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Disappointment aside, Steelers’ last two draft classes offer reasons for optimism

Things may be down right now, but the Steelers’ last two draft classes offer a glimmer of hope.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 season is in the books and - BREAKING NEWS - it was disappointing! I won’t rehash the litany of reasons as to why. The protests about our inability to beat weaker teams, protect late leads and our reluctance to part ways with everyone from Mike Tomlin to James Conner’s barber have been repeated ad nauseam. Throw in the fact that Antonio Brown is behaving like a child, Ben Roethlisberger is receiving mail from AARP and we still don’t have a three-down linebacker, and the amount of angst currently pumping through Steeler Nation is reaching Brister-esque proportions.

I have no idea what will happen with AB, whether anyone on staff will be fired, how much longer Ben will play or whether James Conner will change stylists. I do, however, have a pretty good feeling about the young players we have added to the roster in the past two drafts. Take a deep breath and back away from the ledge, BTSC readers. There are reasons for optimism despite the bitter taste this season has left behind. The early returns on the 2017 and 2018 draft classes is a good place to find it.

With our season over, every Steeler fan under the sun will soon have a mock draft to offer. The heated debates over which players we should select this coming April are about to commence in full throat. Why such passion over the faux selections of 21 year-olds? Well, for one, playing amateur GM is fun. For another, much like the offensive coordinator position, many people believe they can do the job better than the professionals. “Monday Morning GM” is about as popular as “Monday Morning QB.” But third, and most importantly, the draft is the best way to build a successful football team. It is structured in a way that allows bad teams to select the best players, for teams to identify their areas of weakness and target players who will strengthen them, and for creative teams to move around to acquire the players they desire. Fans recognize the draft as a way to land franchise-altering prospects or to find the missing pieces to a championship puzzle. Thus, the passion.

In order to make the draft work, however, teams have to be right about the players they select. Therein lies the rub. Drafting is a complex and inexact science. The professionals who get paid big money to study the pool of college talent are wrong more often than they are right. What gives? Is there a rash of incompetence in NFL scouting departments? In some, perhaps, but not as a rule. Instead, consider the following:

The jump in talent from one level of football to the next is massive. Only about 6% of the hundreds of thousands of kids who play high school football in America go on to play in college. The percentage of college players who make it to the pros is even smaller. About two percent, according to Forbes magazine. So, the NFL is the true elite of the elite.

Understandably, then, many drafted players simply can’t cut it. They might be great players but the level of play in the League is beyond them. Others get caught in a numbers crunch — too many draft picks for available roster spots — and are released as a result. Combine those factors with how hard it is to determine how young men from different socioeconomic, racial and cultural backgrounds will react to new environments, fat paychecks and the trappings of celebrity, and it is easy to see why many draft picks never pan out.

What’s a realistic return, then, on a particular draft? Pro Football Reference created a “draft value” chart to study draft success over the past twenty years. They created a metric with scores from 0-160 that weighed factors such as number of games started, individual stats, team performance and all-pro honors. The results might seem surprising, but they shouldn’t be.

16.7% of players had no draft metric, meaning they never played for the team that drafted them. In short, they were cut before playing a down. These players weren’t necessarily busts so much as they were long shots taken in the later rounds of the draft. Simply put, your typical sixth and seventh round picks. Toney Clemons, anyone?

37% of picks scored between 1-4, meaning they were essentially non-contributors. These were players who may have made the roster for a year or two but did little to nothing to make an impact. Players like David Paulson and Jordan Zumwalt come to mind.

15.3% of the picks scored between 5-10, which was considered “poor.” These are players taken higher in the draft who had underwhelming careers that did not come close to matching what was anticipated. Players like Dri Archer, Mike Adams and Sammie Coates fit this category.

Those three categories, where no productive players are produced from a particular draft, comprise 69% of all draft selections from the past twenty years. 69%! And we haven’t yet gotten to average starters, much less studs.

What of the players who do make an impact? 10.5% were rated as average, meaning they filled a role but were far from spectacular (I’m looking at you, Jesse James); 12.3% were considered solid NFL players, meaning they became reliable starters and were bread-and-butter players for the franchise (Marcus Gilbert); and 6.9% were considered great, meaning they became elite players, won individual accolades and were considered among the best at their respective positions. These are guys like David DeCastro and Le’Veon Bell.

The final 1%? Those are the future Hall of Famers. Big Ben and AB. The best of the best.

If about 70% of draft picks essentially wash out, what constitutes a “good” draft? Using the PFR metric, the math says if a team gets seven picks, and if three of them become solid contributors for the franchise, they’ve done better than average. 3 players per draft doesn’t seem like much, and it doesn’t seem hard to achieve, but it is.

Let’s look at some of the Steeler drafts that preceded 2017-2018 to underscore the point.

In 2013, the Steelers were below the metric by hitting on 2 of the 9 players they selected. 2nd round pick Le’Veon Bell became an All-Pro running back while 6th rounder Vince Williams has played above his draft slot by becoming a decent starter. The mid-round picks — Markus Wheaton, Shamarko Thomas and Landry Jones — had middling to poor Steeler careers while the late rounders besides Williams (Terry Hawthorne, Justin Brown and Nicholas Williams) washed out. The biggest disappointment was first-rounder Jarvis Jones, who became a starter but was never the impact player the franchise anticipated.

In 2014, the Steelers again went 2 for 9. Their first two picks — Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt — became solid starters, with Shazier, prior to his catastrophic injury, becoming one of the league’s best linebackers. The rest of that draft was a mess. Dri Archer was a bust, Martavis Bryant couldn’t get his personal life together to capitalize on his immense talent, Shaquille Richardson, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Zumwalt and Rob Branchflower were all gone quickly. Sixth rounder Daniel McCullers is still with the team, though his impact has been minimal at best.

In 2015, the Steelers landed two role players in Jesse James and Anthony Chickillo, a backup in L.T. Walton and a starter who, despite improving this season, has underperformed so far in Bud Dupree. Only James and Dupree fit the category of “average” and figure in to that crucial top 30% of the metric.

The 2016 draft produced starters in Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave but little more. Tyler Matakevich is still with the team but likely not for long; Jerald Hawkins has started one game while spending most of his time injured or deactivated; and 1st round pick Artie Burns is showing few signs of turning things around and could wind up a massive bust.

These four drafts produced 13 players out of the 33 selected who made the roster for more than one season. Two of those players, Bell and Shazier, were studs but neither is in our plans going forward. Five of those players — Hawkins, Matakevich, McCullers, Chickillo, and Walton, are career backups and do not fit the top criteria of the PFR metric. Which means only 6 of 33 players, or 18%, selected between 2013-2016 qualify as solid contributors — Williams, Tuitt, Dupree, James, Davis and Hargrave. The metric says on average about 30% of players selected should fit this category. Only one of those starters, Tuitt, has All-Pro potential. 1 of 33, or 3%. The metric says about 7% should qualify.

Granted, the injury to Shazier and the fallout with Bell skew the long-term success of those drafts. Still, there is no question the front office underperformed. Coupled with the fact that the Steelers tend to be less active in free agency than most teams and thus rely on the draft to supply the core talent of the franchise, it is obvious that these drafts are largely responsible for some of the holes in our current roster.

What about 2017 and 2018, then? It’s very early in the careers of these draftees but the evidence so far suggests a strong rebound for Kevin Colbert and company.

The 2017 draft has already produced two likely franchise cornerstones in T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Each has both All-Pro potential and the character of future team captains. At their current pace, each will garner Hall of Fame consideration should they keep this up for their career. Watt has produced 20 sacks in the 31 games he has started while Smith-Schuster has caught 169 passes in 30 starts, become the youngest player in NFL history to catch 100 passes in a season and was just named the team MVP for 2018. Without question, Watt and Smith-Schuster already rate with the best 1-2 draft picks for the Steelers in the past twenty-five years (Searcy-Kirkland in ‘92, Timmons-Woodley in ‘07, Shazier-Tuitt in ‘14 had Shaz stayed healthy).

Additionally, the ‘17 draft gave us James Conner, who became a Pro Bowl selection this year in his first season as the feature back. Conner’s emergence filled a massive void left by Bell’s decision to sit out the season. Like Watt and Smith-Schuster, Conner is a high character individual who is liked and respected by his teammates and who seems to possess leadership potential. These three selections alone produced more high-end talent than the 2013-2016 drafts combined. Should anything significant come from Josh Dobbs, the fourth round pick who has already exceeded expectations by ousting Landry Jones to become the backup QB, the ‘17 draft could be remembered as the franchise’s strongest in a generation.

The 2018 draft lacks the high end players of its predecessor but has tantalizing potential. First round selection Terrell Edmunds is a polarizing player with many on the BTSC board, some of whom have already labeled him a bust. Unfortunately, the fact that free agent signee Morgan Burnett was hurt much of the year forced Edmunds to play more than he was expected to and put him into roles (cover-2 half-field player) in which he was not yet ready to excel. But when used properly, as a box safety, Edmunds showed a wealth of potential. He is an explosive player, an improving tackler and he excels in underneath coverage. Hopefully, next season’s defense will include more schemes where he can play closer to the line of scrimmage while he works on his instincts as a two-high safety.

Second round pick James Washington also struggled early in the season and was anointed by some with the “bust” label. Washington finished with a modest 16 catches for 247 yards for the season. But his usage and production both picked up late as he seemingly got more comfortable in the offense. Washington was targeted just 19 times in the first ten games of the year but received an additional 19 targets over the final six games. Washington’s snap counts increased significantly as well as he was inserted into the five-wide packages the Steelers used in abundance towards the end of the season. He was on the field for 69% of the offensive snaps in the crucial New England game, a sign that the coaching staff had confidence in him to produce when the lights were brightest. Washington is strong, fights for the football and is a very good downfield blocker. He has more tools and can help the Steelers in more ways than receivers like Marcus Wheaton or Sammie Coates, who also showed some early potential before fading out. He may never become a star in the league but he should develop into one of those “bread-and-butter” starters the PFR metric valued.

The second of our third round picks, offensive tackle Chuks Okorafor, didn’t play much but showed flashes of becoming a solid NFL lineman when he did. Most importantly, he earned the praise of OL coach Mike Munchack, who lauded Okorafor’s strength and size in an interview with 24/7 Sports and told the outlet, “He’s capable of doing everything we want our tackles to do.” Translation: if this kid lets me coach him, he will be good. Okorafor in return gushed about the opportunity to develop under an OL guru like Munchack. Hopefully, the young man will soak in every instruction Munchack delivers his way. Okorafor could become the third solid starter from the ‘18 draft class.

The steal of the ‘18 draft, however, may be our fifth round pick, running back Jaylen Samuels. Like Washington, Samuels was used sparingly early in the season as he got comfortable with the offense and as the coaching staff carved out a role for him. Once Samuels was inserted regularly, he was stellar. Over the first 11 games, Samuels had 10 carries for 24 yards and 4 receptions for 34 yards. Over the final five games, those splits increased to 46-230 and 22-165, including his breakout game against New England where he had 21 touches for 172 yards of offense.

Samuels was every bit the Swiss Army knife many hoped he’d be coming out of college. Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner lined him up in the backfield, in the slot and out wide and found creative ways to get him the football. He reminds me of one of those New England backs - smart, versatile, reliable - never spectacular but always efficient. The fact that Roethislberger threw to Samuels on a crucial third down on the game-winning field goal drive late in the finale against Cincinnati speaks volumes about the QB’s confidence in him. Roethlisberger should be confident throwing Samuels’ way. His hands are tremendous for a running back, as evidenced by his ridiculous 89.6% catch percentage (26 receptions on 29 targets). His pass protection, criticized by many as a potential flaw in his game, improved to the point where Fichtner had no reservations about leaving him in to block. The biggest flaw I see in his game at present is he lacks a feel for the inside run game. Samuels seemed tentative in identifying and exploding through seams in the inside zone game and was much more comfortable running outside, where there is more space to operate. Fichtner schemed a heavy dose of outside runs for him to compensate for this. At some point he will have to develop as an inside runner or defenses will scheme accordingly. For now, though, Samuels looks like a great compliment to the hard-charging James Conner. The two could become a potent 1-2 backfield duo for years to come.

Anything else we get from the ‘18 class will be a bonus. Mason Rudolph may or may not be the heir to Ben. It’s too early to tell. I don’t get spending a third and a fourth round pick on him and Josh Dobbs in back-to-back years when the likelihood is only one (and maybe neither) will ever really contribute here. But there should be another year or two to let both young QBs develop before we have to find out of either is for real. As for fifth-rounder Marcus Allen, we’ll see. Maybe he can become a dependable backup. The sample size this season was too small to draw any significant conclusions. He looked a step slow in coverage and a bit lean to play in the box. I’m not sure what his role will be going forward. I’d advocate that he bulk up and transition into the backup to Edmunds as a box safety. That’s a staff decision, however. It wouldn’t surprise me if Allen’s tenure here is short.

Not as short as Joshua Frazier’s, of course. Such is the shelf life of most 7th round picks.

So in Edmunds, Washington, Chuks and Samuels we got four likely major contributors, plus a possible franchise QB down the road in Rudolph. Add that to the 2017 draft, with its three major contributors plus Dobbs, and it’s safe to say the 2017-2018 drafts will produce more than the four that preceded them combined. That is both a statement about the strength of the latter two drafts and the weakness of the prior four.

Some on this board may argue none of this will matter unless we make significant coaching changes. Some may argue none will matter if AB leaves town, or if Big Ben hangs it up. Those arguments may have merit. But none change the fact that the last two draft classes provide serious reasons for optimism. With the disappointment of the 2018 season fresh in our memory, and with uncertainty swirling around other aspects of the franchise, it’s nice to shine a light on the positive things to which we can look forward.