Every year there are a few teams who have to tear it down and start over from scratch. The least fortunate teams don’t have any pro bowlers they can trade for picks to help a rebuild, and for those teams the process is different. Teams with extra picks (particularly first-rounders) and cap space are in a better position to do things not only right but also faster.
For teams without extra picks, the process is slower but still doable. For this article, both situations will be addressed. We will assume a good head coach hire was made for this exercise since that’s a crucial element to turning things around.
With extra picks including a first-round pick and cap space
Free agency in the first offseason should be rather inactive outside of getting depth pieces and a veteran quarterback who can start until the young future draft pick is ready to take over. Bad contracts should also be dumped to create cap space since cap space will be your best friend for the next three to five years.
Having two first-round picks in this type of situation is great because the team’s own first-rounder is almost guaranteed to be in the top ten and potentially top five. If the team has a chance at an elite quarterback prospect in the top ten they need to make the move. Getting an elite quarterback prospect allows the team to focus on building the offensive line and weaponry to help the new quarterback when he does finally play. Giving that pick a year to sit and learn is ideal as it gives time for them to develop the mental side of the game and also gives the team more time to add more talent around him.
With the second first-round pick the team should take a left tackle or interior offensive lineman if one worthy of a pick is available. If not, trade down and get more picks. In rounds 2 and 3 if you have a total of two or four picks take offensive linemen if players of that value are there. With the remaining picks get pass catchers. In the fourth round focus on tight end and receiver then end the draft with a couple of running backs in the fifth through seventh.
In the third, if a running back you like is there go ahead and take him, but don’t any earlier as it’s the easiest position to replace and it makes the most sense to spend as little as you can at that spot. If an offense already has a quarterback and offensive line in place with competent receivers, taking a running back early as a cherry on top move is smart in that situation.
In their second year of free agency, a team should sign defensive players and look to add one or two high-end starters on the offensive line if needed and available. The defensive players should ideally be secondary or defensive line players. A good or elite wide receiver would also be a great addition.
The team should have an awful first year which would get another top ten or hopefully top-five pick. With that high pick, they need to take a left tackle if they don’t currently have a good starter and a strong prospect is available. If a left tackle isn’t needed take a defensive end or tackle if a worthy prospect is there. An elite cornerback is also a good pick. Otherwise, trade down and get more picks since you already have your quarterback, but if not, then get him now. The second first-round pick should be to take the best available player on the board.
If the draft class is loaded at receiver feel free to take two if you have two firsts. You can also take one elite receiver, if you only have one pick to help your quarterback, assuming you didn’t already need a QB or an offensive tackle. In rounds 2 and 3 continue to build the offensive line if more pieces are needed up front and then shift focus to receivers or a tight end if the right one is available. If the line and weaponry look good already use the picks to look at corners and safeties. In the fourth and later look for players who could be steals.
Entering year three the offense should have a year of good play and the defense hopefully wasn’t total shit. This is the offseason where you add the finishing touches in free agency and the draft to make a Super Bowl run. It will likely be mostly about adding defense and playmakers. In today’s league, you want three or four threats for a defense to worry about.
Trading down and getting more picks is always a good option in the first round. When on the clock take a good left tackle or interior linemen if available and needed or go best on the board, and with the second first-round pick trade down or take best available, especially if a good offensive line prospect is within reach and needed. In the second and third rounds take a look at skill players to help the quarterback. Rounds 2 and 3 should be about adding pieces to an offense that will have a year of experience before getting the quarterback in. In the fourth round and later go for the best value. If a quarterback is a big project but might have something there, take him.
The third free agency should be about adding playmakers and defense, and in particular good corners and safeties if needed or just looking to fill remaining holes. The third offseason will be about final pieces and the quarterback getting another year of development.
With one first and no extra picks
When having one first and probably one pick per round the process can be slower unless you know how to efficiently accelerate the process. The pick is likely in the top ten or top five so trade it down to get more picks. Having draft capital is big for a rebuild. The first draft should be about building an offensive line and adding playmakers. The first free agency should look to build depth and try to get defensive backs and players in the trenches.
In the second free agency, more active spending should be practiced. Spend on weaponry, offensive linemen, and defensive backs. With a top-five or ten pick get your quarterback in the second draft and from there add some weaponry and more offensive linemen.
Building a team with an emphasis on trying to gather elite weaponry and offensive line play is the way of today. Look to have three or four pass-catching threats and put a strong line in front of your quarterback to reap the benefits. With a rookie quarterback deal, you have the money to spend on defense and sign a great veteran offensive lineman or two. It also gives money to sign a stud receiver and add more through the draft. This gives a young quarterback a complete roster to play on while the mental part of his game develops for a few seasons. After that is when some pieces can be taken away and it won’t be as detrimental to the player’s performance if at all.
Teams Doing Rebuilds Correctly
The Browns have changed from a laughing stock to a Super Bowl contender over the last few seasons. It started when they made a trade on April 20th, 2016 with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Browns acquired an extra first-round pick in the 2016 draft and 2017 draft. The extra 2017 first is the pick to focus on. That pick was from the Eagles that landed at twelfth, giving the Browns the first and twelfth overall picks of the 2017 draft.
The Browns received the luck of someone wanting to make a trade and that was the Houston Texans. The Texans traded up to draft Deshaun Watson while the Browns got the twenty-fifth pick where they took Jabrill Peppers and got a 2018 first-round pick. After getting Myles Garrett first overall in 2017, the Browns had two top-five picks in the first round of the 2018 draft.
Baker Mayfield went first, and then at fourth overall they took cornerback Denzel Ward, which proved to be very smart. Nick Chubb was a great snag in the second round. With Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, and Wyatt Teller in place, the Browns made moves headed into 2020 to beef up their offensive line, signing Jack Conklin at right tackle and drafting Jedrick Wills to play left tackle. Look out for 2020 sixth-round pick receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones as well as he could be a steal over time.
This past offseason they used free agency money to shore up the defense as they signed safety John Johnson, slot corner Troy Hill, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and a couple of others. Drafting Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the Notre Dame linebacker, was also big for them.
Headed into this season the Browns look like a Super Bowl contender. It’s largely due to the coaching change by bringing in Kevin Stefanski and company at the start of 2020 mixed with the fact they built this roster in a damn good way.
The Bills got their rebuild going when they drafted Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen seventh overall in the 2018 NFL draft. Having two firsts in that draft they paired Allen with Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Most of the Bills rebuild has been done with smart free agency signings but getting receiver Gabriel Davis in the fourth round of the 2020 draft could be a nice steal.
The free agency signings the Bills put around Allen were smart like center Mitch Morse, receiver Cole Beasley, edge rusher Mario Addison, and then of course the trade for receiver Stefon Diggs. Keeping 2017 draft picks cornerback Tre’Davious White and left tackle Dion Dawkins was also great. The Bills are now a Super Bowl contender and it’s because of their offense.
For the Dolphins this rebuild isn’t quite complete but it’s just about there. Bringing in Brian Flores to be the head coach in 2019 was a great decision, and he showed just why in year one.
His team in 2019 was clearly tanking and many thought they could go 0-16. In the Dolphins’ first three games they lost 59-10, 43-0, and 31-6. Flores was able to lead this team to five wins by the end of the year which was surprising as they definitely didn’t look capable of more than two headed into the year. Last season Flores took a similarly constructed team to a 10-6 record which certainly outperformed expectations again.
Why does this rebuild have so much hope? The coach is in place and in the 2020 draft they got their quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. They also this last season drafted a former college teammate of Tua’s in receiver Jaylen Waddle and former
Houston Texan Will Fuller was brought into town. A full offseason for this team to work should lead to tremendous results.
The bottom line when it comes to rebuilding a team is you need a quarterback and today’s game is about offense. Defense is more volatile than offense and just think about it – which teams are good consistently? The ones with quarterbacks that can play consistent offense. Offensive line play has been neglected by many teams over the years which has led to young quarterbacks taking unnecessary beatings. In a recent case an early retirement of Andrew Luck was due to too many injuries. Build an offensive line and it will make everything your offense does easier. Initially, more emphasis needs to be placed on protection rather than weaponry.
As mentioned previously, having three or four pass-catching threats is what you want for today’s game and that can be maintained by signing your two best to long-term deals and using the draft and coaching to keep yourself stocked at the position.
Defense does matter but it’s more about playing good enough defense to complement the offense, and good defensive performance can be achieved with smart free agent signings, draft picks, and gaining new picks after trading star defenders that were on payroll during their quarterback’s rookie deal. Scheme and getting guys that play well as a unit is what’s most important on defense.
Offenses are too explosive and talented for defenses to shut down on the big stages and it’s easier to build an elite offense. With talent and a quality coach and play-caller, an offense can take off and be closer to the top offense faster and try to keep their play at that level than a defense can try to do the same. Again, offense is less volatile which is huge. The early development for quarterbacks is crucial and plays a major role in who becomes a superstar and who becomes a bust.