It’s late January and this is usually the part of the calendar year in which we look towards the impending Super Bowl teams and discuss why those teams were able to get to where they are.
And anybody that has been a regular reader of these columns over the past few years probably can guess which direction I’ll steer this conversation: towards the front office.
In the case of the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, the two teams that will be meeting in Super Bowl 50 thirteen days from now, one can easily point to strong personnel moves over recent years as to why they’re both one game away from eternal glory.
I’ve always been a believer that coaching is often overrated when it comes to professional football. That is not meant to suggest that coaching is unimportant or isn’t integral to NFL success. But I think many believe that good coaching can overcome mediocre or bad personnel decisions, which in my experience is rarely ever been the case. The two aspects go hand in hand as you need to be strong in both areas if you want to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl.
In past years’ columns, I’ve outlined why an organization like the Seattle Seahawks has been successful thanks to their abhorrence to complacency when it comes to making personnel moves geared towards improving their roster.
In the cases of both the Broncos and Panthers, they each owe most of their current success to moves made starting in 2011, around the same time that the Atlanta Falcons managed to get off track.
Elway Revitalized Broncos After McDaniels’ Mismanagement
In that year the Broncos hired John Elway to shepherd their front office as Executive Vice Present of Football Operations. The Broncos were coming off a terrible second season under head coach Josh McDaniels and needed to get their front office back on track. The Broncos had handed personnel control to McDaniels before he was ready to wield it and it resulted in a bunch of bad moves leading to the Broncos going 6-20 over McDaniels final season-and-a-half in Denver. About the only move made during that two-year span that is still paying off positively for the Broncos was the 2010 first-round selection of Demaryius Thomas.
But Thomas really didn’t blossom as a player until Elway went out of his way to recruit quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012. Manning would become the face of the Broncos offense, teaming with outside linebacker Von Miller, who was the new face of their defense. Miller was Elway’s first draft selection while running the team and has paid off by being one of the league’s most dominant defenders over the past five years. Miller’s 60 sacks over his first five years is the sixth-most of any defender in NFL history (or at least since sacks became an official stat in 1982).
Other strong picks made by Elway in those first two seasons running the show include offensive guard Orlando Franklin and tight end Julius Thomas (both starters on the Broncos’ 2013 Super Bowl team), along with defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, quarterback Brock Osweiler, running back Ronnie Hillman, and linebacker Danny Trevathan. Jackson and Trevathan notably were selected in the fifth and sixth rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft, respectively.
All are either starters currently on this year’s Super Bowl-bound Broncos team, or at least in the case of Osweiler contributed significantly to the team’s ability to get there by helping off the bench.
A big part of Elway and the Broncos’ current success was the ability to build a top-notch defense largely via free agency in 2014 after their inability to stop the Seahawks in the 2013 Super Bowl prompted the team to invest heavily in that side of the ball.
They signed cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware in 2014 to team with Miller, Wolfe, Jackson and Trevathan on defense. Other free-agent investments include picking up undrafted players in cornerback Chris Harris (signed in 2011) and outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (signed in 2014) also have made major contributions on this year’s team. Linebacker Brandon Marshall was scooped up off waivers at the start of 2013 and put on the practice squad before later emerging midway through that season. Starting safety Darian Stewart was signed this past offseason, plugging a hole at the safety spot opposite Ward. Stewart came awfully close to becoming a Falcon by the way.
The Broncos have been able to accomplish all this with two separate coaching staffs, another indication that coaching isn’t the overriding cause of NFL success. The coaching of John Fox and Gary Kubiak is made immensely easier when the team is able to successfully add difference-makers on both sides of the ball in the draft, free agency and off the street.
Falcons Could Mimic Broncos by Going on Free-Agent Spending Spree in 2016
The Falcons might attempt to take a page out the Broncos playbook this offseason by attempting to go on a spending spree to bolster their defense. It remains to be seen whether or not players the caliber of Talib, Ward and Ware will be available this offseason. But the Falcons could find themselves targeting several of the current Broncos players such as Jackson and Trevathan, who are both impending free agents. With salary cap space that should begin around $19 million and potentially wind up closer to $35 million after some cuts are made, the Falcons will certainly have ample space to be accommodating to some big-name free agents.
Jackson is likely to hit the open market given that the Broncos just gave Wolfe a four-year extension 10 days ago and are unlikely two reinvest at the same position. That deal was worth $36 million and Jackson is widely held to be a better player, meaning his market value could easily approach or exceed $40 million.
The Falcons’ attempts over the years to spend that kind of money on free-agents like Paul Soliai and Dunta Robinson have often blown up in their face, another contributing factor to why Atlanta has been unable to reach the heights of a team like Denver, who spent roughly $110 million in combined contracts on Talib, Ward and Ware two years ago.
Malik Jackson would be a welcome upgrade over Tyson Jackson (no relation) thanks to the former’s ability to provide steady pressure on the quarterback. Malik could play defensive end in the Falcons base package and kick inside to play defensive tackle in the Falcons nickel sub-package, a role he performed ably in Denver over recent years when they’ve deployed four-man fronts. That would also allow the Falcons to keep Adrian Clayborn and Vic Beasley as their edge-rushers, which based off their play down the stretch in 2015 seems to be a fairly sound plan.
Trevathan’s range and coverage ability would make him an excellent addition to the Falcons defense at middle linebacker this offseason. Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith was formerly Trevathan’s position coach in Denver, making both parties familiar with one another.
Top middle linebackers like Bobby Wagner, James Laurinaitis and Donald Butler have signed deals exceeding $40 million in recent years, making Trevathan another potentially pricey addition for the Falcons.
But their experimentation with Paul Worrilow the past three years has gone horribly awry. It seems like a lifetime ago when Falcon fans like myself were fairly high on Worrilow’s potential to become one of those rare undrafted free agents like Harris that go from an afterthought on draft day to one of the better players in the league.
Lingering Presence of Worrilow Might Force Falcons to Spend Big in Free Agency
The Falcons’ back may be against the wall when it comes to pulling the trigger on a splashy, free-agent middle linebacker like Trevathan this offseason given the increasing likelihood that UCLA linebacker Myles Jack will be among the first players that hears his name called on Thursday, April 28 when the 2016 NFL Draft commences. After suffering a knee injury in September, recent reports indicate that Jack has recovered enough that he’ll be able to participate in next month’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Jack would be a perfect fit at middle linebacker for the Falcons given his experience playing for linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich at UCLA as well as his immense potential both as a run-defender and in coverage. After Jack, there may not be another standout fit for the Falcons as far as I’m concerned.
Alabama’s Reggie Ragland is a physical run-defender, but probably given his size and lack of ideal range in coverage, is probably a better fit playing strong-side linebacker in Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme here in Atlanta.
Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee has outstanding speed and range, but he’s undersized and probably will need time to develop as a middle linebacker. Right now, he’s a much cleaner fit at weak-side linebacker. If the Falcons were to pull the trigger on him, they might be stuck starting Worrilow for another year in the middle unless they choose to slide Durant into that spot.
Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith is another talented player with upside but due to two torn ligaments in his knee may not play until halfway though this season at the earliest. Even if his timetable for return is the same as St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley’s was a year ago, then Smith can’t be expected to play at least until mid-November. That could also mean another year in which the Falcons would be compelled to stick with Worrilow in the middle.
Put frankly, that is unacceptable if the Falcons want to make significant growth on the defensive side of the ball in 2016. One of the most glaring weaknesses of the team’s much-improved, but still limited defense in 2015 was their inability to defend the middle of the field. Per Football Outsiders, the Falcons were the worst team in the NFL defending running backs in the passing game which they owe in large part to Worrilow’s limitations.
Signing a free agent like Trevathan this offseason would also allow the Falcons to look in another direction with their 17th overall selection at the top of the 2016 NFL Draft. Perhaps the team could add another edge-rusher to put across from Beasley to bolster the league’s worst pass rush. That combination of signing Trevathan (or a comparable free-agent linebacker) and drafting a pass-rusher may represent the team’s best bang for it’s buck in improving two of the most glaring holes on defense.
It’ll be interesting to see which plan of attack the Falcons choose this offseason. If they opt to spend big on any free agents, they will have to do a better job hitting on those moves than general manager Thomas Dimitroff did when he was firmly in charge from 2008 to 2014, a time in which it became a running joke with how ineptly the Falcons handled free-agent spending.
Teams cannot continually whiff on neither free-agent nor draft investments as much as the Falcons have over the years under Dimitroff and expect to improve, especially if the goal is to be competing for championships on a consistent basis as the Broncos and Panthers have.
Since Elway took the reins, the Broncos have made it to the second round of the playoffs every season and are heading to their second Super Bowl. The Panthers similarly under general manager Dave Gettleman have reached the second round of the playoffs every year since he took over the team in 2013 and will be making their first Super Bowl trip this year.
Panthers Owe Success to GM Dave Gettleman’s Improvements
The Panthers’ recent success also began in 2011 when they selected franchise quarterback Cam Newton with their top selection. Similarly to the Broncos, the Panthers were also able to add their franchise player on defense in short order with their top selection in 2012 being used on middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Back in 2011 the Panthers’ general manager was Marty Hurney, whose overspending on a number of homegrown players would ultimately earn significant criticism. His failures were well documented by Bill Barnwell over at Grantland back in 2012.
While hindsight tells us that retaining linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson worked out in the Panthers’ favor as things stand today, Hurney’s other bad investments such as overspending on quarterback Jake Delhomme, linebacker Jon Beason and running back DeAngelo Williams still look terrible in retrospect.
The Panthers finally axed Hurney and brought in ex-New York Giants pro personnel director Dave Gettleman in 2013. Gettleman’s best decision was probably the retention of head coach Ron Rivera, who was certainly on the bubble after winning 13 games over his first two seasons in Carolina. While Panthers owner Jerry Richardson ultimately made the decision to keep Rivera after reports surfaced that he was on the verge of being ousted, Gettleman could have easily entered the situation calling for Rivera’s exit and convincing Richardson to change his mind.
That decision paid off immediately when the Panthers went 12-4 in 2013 thanks to having the league’s second best defense (only behind Quinn’s Seahawks squad) that year. They owed that defensive turnaround partially to the reemergence of Davis after he was successfully able to recover from three torn ACLs between 2009 and 2011.
Even after a nice rebound year in 2012, the Panthers could have still parted ways with Davis in 2013 when the veteran linebacker was 30 years old and carrying a cap hit approaching $7 million. But Gettleman easily recognized that despite his durability concerns and high price tag, like Rivera, Davis was worth keeping around despite the Panthers’ GM spending much of his first years on the job trying his best to purge the teams’ bloated salary cap.
Panthers Draft-First Approach Slowly Built 2015’s Best Squad
Gettleman took the opposite approach of Elway and the Broncos by seeking mostly bargain-level signings in free agency and building via the draft. That latter aspect was reflected when the Panthers added defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two selections in 2013.
Almost every major contributor to that excellent 2013 defensive unit was a draft pick by the Panthers over the years including defensive end Greg Hardy and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Starting safeties Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell signed cheap one-year deals with the Panthers as stopgaps that year to supplement and/or replace struggling Hurney draft picks like Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin.
The Panthers continued that process into 2014 by adding safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud along with cornerback Antoine Cason. Neither DeCoud or Cason would last the year in their starting roles, but the Panthers were able to get emerging play from the likes of cornerback Josh Norman (a fifth-round pick in 2012) and safety Tre Boston (a fourth-round pick in 2014) to fill those voids.
Jared Allen, Charles Tillman and Kurt Coleman would be their stopgap pickups in 2015 to continue to strengthen a defense that is a major key to their foundation to success.
But the Panthers have been also able to supplement their offense without splurging in free agency as well under Gettleman. Wide receivers Ted Ginn and offensive tackle Michael Oher were low-level 2015 signings that have played huge parts in their offensive success this past year.
Undrafted free agents like wide receiver Corey Brown, offensive tackle Mike Remmers, guard Andrew Norwell, running back Fozzy Whittaker have also been solid role players and starters this year.
The Panthers continue to make solid additions in the middle rounds of the draft with selections like guard Trai Turner, cornerback Bene Benwikere and linebacker A.J. Klein in additions to past pick ups like Norman, Boston, Hardy and Munnerlyn. All were selected on the third day of their respective drafts between 2009 and 2015.
While the Broncos were a team that were able to relatively quickly turn things around for themselves with significant personnel turnover largely occurring between 2011 and 2014, the Panthers show a more steady, methodical, long-term approach. Evidenced in draft picks made in 2005 (Davis), 2007 (Ryan Kalil and Johnson) and 2008 (Jonathan Stewart) are still contributing to their roster today.
That Falcons will be hard-pressed to mirror that exact element since few of their draft picks prior to 2011 besides quarterback Matt Ryan are expected to be active contributors moving forward. Defensive end Kroy Biermann, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and wide receiver Roddy White are their other long-time contributors but each have futures very much in doubt.
Biermann is an unrestricted free agent that might be retained but only if the Falcons can’t find a better (and/or younger) option to help out their defensive-line rotation this offseason. Babineaux has just one more year left on his contract and it’s a fairly safe assumption that he could hang up his cleats after 2016. White is a sure-fire pick to be cut (or retire) this offseason.
2009’s lone remaining draft pick in safety William Moore is also a likely candidate to see his release this offseason. And even if Moore was somehow able to hang on for another year, like Babineaux he’d be a virtual lock to be playing his last games with the Falcons in 2016.
Essentially the Falcons are mostly going to rely on their recent draft classes to build off of moving forward. They will have to hope that their 2015 class pays off bigger dividends than it did this past year moving forward. The potential is certainly there, but essentially if the Falcons expect to reach the heights of the Panthers in the foreseeable future, the former’s 2016 and 2017 draft classes will have to have similar impacts as the latter’s 2012 and 2013 classes did.
While Gettleman can’t take credit for all the Panthers worthwhile draft selections over the past decade, he certainly deserves a great deal of credit for continuing, extending and improving that draft history.
Who can forget the highly unpopular decision to release franchise wide receiver Steve Smith in 2014? Have the Panthers suffered a significant blow for that decision? While their wide receiver corps won’t be in the conversation for the league’s best, Newton hasn’t suffered one bit by not having a security blanket like Smith the past two years. Newton was able to develop strong rapports with wide out Kelvin Benjamin in 2014 and then after Benjamin was sidelined for this season, do so again with Ginn.
Gettleman shows what good management can do if it replaces erratic management like the Panthers experienced under Hurney. That is something that the Falcon fans can potentially relate to given that Dimitroff’s tenure in Atlanta more closely resembles that of Hurney than Gettleman. With Quinn now driving the metaphorical bus, he will have to take on Gettleman’s mantle by spearheading better drafts.
Draft-First Approach For Falcons Likely Requires Trade Back in 2016
The Falcons mimicked a “Gettleman-esque” approach to free agency a year ago by making a large number of low-level stopgap moves. While it’s likely that the Falcons will dabble with a big-name addition here or there this offseason, they may very well repeat that pattern and mostly stick to low and mid-level stopgaps rather than going for a blockbuster spending spree.
That will put the focus more on the draft again and if that’s the case, it becomes increasingly likely that the Falcons won’t stand pat with pick No. 17 and will choose to trade back in order to acquire more picks to bolster their 2016 draft class. Having lost two late-round picks already to a league-mandated penalty and trading for guard Andy Levitre in September, a draft-first approach is next to impossible with only five selections.
While fifth and sixth-round picks on average don’t net great results for most teams, Quinn’s time in Seattle and Carolina’s own past experiences show that a team that can successfully mine talent in those rounds is well ahead of the curve.
Under general manager John Schneider, the Seahawks have been able to find players like safety Kam Chancellor and cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Richard Sherman in those two rounds since 2010.
As noted before, Benwikere, Norman and Hardy were also drafted in those rounds. It basically shows that a draft-first philosophy is next to impossible to pull off successfully if a team can’t mine the later rounds for major talent at some point.
Biermann and guard Garrett Reynolds are what pass for such late-round “talent” in Atlanta under Dimitroff. But potentially things could be turning around under Quinn’s leadership thanks to the transition of 2014 fifth-round cornerback Ricardo Allen into a starting free safety this past year as well as the 2015 addition of defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
All in all, the Falcons only have to look to the two Super Bowl-bound teams for lessons on how to be a successful in NFL team. As I once stated before, NFL teams reap what they sow. In the cases of the Broncos and Panthers, they both have sown successful seeds over the past five years. The former was able to take big swings in free agency resulting in big hits, while the latter team went for the more methodical draft-first approach.
Their current paths are set to cross in Santa Clara less than two weeks from now, indicating that either blueprint can lead to success. In short order, we’ll get the opportunity to see which wins out over the other in the end.
However if I was a betting man, I’d probably put my money on the Panthers’ methodology. More often than not, good drafting pays dividends at the professional level and I think the more draft-based strategy will bear sweeter fruit on February 7.