Inside Slant: Push for 'homegrown' players

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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Thomas Dimitroff and Ted ThompsonUSA TODAY SportsThomas Dimitroff's Falcons and Ted Thompson's Packers have emphasized building through the draft.
These days, it's difficult to go more than a few minutes without hearing an NFL general manager utter a version of the newly relevant NFL maxim: Build through the draft.

When Dave Gettleman agreed to be the Carolina Panthers' general manager, he said: "You have to raise your own." Upon his arrival in San Diego, new Chargers general manger Tom Telesco pledged: "We're going to be a draft-driven team. Our main focus will be the draft." More recently, Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told reporters he wanted "to build this team universally through the draft."

What they really mean, of course, is that they want their players to be homegrown. The draft is the most visible device for that goal, but ultimately it doesn't matter whether their key players were drafted, signed as rookie free agents or acquired from another team's practice squad. More than ever, NFL teams want their personnel process to routinely bring them promising if unproven players who can become good enough to make their final roster.

Tight salary-cap space, the new scale for rookie contracts and the risks associated with free agency have worked to elevate this focus. So when reader @basilwillis3 forwarded me a revealing measure of the Green Bay Packers' work toward this goal, I thought it would be worth fleshing it out for the entire league.

The chart to your right reveals the number of players each NFL team had on its roster, as of Monday night, who had never appeared in a regular-season game for another team. The Packers were at 51 over the weekend, but by Monday the number was at 50 -- still tops in the NFL -- after the swap of quarterback B.J. Coleman for veteran Seneca Wallace. The point: While a few of their players have been on practice squads or in offseason camp with other teams, the Packers' roster is almost entirely homegrown.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson told reporters that he couldn't remember anyone bringing that kind of analysis in one of his personnel meetings, but I'm quite sure that plenty of teams measure their success in related ways. Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery, in fact, recited similar statistics while speaking to reporters this week.

Emery said he performed a mini-study of the NFC North to determine how many players from each team had been on the same roster their entire career, a slightly different measure. He found the Packers had 43, the Minnesota Vikings had 39, the Bears had 29 and the Detroit Lions had 27.

"I firmly believe the best way to build a team is your own original talent," Emery said. "Your draft picks, your college free agents. It helps you in several ways. It helps you manage the cap so that it gives you flexibility so that when you do need a dynamic player to help you fill in you are able to go and get them. You have the cap flexibility to go get that player which can add to the consistency of your team winning year in, year out. It also gives your team a home-grown flavor for your fans and it also allows those players to be together longer and to improve together and to play together as a team for a longer period of time and with more consistency."

I preferred our original measurement because it also takes into account the pro scouting part of a team's personnel department -- the people who are scouring practice squads and preseason tape to utilize another avenue of acquiring the same type of player. It casts a wider and more telling swath, I think.

The range for teams went from the Packers' 50 to Lions' 28. The average was about 38. A few thoughts on what these numbers do and don't mean, in my estimation:

  • Philosophy can beget results. If you are as opposed to signing free agents as Thompson is, you're by definition going to have more homegrown players on your roster. If you're the Denver Broncos, you might be a little less patient with unproven players when you have Peyton Manning, 37, at quarterback. The Broncos aren't necessarily worse at developing their own players. They are working in a tighter window.
  • In some cases, the failures of a predecessor are reflected in current statistics. When, say, Martin Mayhew took over as the Lions' general manager in 2009, he assumed control of an 0-16 team and a depleted roster. On the one hand, there was more opportunity for newly-drafted and/or unproven players to make the team. On the other hand, the Lions had so many weak spots that Mayhew felt compelled to use all available avenues -- including trades and veteran free agency -- to fill some of them.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have made some high-profile free agency moves during the tenure of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, from signing tight end Tony Gonzalez to running back Michael Turner to running back Steven Jackson. So from a national perspective, the Falcons' development of homegrown talent has fallen below the radar. Only the Packers had more such players on their roster by Monday night.

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