Steelers Draft History: The influence over the last five years

Al Bello

To reach or not to reach? That is the question. What positions do teams find success with in the later rounds?

The Steelers are known to be a team that prioritizes BPA in drafts, and has long found success in that model. The Steelers don’t make plays for flashy free agents every year, but they are arguably the best drafting team in the league, which keeps them competitive year in and year out. Part of the reason this blog is overrun with draft fever this year is because of the dismal finish to the season, the other reason is that Steelers fans know they can’t get excited about the big FA signing. The draft is our free agency, and we as a fan base like to pride ourselves on our knowledge of each incoming class and who might be the best fit for our favorite team.

When Neal pointed me in the direction of an article that sums up where starters at every position were drafted last season, the last three seasons, the last five seasons, and the last ten seasons, I wanted to use this information to both talk about the Steelers’ past philosophy, as well as how these numbers might play into the Steelers’ 2013 draft strategy. I decided to use the last five years to weed out pre-Tomlin Steelers picks and tendencies.



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I have put key players from the last five draft classes for the Steelers below, as well as the overall percentage of players taken per position, per round as the Steelers. There were also 10 positional categories, I will list the ranking per round for each players position.

Postition_starts_last_5_years_per_draft_round_medium

Graph developed by DraftMetrics.com

* I have noted key busts by bolding them, and key successes by italicizing them. Not all picks are present.

First Round
David Decastro, OL (21.5%; 9/10), 2012
Cameron Heyward, DE (34.5%; 4/10), 2011
Maurkice Pouncey, OL (21.5%; 9/10), 2010
Ziggy Hood, DE (34.5%; 4/10), 2009
Rashard Mendenhall, RB (39.7%; 2/10), 2008

Second Round
Mike Adams, OL (18.2%; 5/10), 2012
Marcus Gilbert, OL (18.2%; 5/10), 2011
Jason Worilds, LB (18.8%; 4/10), 2010
Limas Sweed, WR (21.4%, 3/10), 2008

Third Round
Sean Spence, LB (14.4%; 2/10), 2012
Curtis Brown, CB (8.7%; 9/10), 2011
Emmanuel Sanders, WR (14.2%; 3/10), 2010
Craig Urbik, OL (12.6%; 6/10), 2009
Mike Wallace, WR(14.2%; 3/10), 2009
Keenen Lewis, CB (8.7%; 9/10), 2009
Bruce Davis, LB (14.4%; 2/10), 2008

Fourth Round
Alameda Ta’Amu, DT (8.9%; 6/10), 2012
Cortez Allen, CB (7.8%; 7/10), 2011
Thaddeus Gibson, LB (9.3%; 5/10), 2010
Tony Hills, OL (10.5%; 2/10), 2008

Fifth Round
Chris Rainey, RB (6.9%; 6/10), 2012
Chris Carter, LB (6.6%; 8/10), 2011
Chris Scott, OL (7.3%; 5/10), 2010
Crezdon Butler, CB (6.7%; 7/10), 2010
Stevenson Sylvester, (6.6%; 8/10), 2010
Joe Burnett, CB(6.7%; 7/10), 2009
Frank Summers, RB (6.9%; 6/10), 2009

Sixth Round
Keith Williams, OL (6.9%, 4/10), 2011
Jonathan Dwyer, RB (1.8%, 10/10), 2010
Antonio Brown, WR (4.3%; 7/10), 2010

Seventh Round
Toney Clemons, WR (7.2%; 1/10), 2012
David Paulson, TE (4.4%; T-7/10), 2012
Terrence Frederick, CB (4.4%; T-7/10), 2012
Kelvin Beachum, OL (5.8%; 4/10), 2012
Baron Batch, RB (4.1%, 9/10), 2011
David Johnson, TE (4.4%; T-7/10), 2009

Successful UDFA’s
Isaac Redman, RB (16.9%, 1/10)
Steve McLendon, DT (14.4%; 5/10)
Doug Legursky, OL (16.6%; 3/10)
And for good measure to make a point about LB’s, James Harrison, LB (16.6%; 2/10)

As you can see, the Steelers can look to the recent past to find positions that have been successful, as well as those that those picks that were logical for need, and the likelihood of success at a position based on round. The information above also allows us to see that securing serviceable TE’s in Paulson & Johnson in the 7th round these last 5 years is a fluke for the league (7/10 in the 7th round), but maybe points to a skill in the Steelers’ scouting department.

Let’s break the past down for the Steelers and see how it might impact the future. I’ll break each case down round by round to see where the Steelers might end up looking this year from, and maybe this highly scientific analysis will put an end to any mock draft debates for the year.

First Round
We all know how the Steelers have drafted the last four years. By showing a commitment to both lines, the hope was to strengthen the team from the inside out. Obviously Hood and Heyward haven’t worked out the way you hope first round picks would have. I haven’t given up hope they will develop into stalwarts, but I haven’t seen it yet. It is too early to judge DeCastro, but he and Pouncey are going to be the best at their positions for a long time, in my opinion. Mendenhall had a few good years, but never lived up to the back he should have been, and has likely played his last down in Pittsburgh. He isn’t a starting-caliber back, and the Steelers have to move on this year.

The Steelers have consistently found success in the first round by focusing partly on need, but also taking the best player available, assuming the player fits a need, or could within the near future (ex. Hood, Heyward). This is an unusual year where it is unlikely the first round pick will have much time to sit behind a starter to learn. But as the Steelers have shown recently with the success of players drafted to start (DeCastro & Pouncey), and the failures of those who were meant to serve as backups (Mendenhall, Hood, and Heyward), maybe cuts forcing the Steelers to draft an immediate starter might not be a bad thing.

By the numbers:
The Steelers have two starters on the OL from the first round. Offensive linemen are some of the least likely players in the league to have been drafted in the first round. Because of this, and the fact that LG is the only spot of need on the OL going forward, I think it is unlikely the Steelers draft an OL in the first round, despite their recent activity there. 31.2% of all starting DT’s were drafted in the first round, and that number drops off to a maximum of 13.9% in any other round (though 14.4% are UDFA). With nose tackle being a need, the Steelers may look to draft in the trenches for the fifth time in a row and secure a NT to start immediately. RB is also a position of need, and has the second highest starting percentage of any position in the first round (39.7%). I do not believe there are any first round backs in this draft, and I think waiting is the smart move. Rounding out the top-5 positions are CB (35.2%; 3/10) and DE (34.5%; 4.10). We have already ruled out DE, so looking at CB, I do not believe this will be a need unless Keenan Lewis leaves in free agency. If he does, this might move up to the top of the list.

The two positions many fans believe the Steelers should look in the first are LB (23.7%; 7/10) and S (15.1%; 10/10). Clearly the numbers show that there is limited value in spending a first round pick on a LB or S. In fact, safeties taken in the second round started 23.9%, almost 9% more than those taken in the first round. This is a deep draft at safety, and the Steelers will find value in the second round. LB is a bit more challenging, since even though it is higher in the 2nd & 3rd rounds than in the first, the best player available in the first might very well be an OLB (Jones, Jordan, Ansah, etc.). The Steelers have shown that taking the best player available in the first round, even if convention tells you not to (OL is 9/10 in the first), might be the best way to go. That is why I think we should look for the Steelers to ignore the numbers and take either a NT or OLB in the first round.

Second Round
The Steelers have one big miss in the second round these last 5 years (Limas Sweed), but it is very possible that all three of the most recent picks will be starters next year. We have limited need for another OL in the second round, and I’m not sure any LB would be worth a pick in the middle of the second with this particular class, despite the typical success found in the second round for LB’s (18.8%; 4/10). For many years, the Steelers criticized management for failures in the second round, but these last three drafts have shown a better side to the scouting department. Let’s hope that trend continues in 2013.

By the numbers:
The Steelers’ miss comes at a position that usually has good results in the 2nd round (WR’s are 3/10 with 21.4% coming from Rd. 2). This miss shouldn’t deter them from picking a WR in this round, especially with a good amount of big receivers projecting to be 2-3 round picks. With OL our, the Steelers should focus on where Rd. 2’s strength is: safety and wide receiver. 23.9% of safety starts came from second round picks over the last five years, the highest amount for the round. There will be some very good options available (Cyprien, Reid, Rambo, and Thomas among others), and I believe this could very easily be the path the Steelers choose. We all know that WR will be both a need, and a position of depth in rounds 2 & 3 this year, and look for the Steelers to take a player at whichever position is rated higher in this round, either a safety or wide receiver.

Third Round
This might be the round the Steelers have shined most of late, with only two misses (one of whom is a starter in Buffalo, and was a regrettably bad cut decision by the front office). Wallace, Spence, Brown, Sanders, and Lewis all will have made contributions to this team with half of them becoming starters. Assuming Spence gets healthy and Sanders replaces Wallace, the Steelers have scored well with two good players at both CB & WR in the third round. Ironically, despite this success the Steelers may need to consider a player at one of those positions in the 2013 draft.

By the numbers:
Corner backs have the second-worst start rate of all positions drafted in the third, while wide receivers have the 3rd best. The numbers indicate the Steelers would be wise to take a safety in the second, and follow that up with a wide receiver in the third. For these two rounds, I have to say that I don’t think the numbers lie. Wide receiver should be the pick in the third.

Fourth Round
The success of the third round can only be equaled by the near-complete failure of the fourth round. Gibson and Hills were both taken at positions the numbers show have success in the fourth round, but neither were deserving of the selection. Ta’Amu appears to have been given a second chance, but he couldn’t win a backup spot after the Steelers traded up to get him, and that was before his off the field failings resulted in his release and resigning.

By the numbers:
The fourth round is tricky, with DE & OL being the top two positions for starters. The Steelers could use depth at both positions, but this is a team with a lot of other needs. TE, the 4th-ranked position in this round is an option, as is ILB (5) and WR (3). I would throw these numbers out the window and focus purely on filling BPA in this round. The Steelers have survived failures in this round in the past, and should make a play for the person they have highest up on their boards, even if that only means depth at OL or DE. QB depth is an option in this round as well.

Fifth Round
Another disappointing round, particularly with all the selections the Steelers had in the 2010 draft. The Steelers have wasted more picks in this round than any other in recent years and it has shown in the depth on this squad. Fifth round picks should provide quality backups and the occasional surprise starter. Instead, the best the Steelers have to show for the last 5 years in this round is Stevenson Sylvester, who Steeler fans are still hoping turns into more than just a special teams player.

By the numbers:
The numbers show the Steelers haven’t made a pick in the top-5 positions for the fifth round in the last 5 years. This is the first round that has been the case for Pittsburgh, and very well might be reason enough to focus on one of the top-5 positions: TE, S, DT, DE, OL, in order. Tight end and safety are needs, both for potential future starters. If the Steelers can find value there, I would prioritize one of those positions particularly since they are the most successful positions in the fifth round. Alternatively, depth on either line would be a good investment in the fifth, and should be considered if BPA is a lineman. One final position to consider is QB, a position the Steelers desperately need to invest in, however the last time they went to a QB in the fifth round, he didn’t produce much and was released over two geriatric patients.

Sixth Round, Seventh Round, and UDFA
Even without a 6th round pick in 2012 (traded in the Ta’Amu deal) the Steelers have found two good players in the last 3 years in this round. Dwyer and, to a much greater extent, Brown have been shining examples of scouting successes for the Steelers. These two players have outpaced their peers by proving the numbers for these positions don’t determine everything. Both have been the exception, not the rule.

The seventh round has also been a successful round for the Steelers with two TE’s, a RB, and a potential future starting-LG coming in the last few years. The Steelers know the value of staying true to their board, and have found quite a few players who fell through other team’s scouting boards.

Steeler fans know the value of a great UDFA. James Harrison has been one of the best sack-artists in Pittsburgh’s very distinguished history, and went undrafted. Redman, Legursky, and McClendon have all played valuable roles as backups for this team, with Leg’s even getting a start in the Super Bowl.

By the numbers:
RB & WR are at the bottom of starts per position for the 6th round, but the Steelers have found success. As you will see in the analysis for rounds 6, 7, and UDFA the Steelers are great at finding diamonds in the rough. This is the time where you take a player you think will be successful, even if other scouts have them lower on the list than you do. Not a lot is lost with a failed pick below the 6th round, but a lot can be gained. The numbers show QB, DT, TE, and OL as the best positions in this round, and all would be suitable for depth picks. I believe the Steelers should stick to what they do best and go with the best player on their board, regardless of position in rounds 6 & 7.

In free agency after the draft, running backs and linebackers are the most successful positions with over 16% of the starts at each position coming from UDFA. This stems from the changing nature of football, with more depth at the linebacker position leading to more players going undrafted, and also the development of the pass-first era football is currently in giving less room in the draft to running backs. These positions are both needs for the Steelers, and I expect the Steelers to take fliers on both after the draft this year. Let’s all hope the Steelers’ late-round luck keeps up.

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