I've seen a number of comments over the past few years about the Front Office during the Mike Tomlin era missing on too many draft picks, and I often wondered if that was a fair assessment.
I also wondered how many of their draft picks have demonstrated solid talent evaluation, even if the player doesn't end up producing much, or at all, for the Steelers. After all, the team might not be able to wait for a guy to develop, because they don't have the roster space or just have too many quality guys at a given position. The draft decision might be just fine, but the player might not always produce on schedule for the Steelers. The development of any given player can be pretty unpredictable.
But if you have a lot of misses that are complete whiffs, especially with higher picks, then you need to re-evaluate either your scouting department or the people making the final decisions.
I decided to take a look at every draft pick from the Mike Tomlin era, and find out what they are doing now if they aren't currently a part of the organization. As a bonus, I've listed the UFAs they signed, and discussed a few that stuck.
Here's Tomlin's first draft. I indicated where they were picked, as obviously one expects more of a high first or second round pick than a low one.
1/15 Lawrence Timmons
2/46 LaMarr Woodley
3/77 Matt Spaeth
4/112 Daniel Sepulveda (from Green Bay)
4/132 Ryan McBean (compensatory pick)
5/156 Cameron Stephenson
5/170 William Gay
6/192 traded to Green Bay
7/227 Dallas Baker
Undrafted Free Agent Pickups:
Darnell Stapleton G
Gary Russell RB
Paul Mosley RB
Jason Capizzi OT
Cody Boyd TE
Derrick Jones DL
Jared Retkofsky LS
Aaron Robbins FB
Eric Deslauriers WR
Eric Fowler WR
Chris Jackson WR
The Steelers hit pay dirt in 2007. Woodley and Timmons look like they might be the best one-two punch in the 2000s, at least given that we can't evaluate the last two years just yet.
Here are the first and second draft picks for the previous years since 2000 (the Kevin Colbert era.)
2000: Plaxico Burress (#8) and Marvel Smith (#38)
2001: Casey Hampton (#19) and Kendrell Bell (#39)
- The Steelers traded down three spots in the first round, from #16 to #19, which gained them up a 4th and 6th round pick.
2002: Kendall Simmons (#30) and Antwaan Randle El (#62)
2003: Troy Polamalu (#16) and Alonzo Jackson (#59)
- The Steelers traded up in the first round for the first time ever, moving from #27 to #16 to get the Troyminator. They gave up their 3rd and 6th round picks. It seems to have turned out alright.
2004: Ben Roethlisberger (#11) and Ricardo Colclough (#38)
- The Steelers traded up with the Colts to get Colclough, giving up their fourth-round pick. The Colts took Bob Sanders at #44.
2005: Heath Miller (#30) and Bryant McFadden (#62)
2006: Santonio Holmes, (#25) Anthony Smith (#83)
- The Steelers traded with the NYG to move up from #32 in 2006. They used pick #25 to get Holmes, giving up their 2nd and 4th round picks. The Vikings used the 2nd round pick, (#62,) obtained from the NYG, to pick Tavaris Jackson.
But let's return to 2007. The Steelers let Matt Spaeth walk when he hit free agency this season, but he was picked up by the Bears. He may not be the most sparkling 3rd-round pick ever, but he made the roster in his rookie year.
The Steelers traded up a bit in the 4th round to get Daniel Sepuveda. The only possible knock against one of the best-looking and high character players on the team is his injury history. Hopefully the new repair technique the doctors used on his oft-injured knee will do the trick, because he isn't going to stop tackling.
Last week Teresa Varley interviewed him, and you can watch it here. He had a lot to say about how grateful he was to the Steelers organization, coaching staff, and fans for standing by him. Varley asked him "You've never been afraid to make a tackle in the past. This time around, do you think about it a little with the knee?" Sepulveda said:
Yeah, it's already looked different. There was the—I guess it was the Eagles game—they brought a return back and I was running the other way, and I really felt guilty when I got to the sidelines, because that's not me, that's not my nature. I had to consciously combat against doing that. But it won't look like that when it's on the line in the regular season—I communicated that to Coach Tomlin. I'm not going to be a liability. If it's between me putting my knee at risk and us losing a game because of a punt returned for a touchdown, I'm going to put my knee at risk. I'll go in there and give it my best shot.
Next up - Ryan McBean. Since I've become a fan so recently, my first reaction was "Who?" So I looked him up, and discovered that we cut him at the end of the 2007 season. The Broncos picked him up for their practice squad at the beginning of the 2008 season, and he is on their roster at DE. It looked like he was history when the Broncos switched to a 4-3, but he's still playing, coming in on the Bronco's jumbo package. He may not have done much for us, but he's still on an NFL roster. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article noted that he is "widely considered one of the NFL's happiest players." That has to be worth something.
Cameron Stephenson was the first of the fifth-round picks, and was cut at the end of training camp. Several other teams picked him up for their practice squads, and during the summer of 2010 he was cut for the last time, it looks like, as he had spent the 2009 season on the practice squad of the Jaguars. He signed with a UFL team on July 2010.
The second 5th-round pick was William Gay. Love him or hate him, I think he's exceeded expectations for a low 5th round pick, and he has made some big plays when it mattered.
Finally, our 7th-round pick was Dallas Baker. At the time he was considered a steal, but he spent the first season on the practice squad. He made the roster in 2008 but was cut and put on the practice squad in November to make room for CB Roy Lewis. (Lewis is now at Seattle, currently on the PUP after knee surgery.) Baker spent the rest of the season on the practice squad and was cut after the 2009 training camp. He is now playing in the CFL.
Two notable undrafted free agents were Darnell Stapleton and Gary Russell.
Stapleton was actually a starter during the playoffs and the 2009 Super Bowl when Kendell Simmons went down, but the Steelers let him walk when he became a free agent. The Patriots picked him up in 2010 and released him partway through camp. His knees had taken a lot of beating during his career, and he retired at that point. He is now a coach of a woman's league team, the New York Sharks.
Gary Russell played a bit in 2007, and was waived by the Steelers early in the 2008 season and signed to the practice squad. He made it back on the roster when Rashard Mendenhall was injured, and played in the 2009 Super Bowl, even garnering a rushing TD. He was released during the off-season for no obvious reason, but eventually it came out that there was a drug bust at his house. He signed with the Raiders, where he spent the 2009 season. The story ends there, as I can't find any further information on him.
I'm not going to look at any of the other UFAs, as enough is enough. So what's the verdict?
Tomlin/Colbert/FO staff picked up a couple of the best players in the league at their positions in the mid-first and second rounds. Their first 4th round pick is still the punter. Rounds 3 and 5b brought them serviceable if mostly unspectacular players—one of them is still on the roster. Pick 4b is also on an NFL roster—just not ours. Picks 5a and 7 were the only real whiffs. Furthermore, they picked up two UFAs that contributed in the 2009 Super Bowl. That seems like very solid talent evaluation to me.
To be continued...