The Steelers are bad this year. There have been a lot of reasons for the failure of the 2013 season, such as a lack of talent, bad moves by the front office, and coaching. Maybe it is one of those reasons, or even some combination of the three. That's not the purpose of this post.
What I would like to talk about is draft position, and the salary cap. Many people have come to accept the idea that due to the success of the Steelers over the last decade, the team has been at a disadvantage in the draft, and this is the reason why the team lacks the talent to win in 2013. The other idea that has gained acceptance, is that the desire to keep the championship core together is the reason why the Steelers are in "salary cap hell".
Let's talk about draft position. The Steelers have been drafting late for so long, there's no way that they can keep up with other teams when it comes to acquiring talent. In order to win, you need to have some top 15 picks on the roster, right? How can the Steelers compete with teams that have been able to load up on early picks, because they've been living in the dumpster for so long? I thought it might help to look at some other starting rosters around the league, and try to get a better idea as to the caliber of players some of the more successful teams in the NFL are putting on the field. The lineups below do not come from the opening day rosters. These were the starting lineups from the games this past weekend, so they will reflect any recent injuries prior to last weekends games.
First, I wanted to take a look at a team that has experienced the same level of consistency as the Steelers have enjoyed over the past 10 years. As an added bonus, it's also the team that gave the Steelers one of the worst beatings they have taken in team history. You guessed it ... we're talking Patriots! Below you'll find the starting lineup that managed to kick the Steelers backsides in a week ago.
|WR||Danny Amendola||UDFA||2008||Rams||LE||Rob Ninkovich||RD 5 (135)||2006||Saints|
|LT||Nate Solder||RD 1 (17)||2011||Patriots||DT||Joe Vellano||UDFA||2013||Saints|
|LG||Logan Mankins||RD 1 (32)||2005||Patriots||DT||Isaac Sopoago||RD 4 (104)||2004||49er's|
|C||Ryan Wendell||UDFA||2009||Patriots||RE||Chris Jones||RD 6 (198)||2013||Texans|
|RG||Dan Connolly||UDFA||2005||Jaguars||LB||Don't'a Hightower||RD 1 (25)||2012||Patriots|
|RT||Marcus Cannon||RD 5 (139)||2011||Patriots||LB||Brandon Spikes||RD 2 (62)||2010||Patriots|
|TE||Rob Gronkowski||RD 2 (42)||2010||Patriots||LB||Chandler Jones||RD 1 (21)||2012||Patriots|
|WR||Aaron Dobson||RD 2 (59)||2013||Patriots||LCB||Kyle Arrington||UDFA||2008||Buccaneers|
|QB||Tom Brady||RD 6 (199)||2000||Patriots||RCB||Alphonso Dennard||RD 7 (224)||2012||Patriots|
|TE||Micharl Hoomanawanui||RD 5 (132)||2010||Rams||S||Steve Gregory||UDFA||2006||Chargers|
|RB||Stevan Ridley||RD 3 (73)||2011||Patriots||S||Devin McCourty||RD 1 (27)||2010||Patriots|
Are you impressed? I see a lot of young players, and a lot of guys that were not drafted. The number of undrafted players who came from other teams is misleading, because the Patriots plucked a lot of them off of other teams practice squads, or after final roster cut downs. Is this starting roster really that much better than the Steelers?
Next, I wanted to look at an up and coming team, that has spent time in the basement. Let's check out the team with the best record in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks.
|WR||Doug Baldwin||UDFA||2011||Seahawks||LDE||Red Bryant||RD 4 (121)||2008||Seahawks|
|LT||Paul McQuistan||RD 3 (69)||2005||Raiders||LDT||Tony McDaniel||UDFA||2006||Jaguars|
|LG||James Carpenter||RD 1 (25)||2011||Seahawks||RDT||Brandon Mebane||RD 3 (85)||2007||Seahawks|
|C||Max Unger||RD 2 (49)||2009||Seahawks||RDE||Chris Clemons||UDFA||2003||Redskins|
|RG||JR Sweezy||RD 7 (225)||2012||Seahawks||OLB||Bruce Irvin||RD 1 (15)||2012||Seahawks|
|RT||Michael Bowie||RD 7 (242)||2013||Seahawks||MLB||Bobby Wagner||RD 2 (47)||2012||Seahawks|
|TE||Zach Miller||RD 2 (28)||2007||Raiders||OLB||KJ Wright||RD 4 (99)||2011||Seahawks|
|WR||Golden Tate||RD 2 (60)||2010||Seahawks||LCB||Richard Sherman||RD 5 (154)||2011||Seahawks|
|QB||Russell Wilson||RD 3 (75)||2012||Seahawks||RCB||Brandon Browner||UDFA||2005||Broncos|
|RB||Marshawn Lynch||RD 1 (12)||2007||Bills||SS||Cam Chancellor||RD 5 (133)||2010||Seahawks|
|FB||Luke Wilson||RD 5 (158)||2013||Seahawks||FS||Earl Thomas||RD 1 (14)||2010||Seahawks|
Again, are you impressed? There's not a lot of high draft picks on the "Legion of Boom". So what's going on? Why are the Patriots so much more successful in 2013 than the Steelers? Even with the Steelers drafting late in the round, is there any reason why they shouldn't be able to put together a roster like the ones above? None that I can think of, except for maybe part two of the conversation ... the salary cap.
One thing I see in common is the youth on both rosters. Even though they aren't loaded with high round picks, these teams do have players with the kind of athleticism and explosiveness you would expect from guys in there mid-20's. Also, both teams have picked up players from other teams. In the case of the Patriots, they are plucking up other teams cast aways, and finding ways to get production out of them. The Seahawks, on the other hand, have brought in players who after they hit the free agent market. Any time a salary cap conversation comes up, people are quick to bring up the fact that the Steelers have to pay Ben. Ben doesn't get paid as much as everyone would like to thing. Sure, he has a $100M contract, but it was for 8 years, so he only averages $12.7M/year (only .. ha!). Seattle isn't paying big QB money, but they are paying Percy Harvin, who is the Seahawks top contract ($10.7M/year average). The Patriots top contract is of course Tom Brady, who's average salary is $14.1M.year. Also, you can compare the number of contracts that average over $5M/year (Steelers - 9, Seahawks - 11, Patriots - 7).
So, what to make of this? Are draft position, and the salary cap really legitimate reasons for why the Steelers are in a state of decline, or are they just excuses? Judging from the rosters above, I don't think draft position should be a reason for the teams lack of performance. And judging from the salaries each team is paying out, I don't think the cap should be an issue either. Notice I said should.
If you want my opinion, the problems the Steelers face are a result of either no obtaining, or developing young, mid round talent. Also, even though the Steelers don't have a disproportionate number of high dollar contracts, they do have a lot of contracts going to players who's best days are behind them. When the team agreed to those contracts, I doubt the plan was for this number of players to actually play this far into the contract. Unfortunately, there haven't been any younger, cheaper players who have been able to play well enough to allow the team to unload some of those big contracts.