Another weekday, another entry into our Top 10 Draft 'Successes' and 'Busts' in the Kevin Colbert Era. Let's continue with the more disappointing picks with my selection at No. 9, Plaxico Burress.
As I mentioned time and time again in my writeup about Kendall Simmons, the No. 10 entry on my list, 'bust' is not necessarily the right categorical word to describe the guys at the bottom of this list. Kendall Simmons was not at all a 'bust' in the strictest sense of the term. But when you look at Kevin Colbert's track record of selecting bigtime contributors in round one since taking over draft day duties back in 2000, it's easier to understand why Simmons deserves to be considered for inclusion as one of the more disappointing selections in Colbert's outstanding tenure. It's all relative.
At No. 9, I don't think there will quite be the same type of initial disagreement as to why his name merits inclusion on the list. But who knows actually? Surely some of you will be opinionated as to why he belongs lower on the list, or perhaps not on it at all. And that 'he' is the currently embattled wide receiver Plaxico Burress, taken in the first round of Kevin Colbert's very first draft as the Steelers director of football operations back in 2000.
To begin, let's refresh our memory about what Burress accomplished statistically while with the Steelers between '00 and '04:
2000: 12 games, 8 starts, 22 receptions, 273 yards, 12.4 Y/R, 0 TDs.
- Burress was targeted 65 times as a rookie despite playing in only three quarters of the team's games. Burress had a catch rate of just 35 percent that year, one of the very worst marks in the entire league (if not the lowest) for wide receivers who saw more than just a handful of passes thrown their way. Translation? They forced him the ball too much that year, pressing to get their top 10 pick the ball early and often. Hines Ward got just 83 looks as a point of reference despite playing all 16 games. He finished with 48 receptions, good for a 58 percent catch rate on passes thrown his way. That's a respectable but not spectacular rate. Anyway, who knows if Burress was clamoring for the ball or if he just had lots of plays called for him, but the bottom line is that the '00 passing attack was awful (29th in yards). The run game was good, but not that good. The Steelers could have benefited from a less predictable passing attack, and had they been more versatile on offense, they make the playoffs instead of finishing 9-7 and left out of the postseason.
2001: 16 games, 16 starts, 66 receptions, 1008 yards, 15.3 Y/R, 6 TDs, 55 percent catch rate.
- Very solid sophomore season for Burress, thanks in part to the Steelers figuring out they had something special in Hines. No. 86 caught 94 passes that year. Yet despite finishing with nearly one third fewer receptions, Burress edged out Ward by a whopping total of five receiving yards. The two were learning how to compliment each other. It's worth noting though that Burress' DVOA (Football Outsiders' bread and butter metric) proves that he wasn't quite as valuable per play as his traditional metrics might suggest, and that he requires a high number of looks to be all that productive.
2002: 16 games, 15 starts 78 receptions, 1325 yards 17.0 Y/R, 7 TDs
- A breakthrough season for Burress in year three, but again, his 54 percent catch rate put him in the very bottom tier of fellow WRs.
2003: 16 games, 16 starts, 60 receptions, 860 yards, 14.3 Y/R, 4 TDs
- The Steelers finished a disappointing 6-10 that year, and with Burress' numbers taking a big dip while Hines Ward's continued to escalate, I wonder if '03 was the year that Burress petulantly sealed his fate in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were far more adherent to their policy of re-signing players the year before their contracts expired back then, and it would have been after the '03 season that Plax was due to get paid. Yet his numbers were way down despite still being targeted 120 times. His catch rate dropped back under 50 percent, and he finished outside the top 50 in DVOA. With no immediate solution at quarterback to draw hope from and his stats dropping at the most important time of his career, is it hard to envision how or why a guy like Burress wasn't exactly locker room gold during the team's frustrating 6-10 transition season?
2004: 11 games, 11 starts, 35 receptions, 698 yards, 19.9 Y/R, 5 TDs
- Enter Ben Roethlisberger and the future suddenly doesn't look so ho-hum for the Steelers. Only problem for a me-first personality (at least back then) is that Ken Whisenhunt wasn't anywhere near ready to take the training wheels off Big Ben. Not with the way the Steelers were rolling along that year, that's for sure. Consequently, Burress only saw 60 passes thrown his way and finished with a mere 35 catches in what was supposed to be a showcase year before he hit the open market. Ironically, it was in '04 that Burress proved to be the most valuable as measured by DVOA. He finished 4th that year. But he wasn't getting the looks, and that seemed to be what mattered most to him.
I will cut this off, but as for his playoff performances...well, it's a mixed bag. Burress did actually post solid postseason numbers with the Steelers. In six playoff games during the '01, '03 and '05 seasons, Burress caught 23 passes for 381 yards and 3 TDs. In the AFC Championship Game against New England though, Burress dropped a difficult but catchable TD pass at a critical moment in the game. It happens, but it's harder to stomach when the guy goes on the record after the loss to whine about not getting the ball enough. Make football plays with the opportunities you do have please before coming off as out of touch and selfish with your personal agenda.
To me, it comes down to several concrete factors: (1) he was a top ten pick, not a late 20s or early 30s first rounder. Top ten picks are supposed to pan out in a big way. Burress' tenure in Pittsburgh was not exactly a 'bust', but I don't think it's unfair to say it didn't live up to its top ten billing. And (2) even though his statistical productivity was nothing to sneeze at, I've hopefully laid the groundwork for the argument that he really wasn't that productive when you consider how featured he was in the Steelers offense during his five years in black and gold. Finally, (3) you have to ding Colbert & Co. at least slightly for rolling the dice on a guy that they probably knew had at least some semblance of 'baggage' attitude wise.
That's fine. I want the Steelers to take appropriate gambles on players that may not be ideal character guys. There just aren't that many great talents that are also awesome, selfless personalities in the group dynamic. That's human nature. You best though be confident that you're going to get maximum production out of volatile personalities before they have the time and leeway to adversely affect your team chemistry. And quite simply, I don't think the Steelers got maximum production from the eighth overall pick in the 2000 Draft in their selection of Plaxico Burress.
P.S. If you haven't done so, take a moment to read my write up about Simmons at No. 10. I say that because I want you to take note of the difference in tone. This entry was a bit more 'harsh' for obvious reasons. Burress didn't display any loyalty to the Steelers, so no real reason to reciprocate. Anyway, reading that will better frame my mindset about this list -- that it's not one to bash on guys we think are 'busts', but really to just try to objectively countdown ten guys that didn't quite live up to expectations for one reason or another.
Also, throw me in the camp that thinks a team would be wise to give Burress another shot. I don't recall where, but one of the major media outlets just posted something about how Michael Vick should be at the forefront of teams' minds when deciding whether or not to take a gamble on Plax at age 33. I agree 100 percent. Burress is not a totally spoiled apple nor a hopeless soul. He was just immature, and you can be sure he's done a lot of growing up this past couple of years.
Kevin Colbert's Top 10 Draft 'Busts'
Kevin Colbert's Top 10 Draft 'Successes'
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