size to address the run, and a mic-caliber lead linebacker, plus some veteran fill-ins. For a 3-4 technique, it's about a franchise NT, a capable pass rush specialist, and smart versatile linebackers acquired in either the mid-rounds or via free agency.
4. Address Running Back:
A franchise must find an effective running game in Year 1 but there are many ways to do that. You need to be able to run the ball to contend but how you acquire a running game is more open than ever before. Teams no-longer need a franchise #1 runner to thrive and, particularly since success at the position depends so much on the capability of the o-line (as LaDainian Tomlinson showed everyone in his very different 2009-10 seasons playing for the Chargers and Jets) it should only be addressed after the fundamentals-o-line, d-line, and QB are handled. However, it can be handled in year one through a versatile strategy. Trading for a capable runner with a mid-round pick (think Marshawn Lynch), drafting one in the mid-rounds on upside, and signing a vet with something left can keep you well afloat at the position until a later date when you have the ability to acquire a franchise level player.
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5. Address the Unseen Contributors:
This is the blocking full-back, blocking tight end, kicker, punter, and special teams. I placed them before the skill positions because it is much easier to acquire top contributors at these positions than elite skill players and they are essential to any team's success. For example, the top blocking fullbacks and tight ends (blocking versions mind you) will be available in the 4-5 rounds and kickers are in the 5-7th. Plus these guys can be acquired without too much pain in free agency and are, while sometimes going unnoticed, essential contributors to a great team's success. Have you ever heard of Lorenzo Neal? Look him up.
6. Address the Skill Positions:
Everyone loves the glamorous receiver. The hard hitting, intercepting corner. The elite pass catching tight end. While great players at these positions are undoubtedly needed for postseason success, acquiring them is the last step of a successful rebuild. These players enhance an already solid core; they do not win championships on their own (witness Nnamdi Asomugha in Oakland.) If they fall so far in the draft that they must be taken (like if A.J. Green falls to the late teens in this draft) then go ahead, otherwise fill these spots with tough vets in free agency and then find elite players when the fundamentals are in place.
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7. Get the Character Vet Backups:
Just like it says. Great teams have character; even if it's in older backups. Find those leaders, pair them with top talents at fundamental positions, and build a winner.
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