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Steelers 2011 Draft: Need vs. Best Player Available

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The argument of "need versus best player available" seems to be as impossible to debate as "nature versus nurture."  It is interesting that many fans blindly buy the Kool-Aid of "best player available," as if it had no correlation to need.  This is no surprise, given that the front office has been hammering that mantra since 1936, when the first NFL Draft took place.  If our beloved brain trust keeps assuring us that the team will absolutely, positively draft the best player available, how can we not buy into the company line?  Even members of the media insist that the Steelers' modus operandi is a tried and true method that we accept as sacred ground.

If you were Kevin Colbert (or any general manager), the first thing you learn in General Manager School is to insist that you will draft the best player available.   Think about it.  If you take that stand, no one can ask further questions.  There's no point in giving any other answer.  It's the answer that ends all questions.  Conversely, if a GM comes out and even breathes the "need" word, the vultures will have a field day.  What is that need?  You have opened a door that never should be opened.  If we might draft need, the next line of discussion is to indentify that need.  It does the team no good to allow the slightest crack in that door.  It's pretty simple really.  Any GM with an IQ of a geranium is going to tell his fan base that the team will draft the best player available. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not going to draft a quarterback in the first round of the draft.  They are not going to draft a tight end.  That are not going to draft a center (who can't be moved to guard) and they are in all likelihood not going to draft a linebacker, inside or out.  Once you start to whittle away positions that will not be drafted, you are no longer drafting the best player available.  What if the best player is a quarterback, tight end, pure center or linebacker? The BPA Kool-Aid drinkers are checkmated.  You cannot claim best player available and then eliminate positions.  You can't have it both ways.  That's like saying, "I'm going to get the most expensive meal on the menu, except if it's veal, pork or chicken."  Once you begin to make exceptions, you have abandoned the original premise.

The truth is, need and best player available are both taken into account when a team develops its Draft Board.  You are not going to draft need at the expense of taking a significantly lesser player.  You are also not going to draft the best player available if that position is well stocked on your team.  Given both of those basic axioms, it stands true that both need and best player available are weighed onto your Draft Board.  I would love to have an interview with Mr. Colbert and get the real truth, but he has been schooled well enough never to give it to me or anyone else.  But please allow me to speculate.  The following synopsis is what I think is close to the truth, but understand this is an educated theory.  I am not so dogmatic to think I know things I don't know. 

Fair enough? OK, here goes.

The Steelers assign a Player Quality Rating to every player available through seven rounds of a Draft, on a scale from 1-100.  This is similar to the Scouts Inc. rating, but I'm sure the Steelers tweak their own numbers.  They then break the list into each position.  There are probably six different groupings on offense (QB, Rec, RB, TE, OG/C and OT) and six on defense (DE, DT, ILB, OLB, CB, S) -- 12 total groupings (setting aside special teams).  The team also assigns a Position Need Rating to each of the 12 positions, say, from zero to seven.  The Position Need Ranking is then added to the Player Quality rating to arrive at a final Draft Value.

When it is time for the Steelers to draft (#31), there are 12 options, the highest Draft Value at each of the position groupings.  Looking realistically at players who might be available #31, assuming that there will be no surprises or reaches (though we know there will be), the grid may well look like this:

Position Group Player Player Quality Ranking Position Need Ranking Draft Value
Quarterback Jake Locker 90 1 91
Wide Receiver Randall Cobb 86 4 90
Running Back Ryan Williams 87 3 90
Tight End Kyle Rudolph 90 2 92
Offensive Guard/Center Orlando Franklin 86 6 92
Offensive Tackle Derek Sherrod 86 6 92
Defensive End Cam Hayward 89 6 95
Defensive Tackle Steohen Paea 89 5 94
Inside Linebacker Martez Wilson 86 3 89
Outside Linebacker Akeem Ayers 89 2 91
Cornerback Aaron Williams 88 7 95
Safety Rahim Moore 87 5 92


Please don't quibble the numbers here - they are speculation to make a larger point, which is, when the Steelers are on the clock, the two best players available are Jake Locker and Kyle Rudolph, both with 90 Player Quality Ratings.  Pittsburgh will take neither of them, despite them being the best players available.  After adding the Position Need Rating to the PQR, it turns out a guy like Aaron Williams or Cam Hayward might be Pittsburgh's selection, having the highest Draft Values.  In fact, Mr. Bean will attest that I actually had an entire write-up of Aaron Williams as the Steelers' choice in the mock draft last week.  (Maybe I will run it sometime so as not to waste all that work!)  When Nate Solder fell in the mock draft, I had to take him, even though I don't believe Solder will be available in real life. (Now that I see Mel Kiper came out with his latest mock, having the Steelers taking Williams, part of me wishes I had stuck to my original guns.)

Which brings me to another point.  The above list is just a cut-out of the total list.  The above list assumes that every player rated 91 or higher is off the board, just as a worst-case scenario.  We all know that surprises take place and a player or two will fall to pick #31.  Maybe it will be a Solder or Wilkerson-type player.  That would be great.  It's one of those things that you can count on, but don't count on it.

Now, after the Steelers make their first pick, they need to re-assign their Position Need Ratings, lowering the position they just added.  The players will always keep their PQR, but if Pittsburgh drafts a defensive end in the first round, that Need Rating obviously becomes lower in subsequent rounds, because a large part of that need has been met.  In the second round, the chances of taking another defensive end are lesser if one is taken in the first round, but not completely out of the picture.  It is quite possible to draft the same position in rounds one and two if the adjusted Draft Value still says to do so.  Very rarely will an NFL team draft the same position in the first two rounds of a Draft, simply because the need goes down after the first guy is taken. (In 2007, the Steelers took LaMarry Woodley in round two after Lawrence Timmons in round one, but they are two different types of players in two different position groupings.)

The reason why "need" cannot rule the day is because the NFL is so fluid, needs change quickly.  If you compromise better players to meet need, you may find that you wish you had that better player soon down the road.  A great example of this is Rashard Mendenhall in 2008.  The need at running back was not as high as other positions.  We had Willie Parker and badly needed offensive lineman.  But when the Draft Board was put together, Mendy was highly ranked and kept falling to Pick #23.  The Steelers stayed true to their Board and drafted Mendenhall, in their minds the best Draft Value by a significant margin.  Sure enough, Parker was soon out of football, while Mendenhall is young and paying dividends.

On the flip side, do the BPA purists really think that need is a randon happenstance?  In 2003, when the Steelers traded up to get Troy Polamalu, albeit the best player available, was it coincidence that the team's secondary was pitiful and in need of overhaul?  The next year, Bill Cowher didn't think Ben Roethlisberger was the best player.  Thankfully, Dan Rooney stepped in and declared that the position need was too important to ignore.  In 2005, there were football players as good if not better than Heath Miller, but the team badly needed a weapon for young Roethlisberger.  In 2006, again the Steelers traded up.  Was it coincidence that their biggest need was for another weapon for Ben after Randle El left town?  The next year Joey Porter leaves town and the Steelers, coincidentally, draft a couple linebackers.  Ziggy Hood was also a need with a thin and aging defensive line.  And last year, Maurkice Pouncey.  Again, I won't argue that he was among the best players available, but wasn't it interesting that the guy he replaced was cut and not picked up by another NFL team?  If a guy (Justin Hartwig) is that bad, then the need is that great.  Does the coincidence of addressing need keep happening year after year after year?  I don't think so.

As a fan, I am hoping that BPA and need happen to be one in the same, just like previous years when we hit the jackpot in the first round.  But in any case, it makes no sense to say that the Steelers will draft the best player available, or that they will draft a position of need.  Neither one lives on an exclusive island, and in fact, both are dependent upon each other.  It is more accurate to say that the Steelers will draft according to their Board, and their Board will be a listing of players that takes into account both talent and need.