The Green Bay Packers ended the 2009 season with short- and long-term needs at both offensive tackle positions. Their ensuing plan was never in doubt. The Packers re-signed both incumbents, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, and then sat tight until the April draft -- where they patiently waited for Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga to fall to them at No. 23 overall.
Clifton started all 20 games of the Packers' run to the Super Bowl XLV championship, while Bulaga replaced an injured Tauscher for the final 16. It was a routine example of the Packers' team-building philosophy: Develop your own depth, promote from within and spend free-agent money to retain your own players.
Around here, we've gone around and around on the Packers' recent unwillingness to supplement their roster with veteran free agents. It's hard to argue with the results this season, and now it's time to find out how -- and if -- the rest of the NFL implements "The Packer Way."
The methods of all Super Bowl champions are scrutinized and often copied the following offseason. But this year, the Packers' competitors aren't likely to have a choice. The impending lockout will wipe out free agency, at least for now. Although the market will eventually open when a collective bargaining agreement is reached, it's quite possible the timing will be reversed.
The draft will come first, followed by free agency, rather than the other way around. Teams will not have the luxury of making draft decisions based on the results of free agency. Without a hard plan in place, they must, in the words of Arizona general manager Rod Graves, "approach the draft as if that's the only thing we have to focus on."
We needn't waste much time on the background. You know it well. Of all the players currently on the Packers' roster, only three -- cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive end Ryan Pickett and linebacker Brandon Chillar -- were signed as veteran free agents. Three more were acquired via trade: running back Ryan Grant, along with safeties safety Derrick Martin and Anthony Smith. The rest were either drafted by the Packers, signed as undrafted rookies, claimed on waivers or signed off another team's practice squad.
The intriguing issue is whether the Packers are uniquely equipped to navigate the offseason as it crystallizes for all NFL teams. From the outside, it sure seems that way.
"I'd say that our football team represents what you can accomplish building through the draft," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's a credit to [general manager] Ted Thompson and our personnel staff. We're a draft-and-develop program, we have been for the last five years, we'll continue to do so, and this is a very important draft class for our football team to keep the competition at a high level in the locker room, to keep the depth of our football team as deep as possible. The lesson we learned going through this past season is a very good experience to draw from, so we believe in the draft. That's important to us."
As he has in past years at the scouting combine, Thompson found himself answering questions last week about his approach to free agency and the draft. This year, however, there was no tinge of derision. Instead, Thompson was asked to explain how he stocked his team so well while largely eschewing a primary source of talent.
Thompson credited former Packers general manager Ron Wolf for being a "strong believer that you build the core of your team around the draft" but otherwise said: "Our guys do a lot of work."
Thompson said: "Most of our entire staff and personnel was trained by Ron Wolf and he believed very strongly in scouting and going to see players and doing due diligence and working just as hard on the seventh-round guys and the free agents as we do on the first-round guys. That's just the way we do business."
It's not as if other teams don't try their best to draft good players. But the Packers have two factors working in their favor that some others do not:
A proven system for scouting, evaluating and valuing potential draft picks
A single-mindedness about the draft that, without the crutch of free agency, forces them to keep looking until they find what they want
It was interesting last week listening to the disparate viewpoints of NFL general managers. Some were clearly relived to see two draft-first teams, the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, advance to the Super Bowl.
"Oh man, I love it," said Billy Devaney of the St. Louis Rams. "Isn't that awesome? I think both teams combined maybe had four starters that they got through free agency. The vast majority were draft picks, a couple of street free agents here and there, but those two organizations -- they've done it the way that everybody else aspires to do it. Putting it together with the foundation of hitting on their draft picks, and doing a great job keeping their guys."
The truth is, not everyone does aspire to it. Two disciples of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick suggested it's wrong to ignore any avenue for improving their team.
"I think you truly believe that you need to compare both sides going into every year and decide where the strengths are and where the weaknesses are and if you can fix them in the draft or in free agency," said the Atlanta Falcons' Thomas Dimitroff. " I know that was something that I was very particular about coming into Atlanta to make sure that I didn't get pigeon-holed as one type of team builder."
GM Scott Pioli of the Kansas City Chiefs suggested that patience will allow teams to stay true to their core values, whatever they may be.
"Everybody is going to build their team the same way that they believe," Pioli said. "You're going to have the draft. You're going to have free agency. None of this is going to go away. At some point everything is going to be done."
But if nothing else, the uncertainty about the timing and nature of this year's free-agent market seems likely to make the draft each team's first stop for offseason upgrades. You don't have to look any further than the NFC North to find recent examples where teams were able to focus their attention elsewhere in the draft after making inroads in free agency six weeks earlier.
The Chicago Bears, for example, signed free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers in March and then focused on safeties at the top of the April draft, eventually landing expected 2011 starter Major Wright. The Detroit Lions signed receiver Nate Burleson in free agency, relieving a primary roster need and freeing them to pursue running back Jahvid Best and safety Amari Spievey in the draft. Both players are likely 2011 starters.
This spring will be a guessing game -- for most teams. For the Packers, it will be business as usual.