As I noted in this post, I decided to try to assess the Tomlin-era draft picks on what they say about Tomlin and the Front Office's talent evaluation, even if the player doesn't end up producing much, or at all, for the Steelers. My premise is that the team might not be able to wait for a guy to develop, or they might not have the roster space to keep someone they like.
This post looks at the draft picks from Mike Tomlin's second season, going into more depth if they are no longer with the team. I've also listed the UFAs they signed and followed those that saw some time on the team.
2008 Draft Picks (Round/Pick)
1/23 Rashard Mendenhall
2/53 Limas Sweed
3/88 Bruce Davis
4/130 Tony Hills (from NYG)
5/156 Dennis Dixon
6/188 Mike Humpal
6/194 Ryan Mundy (from Green Bay via NYG)
No 7th round pick
Undrafted Free Agentss:
CB Roy Lewis
QB Mike Potts
DT Martavius Prince
DT Jordan Reffett
TE Dezmond Sherrod
CB Travis Williams
WR Micah Rucker
WR Dorien Bryant
At first blush this draft has more misses than hits. Obviously, Rashard Mendenhall has turned out very well, although he lost essentially a whole season when he went down with a broken collar bone, thanks to our good friends in Baltimore. (Unfortunately, Rashard may be a fast learner on the field, but apparently has not figured out how to avoid chewing on his foot off of it. He's got plenty of company there, of course...) Despite the doubters who still wish we had taken Chris Johnson, Mendenhall has turned into the back they drafted him to be.
But ah, that second-round pick. At the time, SI called it "one of the best sleeper picks in the draft." It would have been, too, if Limas Sweed's head was on board with the rest of him. His athleticism and uncanny ability to get open have never been questioned, but it doesn't do much good to get open if you can't reliably catch the ball. (Given that Mendenhall had some fumbling issues as well, maybe we need to look at the planetary alignments during that draft.)
The poor young man never got a break. After apparently getting his head together after the 2009 season, he got a new number assignment, a new attitude and excitement—and an Achilles injury during mini-camp that ended his 2010 season. Once again he came to camp this season eager to compete for a roster slot, but a shoulder injury put paid to that notion. The Steelers finally gave up on him, putting him on the waived/injured list. Apparently no one has picked him up. It's a great pity. It's hard to blame it on talent evaluation.
It's possible that one could blame it on the coaching, though. I heard a rumor that Tomlin exercised a bit of "tough love" on him when he dropped what turned out to be the game-losing non-catch vs. the Bengals in early 2009. This was after an almost-critical drop in the AFC Championship game. It is possible that a style of discipline/motivation that has worked well for most other players was more than he could handle. But what do I know? That is complete and total speculation on my part.
But whether this is right on the money or way out in left field, it still doesn't put much of a blot on Colbert and company's talent evaluation. They took a chance, and in this case it didn't pan out. He could equally have turned out to be the big, fast, physical receiver the Steelers are still looking for.
Like Ryan McBean, Bruce Davis is another name that sent me running for Google. Here is his scouting report:
Davis is a hybrid 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end...Davis is at his best when he is able to pin his ears back and rush the passer...lightning quick and can beat most tackles with his first step...He moves very well laterally, which NFL coaches look for in a "tweener" prospect who may have to drop back into coverage...Davis will be a project player and will likely take a few seasons to grow into a starting outside linebacker...He is a high motor player that won't quit on a play and will likely contribute for many years in the NFL.
Sounds like a great fit for our system. Sports Illustrated ran a big piece on him prior to the draft. He was definitely on a lot of people's radar. I guess that should have been the Steelers' first clue.
After he was drafted, Michael ran an interview with him which he concluded with these words:
I personally have very high hopes for this young man. In addition to the physical tools and the football acumen, I'm excited to see what Davis brings to the table as a vocal leader in the future. Our defense has been missing a vocal presence on the field since Joey Porter left, and though we have plenty of high-character players on defense that lead by example, I think that Davis' confident swagger will be a welcome addition for years to come.
Ah, if only. We're still looking for our Ray Lewis as well.
The Steelers converted Davis to an outside linebacker, as they have done successfully with so many other players. (The list of other converts is long and distinguished, including Make Vrabel, Joey Porter and LaMarr Woodley.) The Steelers don't expect these project players to make the main squad right away, but they are expected to contribute on special teams. Unfortunately, Davis lost out in that competition to Patrick Bailey, one of the 2008 UFAs.
Although Davis worked hard in the offseason, he was waived with the last round of cuts in September 2009. However, Davis has found a home after bumping around the league on various practice squads. Last season the Raiders claimed him off of the Broncos' practice squad to shore up their depth at LB, and he's still on the roster. He isn't a household name, and one would have hoped for more from a third-round pick, but he has the chance to fulfill some of the potential the Steelers saw in him. I just hope that he doesn't suddenly fulfill it all at once in a future game vs. the Steelers. Our offensive line has enough on their plate...
Leading up to the 2008 draft, many analysts put Tony Hills as a 2nd or 3rd round pick for his athleticism and talent. Once again it looked as if the Steelers had snagged a great catch in the fourth round. But Hills never quite rose to the occasion, and spent almost all of his time with the Steelers on the sidelines.
An article written right after the draft stated, ironically enough: "Texas coaches say that he is better than OT Jonathan Scott [another Texas alum] who currently starts for Detroit." (Scott was drafted by the Lions in 2006.)
It's a shame I didn't write this article a month ago, because it looked as if Tony Hills was finally going to pan out. Long considered a bust, during the preseason he looked like a shoe-in for the RG position. But alas, it was not to be, and Hills was waived in the last round of cuts.
However, the Broncos picked Hills up right after the Steelers released him for their backup tackle spot. That's especially good news as he and his wife have a baby on the way.
With the fifth round pick, the Steelers finally took someone that is still on the squad. Just. However, Dennis Dixon is still an enigma. But to be fair, I am inclined to think that, particularly with quarterbacks, they need to be thrown into substantial game time sooner rather than later and be given a chance to sink or swim.
It seems to be quite rare that a QB sits on the bench for years and turns out to be a top-drawer player. Aaron Rodgers is one of the rare exceptions. It's difficult to say what Dixon could do if he had a chance to start on a regular basis. And unfortunately it's also hard to say what he would do if the Steelers had to start him, because whenever they have he has been inconsistent.
The Steelers of the 21st century seem to like to take a flyer on fifth-round QBs—Dixon is the fourth one they have taken. The other three were Tee Martin in 2000, Brian St. Pierre in 2003, and Omar Jacobs in 2006.
Martin was exiled to the Raiders in 2003. Brian St. Pierre has played for seemingly every team in the league, including being cut and re-signed several times in 2006 by the Steelers. His 2010 stint on the Panthers may have been his last season. Jacobs was cut by the Steelers at the start of the 2006 season, and has made the rounds of Arena teams, European teams, and so on.
Dixon has fared a great deal better than his fifth-round compatriots. But when you yearn to be a starter, that's cold comfort, I expect.
Mike Humpal was another unfamiliar name to me. He had a good combine, and was considered a possible heir to Farrior and Foote when he was drafted. He impressed this commentator, who said:
The more I think about this selection, the more pleased I am with it...report after report raves about his work-ethic, understanding of the game, and coachability. I have a hunch we may grow quite fond of this guy over the years...A proven, steady player that can probably do just fine in the league, especially if he had solid play in front of him by our defensive linemen.
(That assessment was also from Michael Bean.)
Unfortunately, Humpal injured his neck and spent most of his rookie season on IR. He was cut by the Steelers in the off-season, and apparently never made another roster.
It is with great relief that I move on to the Steelers' final pick of the 2008 draft, Ryan Mundy. A low sixth-round pick doesn't have a very high bar, and Mundy has definitely over-achieved. He has gone from the practice squad to top backup for both FS Ryan Clark and all-world SS Troy Polamalu. He had a great preseason and saw a lot of playing time in place of injured/resting starters.
He also has mad modeling skills. For proof, check out this video of a photo shoot with fellow Pittsburgher Neil Walker. Talk about position versatility! (Sorry, the Momma Rollett BLA draftswoman temporarily took over the keyboard.)
The UFA class of 2008 saw four signings getting roster time.
Patrick Bailey initially impressed the most, and won the Steelers' Rookie of the Year award for his play on special teams, but he never quite made the next step up, and got the final visit from the turk in the last roster cuts of 2010. He was claimed off waivers by the Titans the next day, and is still on their roster.
Roy Lewis played one game in the 2008 season, and was cut at the beginning of the 2009 season. He was promptly signed by the Seahawks, and won their Man of the Year award at the end of the 2010 season, as well as their Steve Largent Award. He is still on the team.
And finally, Doug 'Bronco' Legursky. After spending 2008 on the practice squad he got a deal in 2009. His finest hour may have been his play at center when Maurkice Pouncey went down last year. His start at RG wasn't so successful, and although I expect further shuffling of the line, the fact that he's in the starting lineup at all is a testament to his tenacity and hard work, as he is rather small for an offensive lineman.
So how do we evaluate this draft? Well, however you look at it, it was a disappointment in relation to the great 2007 draft.
In terms of talent evaluation, it looks better if you dig a bit farther. Let's revisit the "misses:"
The Steelers weren't the only ones to be blind-sided by Limas Sweed's combination of psychological issues and plain bad luck. It's a great pity, but I have trouble blaming the talent evaluation for this pick.
Bruce Davis was never a sure thing (although is any player in any round ever a sure thing?) Converting a DE to an OLB sometimes works really well, as in the case of LaMarr Woodley, and sometimes not so well, like Vernon Gholston for the Jets. And in any case it takes time, time that Davis didn't have, because he wasn't making the grade on special teams. Given his scouting reports coming into the draft, that poses a bit of a head-scratcher.
Tony Hills might yet turn into a great tackle, but his was a story of "too little, too late." We'll see how he progresses on the Broncos. Dennis Dixon has done about what you can reasonably ask of a fifth-round QB. And no, I don't want to hear about Tom Brady (who was a sixth-round pick anyhow.) I've heard enough about him this week in the comment threads to last me a lifetime.
Mike Humpal is an illustration of just how devastating injuries can be. Since I wasn't into football during the time Humpal was drafted and playing, I don't really know the story, but I am assuming that he never quite came back from the injury. The line is razor-thin between a good player and a not-quite-good-enough one, and an injury setback can quickly move a player from one side of the equation to the other. That said, I would guess that Humpal didn't show the staff enough before his injury to warrant keeping him after it.
We didn't have a seventh-round pick. In my opinion, we did well on the first, fifth, and sixth round picks, and hit a winner and some solid talent in the UFAs. But there are two picks not currently on a roster somewhere. Unfortunately, one of them was the second round pick.
While 2008 is not going down in history as one of the great Steeler drafts, it was better than it initially looks.
And just to show how silly it is to attempt to evaluate a draft immediately, check out the following "Draft Grade:"
One word describes the Pittsburgh Steelers draft - Exceptional. It's rare to think that every guy you take could, and very well should, make a meaningful impact for a division champion. That is this class in Pittsburgh. Big time prospects throughout.
Ironic for a draft class that may turn out to be the worst of the Tomlin era.