Maximizing the Potential of the Steelers' 2012 Draft Class, Part II

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 08: William Gay #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with teammates James Harrison #92 and Cameron Heyward #97 following his interception in the endzone in the second half against the Cleveland Browns during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

As the site regulars have probably noticed, I’ve been rather busy lately assessing the Steelers’ drafts from the past decade. During the course of this I discovered something curious. In the upper rounds the Steelers were quite successful in comparison to most of the league. But in the fifth round they were next to worst, only exceeded in incompetence, if incompetence is the problem, by Cincinnati. The Steelers were in the bottom quarter of the league in the sixth round and the bottom half of the league in the seventh.(The actual rankings were: Round One No. 3, Round Two No. 7, Round Three No. 14, Round Four No. 7, Round Five No. 31, Round Six No. 25, Round Seven No. 17.)

It’s possible the Steelers are at least partially a victim of their own success. After all, they can only carry so many players on the roster, and if the majority of their high-round picks work out it gives less opportunity to the low-round picks. But most of these players aren’t panning out elsewhere after the Steelers cut them either, or the Steelers would be getting the benefit of their success in terms of the CarAV rankings, at any rate.

So it is possible the coaching staff isn’t as effective with lower picks, and that is of course what I was speculating about in Part I. But I wonder whether there is an identifiable type of player who, against the odds, is successful as a low-round pick. After all, as my chart in the previous post demonstrated, league-wide the chances of succeeding as a low-round pick are minimal at best.

I looked at the fifth, sixth, and seventh round players drafted by the Steelers between 2000 and 2009. (I’m assuming it is too early to make a judgment about most of the players drafted in the lower rounds during the past two seasons.) I divided them up into four categories—Busts (didn’t last beyond being drafted, essentially,) Disappointments (shuffled around the league but never really stuck anywhere, or didn’t provide a lot of benefit to the Steelers,) Value Picks (generally not a starter, but a good special teams player and backup,) and the Overacheivers (against the odds they became starters and provided considerable value to the Steelers.) Here they are:

The Busts:

Busts_medium

The Disappointments:

Disappointments_medium

The Value Picks:

Value_picks_medium

And finally, The Overachievers:

Overachievers_medium

Out of the 38 players drafted in rounds five through seven 13 of them were Busts, or 34%. 13 more were Disappointments, or another 34%. So we have gone through over two-thirds of the players drafted before we get to the players who gave the Steelers significant value. Only four players became multi-year starters, or 11%, and the remaining eight players (21%) provided reasonable value to the Steelers without quite making it into the starting lineup, except for David Johnson who made it last year. (I was conflicted about where to put David Johnson, but because he has only been a starter for a year and his CarAV is below 10, I thought the assessment could wait another year. If he hadn’t dropped that pass in the Ravens game it might be another story...)

Let’s look at it by round for a moment. The Steelers drafted 14 fifth round players during this time, and the total Career Approximate Value as per Pro-Football-Reference is 79. The entire value comes from seven players, and just under half of it comes from Clark Haggans.

Thirteen players were drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round, and they garnered a total CarAV of 41. The entire value comes from seven players, and over half comes from Chris Kemoeatu.

Finally, the Steelers took 11 players in the seventh round. Their total CarAV is 58. The entire value comes from three players, and 48 of the 58 points comes from Brett Keisel.

But perhaps CarAV is too broad a brush to use for this assessment. I’ve obviously found it very useful for my recent stats posts, but I did notice it doesn’t tell the whole story, because of Sean Morey.

Sean Morey was a name I didn’t know at all, since I’ve only been a fan since 2009, until I did the wide receiver assessment post about a month ago. As I looked through the stats I noticed him and tucked his name away in the back of my mind with the idea of writing a sort of "doing the most with the least" post. Because although Morey played for nine years with three different teams, including the Steelers, his total CarAV is 1.

In 2008, while playing for Pittsburgh West, sorry, the Cardinals, he went to the Pro Bowl. 2008 wasn’t even the year he had enough stats to garner his sole Approximate Value point—it was in the previous year, also playing for Arizona. He never made a touchdown with any of his teams, and Antonio Brown accumulated twice as many yards as a returner last season as Morey was credited with during his entire career. And yet, as an essentially valueless player according to the PFR rankings he managed to persuade not one but three teams to keep him on their payroll for nine years. When I discovered he had been the Steelers’ special teams captain, I decided perhaps the CarAV isn’t the whole story on a player.

Still, the most successful players are going to show up well in the AV ranking. So let’s take a look at the four most successful players from the lower three rounds drafted between 2000 and 2009—Brett Keisel, Clark Haggans, Chris Kemoeatu, and William Gay.

Is there a particular set of attributes common to the four men? I believe there is, and here they are. We will see how well they fit, and if consequently it is possible to use them to predict success (or lack thereof) for some of our new players.

  1. None of them were by any measure the most "talented" or prototypically constituted players for their position in their draft class.
  2. They learned to work hard and substitute personal effort for any inadequacies.
  3. They had enough persistance and character to see them through early disappointments.
  4. They had enough early adversity, and learned to deal with it well enough, to carry them through the shake-up of coming into the league and suddenly competing with players who were more highly regarded and more "gifted" than they were.

Let’s start with Brett Keisel, the most successful of the lot, and the one who has been a Steeler the longest. He is also the only player from rounds five through seven in the 2000 - 2009 drafts to make the Pro Bowl, so far.

Although Keisel was (and still is) an excellent athlete, of the 24 defensive ends drafted in 2002 Keisel was #24. (The first was Julius Peppers, drafted #2 overall. Four were taken in the first round alone.) He has outlasted seventeen of them, as only seven, including Keisel, were still playing at the end of 2011.

Keisel was raised on a ranch in Wyoming. As he said in a 2011 interview for the Steelers Digest,

"My dad taught us how to work. Growing up on a farm, you need your family's help. It was great work-ethic training." He credits part of his persistence to having an older brother who was initially better than he was at everything. "It was something that drove me. He and I would compete all the time growing up, in everything."

Keisel played basketball, football and ran track in high school, and excelled. But attending BYU was a shock. The student body was more than 10 times bigger than his hometown, and he had to work hard to compete. His college career was solid but undistinguished, and that’s how the Steelers managed to pick him up at #242, their second (and final) seventh-round pick.

Still, he had a crisis of confidence. The Steelers Digest article continues

Even though he was in the middle of his first NFL training camp, [Keisel] was questioning what he wanted to do with his life. He didn't know if he should continue his pursuit of an NFL career or return to Wyoming to herd cattle.

"That was the time where I really had to sit and focus," said Keisel. "I prayed a lot during that time. I just got a calming sensation that everything was going to be all right. I just had to go out and play. That was a great moment."

Last season Keisel was named the Steelers' Walter Payton Man of the Year. This is an award given annually to a player for his success on the field and in the community.

Next up, in success and length of career (although not entirely with the Steelers) is Clark Haggans. When looking for information about Haggans I found this quote, and now I love him: "I'm just glad that I'm healthy right now with my hand. I can play the piano again, so I'm alright." The source of the quote was an August 2005 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It seems Haggans had fractured his hand while lifting weights during the 2004 pre-season. That was the season he was scheduled to debut as the starter at left OLB, replacing Jason Gildon. He returned for part of 2004, and was a starter for the 2005 Super Bowl-winning team. He sacked Matt Hasselbeck.

Haggans had a great deal of success during high school in track and basketball as well as football. (He sounds a bit like Brett Keisel.) He earned all-division honors in 1994. And yet, as Haggans explained in this video "Because I was too skinny, I couldn’t get a scholarship, nobody wanted me." Haggans was a walk-on at Colorado State. And then he went to work.

Michael Bean, founder of this august site, put Haggans at No. 4 in "Top Ten Draft Successes of the Kevin Colbert Era" series last year. As Michael said,

His primary contributions came on special teams before seeing regular snaps on defense beginning in '02, which ironically was the year that the Steelers seemingly had drafted their outside linebacker of the future in Alonzo Jackson. It's hard to break your way into the rotation on defense when you have Joey Porter and Jason Gildon ahead of you on the depth chart, but Haggans, notorious for his relentless work ethic, did play his way into the rotation in his third season.

His "relentless work ethic" never stopped. In 2010 this quote appeared in an article in the Arizona Republic:

It's early July, hotter than the self-cleaning setting on an oven, and the only people on the Cardinals' practice field are strength and conditioning coach John Lott and his "puppies" - rookie free agents trying to make the team.

Oh, and outside linebacker Clark Haggans. Who is 33. Who is a starter. Who is entering his 11th NFL season. Who could be sitting in cooler climes, drinking beverages with umbrellas in them, not slurping water from coolers.

"Clark is a breath of fresh air in today's world," Lott says "He's somebody who has an old-school approach to a new-school way of playing."

Haggans is currently a free agent, and may well stay a free agent. But hard work and persistance in the face of adversity got him a spot as a starter on two Super Bowl teams.

The last two guys are ones many in Steeler Nation love to hate. Nonetheless, they had significant success as low-round draft picks.

Chris Kemoeatu played to the whistle. In fact, he often played beyond it, which was sort of a problem. But Kemo grew up in a family that valued hard work, and he has two brothers in the NFL, so apparently this early training was effective. (There is more about this in an October 2008 Tribune-Review article, "Kemoeatu’s Work Ethic Rooted in Family." Unfortunately the Trib is reconstructing their website and archival articles weren’t pulling up when I was researching for this post, so I can't link it.) Injuries slowed him down during the past year, and he was benched later in the season. But the various annoyances surrounding Kemo shouldn’t blind us to the facts.

He came into the league as a sixth round pick. The top guard taken in his class was Logan Mankins, taken in the first round. Kemoeatu was the 13th guard taken, and this doesn’t take into consideration others who might have been drafted as a tackle and converted to guard. Only two other guards were picked after him. Of the guards taken before him, only Nos. one, two, four, seven, and twelve were still in the league as of the end of the 2011 season. (None of the others made it past 2009; nor did the guys taken 14th and 15th.) Kemoeatu replaced seven-time pro bowl guard Alan Faneca, a first round pick. Kemoeatu may not have been as good as Faneca, as successful as Haggans, or as well-loved as Keisel, but he provided great value for what the Steelers had invested in him.

Finally, Big Play William Gay. I was never part of the "Gay’s a bum" contingent; it seemed clear he had been thrust into position as a starter after McFadden left in 2009 and he wasn’t ready. He had excelled at the nickel spot, but being the No. 2 corner is a different ball of wax. But he kept plugging away, and last season when an injury to McFadden gave him another shot at the spot, this time he kept it and excelled.

Why? What was different this time? As Carnell Lake tells it, Gay approached Lake and asked for extra time and coaching. It certainly paid off, and as a result Gay was the only Steelers free agent to be picked up prior to the draft. But Gay didn’t just fight through a lack of size and "talent," he fought through a great deal of early adversity. As Craig Wolfley tells it:

William is a survivor, a man who has risen above the catastrophic loss of his murdered mother at a very young age. Raised by his grandmother, William is a testament to hard work, dedication to his education and profession, and the love of a grandmother who would not let William become a statistic.

Wolfley went on to tell of speaking to him at the beginning of the 2010 training camp:

I was intrigued after all the negative press in the off-season about Will and had been wondering how he would handle the demotion with B-Mac brought back from Arizona to take the starting job. Sportswriters were writing him off as if he was already gone. Fans had made their voice apparent throughout the draft and OTA’s and i was more than a little curious to see if he folded up like a tent, or would he stand his ground and battle back?

After saying hi to William, i went straight to the heart of the matter.

"Are you ready to fight for a spot, or are you just playing it out?" i asked as i shook his hand and looked him close in the eye.

He didn’t blink, didn’t act offended nor did he offer excuse. William didn’t bluster in bravado, or over-reach in his assessment of where he was in his career. William didn’t respond as so many do in his situation by denying the obvious either. He simply re-affirmed his commitment to contend for a role in the secondary with a determined look in his eye that let me know i was getting the true spirit of the man.

Because of the murder of his mother, a victim of domestic abuse, he has spoken out about the issue and mentored other young men who suffered from it. I for one wish him much success in Arizona, and hope the Steelers don’t live to regret letting him go.

I think these men fit my criteria well. Can we use these criteria to predict success (or lack thereof) for some of our new players? I think it would be possible, assuming one can get the necessary information about the players. But I’ve gone on much longer than I intended, and consequently there will be a Part III. In it I will address Ivan Cole’s comment to my first post and put out my "charge," if you will, to our new class of late round picks and UDFAs.

As usual, feel free to disagree, particularly with my assessment of the picks. I'm basically going strictly from the numbers, as I know little about most of them, and I'd love to hear about more Sean Morey types whose numbers don't describe their value.

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