The 2013 draft takes on paramount importance to the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially as the team attempts to rebound from a playoff-less 8-8 record last season and continues to transition (not a description endorsed by the team's GM) from the core of players that has brought it so much success since 2005.
The 2013 season also marks the fifth season for players selected in the 2008 NFL draft, and the fifth season for a draft class is, as conventional wisdom has it, the time when the true value of a class and the individual players selected is best measured. Thus for the Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert, the second draft class they picked together is due to be graded; unfortunately for the Steelers, there are no players left on the team from that class to take the final exam.
Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Mundy both left via free agency (to the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants, respectively); Limas Sweed is currently on the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL; Bruce Davis bounced from the New England Patriots' practice squad to the Denver Broncos to the San Francisco 49ers practice squads before spending two years in the black hole that is the Oakland Raiders, before finally ending up with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL; Dennis Dixon is with the Philadelphia Eagles but is the second lowest rated of the five quarterbacks on the current roster; Tony Hills is currently a free agent after being released by his third team in four years; Mike Humpal was released (twice) by the Steelers in 2008 and never been picked up by any team since.
All in all, a pretty sad state of affairs for the Steelers, and a major reason for the team's current lack of depth in many positions; as stated above, the fifth year is supposed to be the year when a draftee's full value can be measured, and supposedly felt by the team. If no one is left from a draft class to measure, did that year's draft ever really happen?
Some in Steeler Nation have tried to explain away the abysmal result of the Steelers' 2008 selections by claiming that year was a bad year for the entire league. Are they right?
Using Pro-Football Reference's Career Average (CarAV) which measures the player's overall performance regardless of whether the player is still on the team that drafted him, and Draft Average (DrAV), which measures his performance solely for the drafting team, as well as Years Played (Yrs Plyd), used to reflect whether the picks were "one year wonders" or durable players, let's look some drafts on the basis of these metrics and compare.
In the table below are all 23 years listed from 1990 to 2012 with each year's average score in the three categories described above. I have grouped the years into color coded blocks for additional comparative measures and to assist in visualizing the data.
The most recent three years, 2010 to 2012 are represented here for reference only; it would be inaccurate to draw any conclusions for these three years for the previously stated "5 Year Rule" reason.
First, let's look at these 23 years in their respective blocks. If you average each block's score for each category, then rank that average score ("1" for the highest average, "4" for the lowest), then place them in order of best to worst (lowest score equaling highest rank), the table above looks like this:
Thus we can see that the players selected in the block of years 1995 through 1999 performed at a higher level, and played longer, than any other five-year group of players. Take note that based on PFR's method of rating players does not allow mere time to benefit one group of players over another; not only did the '95-'99 group out perform the '90-'94 group, but so did the '00-'04 group in two out of the three categories. In each case however, all the players measured in this exercise had the opportunity to play for at least the standard "five years" except those drafted in 2009; based on some statistical analysis it is unlikely that given one more year's performance the 2009 draft class could improve appreciably enough to raise the ranking of its block.
What these tables do support is the supposition that the 2008 draft class is near the bottom of the list in terms of performance for the whole NFL; note from the first table 2008's CarAV score of 12.3, its DrAV score of 11.6 and its Yrs Plyd score of 2.9; these scores coming after the 2012 season, the fifth season of play for these players (who still remain on active rosters) and thus, again according to conventional wisdom, it is now justifiable to measure their performance.
Let's look at the first table again, but this time put a table next to it showing how the individual years rank:
The table on the right takes each year's score in each category and ranks it against all other years; again, each ranking is then tallied and the year with the lowest overall sum of rankings is first, the year with the highest sum is last.
As we can see, 2009 ranks at the bottom; since the group of players selected in this year has only had four years of performance opportunity, it is shown only for illustrating this point.
Thus, 2008 appears to be the weakest draft class. Now,one might ask:
"What about the fact that the 2008 class has only had five years to perform, unlike all prior years that have at least six, if not more?"
In response to that question, simply look at the average years played column on the far right. The average career for NFL players drafted between 1990 and 2008 is 4.13 years; no annual group of players averaged more than 1993 which averaged 5.5 career years. Thus, the players from 2008 had at least the statistical opportunity to fulfill, as a class, what was the average career length of time as did any other given years' group of players.
To forestall the obvious reaction to all this, that yea all teams suffered from a poor draft class, let's look at 2008 alone and see how well the Steelers fared as compared to the rest of the league in what was obviously a poor draft year:
The table on the left lists the teams in alphabetical order, with each teams' 2008 average score in the three metrics being considered. The table on the right ranks them in accordance with the rank of each team in each category, added together; the lower the total, the higher the team ranks.
What this table tells us, quite frankly, is that in a year of talent scarcity, the Steelers managed to scrape the bottom of the barrel. The argument that the Steelers might have suffered due to their draft position doesn't hold water; the Dallas Cowboys sat only one position higher at No. 22 than the Steelers' 23rd pick, yet they managed to cull what little cream there was to be had from 2008's draft class, managing to squeak by the Atlanta Falcons for first place based on the fact that their draft class averaged a full four years average career length versus Atlanta's 2.82 (Years played, reflecting a sufficient amount of talent to stay employed as an NFL player, used as a ranking tie-breaker).
Thus, while all of Steeler Nation recognizes the veritable lack of quality the Steelers gained from an entire year's worth of draftees, there's no escaping the fact that the Steelers are now suffering the woes they are enduring in terms of both talent and roster depth due in large part to having picked the worst group of players in 2008 of any team, including the Cleveland Browns, in the entire NFL in a year that was one of the worst since 1990.
One can speculate, and that's all it would be, as to why the choices the Steelers made were so bad; was it because a certain head coach, in just his second year, was given a greater amount of say? Or was it just a bad year for the scouting department, or was Kevin Colbert due a down year after so many successful ones? Being on the outside as Steeler Nation is, we may never truly know.
But what we do know, and it's not surprising, is that the Steelers' level of play that has been so uneven the past couple of years, and the team's on-the-field performance so vulnerable to injuries is because 2011 and 2012 should have been the years the '08 and '09 draft classes should have begun to have an impact if nowhere else than at roster depth, yet there is hardly anyone left. Out of both the 2008 and 2009 draft classes only two players out of 14 selected are still on the roster: Ziggy Hood and David Johnson.
The draft classes of 2010 through 2012 have some bright spots in Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Mike Adams, Cortez Allen, Jason Worilds, Emmanuel Sanders and others, and of course during this time of year, hope springs eternal for the players of the 2013 draft class, who have the unenviable charge of having to grow up fast, for as a result of the poor showing of prior classes their services and the promise they showed in college are sorely needed by the Steelers now if there's going to be a hope of a rebound from the much shorter seasons than Steeler Nation is accustomed to experiencing and as last year's 8-8 finish provided.
NEXT UP: Who is the King of the Draft in the NFL?