General Managers have a vast array of tools at their disposal for building teams in the modern NFL. While the primary means of finding talent will always be through the NFL Draft in terms of volume, free agency and trades are key to both finding players to build around, and to fill out the roster.
Looking at the starting lineups for Super Bowl winners, we’ll now look at: how did these players become a part of their organizations?
We’ll put them in a category of their own, as this is such a hot-button topic for the Denver Broncos lately. While the most successful QB drafted by Denver may be either Jay Cutler, Tommy Maddox, Marlin Briscoe, or Brian Griese, it is worth noting that seven of the past 10 Super Bowl-winning squads won with a QB drafted by the team itself.
Only the 2015 Broncos and 2020 Buccaneers won with a Free Agent QB, and the 2011 Giants won with Eli Manning, acquired on a draft-day trade.
This question is so pressing for Denver that I decided to go all the way back to Super Bowl I in 1967 to get a complete picture of this. In the entire history of the Super Bowl, 37 winning quarterbacks played with the team who drafted them, 11 signed as free agents, and just seven were traded to their team.
Two of the traded players were Eli Manning and John Elway, who were traded on draft day and eventually won a pair of rings each. This leaves just three who were traded after their careers had already begun in Brett Favre, Steve Young, and Joe Theismann. Earl Morrall is an honorable mention, as he played a big role in Super Bowl V years after being traded to the Colts.
By the numbers, it seems drafting and developing quarterbacks is the most time-honored method of finding a Super Bowl quarterback. Perhaps Drew Lock will be able to step up to the plate, and perhaps not, but there will also be options at no. 9 in this year’s draft.
A signing or blockbuster trade would still be a great way to vault Denver back into contention, but so far this has not proven the best way to take home the big W.
Free Agency, Trades, or the Draft?
The heavy favor towards draftees drops off sharply when moving away from quarterbacks. In the offensive weapon, o-line, and front seven groups, draftees still outnumbered the rest but at a much smaller margin, around 2:1 or 1.5:1.
Free agents outnumbered the draft picks in both the secondary and on special teams while trades, UDFA, and waiver pickups brought up the rear in all cases. Taking shots at free agents holds a lot more value around the rest of the roster and while the Broncos have classically made some big splashes in FA, Paton’s philosophy of draft-and-develop will still have to play a central role.
The number of drafted Super Bowl starters taken in the 1st and 2nd rounds outnumbered the rest combined, and hopefully, Elway’s recent trend of hitting on early picks will continue into the Paton era.
Trades have always made up a smaller portion of rosters due to their rarity, and of the major trades we’ve seen in NFL history, it looks like they’re taking a smaller role in constructing Super Bowl teams in recent years.
Sure, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Marshall Faulk, Randy Moss, and more came out of trades to win themselves a ring but that’s become a much less common occurrence. The biggest names on these teams to be traded are of course Eli, Jason Pierre Paul, and Frank Clark. Outside of that, these cases are growing fewer and far between.
It seems the Rams are trying to buck this trend as they’ve mortgaged the future for big trades bringing in Matt Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, and Brandin Cooks. When looking at the Broncos, however building by trade doesn’t seem to be the model unless Paton can pull something off for a marquee quarterback.