Assessing the Steelers' Drafting Success During the Kevin Colbert Era, Part II

PITTSBURGH PA - JANUARY 23: LaMarr Woodley #56 and Brett Keisel #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate after sacking Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23 2011 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

With free agency in full swing, it seems the perfect time to highlight one of the two reasons why the Steelers aren't fully immersed in the NFL's version of a live auction; they draft very well. In the second part of her series, BTSC writer Rebecca Rollett assesses past Steelers' drafts and compares them to an AFC rival, looking to determine who's been more successful. - nc

Part I of this series, which addresses the Round 1 picks of the 2001 - 2010 drafts, can be found here. There were a couple of comments to that article I wish to address before proceeding to Round 2. First, from Cols714, objecting to the information taken from the Cold Hard Football Facts article assessing the past decade of drafting:

...any system that has the Pats! ranked higher than the Steelers for drafting players is doing it wrong.

The Steelers do not sign free agents yet have been pretty much every bit as good as the Pats have been over the past decade.

The Pats are good at trading for draft picks but fail when it comes to actually turning those picks into players, which is the entire purpose of drafting.

So is he right? Here’s the information CHFF used to make their assessment:

Using information from the great folks at pro-football-reference.com – or, as we like to call it, "The Bible" – we broke down the 10 drafts from 2001-2010 looking for an impartial answer to who was the best. Who drafted the most stars, the most longtime starters, the most promising young players? Who had the most players from their drafts active in the league last year? Who was the best?

So it appears the CHFFs people used exactly the information Cols714 was suggesting—in other words, how well the Patriots turned their picks into players. One point CHFF may have missed is how much benefit the Patriots ultimately extracted from their picks. Because if you develop a player who then leaves in free agency he is "active in the league" but you may not have maximized his value for your own team. On the other hand, if you develop a player and then keep him too long, that might not be the best strategy either.

So out of curiosity I tried an experiment. The 2010 Steelers went to the Super Bowl and lost. The 2011 Patriots went to the Super Bowl and lost. I took the Super Bowl roster for each team and, for lack of a better quick option, added up the total of the Trade Value Chart points for each player. Since both teams had so many UDFAs I assigned that value as one. After all, if the value of the last pick in the draft is two, someone who isn’t picked at all is surely worth less. (Since a UDFA doesn't have any draft cost at all, I suppose it should be zero, but a UDFA does take up roster space eventually, possibly pushing off someone else with draft value.) I didn’t distinguish whether the player was drafted by the Steelers/Patriots or by another team, just the value of the place they were picked. Here are the numbers:

2010 Pittsburgh Steelers: 10,214.9

2011 New England Patriots: 11,396.5

Using this entirely unscientific method, we come to the conclusion the Steelers win. They made it to the Super Bowl for a lower draft investment cost. Maurkice Pouncey, our 2010 No. 1 pick, wasn’t on that roster, but adding in his 900 points (vs. 1 point for Doug Legursky, who replaced him) still leaves the Steelers the winner at 11,113.9.

It's admittedly rather a silly method. But in the course of doing it I noticed something rather interesting. All but two of the Steelers’ 2001-2010 first-round picks were on the Super Bowl roster (or, in Pouncey’s case, would have been if he hadn’t been injured.) Only five of the Patriots’ 2002-2011 picks were. What happened to the others?

2002 pick: Daniel Graham, TE: left in FA, currently signed with TEN

2003 pick: Ty Warren, DE: released in 2010, now with DEN

2004: The Pats had two first-round picks. Vince Wilfork was one. The other was Benjamin Watson, TE, released in 09 and now with CLE.

2005 pick: Logan Mankins

2006 pick: Lawrence Maroney, RB: Traded to DEN early in the 2010 season, now a free agent

2007 pick: Brandon Meriweather, S: Released Sept 2011, signed with CHI

2008 pick: Jerod Mayo

2009: no pick, traded down

2010 pick: Devin McCourty

2011 pick: Nate Solder

Of the other five picks, two (Meriweather and Maroney) had character concerns; in Maroney’s case it shortened his career. The Patriots got a lot out of Graham, Watson and Warren and then released them.

To take up Col714’s point again, Steelers teams are largely composed of players they draft or pick up as UDFAs and develop themselves. The 2010 Steelers Super Bowl active roster had four players on it picked up in free agency, out of the 44 active players that night. The Patriots had seven players drafted by other teams on their roster, and more of their UDFAs were picked up from other teams as well. I don’t think you can say this definitively proves his point. But, as another poster noted, CHFF is based in Boston...

And before I leave this topic, I did a little more Googling and found the following article, published in Forbes magazine in 2009. In summary, they evaluated how well teams draft based strictly on how large a percentage of their draft choices were still on their roster. They gave a slight edge to players who made the Pro Bowl. (The years in question were 2006-2008.) Their conclusion? The top three teams, from the best down, were the Texans, the Colts, and the Giants. The bottom three teams, from the worst up, were the Patriots, the Rams, and the Steelers. There you have it, folks. Here was their conclusion:

The bottom line: Drafting NFL-caliber players is very important, but it doesn't necessarily equal success on the field. Finding other strategies to plug the gaps, like the Patriots and Steelers have done, is essential. So don't judge your team's success at the end of draft day. Wait to see how it all plays out--and watch for what your team does to boost draft deficiencies.

On to the next comment, from SteelCityRoller. It was long, impassioned, and very interesting, but I edited it to the essentials for brevity's sake:

The biggest argument against the point system for grading picks, is Tom Brady vs. Ryan Leaf. Some guys possess all the natural gifts, but no ability to control them, or evolve. Some lack the physical talents, but make up for it with intelligence, devotion, or good, old-fashioned heart. (Lookin at you, Hines) I’ve learned the most important aspect of a player to judge...is the person inside the meat suit. Sometimes the human being gets buried in piles of college highlight clips and media speculations...Character is just as important as any measurable physical ability. ..I think we owe that to Mr. Rooney and Coach Noll, carried on through Coach Cowher, and now mantled by Coach Tomlin and Mr. Colbert...we leave no stone unturned when finding "our" guys.

I love what SteelCityRoller has to say, and agree with a great deal of it. The problem is that you can look at what a person has done but you can’t look into their heart or know for sure what they will be like after they get a large contract, thus making judgments about character more difficult than you might think. You can weed out the obvious troublemakers, but sometimes a person that looks like a high-character pick doesn’t turn out to be quite what one expected.

And unfortunately, in the end football is a business, and winning trumps a lot of things. I love high-character guys, and I think the Steelers draft them if they can. Life isn't alway fair, though, and the high-character guy doesn’t always have the physical tools it takes to succeed at the highest level.

In regards to grading by pick points, SteelCityRoller is absolutely right on a case-by-case basis. Brady/Leaf is the classic argument against just that. And honestly, since it is the example every single person making the argument uses, it must be a fairly rare exception. As a general rule, there must be some validity to the value collectively assigned by the people paid to make these decisions. Obviously, they don’t always get it right, but the numbers show they generally do.

Advanced NFL Stats has crunched the numbers, and as I discussed in the earlier article, they clearly demonstrate the first one or two quarterbacks taken in the draft are vastly more likely to be successful in the NFL. Not all of them are going to succeed, for a variety of reasons, but the majority of the top-end quarterbacks currently in the league are the first or second quarterback picked in their class.

You might luck out and get Matt Flynn in the 7th round (although only time will tell whether he actually does well as the starter on a different team) but it's highly unlikely. 21 QBs were drafted during the 7th round between 2001 and 2010. Three of them have turned out to be serviceable enough to be the starter. That’s about 14%.

So maybe you hit on one the first time you draft, but by the percentages you may have to draft as many as 9 or 10 before you get a good one. You’re certainly going to have to develop them. And development involves a cost. You can only carry so many guys on your roster, and while the time of your coaching staff, training staff et al isn’t a zero sum, it is finite, and to a certain extent time you expend on one guy takes away from time you can spend on another guy.

But even more of a concern is this: all three of those 7th round quarterbacks were drafted by a different team than the one benefitting from their services. Yes, the Packers got some value out of Flynn, but assuming he continues to play well, the team who will benefit from the development time and costs the Packers put into him will not be the Packers. This is true if you continue through the list of quarterbacks taken after the first round between 2011 and 2010. (You can find the list in the previous article.) The two outstanding quarterbacks on that list, Matt Schaub and Dree Brees, were both drafted by different teams than they currently play for. (And Brees should probably not even be on the list, as he was the 2nd quarterback chosen in his draft and was picked at #32, which is now a first-round pick, just.)

In other words, not only are late-round picks a crap shoot, but you might actually find and develop someone who will leave in free agency not long after they have really begun to blossom. First round picks are as valuable as they are for a reason—because you have a much better chance of getting a quick return on your investment. This would argue, as many people have, that the best strategy is to take fewer, higher-round picks.

This, however, ignores something I will attempt to address now—why is the Steelers’ record so much less impressive in the second round? I noted CHFF didn’t even mention this, so either most teams struggle a lot more in the second round, or they missed it. Thanks to PaVaSteeler and ProFootball Reference, I had the data to look at this, and so I did. Here are the top five teams and the bottom five teams, with Pittsburgh in the middle, in a handy table:

TEAM #pks ProBowls YrsSAvg CAV avg.

Best

Player

Worst

Player

SD 9 .88 4.8 36.5 Drew Brees, QB None
JAX 10 .3 4.4 29.6 Maurice Jone-Drew.RB Eben Britton, T
SD 8 .38 4.1 28.9 Marcus McNeill, T None
CHI 7 .43 3.6 27.1 Charles Tillman, DB None
BUF 11 .36 3.2 23.5 Aaron Schoebel, DE James Hardy, WR
ATL 8 .5 5 23.3 Alge Crumpler, TE Jimmy Williams, DB
PIT 8 .25 2 19.5 Antwaan Randle El, WR Limas Sweed, WR

BAL 10 .1 2.1 14.3 Antony Weaver, DE Dan Cody, DE
DEN 12 .17 1.5 14.2 Clinton Portis, RB Terry Pierce, RB
TAM 8 0 2.3 13.9 Barrett Ruud, LB Dexter Jackson, WR
MIN 13 .15 1.7 12.5 E. J. Henderson, LB Willie Howard, DE
KC 9 0 1.9 11.2 Kawicka Mitchell, LB Eddie Freeman, DE







The columns are: Team Name, the number of picks they had from 2001 - 2010, the number of pro bowl appearances by players drafted in the second round, divided by the number of picks (and hence it is always a fraction;) the total number of years players were/are starters, divided by the number of players; and the total of Pro Football Reference's Weighted Career Approximate Value for each player, divided by the number of players.

Pittsburgh looks to be solidly in the middle, given the numbers, but in fact they are #9 out of 32. (If you're wondering why there are two entries for San Diego, it's because I calculated it both with and without Drew Brees. I thought he might have been skewing the figures unduly, but even without him they are #2, right below, yes, Jacksonville.) New England, in case you're wondering, really is right in the middle, at #15.

Let's look at the Steelers' 2nd round from 2001-2010:

2001: Kendrell Bell

2002: Antwaan Randle El

2003: Alonzo Jackson

2004: Riccardo Colclough

2005: Bryant McFadden

2006: no second round pick

2007: LaMarr Woodley

2008: Limas Sweed

2009: no second round pick

2010: Jason Worilds

The Steelers had no second round picks in 06 and 09 because they traded down, for Anthony Smith and Willie Reid in 2006 and for Kraig Urbik and Mike Wallace in 2009. Since in both years you can see one as a reasonable pick and one as a fail, it sort of cancels itself out. (In fairness, the Wallace pick weights it toward the overall success side.)

Here is how I view these picks—feel free to disagree as always:

Hits: Kendrell Bell, Antwaan Randle El, Bryant McFadden, LaMarr Woodley

Fails: Alonzo Jackson, Riccardo Colclough, Limas Sweed

Jury is still out: Jason Worilds

One of those picks, Alonzo Jackson, was considered by CHFF to be the worst (Steelers) pick of the decade. (Looking at the figures, I went with Limas Sweed.) All in all, assuming Jason Worilds continues to develop well, they hit on better than 50% of their picks, hit on one big star, (two if you consider Wallace as part of the 2nd round record,) and had several major fails. Who could they have taken instead?

Hindsight is always 20-20, but it is interesting to look at what players, both at the same position and as a so-called "BPA" of any position a team could have taken. I won’t go with players taken well below where the Steelers picked, because it becomes harder and harder to predict success for players taken in the lower rounds, but here are players who would have been available to the Steelers at their second-round spot. I’m going to confine myself to the unsuccessful draft picks, and assume the Steelers had stayed put in the two years they traded down.

2001, 2002: N/A

2003: They could have had Lance Briggs instead of reaching for Jackson, who wasn’t really an OLB in the first place. They could also have taken Jason Witten, TE, or Asante Samuel, CB. (The Pats got Samuel in the 4th round.)

2004: Also on the board was Bob Sanders, picked by the Colts at #44. They could have also had Jared Allen, DE, who didn’t go until the 4th round.

2005: N/A

2006: If the Steelers had stayed at their pick (#57) they could have had Devin Hester, DB, Brandon Marshall, WR. or Elvis Dumerville, DE. Hester was taken at #57 and both Marshall and Dumerville were taken in the 4th round.

2007: N/A

2008: I think you could argue the best WRs in this class were gone by the time the Steelers picked. But there were a few left who would have given the Steelers more value than they got out of Limas Sweed, notably Mario Manningham and Early Doucet. Since this was the year the Steelers selected Mendenhall, even with BPA they wouldn’t have selected a second back. But they could have gotten either Jamaal Charles or Ray Rice instead of Limas Sweed.

2009: I guess there’s no point to arguing the Steelers should have stayed put. Mike Wallace is worth it.

If you want to argue the Steelers haven’t drafted as well in the second round as one would expect, and I still think it is a reasonable argument to make, what is the problem? First, let’s find out what Advanced NFL Stats has to say about positions other than QB, where we’re already discovered there isn’t much chance of finding a top one in the second round. In an April 2009 article, "Career Success by Draft Order," they show a steep downward trend, using several different measures. In fact, this drop is quite steep prior to pick #16 and drops more slowly after that. Perhaps the question is how the Steelers do so well in the bottom of the first round, rather than why they aren’t more successful in the 2nd round.

Here are some other thoughts, by position:

DEs: There is a distinct drop-off after the first round, but there is also a reasonable chance of picking up a starter in the later rounds.

WRs: This, from their article, says it all:

As temperamental as they may be, top WR draft picks really do turn out to be stars far more often than later picks. They seem to be a lot like QBs. There is a real scarcity of talent at both positions, and it is difficult to predict with much certainty which ones will pan out. A team's chances of finding a highly productive player are still better with a top pick.

RBs: Like QBs, the first two RBs in a draft are much better on average than the rest. But their conclusion was interesting enough to warrant printing the whole thing:

Top picks solidly outperform subsequent picks. The top two RBs taken tend to almost be in a class to themselves, then there is a steady decline in expected performance until the 8th RB taken, at which point there is very little to be expected from a pick.

So do teams need a superstar #1 pick RB to win, or can they find a premier runner deep in the draft? Which conventional wisdom was right? My theory is it's neither.

I think most people still grade RBs in terms of total yards, whether it's for a single game or for a season. Even though it should be well known now that winning leads to running, rather than vice versa, commentators and analysts continue to count 100 yard games or 1000 yard seasons as measures of RB effectiveness.

But even below-average RBs on winning teams with good passing games and good defenses will tend to accumulate large chunks of total yards due to frequent carries. Even a RB who was a 5th round pick on a great passing team will appear much better than he truly is. I believe that might explain the perception that solid RBs can be found anywhere in the draft.

The better RBs really do come from the top picks. It's just that they're not that important, or at least they're not as important as they were in the 1970s before the NFL became a passing league. Plus, our understanding of which RBs are truly the very good ones is distorted by analysts who insist on total yards as the best measure of RB performance.

DBs: The data seemed to show a better chance of picking up a good DB later in the draft than most other positions.

LBs: Like the data for QBs, the data shows a sharp dropoff after the first couple of LBs taken in a draft.

The continuing theme in this series is that the best players really do come from the top of the draft. No surprise there. But the top players have more than just an incrementally higher chance of great success, but double or triple the chance. The scouts and GMs do have an ability to recognize the players with the most potential at every position we've looked at so far.

As I looked at their conclusions, it seems the Steelers have proceeded wisely in the past decade in many ways.

They didn’t mess around with late-round QBs except as back-ups, although taking a chance on the third QB in the 2004 draft might not have been playing the numbers. I have the sense, though, that Ben was their guy, even had they had the second pick. Or else they were really lucky to be picking their QB in a year with three top QBs instead of the usual one or two.

Picking a bunch of DBs in lower rounds and letting them sort themselves out made more sense than spending top dollar for a DB, except in the case of Troy Polamalu, who is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. They have been exceedingly lucky (or exceedingly thorough) in picking up some excellent WR talent in later rounds.

They took mainly high-round DEs and LBs, supplemented with flyers on late-round prospects or UDFAs that occasionally paid off.

The one place you might fault them, according to the Advanced NFL Stats conclusions, would be picking a first-round RB, but given their identity as a "smash-mouth" team its hardly surprising they felt the need to pick high on this. And had they taken advantage of Mendenhall’s receiving capabilities more he might now appear as even more valuable a pick.

So to return to the question of the second round, what’s going on? I’m hardly an expert, but I have a theory. As we’ve already seen, in most positions the first couple of players taken, or at least the ones taken in the upper part of the first round, are the creme de la creme. They are much more likely to excel. By the time you get to the second round there tend to be a lot of "top talents" that slipped out of the first round, combined with lower round talents who raised their stock at the combine or other official events.

I wonder if, in the case of players that slip, there’s a touch of hubris—the Steelers staff feel they know more than the majority of the scouts. Or they are prepared to gamble a bit more, feeling they have a coaching and development staff superior to other teams.

Certainly they get it right more often than not, on balance. But perhaps there is a weakness in their scouting. I noted with interest a comment from Kevin Colbert in re DT Amini Silatolu:

Any small-school guy, they have to prove they can do it at the next level because we can't see them. They're missing a step along the way. The further down you go in college football - Division III, II, I - the harder it is to prove you're worthy of NFL competition because you're not at that level as you're preparing for the next step.

Maybe he is really interested in Silatolu, and trying to throw the opposition off-track. But probably not, as that doesn’t seem to be his style. I think the Steelers are genuinely less comfortable with small-school talent, and you can see why. Certainly you would have to allow for more development time, if nothing else. But I suspect this is where most of the real bargains are to be found.

I wonder if the Steelers ought to invest in more scouting staff, and spend more time at small schools. Antonio Brown was not someone on the Steelers’ (or anyone else’s) radar, and they only found him because they noticed him when they went to a small school to scout a different player altogether. So perhaps if the Steelers want to increase their percentage of late-round hits they need to greatly expand their coaching staff and flood the small schools with personal visits.

After all, that’s just a variant on how they first became successful in the 70s - they were scouting the small HBCs no one else was looking at. But really, this should be a discussion for the next article. We will look at the Steelers’ supposed lack of success in the later rounds (as per CHFF) and see whether it is actually true. And what is a reasonable measure of success? How many misses are you allowed when you have a big hit? To be continued...

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