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To Tank or Not To Tank.... a numbers geek's perspective

To tank or not to tank....that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and multiple turnover games)

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them.

(Random trivia - in 1936, the Steelers drafted William Shakespeare in the first round.)

So how important is draft position?

It seems an important question because for most of the season, a recurring theme has been: Should the Steelers try to win every game they play and salvage some respect this season? Or should they bench a bunch of starters, play the rookies and throw the season away thereby gaining better draft position?

After the Detroit win and renewed playoff hopes, the leaning certainly seems to be towards the former....for now (I had orginally intended to post this last week). But I am quite sure that a couple of losses in a row would bring the question roaring back. And it's probably worth looking at as a general philosophy in case the unthinkable happens and we have another rough start to a season.

Is the added value of a higher draft pick actually sufficient reason to tank a season? Just for fun, let’s look at how valuable the higher drafted players have been compared with the "dregs" our poor Steelers have had to choose from.

I borrowed/adapted/simplified a draft ranking methodology I saw in a post on another site a few months ago. I tried to find a link to that post, but could not in a reasonable time frame (it may not even be available any longer). But I do a lot of this type of analysis for my job, and I like the basic idea of assigning ratings to each player based on their performance and scaling them.

Basically, the system works like this. I looked at 25 years of drafts, from 1987 to 2011 and compared the Steelers’ picks with the number one and number two overall selections in those years. Why 25 years and only the top two picks? Because I have a real job and every once in a while I even get to do something fun, so I don’t have all the time in the world to do this (and yes – for those of you who picture me as a pencil necked geek – I have in fact kissed a girl on occasion). I picked those specific years because IMO, it is just too early to call 2012 & 2013 (Luck and RG3 look like winners. DeCastro and Jarvis could be great too. But who really knows?).

Each selection was ranked using a 1 to 10 scale as follows:

1 - Total bust - 0-2 years in the league

2 - Meh/mostly bust - 2-5 unexciting years in the league

3 - Contributor for several years but little or no starting experience

4 - Several years in the league, sometimes starter

5 - Several years starting, but borderline starter/backup

6 - Solid Starter for several years but never a pro bowl level

7 - Starter for several years and 1-2 pro bowl years

8 - Starter for an extended time and multiple pro bowls. No/Longshot for HOF

9 - Borderline/possible HOF'er

10 - Hall of Fame or Sure to Be (Think Peyton Manning)

TSTT Too soon to tell

The numbers were then averaged and compared. The averages and rankings are in the chart below. (For you fellow geeks, the averages don’t quite foot because the Steelers had two first-rounders in 1989).

Year

Overall #1

Rating

Overall #2

Rating

Steelers #1

Rating

vs #1

vs #2

1987

Vinny Interceptaverde

7

Cornelius Bennet

8

Rod Woodson

10

3

2

1988

Aundray Bruce

3

Neil Smith

9

Aaron Jones

3

0

-6

1989

Troy Aikman

10

Tony Mandarich

2

Tim Worley

4

-6

2

Tom Ricketts

1

-9

-1

1990

Jeff George

4

Blair Thomas

4

Eric Green

6

2

2

1991

Russell Maryland

7

Eric Turner

6

Huey Richardson

1

-6

-5

1992

Steve Emtman

3

Quentin Coryatt

2

Leon Searcy

7

4

5

1993

Drew Bledsoe

8

Rick Mirer

4

Deon Figures

4

-4

0

1994

Dan Wilkinson

6

Marshall Faulk

10

Charles Johnson

4

-2

-6

1995

Ki-Jana Carter

1

Tony Boselli

8

Mark Bruener

6

5

-2

1996

Keyshawn Johnson

7

Kevin Hardy

6

Jamain Stephens

2

-5

-4

1997

Orlando Pace

9

Darrell Russell

4

Chad Scott

6

-3

2

1998

Peyton Manning

10

Ryan Leaf

1

Alan Faneca

9

-1

8

1999

Tim Couch**

2

Donavan McNabb

9

Troy Edwards

3

1

-6

2000

Courtney Brown

2

LaVar Arrington

7

Plaxico Burress

6

4

-1

2001

Michael Vick

6

Leonard Davis

7

Casey Hampton

9

3

2

2002

David Carr

4

Julius Peppers

9

Kendall Simmons

6

2

-3

2003

Carson Palmer

7

Charles Rodgers

2

Troy Polamalu

9

2

7

2004

Eli Manning

8

Robert Gallery

5

Ben Roethlisberger

9

1

4

2005

Alex Smith*

5

Ronnie Brown

5

Heath Miller

7

2

2

2006

Mario Williams

7

Reggie Bush

6

Santonio Holmes

6

-1

0

2007

JaMarcus Russell

1

Calvin Johnson*

8

Lawrence Timmons*

7

6

-1

2008

Jake Long

7

Chris Long

6

Rashard Mendenhall

5

-2

-1

2009

Matthew Stafford

7

Jason Smith

2

Ziggy Hood*

4

-3

2

2010

Sam Bradford

6

Ndamukong Suh*

7

Maurkice Pouncey

7

1

0

2011

Cam Newton*

7

Von Miller*

7

Cameron Heyward*

6

-1

-1

2012

Andrew Luck

TSTT

RG3

TSTT

David DeCastro

TSTT

TSTT

TSTT

2013

Eric Fisher

TSTT

Luke Joeckel

TSTT

Jarvis Jones

TSTT

TSTT

TSTT

Average

5.76

Average

5.76

Average

5.65

(0.27)

0.04

Total 9's & 10's

3

Total 9's & 10's

3

Total 9's & 10's

5

Total 1's & 2's

4

Total 1's & 2's

5

Total 1's & 2's

3

*These were the toughest guys to rank because their careers are ascending

**He may have been a bust, but he did marry a Kozar from Cleveland (no relation).

Granted, this is an inexact science. And I am fully aware that this will cause some discussion (Mendenhall ranked higher than Ziggy Hood? What are you crazy!?!?!). More recent picks are obviously tougher to assess (for example: Calvin Johnson has all the talent, but not quite a 9 or 10 yet. Ugh). And of course, there are the likes of Mike Vick and Plaxico Burress to deal with. But rest assured, an increase or decrease of one point on one player, will not change the overall average rankings very much. For these purposes it's close enough.

For perspective, a "push" seems to be a rating of just under six (Solid Starter for several years but never a pro bowl level). In modern terms, think Max Starks with 96 starts over seven years (how scary is that?). A better than average pick would be someone like Ryan Clark (if a first round pick turns out to have Ryan Clark’s career, it’s not exactly Peyton Manning, but we wouldn't be calling for the GM’s head either).

So how have the Steelers done drafting in their relatively pedestrian slots of seventh (Worley) to thirty-second (Mendenhall)? It seems that despite picking later, the Steelers have actually performed slightly better than the teams selecting number one or number two in picking "HOF’ers or close to it" and in avoiding busts (the fact that the Steelers have 5 players of that caliber in 25 years of first round picks is pretty impressive). Steelers' picks average about the same as number one and two overalls.

But wait. I’m confused. If this is true, then it may just be possible that picking higher in the draft is not as big an advantage as we think.

In fact, the data bears that out (not just this list but other articles I’ve seen). The fact is that drafting seems to be a wildly inexact science (the Steelers missed Dan Marino once, Tom Brady five times, and Richard Dent seven times just like everyone else). "Surefire" picks often go nowhere, and late selections are often stars.

Incidentally, tanking a season is no small undertaking IMHO. For starters, telling a bunch of professional athletes who are bursting with competitive pride (and fighting for cash money contracts) to sit back and take their beatings is a tough sell.

Not to mention that sitting veterans in favor of less experienced players puts other players in jeopardy. Imagine the discussion: "Hey Jarvis – ummm I know that we told you that while you are thinking life sucks setting the edge on a running play while fighting off a 330 pound tackle, that at least you won’t have to worry about being ground into mulch by the 325 pound pulling guard at the same time because Brett Kiesel is right in front of you and he’s been shutting that crap down since the Bucs last won the Super Bowl. But we lied. Now we’re going to play a dude who’s inexperienced and worried he won’t be here next year. He’ll probably misdiagnose the play or just plain ignore the blocker and try to blow up the ball to get some stats while you’re getting crushed. Sorry about that."

So with little or nothing to be gained, and lots to lose, put me in the "win every game you can regardless of current record" camp. If we’re 4-11 going in to week, 17, I say try to win that one too.

In truth, I’d be in that camp anyway. Because I’m a fan. A selfish one, I admit. Why do you think most of us watch these games anyway? It's not for draft position.

I want to twirl my terrible towel while running up stupid bar tabs in Austin as the look of despair comes across the faces of loudmouth Jets fans and sobbing Ravens backers. I want to know that even if the wings are soggy, the beer is warm, and Monday is going to suck that my dreams will be filled with the Steelers bringing home another win regardless of the standings.

And I’m glad we have a coach and team that feel the same way.

Browns beware – here come the Steelers.

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