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Assessing the Steelers' Drafting Success During the Kevin Colbert Era, Part I

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Note: Those of you familiar with Momma's Mock Drafts may wonder if this article is part of that series, but alas, this is actually a serious article. So if you came for the pictures, ladies, Mike Tomlin is all there is for today.

I wrote a series of articles last fall taking a look at the Steeler drafts from 2007 - 2009. I based my assessment on the talent identification part of the equation, whether it necessarily benefited the Steelers or not. In other words, Kraig Urbik was the second Steelers pick in the 2009 draft, although he was picked in the third round after the Steelers traded down. Given that he has turned into a serviceable guard, or better, I gave the Steelers’ scouting staff props for finding him, even though the Steelers themselves cut him and his guard services have only benefitted another franchise.

But with this assessment I will look at how well the Steelers have drafted in the Kevin Colbert era, considering only how well the picks have done for the Steelers. Since Colbert was hired at the beginning of the year in 2000 I decided it was fair to give him a year, since the 2000 draft picks may not have had his stamp on them quite yet. It’s too early to properly assess 2011—it’s actually probably too early to properly assess 2010 either, but it’s a convenient stopping point. So we will be looking at the drafts from 2001 - 2010.

The first question to consider is whether the Steelers actually do draft well, at least relatively speaking. The second question is whether there is a better way to draft, or whether it’s really a crap shoot no matter what you do. Because ultimately that’s the interesting question. If the Steelers are better than average at their draft choices, that would explain their continued success, even in a small market. But perhaps they aren’t actually better than average, but their policies and coaching after they draft players makes the difference. And if the latter is true, is it possible to also tweak their drafting process to make them even more successful?

So first let’s look at how well they draft overall. In their assessment of the previous decade, which conveniently enough is from 2001 - 2010, Cold Hard Football Facts gave the Steelers a B grade and placed them ninth among the 32 teams. Here’s what they had to say:

Pittsburgh (B)

Pro Bowlers: 9 (t-4th)

Draftees Active in 2010: 35 (25th)

Players with 50+ Career AV: 3 (t-13th)

Players with 20+ Career AV: 18 (t-11th)

Best Pick: S Troy Polamalu (No. 16 overall, 2003)

Worst Pick: LB Alonzo Jackson (2nd round, 2006)

Summary: The Steelers had the best group of first-round picks in the decade, with two likely Hall of Famers (Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu) along with stars like Maurkice Pouncey, Santonio Holmes, Laurence Timmons, Rashard Mendenhall, Heath Miller and Casey Hampton. They were also one of the least successful in rounds three through seven, interesting since they have such a sharp eye for top talent.

This is really interesting. Let’s look at "the best group of first-round picks in the decade" and where they were picked:

#11 - Ben Roethlisberger

#15 - Lawrence Timmons

#16 - Troy Polamalu

#18 - Maurkice Pouncey

#19 - Casey Hampton

#23 - Rashard Mendenhall

#25 - Santonio Holmes

#30 - Heath Miller

#30 - Kendall Simmons

#32 - Ziggy Hood

Only three times during the decade were the Steelers drafting in the top half of the draft, and one of those was a trade up, to #16 for Troy Polamalu. What is the expected difference in players in the first and second half of the first round?

According to the Draft Value Chart, here are the values of those picks:

#11: 1250

#15: 1050

#16: 1000

#18: 900

#19: 875

#23: 760

#25: 720

#30: 620

#32: 590

The supposed value of the #1 pick overall is 3000. This chart is unofficial and is for trade value, not an assessment of the value of a player taken in that spot. But even though it isn’t really meant to value the players themselves, you could argue there is a relationship to where a player is taken and how likely they are to succeed in the NFL. A higher likelihood of success obvious increases the value of the pick.

But apparently, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal, just being picked in the first round correlates with a high degree of success:

Of the 287 players drafted in round one over the past nine years, 85% are still playing, which is 20% better than the rate for second rounders. The average "one" plays for 9 years, which is nearly triple the league average. They make up 40% of the league's team captains and they were 140% more likely to make the Pro Bowl in the last decade than players taken in round two.

This may be at least partially a function of how much patience a team is likely to have with a player in whom they have invested a great deal. First-round "busts" are notable for a reason—because they’re fairly unusual, especially in the upper part of the first round. And some of that is possibly attributable to the team that drafts them as much as to the player himself. A given player may ultimately not be a good fit for the system the team runs, or the coaching staff they employ. The team may just suck in at least some areas in their player development. Serious injuries are always a possibility as well.

But to return to the question of whether you can determine the likelihood of a player having a successful career depending on where they were drafted, Advanced NFL Statistics has an answer, or rather, a number of answers. They broke down the chances of a successful career by position, and here is a sample, taken from one of the articles about quarterbacks. (You can find the full articles, bristling with charts and graphs and other impressive things, here.)

There are large drop offs in performance from the 1st QB taken to the 2nd, and from the 2nd to the 3rd. Then from there until the 9th or 10th QB taken, it's pretty random. It appears that if your team doesn't get one of the first two QB picks, it might as well take a chance on a later pick. Chances fall off quickly after the first two QBs that a team will find a franchise player.

Ben Roethlisberger is an exception, since he was taken after Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers. And Roethlisberger is far and away the most successful QB who was not a #1 or #2 QB in their class during the 2001 - 2010 drafts, at least to this point.

During the 2001-2010 drafts 128 quarterbacks were drafted. Of those, 27 have been drafted in the first round. I’ve heard of all but three of them, or about 89% of all quarterbacks drafted in the first round. All four of those players were drafted prior to 2005. Since I wasn’t even a football fan until partway through the 2009 season, this indicates as well as anything else these players have made a reasonable impact and/or had a reasonable lengthy career.

Conversely, of the remaining 101 QBs drafted in rounds 2 - 7, I had only heard of 22 of them, or just over 20%. Of those, here are the QBs with a significant number of starts, or, in the case of Matt Flynn, about to get a significant number of starts: (the number in parenthesis is where the player was taken in among all QBs in that year, the second the actual draft position, so Drew Brees was the 2nd QB taken in the draft, in round 2 at pick #32, which was in the 2nd round at the time)

Drew Brees (2) 2/32

Jimmy Clausen (3) 2/48

Chad Henne (4) 2/57

Tavaris Jackson (5) 2/64

Kevin Kolb (3) 2/36

Colt McCoy (4) 3/85

Matt Schaub (5) 3/90

Kyle Orton (7) 4/106

Curtis Painter (11) 6/201

Matt Cassel (12) 7/230

Ryan Fitzpatrick (13) 7/250

Matt Flynn (12) 7/209

So is there a decent amount of correlation between where a player is taken in the draft and how likely they are to succeed? The "value" of pick #224 is 2. The "value" of pick #1 is 3000. Baron Batch was taken by the Steelers in 2011 at #232, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll assume the value of #232 is still 2. Is Cam Newton, the 2011 #1 overall pick, 1500 times as likely to succeed in the NFL as Baron Batch? Is Andrew Luck (or Robert Griffin III, possibly) 1500 times as likely to succeed as whoever is picked last this year?

But that may not be a fair question. Perhaps it makes more sense to ask "Is Cam Newton, the first QB to be taken in the 2011 draft, (draft value 3000) 366 times more likely to succeed than Greg McElroy, the last QB to be taken in the 2011 draft?" (The draft value of pick #208, where McElroy was taken, is 8.2.)

There were 14 QBs taken in the 2004 draft after Ben Roethlisberger. Of those 14, I’ve only heard of one of them, Matt Schaub. Their supposed draft values are 1250 (Ben) and 140 (Schaub.) Has Ben proven to be about nine times as valuable as Matt Schaub? Probably. After all, the Steelers have been to three Super Bowls since 2004 and won two of them. In the final assessment things may change. Ben may get injured in the pre-season and never play again, while the Texans surge into NFL dominance and pick up a couple of rings. But although Ben is almost certainly not nine times better a QB per se as Matt Schaub, the combination of him and the Steelers have gained a lot more than Schaub and the Falcons/Texans so far.

I focused on the quarterback position for this segment of the series, which seems appropriate, given all the hoopla over first round and free agent quarterbacks this year. The Steelers drafted three quarterbacks between 2001 and 2010, one in the first round and two in the fifth round, and made the right choice for the one that mattered the most. This is despite the fact they are the only team during these years to successfully pick up their franchise quarterback after the second quarterback in the draft was gone.

The Steelers have clearly done very well in the first round, despite the generally low spot they pick at. They moved up once into the upper end of the draft, for Troy Polamalu. They spent their highest pick in the decade on a quarterback and got it right. They moved down once and got a Pro Bowl nose tackle. The majority of the time they were picking in the lower half of the round, and that does make a difference. The Wall Street Journal article shows you expect some reasonable level of success from any first-round pick, but the Cold Hard Football Facts folks still determined the Steelers to have drafted the most successfully in the first round of any team during the ten years in question.

Well, that’s enough for the moment. The next article will deal with Round 2. The Steelers don’t do nearly so well in Round 2, as I expect most of you know. We’ll look at the players they chose, why they went wrong, who they might have picked instead at the same position, and whether they ought to call up BTSC for suggestions : )