FanPost

Why the Steelers should NOT package later rounds (3 thru 6) to move up.

During the 2011 lockout, much noise was made, by both sides, about the career "life expectancy" of an NFL player. In response to statements made by NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith, the NFL posted on its communications website comments made by Roger Goodell attempting to de-bunk Smith's claim that the average career was 3.5 years. Goodell is quoted as stating:

"There is a little bit of a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding on that. Frequently, it is said that the average career is about 3.5 years. In fact, if a player makes an opening day roster, his career is very close to six years," Commissioner Goodell said. "If you are a first-round draft choice, the average career is close to nine years. That 3.5-year average is really a misrepresentation. What it adds is a lot of players who don't make an NFL roster and it brings down the average." (Italic emphasis added)

Here at BTSC there has been much debate as to what strategy the Steelers will take with their first round pick, at #24. Some have advocated packaging this pick with the 3rd and/or later round picks to move up to select a specific individual (DeCastro most commonly referenced); others have advocated "trading down" into the second round.

I would argue that a strong correlation can be made between the Steelers' long-term success and the average career length of its draft picks, as measured by a "Longevity Index".

The Steelers status as the most successful team in the "modern era", and its draft history, provides clear direction for its strategy, and warning signs for any consideration to deviate from it.

The purpose of this article is not to argue that a team has to have the highest average career length to win a Super Bowl; if that was the case, the Steelers would have won more Super Bowls in the 1990's than they did. The New England Patriots are considered the most successful team of the 2000's, but had during that time an average career length that was below the League's average for the same period, unlike the previous "Teams of the Decade" which exceeded the League average.

Decade

League Avg

"Team of Decade" Avg

2000's

4.4

4.0

Patriots

1990's

5.2

5.4

Cowboys

1980's

4.2

4.8

Niners

1970's

3.1

3.4

Steelers

Since 1970, almost four thousand draft picks never played a single game (averaging 93 players a year), or 29% of each draft class, while still costing the selecting team a draft pick. In terms of a team's long-term and continuing success, Smith's representation of a player's expected career length is far more accurate than Goodell's definition; the league defends its statistical analysis of career length based on the requirement that a player drafted be on its opening day roster (6 years). The NFLPA "starts the clock" the moment a player becomes an NFL member (3.5 years). However, the common element to both is each cost the expenditure of a draft pick.

Thus, it could be argued that despite the prevalence of free agency where teams can "buy" talent by responding to cries of "...show me the money!!!" a successful draft philosophy is the cornerstone to a team's long term success; for developing a successful draft philosophy, and adhering to it year after year, minimizes the number of draft "busts" who never play a game, and builds a pipeline of players of similar traits and abilities which then allows for stability in a team's chosen style of play (i.e. the traits necessary for players in a successful 3-4 defensive scheme differ in some key aspects from those in a 4-3 scheme).

A good pick might provide you with a serviceable player, one who, while he may not make the Pro Bowl on a regular basis, will prove to be a steady and reliable player for a number of years (e.g. William Gay). A great pick will be an ongoing presence and difference maker on the team for a long period of time (e.g. Mike Webster). In all instances however, the team must remain true to its draft philosophy; in the case of the Steelers, this means finding the best value in rounds 3 through 6, and selecting the Best Player Available ("BPA"), regardless of positional need. While the team has been successful in trading up for individual players who have been highly successful (e.g. T. Polamalu, S. Holmes), for the most part, the Steelers do not mortgage draft picks to change their selection seeding. Historically, this philosophy and practice has proven its worth.

On average, 315 players have been drafted per year, totaling 13,224 players from 1970 to 2011.

Based on my analysis of all 13,224 draft picks, as compiled from pro-footbal-reference.com, the average career length of all players drafted since 1970 is 3.98 years. The average career length of the Pittsburgh Steelers is 4.31 years for that same period of time. The totals are broken down by position as follow:

Offense

Defense

Sp. Teams

League

Steelers

League

Steeler

League

Steeler

Pos

Total #

Avg Term

Avg Term

Pos

Total #

Avg Term

Avg Term

Pos

Total #

Avg Term

Avg Term

C

377

4.71

5.28

CB

4

1.00

0.00

K

164

4.34

6.70

C-G

1

0.00

0.00

DB

2,282

4.01

4.50

KR

3

0.00

0.00

FB

74

6.43

0.00

DE

1,045

4.52

4.04

LS

1

2.00

0.00

G

856

4.13

4.30

DE-DT

1

3.00

0.00

P

144

4.95

6.25

OL

34

1.00

1.00

DL

26

1.00

1.00

OT

4

1.00

0.00

DT

808

3.63

3.97

QB

623

4.58

6.95

FS

3

1.00

0.00

RB

1,550

3.35

3.15

LB

1,778

4.11

4.82

RB-TE

1

5.00

0.00

LB-DE

1

4.00

0.00

TE

751

4.13

2.67

NT

128

5.45

6.64

WB

2

6.00

0.00

OLB

6

1.00

0.00

WR

1,591

3.49

4.30

SS

2

1.00

0.00

T

964

3.96

4.50

Total:

6,828

Total:

6,084

Total:

312

During that same time frame, 1970 through 2011, the ten most successful teams, and winners of 31 out of 42 Super Bowls (74%) were the Steelers, Miami, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, Minnesota, Oakland, New England, Washington, and Green Bay, as illustrated below:

Ranking by Winning Percentage

Conference

Superbowl

Pts/

Opp Pts

Ave Margin

Wild

Division

Titles

Team

W

L

T

Pct.

Game

/Game

of Victory

cards

Titles

W

L

W

L

1

PIT

427

268

2

0.614

21.7

16.7

5.1

5

20

8

7

6

2

2

MIA

405

281

2

0.590

20.9

19.3

1.6

8

14

5

2

2

3

3

DAL

413

288

0

0.589

22.7

20.7

2.1

8

18

8

6

5

3

4

DEN

384

290

6

0.570

21.4

22.2

-0.8

7

11

6

2

2

4

5

SFO

389

297

3

0.567

22.3

19.1

3.2

4

18

5

8

5

0

6

MIN

381

306

2

0.555

21.1

21.5

-0.4

8

16

3

5

0

3

7

OAK

371

308

6

0.546

22.2

21.8

0.2

6

12

4

7

3

1

8

NWE

371

310

0

0.545

24.7

20.3

4.4

4

13

7

1

3

4

9

WAS

368

311

2

0.542

20.2

20.4

-0.3

9

7

5

1

3

2

10

GNB

348

318

8

0.523

23.7

19.7

4.0

7

9

3

2

2

1

The NFL draft is based on rounds of selections for the individual teams to make from the qualified pool of candidates; obviously, the team's first choice is the player available it most covets, which ipso facto, is the highest quality player under the selecting team's criteria. Therefore, as logic follows, and barring injury, it would be correct to presume that the best players would enjoy the longest careers, and would enjoy multiple year contracts, whether with their original teams, or via free agency (the Longevity Index assigns the players' time in the NFL only to the team that drafted him). Therefore, the players most likely to play the longest, are those with the superior skills with which to defend their jobs from subsequently drafted rookies, and whose skills keep them in demand. Thus, the higher a player is drafted, the longer that player's career will last, as referenced by the league commissioner, and as illustrated here:

League

Steelers

Steelers Rank

Round:

Term (Yrs)

% of Avg.

Term (Yrs.)

% of League

by Round

1

7.8

196%

8.27

106%

8

2

6.5

163%

6.37

98%

17

3

5.6

140%

6.52

117%

2

4

4.7

119%

5.91

125%

1

5

4.0

100%

5.56

140%

1

6

3.4

86%

4.30

126%

4

7

2.9

74%

2.72

93%

22

The higher draft picks do have longer career averages. However, the career lengths of rounds 3 through 5, not normally considered "high rounds" also meet or exceed the league average. Thus, a player does not have to hope to be drafted in an early round to expect to have an "average" length career.

What is more significant to note for purposes of this analysis, is the ranking of the career length of an individual team's round selection history. In the table above note the Steelers' Rank by Round standings, for the first 7 rounds of the Draft, for all of its seven selections per year, since 1970 (the NFL went to a 7 round draft starting in 1994).

The average career length of the Steelers' first round pick ranks only 8th in the league, or the 23rd percentile. The second round picks fare even worse, ranking 17th or the 52nd percentile, worse than more than half the league of 32 teams. In rounds 3 through 6 however, the Steelers rank in the 90th percentile or above (as illustrated in the table above [I couldn't get the graph to publish properly, but it makes the gap between the Steelers and the League's averages quite noticable).

If you create a Longevity Index wherein you rank the average career length, pick by pick, for all seven rounds, by descending order of longevity of a team's draft picks in each round, and assign 32 points to the team with the longest career average, and the team 1 point for the shortest career average, then calculate their total scores (highest possible score being 224 or 32 points x 7 rounds) the correlation becomes clear:

Most

Ranking of Career

Successful

Length by Team, 7

Rank

Teams

Rounds of Draft

1

PIT

PIT

176

2

MIA

OAK

161

3

DAL

NYG

146

4

DEN

CHI

145

5

SFO

GNB

144

6

MIN

SFO

139

7

OAK

STL

138

8

NWE

HOU

138

9

WAS

MIA

137

10

GNB

NWE

132

Six of the top 10 most successful teams (marked in bold), are also in the top 10 of the Longevity Index (marked in bold). The six teams on the Longevity Index account for 68% (21 SB victories) of the 31 Super Bowls won by the top 10 most successful teams. When you compare the longevity of a team's draft picks to its overall success, the importance of its draft philosophy, and the team's consistency in adhering to that philosophy becomes apparent.

For every first round pick like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, or Rod Woodson, overall the Steelers rank 8th in First Round picks due to selections like Walter Abercrombie, Darryl Sims, Huey Richardson; or, despite second round picks like Jack Ham, Carnell Lake, or Levon Kirkland, the Steelers rank 17th in the league due to second round selections like Scott Shields, Alonzo Jackson, Limas Sweed;

When in fact, as illustrated by the Longevity Index, the Steelers rank 2nd in the league for third round picks like Mel Blount, Mike Merriweather, or Mike Vrabel; 1st in the league for fourth or fifth round picks like Aaron Smith or Mike Webster and 4th in the league for sixth round picks like Matt Bahr or Greg Lloyd.

Thus caution should rule the day when the Steelers entertain the idea of trading up in the first round in order to get a specific player, especially if it means giving up picks in rounds 3 through 6. The Steelers have been the most successful team since the beginning of the modern era. A large part of that success comes from the drafting philosophy instilled in the organization by Chuck Noll, who expounding on the wisdom of drafting the best athlete available, regardless of position. It has become a mantra in the Steeler organization that it drafts the BPA, not the position. This philosophy has remained a cornerstone of the Steelers culture in large part because its ownership, the Rooney family, believes in stability and "staying the course" and does not make coaching changes haphazardly, which would introduce changes in its drafting philosophy.

The Steelers have experienced the success they have by retaining their draft picks, as opposed to regularly bundling picks together to move up in the draft, and by honing the quality of the scouting reports on players many other teams pass over, and then selecting the best players available with an appropriate round selection, not by mortgaging their future by giving away the very draft picks that have contributed the most in reaching for players, or by drafting for a specific position.

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