The NFL draft is the most important part of building a team that will compete regularly and stay together for a long time in today's NFL. The salary cap has started to look like Major League Baseball's payrolls instead of a standard hard cap.
Teams who understand Moneyball-style concepts have been amazing at cap management. But the ones that truly succeed with the cap understand how to use the NFL draft as the biggest component of cheap talent.
Let's use the Atlanta Falcons as an example—a team that has drafted well and managed the cap well over the past five years. They also have one of the best cap situations in the NFL. They have tremendous flexibility this season despite being just $6 million under the projected 2013 cap.
They also have over $35 million available in 2014, more than $75 million in 2015 and more than $100 million in 2016 and every year after that. The big reason why they have that is because they have hit well on their draft picks.
The Falcons have 19 players on their original rookie draft pick contracts signed to the team for 2013. Because of that, those 19 players make a combined $28 million, and that includes Matt Ryan's $10 million salary.
Because they can get the cheap labor from the draft, the Falcons have been able to bring in a top free agent or trade target every season since 2008. Michael Turner, Dunta Robinson, Tony Gonzalez, Ray Edwards and Asante Samuel were the big signings that wouldn't have been possible without the top-notch cap management.
The Falcons have also been highly successful in this period. They have five straight winning seasons. They also have four 10-win seasons, have been the No. 1 seed twice and have posted a record of 56-24 in the regular season.
That kind of success should be expected from a team who understands how to spend to the cap every year without jeopardizing future cap seasons. It's also a team that understands that they have to build through the draft. The Falcons are just one of many teams who understand the salary cap.
On the flip side of the coin, spending too much money in free agency will leave a team in proverbial cap hell. Just look at the mid-2000s Washington Redskins who used to spend frequently on misguided big names every season.
The Redskins also did something that didn't allow them to be successful despite being in a horrible cap situation the whole time. They traded away their draft picks. Between 2003 and 2007, the Redskins never had a year with more than six picks.
The results show it as well. Washington went 35-45 from 2003-2007. They had three years of six wins or less and just two winning and playoff seasons. The lack of draft picks and overspending left them in a rebuilding phase that they are finally getting out of.
They had to cut all of their big-name signings and start from scratch in 2008. After going 8-8, 4-12, 6-10 and 5-11 until they finally had their draft picks contribute. The Redskins averaged 8.6 draft picks over the past five drafts and have built the talent on their team.
So while the cap can be worked around almost every year with free agency, the only true way for an NFL team to have the right talent and still manipulate the cap is to rely on the draft. If they can intelligently put their resources into the draft, then they will be a top team in the NFL year in and year out.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, NFL and NFL Draft. He is also the Falcons analyst at Drafttek, runs the NFL Draft Website ScarDraft.com and hosts Kvetching Draftniks Radio.
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