Draft-o-sophy Vol. 1 - Why Not Draft for Need?

Art_rooney_jr

"Dan, three Lombardi's aren't cool. Six Lombardi's, now that's cool."

So, by dubbing this column (hopefully one of several leading up to the end of April) Draftosophy I don’t mean to give the impression I’m going to talk about how I think a team ought to draft (but don’t) or the process one should use to evaluate talent or something else like this – I am in no way qualified to do any of these things. Rather, this is really a column meant to expose you to my weird musings on different players, needful (or deep) positions, schematic fits, and how they might relate to the Steelers.  

(Really, I just like it because I teach philosophy classes for a living and therefore the title makes me giggle. Sad, my friends, but all too true.)

The 2011 NFL Draft is going to tell us a lot about what the Steelers coaching staff and front office (mainly his highness Kevin Colbert) think about the state of the team. Okay, that's obvious, I know. By that, however, I don't just mean what positions they'd like to get better at going forward (everyone basically knows this team needs major upgrades in the secondary, the offensive line, and needs to continue to get younger across the DL and at LB). Rather, we'll learn if the organization thinks the window is closing for the current team. 

 

That is to say, we'll see if the Steelers decide to buck their longstanding practice of drafting the best player available (the fabled BPA that both awes and frustrates mock drafters across the internet) in favor of finding somebody they feel they can plug in immediately, someone who make the team better now regardless if that guy isn't the top player on their board. By simply following their board - regardless of immediate need - the Steelers would continue to build a solid roster that could keep them relatively competitive in the future. On the other hand, it's hard not to see the curtain getting ready to descend on the current roster. Or, rather, it's hard not to see the curtain coming down on the defense - the oldest unit in the NFL

(Side Note: The offense - outside of Ward and Adams - is comparatively young. All the key players (Big Ben, Wallace, Pouncey, Miller, Sanders, Mendenhall) are under 30 (along with a number of solid role players like Antonio Brown and Ramon Foster) and with a couple of more additions I think it's quite possible they could be special. And they'll have to be. As the current incarnation of the Steel Curtain continues to age and given the amount of time it seems to take new players to get fully acclimated to Lebeau's defense, we can expect a drop in the quality of the defense in the next three years or so.

That's a drop though, not a plummet - the Steelers defense will probably go from being world beating to merely pretty good. However, the offensive is going to have to pick up some slack for the Steelers to remain competitive.)

So, would the Steelers draft a 5-technique (3-4 DE) in the 1st round that held the highest rating on their big board or would they pass on him for somebody that could provide immediate impact - like a new starting RG? Thinking back to the amount of time it historically takes players to become fluent in Lebeauese - which I imagine uses the word "blitz" in a fashion similar to how the Smurfs used the word "smurf" - even a great CB or safety is unlikely to be much more than a special teams contributor and maybe a sub-package player late in the season.  At best even, any defensive back drafted is unlikely to start until next season and even then is more than likely to spend a year apprenticing at nickelback first. And a 3-4 DE or an NT is unlikely to see the field much at all over the next two seasons.

So, I guess the argument would go, why not draft somebody that can help you - you who sadly knows that key members of your vaunted defense like James Farrior, Casey Hampton, and Aaron Smith have maybe two seasons left in them - win now? Why not go against your M.O. and draft a guy like Baylor's Danny Watkins who can step in immediately and be an impact player in both the run game and in the passing attack? Sure, he's old (for a rookie) and probably isn't going to get a second contract, but James Harrison and Troy Polamalu are going to be retired (or almost retired) by then anyway. In other words, by the time Watkins second contract comes around the team isn't going to be nearly as good as it is now regardless of who you draft. So, why not go with the guy that you can get immediate production from rather than the higher rated player who won't start until most of the key players on defense have hung up their cleats?

Say you stick to your board and take an unexpected faller in a very deep defensive lineman class - say J.J. Watt, an ideal 5-technique. Watt was easily the highest rated player on your board and it's not like you don't know you're going to have to get younger there anyway. However, Watt isn't going to see the field this season - he's going to be sitting behind Ziggy Hood, Brett Kiesel, Aaron Smith and (possibly) Nick Eason. In fact, next year he'll only see the field as a rotational player. Given how good both Hood and Kiesel are it's quite possible Watt might not become a regular starter until his third or fourth year.

All of this is to say, Watt can't help you now and he probably can't help you next year. So, if you think your team has a realistic shot of heading to the Super Bowl in a two year window (the time after which you'll lose a lot of defensive starters), then why draft a guy in the 1st round who simply can't help you win within that window?

Or so the argument might go.

In reality, the Steelers ware going to grab the highest guy off their board (although all things being equal or close to equal their choice might be shaded a bit toward need). Why? Because the Steelers know at least two hard learned truths.

First, they know that there are years in which there is no juggernaut or truly dominate team (think 2007 Patriots dominate) and during these years competitive teams with deep rosters, good coaching, and a little luck can win it all. The Steelers won't go all in over the next two years at the expense of the future because ultimately they don't believe in "windows". So long as they make shrewd decisions in free agency, draft with value (and not need) in mind, and stay healthy they know they'll be competitive for a long time. They may not have a single dominate season, or two, but they'll always be in the mix and be set up nicely to take advantage when less well run organizations falter. If there is such a thing as the "Steeler Way" in doing business, this is it: Draft value, take care of your own during free agency, hire good people and let them do their jobs.

Secondly, the Steelers know that perceptions of need that so many fans and mock drafters use is oftentimes an illusion.  Anybody can get injured and with the new so-called player protection rules, almost anybody can get suspended. Sudden and unexpected retirements happen as well - sometimes as a result of long-term injury and sometimes because of a simple change of heart. There's simply no way to predict what a roster is going to look like two-years in advance with any certainty. I can't do that and you can't do that, but we don't often acknowledge it. The Steelers know it too; only they always acknowledge it by drafting talent and value - at almost any position.

After all, it's hard to believe that the Steelers would have made it to the Super Bowl this past season if they hadn't drafted Rashard Mendenhall when everyone thought they should reach for a tackle. Or that the Steelers run defense would have been so good this season without the help of Ziggy Hood during a year in which everyone wanted them to draft an offensive lineman or corner. If you can't reasonably predict what your roster is going to look like a year or two from now then you simply take the best players you can and figure out how to fit them in later. Trust me, you'll need all the talent you can get.

*******

With all that said, let me make a few short observations/foolish predictions about the upcoming draft:

1) It's a deep and talented DL class, especially for potential 3-4 DE's. Long, athletic two-gapers who have the pride to play great despite the fact they never accumulate stats are hard to find. It wouldn't surprise me if one of the best 3-4 DE's fell to the Steelers at 31 and the Steelers jumped to draft him. Could you get a good one later? Probably, but the guy you're likely to get at 31 in this draft might be a Top-15 player next year.

2) I dream of Cam Jordan being there. I bet Jon Mitchell does too. However, draft day will be a wake up call for both of us I'll bet. Still won't stop me from dreaming though.

3) The Steelers are going to take a tight end earlier than most fans think. And it might not be a traditional Steeler TE (in the Tuman model) either. The Steelers have shown a lot of interest in Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks and Arkansas' D.J. Williams as well as Tennessee's Luke Stocker and Portland State's Julius Thomas. Outside of Stocker, these are more athletic pass catching TE's than traditional blockers. The Steelers need to get more contributions in the passing game from a #2 TE and this might be the draft to find one.

4) I can hear people complaining now: The 2nd TE only blocks, why not grab a guy later? The answer might be: The  current 2nd TE only blocks because he can't create separation on his routes or use his size to win jump balls. You don't take a blocking TE  - and intend for him to be a blocking TE - in the first half of the draft. Unless you're Josh McDaniels that is.

5) Kendricks would be my favorite, by the way. The guy is like a Dustin Keller who has much greater potential as a blocker and is a mismatch waiting to happen.

6) Aaron Williams fits the Mike Tomlin/Kevin Colbert 1st round model to a "T". An athletic underclassman from a big time program (Texas) who has great position versatility (coming out of high school Williams was rated as both the top Safety in the country by Rivals.com and the top CB in Texas). Any DB the Steelers draft early isn't going to be asked to play much immediately, so the coaches could take some time to decide where Williams fits exactly.

7) The team needs a good nickleback, a future #2 CB to play opposite Ike, and ought to seriously think about getting a more athletic FS, perhaps even taking Clark off the field on obvious passing downs (A 3rd Down Safety?). Williams has the talent and versatility to do this.

8) That is, if you think he's got the football smarts and dedication to be a part time player at several different positions for the first couple of years of his career.

9) He's also good value at #31 or so it seems to me. Much better than Rahim Moore at least. If Moore had been in last year's class he would have been a solid 3rd round value.  Taking him in the 1st a year later doesn't strike me as getting maximum value for your pick. That's just desperation. Moore lacks Williams physical upside and position versatility as well.

10) One more thing: During the Tomlin regime he Steelers have grabbed a difference maker with their 1st pick at a different position group and have alternated between defense and offense (Timmons, Mendenhall, Hood, Pouncey) or (LB, RB, DL, OL). This might well be the year to grab the same type of player for the defensive backfield.

11) Draft prediction: Gabe Carimi has a sharp drop on April 28th. I get the feeling that most teams aren't sure if he can play LT or, provided he can, if he'll be much better at it than a guy they could grab in the 2nd or 3rd.  Since most teams draft RT's in the 1st round as often as they draft interior offensive linemen, Carimi's going to end up getting a 2nd round grade from a number of organizations. I would not be surprised to see Carimi still on the board when the Steelers pick or, at least, within reach with a slight trade up.

12) Also, keep in mind Carimi has a history of nagging little injuries and is probably going to be forced to wear knee braces as a pro player. Little things like that can concern a team in the 1st round that wouldn't concern them later.

13) Since the Steelers don't seem to place any sort of special value with LT's, my guess is Carimi is high on their board. If he can't play LT then he can play RT or either of the guard spots. Again, Mike Tomlin loves guys with position versatility. In other words, he may be more valuable to the Steelers than to a lot of other teams.

14) Look at what happened with Iowa's LT Bryan Bulaga last season. He was typically mocked in the Top-10, but fell to #23 on draft day because a lot of teams didn't view him as an LT and weren't going to spend a high pick on an RT or interior lineman.

15) Carimi hasn't been mocked nearly so high - except by a few outliers that think the Cowboy's should take him. From what I've seen most mock drafters seem to think he'll go somewhere in the mid-20's. So, it's not exactly out of the realm of possibility that he could drop to the late 20's or early 30's.

16) On the other hand, maybe mock drafters just have a better grasp of Carimi's value than they did of Bulaga's and Carimi will go exactly where they think he will. Or higher.

Steeler Nation Obsession I Don't Understand: Marcus Cannon. A lot of the citizens of Steeler Nation seem to want Cannon even if this means taking him at 31st overall. To me he's a guy that's probably always going to struggle with his weight - even if he has the frame to handle a lot - lacks ideal mobility for a 1st round interior lineman, and didn't exactly dominate against weaker competition at TCU. Sure he's huge and has some surprisingly quick feet, but he doesn't seem like a special player to me. An ideal run blocker who struggles with speed on the edge and projects to right tackle/guard is a description that could apply to a number of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th round linemen. At least Carimi displays the athleticism to make you think he might be able to hold down the left side.

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