Hobson's Choice: Draft over free agency

I heard Marvin Lewis say show him where someone signed free agents and turned around their team. When Denver signed the Cleveland Browns defensive line their defense has improved by a significant amount.

Do you think he will go after some experienced defensive linemen or will he rely on the draft, or will there even be any free agents worth going after?JAMES:
Marvin's philosophy on this is pretty sound. He's not against hunting-and-pecking every year in free agency for a couple of starters (like say, the Steelers), but he won't do it at the expense of a foundation that is laden with young and economically-feasible draft picks. Just look at the Super Bowl teams of this century, from Lewis' Ravens to Cowher's Steelers, and the bulk of them are homegrown. The last five Super Bowl MVPs have all been drafted by those teams and only one, Ray Lewis, is a first-rounder.

Not only that, but the last seven AP NFL Defensive Players of the Year have been drafted by their teams. And of the nine players named AP Offensive Player of the Year since free agency began in 1993, seven were drafted by their teams. The exceptions are the Rams' Marshall Faulk from 1999-2001, and the Chiefs' Priest Holmes in 2002.

That's not to say a star like Faulk can't get you over the hump, but he was acquired in a trade and not via free agency. Now, with the Carson Palmer mega contract, you can forget about going out and getting a corresponding mega deal in free agency.

Which fits their philosophy. There's no question that some free agents can be the last pieces in a puzzle, but Lewis argues that the salary cap dictates that most of the puzzle must be built by the draft. This year's two Super Bowl teams prove the point again.

Denver didn't throw tons of money at Cleveland's defensive line, but it threw enough. You can argue how significant it was. The Broncos actually finished better on defense last year (No. 4) than this year (No. 15). Yes, they improved their run defense, but not by very much (from No. 4 to No. 2), so what does it all mean?

Did some of those D-linemen push them over the hump from a 10-win team in '04 to an elite 13-3 team in' 05 that knocked off the defending Super Bowl champs and reached a conference championship game?

Maybe, but it was the last few pieces and that's how Lewis looks at it.

Palmer's contract makes things tight in '06 and '07, but you figure they'll take a look at veteran defensive linemen as well as those in the draft. If they sign one, you figure they won't draft one. One is probably going to dictate the other.

You'd also have to think they'd be looking at 305-pound plus guys. Except for Shaun Smith, they just don't have a guy like that. That's not to say tackles John Thornton and Bryan Robinson haven't been effective (the stats say the run isn't the overriding problem), but more girth would be nice to add to the rotation.

And there are some big guys out there. The Rams' 310-pound Ryan Pickett, a guy they liked coming out of Ohio State four years ago, is available. So are two big guys from Buffalo, Ron Edwards and Justin Bannan, as well as a Marvin-Lewis-Baltimore guy in 315-pound Lional Dalton.

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