Long-term gains don't materialize fully without short-term buys. It's a lesson the cap-rich Cleveland Browns haven't learned, and can be considered as part of the general reason the franchise is constantly rebuilding.
Rebuilding what, exactly? That's the question.
Steelers fans understandably laugh at the Browns' business "model," and there are plenty of reasons it's valid. But a franchise mired in two consecutive 8-8 seasons can look at the Browns and the position they're in and find probably only two main differences - the presence of an elite quarterback and the lack of high-end draft picks.
Both can, and perhaps should, consider outstanding gap-bridging players. The route usually taken in that regard is through free agency.
The general perception among armchair GMs is it's pointless to sign free agents and they serve as placeholders for the next wave of dominant players they will find in the draft. Two assumptions are made constant by that crowd; 1. The veteran player will never be as good as the younger player, and 2. there are future superstars who need only to be drafted before cementing their place among the elite of the NFL.
It's ironic to place so much emphasis on the draft when free agents are considered to be inferior, despite being much more advanced in terms of strength and awareness. Obviously, there are exceptions, but the issue here is how that line of thinking translates into the main deterrence fans won't accept spending in free agency as a means to build a team.
Here's a secret everyone knows - NO owner wants to spend money in free agency. Add to that a widely accepted fact every owner wants to win (some for different reasons, perhaps). You'll find the bottom line buried between those two ideologies. Owners want to win while spending very little. That translates into "put a huge amount of stock into the draft, and get players in Years 1-4 producing well-above their rookie contracts to win now, then sign those at key positions to lower-price long-term deals."
Wash, rinse and repeat, and you have a team that's successful year in and year out.
But the chain reaction started by the young players who can't get on the field for one reason or another leads to a lack of depth in the future. It leads to keeping veteran players at high salaries, which reduces cap space, limiting a team's ability to keep those young players on long-term deals.
In that, you have the Steelers. Cornerback Ike Taylor wouldn't have made the 2008 Steelers if the 35-year-old version of himself was on its roster in March. That team was the byproduct of extraordinary scouting and development success - clearly both the envy of the league and a tightly held process that requires a heavy amount of fuel to continue running.
Maybe the Steelers' nightmare 2008 draft was the ultimate undoing. Maybe it was the team's forgivable offense of not being able to find multiple Defensive Players of the Year as undrafted free agents. Either way, the veterans of those teams played at high enough of a level where they helped produce team success as well as financial success for themselves. Somewhere in there, though, the cupboards didn't get re-stocked. At one point the Steelers had what many felt was the best wide receiving group in the NFL. Two of the three "Young Money" players are going (or will be when Emmanuel Sanders signs a deal somewhere) and the team invested another third round pick in a wide receiver (Markus Wheaton) and will try to retain Jerricho Cotchery in free agency.
The road of the Draft Your Team philosophy forks at the end of those cheap rookie deals. Retention is basically free agency, and while the Steelers have always been selective of whom they retain (with some misses here and there), the general mentality has always been "replace what you lose in free agency with drafted players." When you cannot do what the Steelers did in the 2000s - draft great players in middle rounds, retain core players who are among the best in the game at their positions for many years after their rookie deals, find starters in UDFA - you have to keep older players for a lot more money, pushing your cap to a point retention is harder. This becomes even more challenging when the double-edged sword of an increasing salary cap comes into play. Sure, the Steelers have more room, but so do other teams. And those who have managed to keep core groups in place while getting production out of their low-paid players feast in free agency.
The Denver Broncos won the AFC title this year without even a challenge through their two conference playoff games. They got thrashed in the Super Bowl, but have already reloaded with the signing of a very underrated cornerback (Aqib Talib) and a strong edge pass rusher (DeMarcus Ware), not to mention one of the best run-defending safeties in the NFL (T.J. Ward).
2014 NFL Free Agency
2014 NFL Free Agency
These teams met in the AFC Championship game last year, and still had cap space enough to sign some of the biggest names on the market. Don't tell the front offices of two of the most winning teams in the last two seasons it's only about drafting players. They're drafting players for the future, and they're signing players who can contribute now.
Not to take away from the perceived Steelers model of drafting to replace, with previous draft picks assuming starting roles vacated by departing high-priced veterans. That dynamic exists on the Steelers roster now, and it will service the future in terms of salary cap numbers. But for now, finding a few key contributors in free agency should not be viewed as a toxic decision.
Drafting is not in and of itself the solution to a team's woes. Getting the right players is far more beneficial. Sometimes those players should come via free agency.