Every offseason, fans clamor, rant and rave on any soap box they can get a foot on for their respective general managers to sign the big name free agents.
And why wouldn't they? It's the flashing-light signpost that says "make your team better here!" But if there's one thing all football analysts worth their salt know it's this: you absolutely cannot buy your way to a championship-caliber team.
You may be wondering: where's he going with this? Well, it all ties together, you see. You can't buy a championship team because you have to pay so much for free agent veterans; the salary cap limits your ability to improve your team after you sign all these rich contracts; and those veterans usually wont maintain the same production they had earlier in their careers whether it be due to age or motivation or injury.
Let's just say your favorite team is somewhere between bad and decent, or even somewhat good. If you don't have most of the pieces necessary for a championship team-- you should be clamoring for your general manager to not sign free agents, and to only retain the best home-grown players from your team on expiring contracts.
The reason for this being that your team will receive extra draft picks each year based on the number and value of free agents lost the previous year. And those draft picks will play harder, cost the team exponentially less against the cap, and have more loyalty to your team for drafting them, on top of making your team younger. Many of you may decry this theory, saying that the compensatory draft picks aren't high enough. Well, there's a substantial amount of research done on the NFL draft that says it's only the number of picks you have, not the height of your pick, that matters. Look at this year's Super Bowl. The draft-built team (Seattle) annihilated the team built more through free agency (Denver). For all of you doubters out there, here's a list of the 10 best compensatory draft picks in history. You might know a few of them.
10 QB -- Matt Hasselbeck -- Picked 187th Overall
The consummate professional, three-time Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck was drafted in the 6th round of the 1998 NFL draft, the 187th pick of that draft, by Green Bay. He rode the bench behind a guy named Brett Favre for two years, before the Packers traded him to Seattle in 2001. After a successful end to this second year in Seattle, he became a solidified starter, and started most of the games for Seattle until 2010. A great decision-maker with the ball in his hands, Hasselbeck had exceptional numbers in completion percentage (career of 60.4%) and a pretty solid TD to INT ratio, with 201 TDs and 148 INTs. He lead Seattle to 6 playoff appearances in 10 years, along with a trip to the Super Bowl in 2005 after a 13-3 season. He's still playing in the league today, having played solid football in replacement of shaky starter Jake Locker in Tennessee, before landing in Indianapolis as a seasoned veteran to stand behind Andrew Luck as he comes into his own.
9 Safety -- Antoine Bethea -- Picked 207th Overall
A defensive Swiss army knife, Antoine Bethea is the safety you want on your team. Not only can he play both free and strong safety, but he can also even do cornerback duty in a pinch. Drafted in 2006 by the Colts in the 6th round at 207th overall, Bethea had an immediate impact as a rookie. He started 14 games, recorded his first career INT, defended 5 passes and racked up 66 tackles. That year he found himself a part of the 2006 Colts Super Bowl XLI championship team, where Peyton Manning led the colts to a blowout of the Bears. Not a bad way to start off a career. He's known for not only being a great cover defensive back (14 INTs and 49 PDs) but also a strong run supporter with 578 career tackles. A two-time Pro Bowler in the prime of his career, Bethea is already one of the better compensatory selections in NFL history.
8 WR -- Pierre Garcon -- Picked 205th Overall
Continuing our trend of Indianapolis Colts, Garcon was a draft selection of the Colts in the 6th round of the 2008 Draft. Like Bethea, his career is right about in its prime, and yet has already climbed his way onto this list with his talent and workmanship. He earned his way onto the roster, starting on special teams his first year, doing very little wide receiver duties. Once he started playing receiver his second year, he proved to be an explosive 2nd or 3rd option, with a 16.3 yards/reception 2009 season.
After two more seasons at Indianapolis, he was picked up by Washington where he quickly became a favorite target of RGIII. He set a Redskins franchise record for receptions in a season with 113 in 2013, for a total of 1,346 yards. He's also one of 3 players in NFL history to catch 5 or more passes in all 16 games of the regular season. 27 wide receivers were selected before Garcon in the 2008 draft. Only 9 of those 27 are still in the league, and Garcon's best days appear to be ahead of him.
7 LB -- Mike Vrabel -- Picked 91st Overall
Another incredibly talented Swiss army knife, Mike Vrabel played multiple positions in the NFL over his career, a rarity nowadays. Not only did he convert to OLB to begin his career in the NFL, but he also played inside linebacker too (an incredibly different animal), along with playing TE as a red zone threat. In 14 years in the NFL, Vrabel racked up 505 tackles, 57 sacks, 11 interceptions, 40 PDs, and 19 forced fumbles-- but it doesn't end there; He also caught 10 touchdown passes on offense as a tight end for the Patriots and the Chiefs. Players with the versatility and work ethic of Mike Vrabel don't come around all the time. He was both a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in 2007, and was a part of the Patriots dynasty in which they went to four Super Bowls, winning three (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX.) Mike Vrabel was an integral part of the Patriot success during that span, playing on both sides of the ball. You don't see that much anymore.
6 DT -- La'Roi Glover -- Picked 166th Overall
La'Roi Glover was a defensive destruction machine during the turn of the millenium-- but he didn't get there easily. He grinded his way into the league, working his way into a starting position and keeping it with his undeniable results. He was drafted by the Raiders in 1996, though he hardly played at all that season. He went on to play for the Barcelona Dragons in the failed European NFL league, and won the "World Bowl" with them. After that he signed with New Orleans in 1997, and would go on to become "the greatest waiver claim in the history of the Saints." Despite doubts about his size, he played defensive tackle inside, and racked up 10 sacks in 1998 and 8.5 sacks in 1999. By 2000 he was so dominant, he set a then-NFL record of 17 sacks in one season, and won NFC Defensive Player of the Year honors. From 2000 on he would be in the next 6 Pro Bowls, and would earn All-Pro status four times. La'Roi finished his career with 83.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 4 PDs, 16 FFs, and 436 tackles. He was named to the NFL's 2000's All-Decade team. Not bad for a guy who played for a team called the Dragons.
5 WR -- Marques Colston -- Picked 252nd Overall
For a Saints fan, this man is your heart and soul, your unsung hero. Drafted in the 7th round of the 2006 draft, Marques Colston was the 2nd to last WR drafted in the 2006 draft. Of the 29 receivers picked before him, only a few are even worth mentioning: Greg Jennings (52nd), Santonio Holmes (25th), Brandon Marshall (119) and Jason Avant (109). Almost all of the other 25 WRs are no longer in the league. What has Colston done in that time? Oh, just set Saints franchise records for receiving yards (8,337), yards from scrimmage (8,344), total touchdowns and receiving touchdowns (63), receptions (607), seasons with 1,000 yards (6), and highest yards per reception (13.7). And on top of it all, he did it all in only 8 years. Oh, and he was a vital part of the team that won the franchise's much needed Super Bowl XLIV. Talk about consistency, durability and hard work-- Colston has been the man for the job in New Orleans. Traits he shares with fellow Hofstra WR Wayne Chrebet. Anyone who thinks there isn't value to be had in compensatory picks need look no further than Marques Colston to feel incredibly foolish.
4 WR -- Hines Ward -- Picked 92nd Overall
Two-time Super Bowl Champion, Super Bowl MVP (XL), four-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro second teamer, and that's just to name a few of his many accolades. Well known as a tough, sure-handed, great run-blocker, Hines Ward is everything you want in a wide receiver, given that it is a position with a predilection to diva-ism. He was such a violent blocker as a receiver, he was given the dubious honor of 'dirtiest player in the NFL' in 2009. Really, this polling only stemmed from his penchant for vicious blindside blocks, which at the time were perfectly legal. After 2009 when he broken Keith Rivers' jaw in such a block, the league changed the rule to eliminate the blocking.
Aside from that walk down controversy lane, Hines Ward was a crafty, reliable receiver who earned himself some rarefied accolades: He is the Steelers' all-time leading receiver in touchdowns with 85, receiving yards with 12,083, and receptions with a neat 1,000. He also won season 12 of Dancing with the Stars, if you're into that sort of thing, and is the first Korean American ever to win Super Bowl MVP honors. He retired after the 2011 season, and his #86 jersey was retired by the Steelers.
3 FS -- Brian Dawkins -- Picked 61st Overall
Another member of the NFL 2000's All-Decade team, Brian Dawkins earned his way onto 9 Pro Bowls, (yes, nine) and 6 All-Pro honors. In case you don't already know, Brian Dawkins would easily be the best safety in the NFL during his time in the league if it weren't for a once in a century player by the name of Ed Reed playing around the same time. Dawkins was a huge part of the defensive powerhouse that was the Eagles for much of the decade. In 2008 he became the 10th member of the 20/20 club, meaning he was the tenth player in NFL history to record 20 or more interceptions and sacks in his career. He also became the first player in NFL history to record both 30 interceptions and 30 forced fumbles in his career. He played 13 years for the Eagles, as a captain for much of that time, and his #20 jersey has since been retired. His final career numbers over 16 seasons included 911 tackles, 37 interceptions, 26 sacks, 120 passes defensed, and 36 forced fumbles. Two words: Play Maker.
2 Guard/Tackle -- Larry Allen -- Picked 46th Overall
Offensive linemen hardly ever get their time in the sun. It's not flashy, it's extremely challenging both physically and mentally, and there's no real neat stats to point at when you're all said and done. All that being said, it's easily the second most important position behind quarterback in the NFL. If you don't have a good offensive line, you're done for. If you have an incredible offensive line, you're entire team looks like superstars.
Larry Allen falls into that unsung, unknown, absolutely dominant, team-changing category. Over 14 years at tackle, right guard, and mostly left guard, Allen accrued 11 Pro Bowls. That's some positional dominance right there. He also was a 7-time All-Pro. Those are absolutely staggering totals for any player at any position. Incredibly, he earned All-Decade honors for both 1990s and 2000s. He was instrumental in the dominance of the Cowboys' offensive line in the 90s, and would be instrumental in their 1995 Super Bowl XXX victory. He played 12 years for Dallas, and over his career he played 203 games, starting in 197. For those of you who don't feel the excitement when your team drafts a lineman, you need to reassess your understanding of what wins football games.
1 QB -- Tom Brady -- Picked 199th Overall
Yep. No content needed here. If there was a mic it would be dropped. Arguably the best quarterback (or player) of all time, the player every team wishes they had, was a 6th round compensatory draft pick of the New England Patriots. If the Patriots had retained their free agents after the 1999 season, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. might never have been a Patriot. Twenty bucks says all of that is news to you.
As far as records, accolades, achievements, well. . . Listing them almost feels unnecessary. But for due diligence, to drive it home: this man has been to 5 Super Bowls, won 3, 2 of which he was the MVP; has an insane regular season record of 148-43 over 14 seasons (if you take the 2 lost seasons to the bench and injury, that's an average of about 12 wins per season. Wow.) He owns basically every passing record the Patriots can measure, has a 63.4% completion rate, has thrown 359 TDs to only 134 INTs (that's an absurd 2.68 to 1 TD/INT ratio.) He's thrown for 49,149 yards over his unfinished career, and has 95.7 career QB rating.
So, in case you don't understand the specifics of why Tom Brady receives such adoration for what he does, hopefully that will give you some scope. And he did it all as an unheralded, unwanted, analyst-blasted gangly kid out of the University of Michigan. Seriously, if you want a laugh, look up Tom Brady's pre-draft analysis to see why he was the QB everyone but one team forgot. He's living proof that every draft pick could change your franchise forever-- and that 'draft experts' should just hang up the clipboard and admit they're just guessing like the rest of us.