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Is the notion 'Mike Tomlin does not draft well' a myth or reality?

Ezra Shaw

In the wake of a rather abysmal 0-4 start to the 2013 season arose several concerns about the Steelers roster, principally its age, depth and quality. There was some considerable, and partially justified, panic amongst Steelers fans about the direction this team were headed as they occupied the basement of the AFC North for a brief period.

It appeared we were headed toward a dreaded "rebuilding" period, ageing veterans were losing a step and the "next man up" mantra, the source of such pride for the Steelers, appeared to disintegrate in the wake of mounting injuries and underwhelming performances from youngsters. Ben was apparently booking a one way ticket out of town and everyone from head coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and even up to Kevin Colbert were a topic of hot seat discussion (we shall not even broach the subject of Todd Haley).

Thankfully a 6-2 finish to the season and a post-season birth one or two horrible officiating calls later, and at least some of our doubts have been assuaged. There is an altogether brighter outlook for 2014, and BTSC has moved into full draft mode. However since we are indeed in the off season (see above referenced officiating calls) and talking points fast become scarce, I wanted to address one of the more irksome criticisms levelled at the Steelers during the dark, lonely Wembley period, or more precisely those levelled against Head Coach Mike Tomlin, and to a certain extent General Manager Kevin Colbert.

"Mike Tomlin does not draft well."

"Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert do not draft well together."

"Mike Tomlin won with Bill Cowher’s talent."

These are familiar statements, and ones that surfaced early in the season in response to a poor start. Now the third one I won’t even bother to address because I find it, quite frankly, to be ridiculous. But since we have officially entered the off season (again, see above) I thought it a worthy use of my time to investigate the validity of the first two statements. By objectively examining Tomlin’s draft classes, I hope to deduce whether he has been as big a failure at evaluating and drafting talent as has been suggested by some. Now, obviously reviewing Tomlin’s entire draft history in one post would be impossible, so I shall start with his first two drafts in 2007 and 2008, and then hopefully proceed from there if anyone is still interested

It should be noted that hindsight is a wonderful thing and so on so forth. Also, I won’t take into consideration where players are now, only their relative talent and success enjoyed in the league. Additionally it should also be said that the draft isn’t a one or two man think tank. There are sure to be dozens of contributing opinions, but it’s reasonable to assume Tomlin has had more than his fair say in the Pittsburgh war room on draft day. So without further ado, with the 15th pick in the 2007 NFL draft the Pittsburgh Steelers selected…

2007 NFL Draft (15th Pick)

Player(s) selected

Notable players still available close to draft slot

1st round

Lawrence Timmons (ILB)

Ben Grubbs G, Joe Staley T, Eric Weddle S

2nd round

LaMarr Woodley (OLB)

Ryan Kalil (C)

3rd round

Matt Spaeth (TE)

Marshall Yanda (G), James Jones (WR)

4th round

Daniel Sepulveda (P)

Dashon Goldson (S), Jermaine Bushrod (T)

5th round

Cameron Stephenson (G) ,William Gay (CB)

None

6th round

N/A

N/A

7th round

Dallas Baker (WR)

None

The 1st round of this draft is one which will probably always be remembered as the one where the New York Jets traded up to 14th to pick Pittsburgh native Darelle Revis. As it is the Steelers selected Lawrence Timmons with the 15th pick, coincidentally the highest draft position of the Tomlin Era.

Timmons has just completed his 7th season and to date has 616 tackles, 26 sacks ,9 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles (via NFL.com). He contributed during the 2008 Super Bowl run, and was a key part of the 2010 AFC champion Steelers team. Although ranked as the 4th best Inside Linebacker in 2012 by ProFootbal Focus (and the only one to receive positive grades in all three main categories for ILB’s) Timmons has never been selected to a Pro bowl nor the All Pro team. Timmons is, in my opinion, one of the most undervalued linebackers in the NFL today and although there were good players available on the board, particularly 3x All Pro LT Joe Staley, I think I’ll give the Timmons selection a big thumbs up.

OLB LaMarr Woodley is perhaps best known now as the 6-foot-2, 266-pound elephant in the room due to his bloated salary cap hit and long stretches of time spent on the IR list over the last couple of seasons. However to justify his large 2011 contract extension Woodley put four years of very impressive performances on tape. He was an All Pro in 2009, and registered the Super Bowl winning sack/forced fumble in 2008. Even with the highest paid center in history still on the board this pick also gets a big thumbs up.

Matt Spaeth was, by any stretch of the imagination, a reach in the 3rd round. For his career he has 50 receptions, 364 yards and 9 touchdowns. He was allowed to leave via free agency and has since returned to the team. An above average blocker but really not a great pick in the 3rd round. Especially when you consider two-time All Pro guard Marshall Yanda was still on the board.

I wasn’t a fan of the NFL in 2007 so I have to say the 4th round selection of Punter Daniel Sepulveda is truly mystifying. Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing but Pro Bowl level safety Dashon Goldson and Jermon Bushrod were still on the board. Sepulveda was oft injured, was not even that good, and was allowed to leave via free agency. He did play out his rookie contract I suppose and contribute at least, but for a punter in the 4th round I would be looking for a net average of 83 yards per punt and a stellar 28 year Hall of Fame career, which evidenced by his current free agent status was not the case here.

Cameron Stephenson was a guard drafted, and subsequently released prior to the start of the 2007 season, swing and a miss. Big play Willie Gay, as Mike Tomlin somewhat ironically called him once, is another story. He was a fairly respectable, if much maligned, contributor for four years on a great defense that won a Super Bowl and went to another. He left for the Cardinals via free agency and returned this year to have what I consider a very solid year as a starter/nickel back. I would say this is relatively speaking a very good pick in the 5th round.

Dallas Baker was a Wide Receiver who was on and off the practice squad, played in 8 games in 2008 and was eventually cut prior to the 2009 season. Pretty much another swing and a miss here but what do you expect from a 7th round draft choice.

Review- The 2007 draft class was a bit of a top heavy success with Woodley and Timmons both contributing to great Steelers defences over the last 6 years. However two players outright did not contribute at all, Sepulveda was a punter (an average punter no less) and Matt Spaeth’s contributions could be at best described as negligible, especially for a 3rd rounder. The much maligned Willie Gay was a bright spot in the 5th round, so all in all a slightly above average draft but not anything more in my opinion.

2008 NFL Draft (23rd pick)

Player(s) selected

Notable players still available close to draft slot

1st round

Rashard Mendenhall (RB)

Chris Johnson (RB), Duane Brown (OT), Jordy Nelson (WR)

2nd round

Limas Sweed (WR)

Ray Rice (RB), Jamaal Charles (RB)

3rd round

Bruce Davis (DE)

Thomas Decoud (S) ,Cody Wallace (C, and also Just Kidding)

4th round

Tony Hills (OT)

None

5th round

Dennis Dixon (QB)

Carl Nicks (OT)

6th round

Ryan Mundy (S)

None

7th round

N/A

N/A

It has been suggested that Rashard Mendenhall was a BPA pick, viewed as a powerful runner who could also bounce the run outside with effectiveness when needed. He rushed for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons with the Steelers and 930 yards in another. He is currently in a fuzzy timeshare role with the Steelers B team (Cardinals) rushing for 617 yards. Not a great first round pick, considering his attitude problems and general mediocre talent, although a bad injury could be to blame for that.. Very productive players in CJ2k and Jordy Nelson were available, as well as All Pro Tackle Duane Brown.

Ooooooh Limas Sweed. He has 7 receptions and 77 yards for his career, and was cut in 2011. He hasn’t played in the NFL since. In a short summary this pick was a disaster. Were it not for some exceptional late round receiver drafting in drafts to come this could have had a bigger impact, but we’ll come to that another day. As it is, they missed on Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles. In fairness Charles was taken mid third round, but it helps highlight the options that were there instead of Mendenhall.

Bruce Davis was a 3rd round pick , a DE converted to OLB , who recorded only 4 tackles before being cut a year later in 2009. He bounced around several teams and is now out of the NFL. In short, he was another bust.

Tony Hills was an offensive tackle who was on the roster for three seasons, but played very sparingly. He was cut and bounced around a few teams. He is currently on the Raiders roster. In the 4th round teams should at least expect to find reasonable depth players. Failure here as well.

Dennis Dixon provided depth on the roster chart behind Charlie Batch and even played a game or two during Roethlisberger’s four game suspension in 2010. He played out his rookie contract and is now on the Bills practice squad.

Ryan Mundy sat behind Ryan Clark for his four seasons in Pittsburgh, and is now at the Giants. He has recorded 207 career tackles and 2 interceptions. He was a good pick in the 6th providing depth at safety.

Review- There are not enough colourful words in the English language to describe the catastrophe, the trainwreck, the calamity, the cataclysmic horror (oh look, maybe there is enough words) that was the 2008 draft for the Steelers. Five years later not one player remains on the roster. The 1st pick was happily shown the door last year, and has not been much more than above average in his play. The second through to fifth picks go on a scale from did not contribute at all too really, really marginable contributions. The fact I’m trying to find something uplifting to say about Ryan Mundy really says it all. Also, we drafted a running back, and it was not one of Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles nor even Ray Rice, it was Rashard Mendenhall. Ouch.

So thus far, the phrase "Mike Tomlin does not draft well" appears to hold at least some water. But I’m hoping further review of his draft history disabuses this notion.

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