A Star and a Steal: How the four conference finalists were built
Super Bowl contenders do not emerge overnight. There's also no specific blueprint for how to build a title-worthy roster.
Some teams, like the Packers, prefer to build almost exclusively through the draft. Others, like the Bill Belichick-led Patriots, are more aggressive in attempting to pluck value off the free-agent or trade market.
"A lot of people throughout the league are looking for the same thing," Seahawks GM John Schneider, the architect of last season's champion, told the Kansas City Star. "A lot of people like big corners, big receivers … probably the most common theme is it never stops. You’re constantly searching for the next thing, trying to improve in every aspect of what you’re doing."
So how did the four remaining teams in this year's playoffs get to where they are? In each case, they were able to mix high-priced stars with productive, cheaper personnel.
Here, we take a look back at one "star" and one "steal" the Packers, Seahawks, Colts and Patriots were able to acquire -- or to keep -- during the 2014 offseason.
For starters, yes, Peppers did have a little left in the tank after shifting NFC North locales, from Chicago to Green Bay. The three-year, $26 million deal it took to land Peppers appeared hefty on first glance, but it was not nearly as cumbersome in reality (as is usually the case with NFL contracts) -- only Peppers' $7.5 million signing bonus was guaranteed.
He has been worth the cost this season. The veteran pass-rusher quickly acclimated to his new role as an "elephant" in the Packers' defense, and he has been irreplaceable down the stretch. In Sunday's win over Dallas, Peppers produced an early sack and may have helped save his team's season with a brilliant forced fumble on DeMarco Murray.
Linsley arguably as been just as important to the Green Bay offense as Peppers has to the defense. A fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft, Linsley was penciled in behind JC Tretter into the preseason. Then Tretter suffered a knee injury in mid-August, forcing Linsley into the starting lineup.
He never left, playing more snaps (1,072) than any other Packer this season.
"At some point, there needs to be a little bit of campaigning about him for Pro Bowl, I think," QB Aaron Rodgers said on his weekly radio show in November. "He's played that good. He doesn't have the name recognition yet. A lot of times, you get voted in a year after you deserve to and maybe a year longer than you deserve to, but Corey's been so solid at center for us."
In what was a perplexing development at the time, Bennett found himself lacking many suitors when he hit free agency prior to the 2013 season. The Seahawks eventually handed him a one-year, $5 million deal.
And Bennett rewarded them, several times over. First, he played an integral role in their Super Bowl-winning squad, registering 8.5 sacks during the regular season and another 1.5 en route in the postseason. Bennett later reportedly passed up more money elsewhere to stay in Seattle for 2014 and beyond.
He still made out well, at four years and $28.5 million with $16 million guaranteed. The Seahawks are not complaining, either.
"He can play end and he can play tackle. He can rush from anywhere on the field," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He’s been a really instrumental player for us in the last couple of years. Without him we would not be the same."
Williams arrived in Seattle under similar circumstances, having even considered retirement as he looked for a new home. The Seahawks eventually ponied up $2.1 million for a one-year deal, which in hindsight looks like a bargain.
A rotational piece for much of the year, Williams' value heightened after Brandon Mebane landed on IR with a hamstring injury. When that occurred, Seattle asked Williams to slide inside to an unfamiliar nose tackle spot. He barely missed a beat in anchoring what would wind up as the league's No. 2-ranked rush defense.
Lest anyone still need evidence why the Colts coughed up $20 million guaranteed on a four-year deal for Davis last offseason, look no further than how much their secondary struggled when Davis was out of the lineup. The 26-year-old, whom Indianapolis acquired by sending a second-round pick to Miami in 2012, has developed into a premier cornerback.
Pro Football Focus had Davis holding opposing QBs to a lower rating on passes thrown his direction (38.3) than any other starting cornerback. Davis has four INTs and seven pass break-ups this season, numbers that would be higher if teams did not avoid him so frequently.
"I feel like he’s one of the best in the game," teammate Sergio Brown told the Colts' website. "He’s very physical. He’s a great one-on-one presence. It’s like you don’t have to worry as much if Vontae is on your side. He lets you worry about other things other than what he’s doing because you figure he’s locked down already."
It's impossible to ignore his impact, though, both as a prolific tackler (140 during the regular season) and as a veteran presence on a rather young Colts' defense. Jackson also turned in a career-high four sacks, no small feat for an Indianapolis team that often struggled to find a consistent pass rush.
As has come to be the norm, Jackson was the team's leading tackler in its divisional-round win over Denver, racking up 10 on the day.
Sort of a strange trip to this point for Revis, whose spot as a dominant cornerback has been reaffirmed in New England after a couple of rough seasons: Revis tore his ACL with the Jets in 2012, then was a complete mismatch for Tampa Bay's defensive scheme in 2013.
The Patriots pounced on him last offseason, even allowing Aqib Talib to walk so they could deliver $12 million to Revis in what's in essence a one-year contract. (Revis is signed through 2015 but a $12.5 million roster bonus due April 1 all but guarantees New England will attempt to restructure and extend that deal.)
Revis played arguably his most uneven game of the season last week vs. Baltimore. That outing aside, however, the veteran earned his recently announced Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods.
"He's a phenomenal player and I've loved playing with him," Tom Brady said at a December press conference. "I've hated playing against him, and I've had my fair share of those opportunities. He's a great teammate. He's a phenomenal player.
"I think the thing that I'm so impressed with is his coverage skills without getting penalties. [Revis was flagged twice Saturday.] That's a rare thing to be backpedaling when the guys who are some of the best athletes in the world are running at you as fast as they can with the size and speed of the way the receivers are, and to be able to cover those guys like he does is pretty amazing."
Brady has been just as effusive in his praise for LaFell, earlier this week calling his wide receiver "the toughest guy I've ever played with" during a radio interview.
At three years and $9 million, LaFell has provided an all-important third option in the passing game, alongside Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. His 119 targets, 74 catches and 953 yards landed him third on the team behind that Edelman-Gronkowski tandem, and he hauled in seven TD passes.
Not bad given his career-best marks entering his Patriots' debut: 85 targets, 49 receptions, 627 yards and five touchdowns.