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Top Draft Philosophies In The NFL Today - Part 2: The Bill Polian Philosophy

Continuing our Top Draft Philosophies series, spawned by JohnGio56's idea, today we will look into the draft philosophy of perhaps the most successful personnel man in the league today: Bill Polian.  Take a walk with me past the jump and learn about the President of the Indianapolis Colts and his draft philosophy that has provided excellent talent to three separate organizations.


By the numbers:

3: The number of undrafted free agents that started on the Colts offensive line in Super Bowl 44 (most in history).

20: Number of home grown players on the roster that started Super Bowl 44 (15 draft picks and 5 undrafted FAs).  Only Antoine Johnson and Raheem Brock were brought in as free agents drafted by another team and neither was developed by or ever played a down for the team he was drafted by, or for any other team besides Indianapolis.

41:  Of the 43 players on the Colts squad that started at least one game for the Colts in the 2009 season, 41 were home grown talent (30 draft picks and 13 undrafted free agents).

61:  Of the 66 players on the Colts roster that played in at least one game, 61 of them were home grown drafted talent or undrafted free agents.  Of the remaining 5, only  Matt Stover developed by the team that drafted him.  Antoine Johnson, Raheem Brock, Ervin Baldwin and Cody Glenn never played a single down for the teams that drafted and released them.

6: The number of Super Bowl appearances by Polian-built teams.

9: Conference Championship Appearances by Polian-built teams.

6:  Number of NFL executive of the year awards Polian has won, two with each team.

7: The number of first pick draftees that have made the Pro Bowl at least once in Polian's tenure with the Colts.

30: The number of Pro Bowls attended by those 7 picks.

42: The number of Pro Bowls made by Colts players drafted or acquired as undrafted FAs by Polian in his 13 year tenure.

115:  The number of wins the Colts have amassed in the past decade, second only to the Patriots.


Polian is a personnel genius.  That might sound like a strong statement, but it's one that stands tall and true.  His drafting is about as successful as it comes, his limited ventures into free agency have, for the most part, been golden and his nose for undrafted free agents is phenomenal.  While the other draft philosophers we'll look at are known for their current franchises, Polian is the mastermind behind three successful teams.  He was the man who built the 4 time consecutive AFC Champion Buffalo Bills, as well as the man who captained the Carolina Panthers to the AFC Championship game in their second season as a franchise.  And he's been the man behind the Colts success for the last 13 years.

Polian was first promoted to a GM position in Buffalo from the director of personnel position.  After the Bills went 2-14 under the previous GM, ownership decided to promote Polian, who draw the eye of ownership after he was able to get Bruce Smith to sign his rookie contract well before the draft.  Fans weren't happy about the promotion, and thought that the Bills were just switching names around without any real change.  Polian made it a priority to finally get Jim Kelly to sign with the Bills.  Kelly, who was drafted by the Bills, elected to play in the AFL instead.  Polian was successful, and followed that up with draft picks like Thurman Thomas, Nate Odomes, James Williams and Don Beebe.  The rest is history.

He then was hired as the first GM of the new Carolina franchise.  His job there in building the fastest franchise to make a championship game appearance earned him a job as President of the Colts.

Polian has done a fantastic job of player evaluation, and of doing so without even the players knowing they are interested.  Most Indy draft picks have no idea that Polian was interested until they get the call.  But player development comes into play here, as well.  Polian has hired coaches in Dungy and Caldwell that seem to do a fantastic job of developing young talent, as evidenced by just one glance at the roster.

As a common theme, Polian looks for players who are high character, selfless and coachable before anything else.  But there's more to his philosophy than that.  He believes in drafting the best available player rather than the best player at a position of need.  Of course, need does factor in, but he will draft a minor need in the first round if that is the best player available.  

Take Reggie Wayne, for instance.  In 2001, the biggest needs the Colts had were all on the defensive side of the ball, and WR was a pretty low priority need.  Marvin Harrison ensured that.  But when Wayne fell all the way to the Colts, Polian pulled the trigger because his draft strategy can be summed up this way: Good players, regardless of their position and when taken for their ability will help win more games than average players taken for need.  Wayne was the best player available in the draft at that pick and the Colts weren't sold on any of the defensive players on the draft board for that pick.  Turns out Wayne has been a big part of the Colts success.

2003 saw a similar situation.  Again, defense was the need, but when Dallas Clark was still available, the Colts jumped on him.  I'd say that worked out pretty well for them, also. 

Of course, there have been missteps, and the last couple of drafts haven't been the best for the Colts.  But judging by Polian's past, the chances are good that this is an anomaly rather than a permanent shift in success rates.

But maybe the most dazzling part of his resume is the sheer number of undrafted free agents that play on this team.  13 of the 27 undrafted free agents that played in at least one game combined for 110 starts for the Colts in 2009.  That is unbelievable production from players that were overlooked by other teams.  Another 23 starts belong to Raheem Brock and Antoine Johnson, both of whom were drafted but never played a down for the team that drafted them.  And that level of success comes right back to the player evaluation done for the draft.

In the end, Polian utilizes a best player available strategy while focusing on character and a player's value to the scheme as much as raw ability.  But it is the player evaluation that truly sets Polian apart.  It's not that his philosophy is complex.  It's just that he executes it well.  In truth, Polian's strategy is similar to that of Jerry Angelo.  So why the big drop-off in results for Angelo?  

My guess would be 1 part player evaluation, 1 part player development, and 1 part pool jumping.