(The Crown Jewels of the Steelers 2007 Draft Class)
So, with some unexpected free time over the last few days, I've been working my way through draft evaluations. Most note that what they're doing is really provisional; it's difficult to tell how a team has really done since, of course, nobody has actually played a down for their team. In fact, they'll note, it's really a bad idea to evaluate a draft right after...or a year after...or even two years after. Rather, they tell you that you really need three full seasons in order to evaluate a draft class.
With that in mind I want to offer a brief analysis of the Steelers' famed 2007 draft. I say famed because almost all of the players - except for 5th round pick Ryan McBean and 7th round pick Dallas Baker - remain on the team and are headed into their 4th season. In contrast, it's looking like the 2008 draft will go down as one of the weakest in recent Steelers' history with only Rashard Mendenhall cracking the starting lineup heading into their 3rd season.
What I want to do below then is to offer a brief evaluation of each player as well as what players might have been taken instead. Finally, I'll offer a grade for each pick. Keep in mind that the grade of the pick will be weighted to the round in which they were drafted - the theory being that we should naturally expect less from someone who was taken later and just less pro-ready than players taken before. So, even though William Gay has man detractors - including me - he receives a good grade because he's been a very productive player for a very late 5th round selection.
Sit back. Read. And, as always, feel free to disagree. Especially in hilarious ways.
1) Lawrence Timmons (1st Round: 15th overall)
Evaluation: Many folks remain ambivalent on the Steelers inside linebacker and first draft selection of the Mike Tomlin era. I'm not one of them. Timmons played on the outside at Florida State and was slowly transitioned into the inside in the Steelers' particular version of the 3-4. Timmons' spend his first year in the black and gold as a redshirt rookie who contributed, however meagerly, on special teams. In his second year he relieved Larry Foote on 3rd downs and was a force to be reckoned with: Timmons played in all 16 games recording 65 tackles (22 solo), 5 sacks, 3 passes defended, and an interception (which was half a yard short of being a pick-six). This is really incredible production from a guy that was, at the time at least, a situational linebacker. Keep in mind that Larry Foote recorded 63 tackles (34 solo), 1.5 sacks, and 3 passes defended (with no interceptions) as a starter.
Timmons became a starter in 2009 and despite missing two games (and being limited in a 3rd), he recorded 78 tackles (58 solo), 7 sacks, and 4 passes defended. As his sack total indicates, Timmons is a great blitzer who has the speed to fake a drop back and suddenly blow by a defender before he knows what's happened. In two seasons (only one of which he started), Timmons has recorded 12 sacks; since 2002 Larry Foote has recorded 16.5 and in 13 seasons James Farrior has recorded 27.5. Baring injuries, Timmons should surpass Foote's sack total this season and Farrior's career total in the next two to three seasons. With so many defenses worried about Woodley and Harrison from the edge, LeBeau has taken advantage by effectively bringing Timmons from a variety of different directions. Timmons has become the dynamic playmaker in the middle of the field that the Steelers have lacked over the last few years with the graceful decline of team leader James Farrior.
There are, of course, criticisms. Some assert that Timmons suffers against the run. Obviously, given his build Timmons has struggled at times to stone runners at the line of scrimmage or, at least, has struggled more than Larry Foote. However, Timmons is not poor against the run - he just doesn't excel against the run as he does against the pass.
In my mind, Timmons is the prototype for future ILB's in the Tomlin era. Rather than drafting bigger, heavier ILB's who are great against the run but suffer against the pass (as Cowher preferred), Tomlin prefers lighter, quicker ILB's who give a little more against the run, but are much more dangerous on passing downs (and every down is quickly becoming a passing down in the NFL). Some think Timmons would be better suited as an OLB in the 3-4. I disagree; he's perfectly suited to be the kind of fast-twitch run-and-hit backer that will come to be identified with the Tomlin era. Timmons is also only 23 and has not hit his ceiling yet (Tomlin seems to have a preference for drafting younger underclassman he can mold over older players that may have developed some bad habits).
Despite the love I've shown Timmons here, question marks remain: He does need to develop better instincts against the run (reading his keys to determine where the runner is headed), he needs to prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season as a starter, and he needs to show a better mastery of the LeBeau's scheme (he looked lost at times over the season). However, I have confidence that Timmons will remain a stalwart of the Steelers defense for several more years.
2) LaMarr Woodley (2nd Round: 46th overall)
Evaluation: What can I say about Woodley? He is a beast. While at Michigan students would wear shirts that read, "Guns don't kill people. LaMarr Woodley kills people." Over the last three years nothing much has changed.
He's wildly recognized to be the steal of the 2007 NFL Draft and he's the standard against which future 3-4 OLB converts are now judged against (If I had a dollar for every time I heard Brandon Graham described as a "LaMarr Woodley clone". In three seasons (not including playoff appearances) Woodley has posted 29 sacks...let me write that again, 29 sacks! Keep in mind that he did not start until his second season, yet posted 4 sacks as a backup to Clark Haggins in the 2007 season. The utter dominance of the 2008 version of the Steel Curtain was due, in part at least, to the emergence of Woodley as a pass rushing machine that allowed a rather suspect Steelers secondary to look Pro Bowl worthy (Note: Troy should not be included in the "suspect secondary". I move that he receive a separate designation).
Woodley is great against the run. He's a great pass rusher. He's a very good coverage OLB. The surprise isn't that Woodley went to the Pro Bowl in his third season (second as starter). The surprise is that Woodley didn't go to the Pro Bowl in his second season (first as starter). It's hoped that Woodley will join his draft cohort Lawrence Timmons as a part of an incredible Steelers LB corps for a long, long time. It's my opinion that if a 2007 redraft were to occur, Woodley would be a Top-10 pick. He's incredible value at 42nd overall.
Still on the Board: Doesn't Matter
3) Matt Spaeth (3rd Round: 77th overall)
Evaluation: Matt Spaeth has received a lot of heat over the last two seasons and much of it has been deserved. Spaeth is a terrible goal line blocker who almost singlehandedly derailed the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl run by consistently blowing assignments and allow his RB's to be tackled behind the line of scrimmage. On the other hand, Spaeth has filled in admirably for Heath Miller when he has been sidelined due to injury. While Spaeth lacks the after the catch ability of Miller, he has good hands and manages to use his superior size to create mismatches in coverage.
That being said, even if looked at as a receiving TE, Spaeth has under produced. In three seasons Spaeth has managed a grand total of 27 receptions for 195 yards and 4 touchdowns. Since three of those touchdowns occurred during his first season, Spaeth has only managed 1 touchdown reception in the last two years. This is simply inexcusable for a guy who's 6'7" and 270 pounds. As a blocking Spaeth is simply a failure; as a pass catching TE Spaeth is either criminally underused or simply incapable of being much of a factor in the NFL.
I tend to think the case is that he's criminally underused (or simply misused). He's miscast as a blocking TE and in Arians' two-TE offense is basically invisible on passing downs. I don't know whether he simply cannot beat coverage or for whatever reason Ben never looks his way. Regardless, he's certainly been a disappointment. While Spaeth remains a valuable backup to Heath Miller - his most productive season was 2008 when Miller was out for injury for a few games - he has simply not lived up to the standard a 3rd round pick should. That is, he has not become a starter or challenged for a starting spot in the offense.
I will be very surprised if Spaeth receives a long-term contract from the Steelers. The saving grace is that teams haven't gotten a whole of production from 3rd round players below Spaeth. In general, he's failed to produce, but that's no different than many members of his 3rd round draft class.
4) Daniel Sepulveda (4th Round: 112th overall)
Evaluation: It's always difficult to evaluate special teams players taken in the middle rounds of the draft. This is especially true with punters. If you draft a kicker in the middle rounds at least you can judge them by field goal percentage, the length of kickoff's, how well they kick under pressure, etc. With punters, however, there's no such measurement. Even if we consider Sepulveda's average punt (42.5 yards per punt) or net punting average (37.4 per punt) we can't get a clear picture since oftentimes you don't want a punter to boom it, but rather to place in nicely inside the twenty. To this end, Sepulveda has knocked 57 within the 20-yard line. However, even this stat is incomplete; how many times did Sepulveda fail to place it there when he really should have?
Obviously, the Steelers got a three-year starter with a 4th round pick and this is great value. However, that player was a punter...a punter they traded up for. So, again wouldn't it be a huge upset or failure if Sepulveda wasn't the starter from day one?
Now, you might argue that Sepulveda was well worth his draft status given how badly the punting game suffered in 2008 when he was injured. But did it? The immortal Mitch Berger averaged 42.3 yards per punt with a 36.4 net punt average for the Steelers in 2008. He also landed 19 punts inside the twenty. That means, that Sepulveda averaged about .2 yards more per punt, 1 yard more net average, and (taking Sepulveda's 2009 number of 29) 10 more punts within the 20. Is that worth a 4th round pick? Obviously Sepulveda exhibits more talent in placing the ball inside the 20 (which is vital to field position), but is this worth what it cost to get him? Sepulveda is an active tackler on special teams and this has led the Steelers' punt coverage to, in general, be more reliable than the kickoff coverage.
Even after all of this I'm not sure whether Sepulveda was really worth the pick (and the picks that the Steelers used to trade up and land him). I think he's a better than average NFL punter, but by no means elite. In the end, I'll split the difference.
5) Ryan McBean (5th Round: 132nd overall)
Evaluation: I can still remember being excited when the Steelers drafted McBean. John Mitchell - world class DL developmental wizard - had managed to make mid-and and late- round talents into starters as well as making a perennial Pro Bowler out of Casey Hampton. Even in 2007 everyone was well aware that the Steelers' defensive line was getting old and had little in the way of promising young talent. Many of us thought McBean signaled the beginning of a whole new generation of Steelers' DE's. Of course, we were wrong - Ziggy Hood and Sunny Harris are much more likely to be part of the new wave of Steelers' DL.
McBean never really stuck. He hung around during the 2007 season as part of a rotation that attempted to fill the void upfront after Aaron Smith went down due to injury, but had obviously lost the confidence of the coaching staff. Eventually he would emerge as a starter for the Broncos in 2008, although it's unclear whether or not he'll continue that role in 2009. From what I've heard the issues with McBean were mental - he never knew what he was doing on any given play. Schematically Denver's defense is much less complex than the Steelers, a fact that may go a long way in explaining McBean's success there.
In general, McBean exemplifies the type of pick that has hurt Colbert's drafts in the middle rounds: A boom or bust, high-upside guy who ultimately didn't show the coaching staff enough to warrant a long-term investment. Getting only a partial season from a 4th round draft pick has to be seen as something of a failure. A player drafted in the 4th round ought to warrant at least two years on the roster and push for a role in special teams if not an outright job as a primary backup. In the end, the Steelers got virtually nothing from McBean.
This pick remains perhaps a little infamous because the Baltimore Ravens drafted Pro Bowl RB/FB Le'Ron McClain four spots after the Steelers drafted McBean.
6) William Gay (5th Round: 170th overall)
Evaluation: Before you flame me for giving the William Gay pick a good grade understand this: To get a good nickel-corner in the 5th round with a comp pick is simply great value.
William Gay is not a starting corner in the NFL. If he were this would go down as one of the great picks in Kevin Colbert's tenure. However, even as a good nickel corner who provides good depth and can be decent in rotation (as he was in 2008), spending a 5th round comp pick on William Gay is only one of the better decisions of the Colbert era. If you add in his contributions on kicker coverage units, I think you can begin to see why he was well worth this pick.
Gay is slow and small. However, he possesses decent ball skills, is willing in run support, and can be effective when taken out of man coverage and asked to play back in deep zone coverage (where his lack of speed is not such a liability). I would be amiss if I didn't mention William Gay's toughness. He's taken a lot of heat for getting trampled by Adrian Peterson in 2009 - some have said (probably correctly) that Gay getting trucked by Peterson will go on AD's Hall of Fame highlight reel. However, what many fail to mention is that there aren't many corners out there that would ever try to do anything but ankle tackle Peterson. The very fact that Gay attempted to actually tackle Peterson head on is a testement to his toughness he brings to the corner position. Of course, in retrospect he should have gone for the ankle tackle, but you get the idea. To get that kind of production from a 5th round comp pick is really good value.
Also, there wasn't a whole lot left on the board at this point. Thus it seems like Colbert managed to get the best player remaining. The fact that William Gay is not a starter, but only a valuable piece of the corner rotation doesn't detract from the grade of this pick.
7) Dallas Baker (7th Round: 227th overall)
Evaluation: You can't expect much from a 7th round pick. Outside of a special teams player (punter or kicker) it's very difficult for a 7th rounder to even make the practice squad, much less make a contribution to the 53-man roster. The fact that Dallas Baker made the 53-man roster his 2nd year and actually made a contribution to the team (a single six yard reception) is actually a bit surprising.
Of course, in retrospect there's one player - another WR - that makes the selection of Baker in the 7th look a bit worse in retrospect: The Steelers could have selected Chansi Stuckey who has gone on to record 62 NFL receptions for 677 yards and 5 touchdowns with the Jets and Browns. Of course, this is really exceptional production for a late 7th round pick (especially a skill position player), but you have to wonder if Stuckey wouldn't have developed into a great 3rd or 4th receiver for the Steelers by this point had he been selected.
Still, Dallas Baker is pretty much par for the course here. So, Colbert gets a pretty average score.
Overall: This has to go down as one of the better drafts of the Colbert era. Of the seven total selections five remain on the team and six remain in the NFL (Dallas Baker never had much of a chance, anyway). Of the five still on the team, three are technically starters (Timmons, Woodley, and Sepulveda) while two others have spent time as starters (in Spaeth's case because of an injury to Heath Miller; Gay was the started for 14 games in 2009 and in the starter rotation in 2008) and have proven to be good backups and spot players (Gay has also shown himself to be a pretty decent gunner in special teams).
As the first draft of the Mike Tomlin era, it certainly showcased Tomlin's schematic preferences from the beginning: Timmons is an athletic, quick-twitch MLB who would never really have fit in on a Cowher team (since Cowher preferred heavier, run stuffing MLB"s like Foote), but he is probably the wave of the future at the position, as the drafting of Stevenson Sylvester further underscores. I tend to think that Tomlin never intended to play Timmons as a 3-4 OLB; he always meant him as a replacement for either James Farrior or Larry Foote.
Woodley, of course, was the steal of the draft. The Steelers have gotten incredible production from him in three seasons for relatively little cash. But fear not Steeler faithful, LaMarr is about to get himself paid. Some have wondered if the Steelers will be able to resign Woodley, but I have to think that they'll figure out some way in which to keep him around until he's 30. Simply put, Woodley is too valuable a piece of Tomlin's defense to let walk in his prime.
Overall, I'm quite pleased with the Steelers 2007 haul. Two starters (one a Pro Bowler) and three valuable backups is pretty much the standard for having a really great draft in the NFL these days. As such, my final grade for the 2007 draft is:
Good: Timmons a good starter; Woodley an absolute steal; three other contributors remain on the team more than three years later
Bad: Spaeth perhaps a reach in the 3rd round; Overpaid for Sepulveda; Missed either in drafting or developing Ryan McBean