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Analyzing how expectations change based solely on draft position

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How much is our criticism of players based on where they were selected in the draft?

Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Numerical value means a lot when determining a players worth, especially in today’s NFL. When a player is signed with a team as a free agent, the expectation is often based on the dollar value associated with the contract. Players signing for the minimum usually don’t disappoint because the expectation is so low. Likewise, players who take up a large space of the salary cap when signing as a free agent are expected to produce at a high level.

The same can be said about the NFL draft. Where a player is chosen, specifically the round in which they are chosen, weighs a lot for the expectation of that players career. If a player is a first round pick, teams are quick to call the player a bust. But if the same player were taken in the fourth round, teams would be pleasantly surprised with their production.

It’s hard to say what will happen with the Steelers 2019 draft choices. Will they live up to the position at which they were drafted? Only time will tell. But imagine a scenario where the players drafted by the Steelers over the past five years were taken in a different round. What would our expectations be? Just for fun, let’s swap draft positions from two different players over the last five drafts beginning with 2018. Does our perspective of the players change?

Let’s dive down the rabbit hole…

2018

Terrell Edmunds (1st round) and Mason Rudolph (beginning of the 3rd round)

The biggest problem a lot of Steeler Nation had with the Edmunds pick was he was not considered first-round material, even in his own eyes. Yes, reports were he was moving up teams draft boards prior to Thursday night, but many believed it was a reach to take Edmunds in the first.

I was one of many (possibly misguided) people who wanted the Steelers to take Mason Rudolph in the first round. I felt he was the quarterback of the future and would be a great fit to play a few years behind Rothlisberger. Instead, the Steelers went with Edmunds and traded up in the beginning of the third round to get Rudolph.

Imagine if the two selections were switched. How would Steelers Nation view Rudolph being a first round pick? Many have written him off because he was only selected in the third round and will not be the answer once Ben Roethlisberger retires. Does the round he was drafted completely determine his future value? Or with his play on the field be the driving force behind his future in the NFL?

As for Edmunds, he played in every game this past season and started 15. He logged the most snaps on the team, tied with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva. If Edmunds was the player the Steelers had fall to them in the top of the third round, how would he be embraced by Steelers fans? Would he be considered a wonderful surprise for what they expected?

New Expectation:

Mason Rudolph in the 1st: The next franchise quarterback

Terrell Edmunds in the 3rd: The next defensive play-maker


2017

Colin Holba (6th round) and Keion Adams (7th round)

It’s hard to question many moves in the 2017 draft, especially when three of the top four selections by the Steelers made the Pro Bowl in their second year in the league. Therefore, let’s look at just making a very quick late round switch.

Many Steeler fans were dumbfounded that the Steelers would draft a long snapper, let alone in the sixth round. Greg Warren had been entrenched the position for a long time. But unbeknownst to Steeler fans, Warren was dealing with a career ending injury. Therefore the Steelers drafted Colin Holba in the sixth round.

But what if they chose to wait until their final pick, one of the last few in the draft? I have a feeling many fans would not have had much of a problem. It became a position of need, therefore taking one of the best players at that position at the last possible moment would have been a wise decision. There was no guarantee the Steelers could have convinced one of the top long snappers to sign with them as an undrafted free agent.

One of the biggest knocks on the pick of Holba was the fact he did not manage to win the job even after Greg Warren was released. Instead, Kam Canaday has been the long snapper for the Steelers ever since.

As for the other side of the equation, whether Keion Adams was selected in the sixth or seventh round as an outside linebacker probably would not have changed expectations for him over the last two seasons. Having him stick around on the practice squad after being placed on IR his rookie season while still having the potential to make the 53 man roster for 2019 would have been welcomed regardless if he was taken 35 spots earlier.

New Expectation:

Keion Adams in the 6th: Still a developmental pass rusher on the practice squad

Colin Holba in the 7th: Still a somewhat wasted pick since he was cut, but at least it was only pick 248.


2016

Artie Burns (1st round) and Javon Hargrave (3rd round)

Looking at the 2016 draft, any player of the ones the Steelers selected would have been considered a reach in the first round. It just so happens Artie Burns was that player. He could have just as easily been available in the second or third round for all we know.

The start of Artie Burns’ career really showed some promise, but as time went on his confidence went from shakey to nonexistent. Could part of his problems be the high expectations of a first round pick? Would he have thrived if he was selected in the third round and had a chip on his shoulder to show what he could do? I wish these questions were the reality Artie Burns was given, but unfortunately they are not.

Had Javon Hargrave been the first round selection of the Steelers in 2016, the expectations would’ve been skyhigh for him. He started 13 games as a rookie with good statistics for a nose tackle which included a fumble recovery for a touchdown. If he were a fist round pick, rather than being a pleasant surprise, he might have been considered only average based on his high draft position. But after three seasons, I think the Steelers would have exercised his fifth year option, unlike Artie Burns.

New Expectation:

Javon Hargrave in the 1st: His fifth year option picked up, but he would have to really prove something beyond 2019.

Artie Burns in the 3rd: Continuing to hope his head gets on straight because his athletic ability is through the roof.


2015

Sammie Coates (3rd round) and Jesse James (5th round)

This one is interesting since neither one of these players are still on the Steelers roster. Sammy Coates had one big game against the Jets where he managed to mangle his hand to a point he never recovered. As he tried to continue to play through the injury, he probably did himself no favors with his long-term career and may have been better off having surgery immediately.

If Coats would have been selected in the fifth round, it probably would have made more sense to play through the injury as a return to the roster was not guaranteed. But chances are, as a fifth round pick, the Steelers might have continued to see what would happen instead of shipping him off to Cleveland.

As for Jesse James, part of his appeal was that he had great production for a fifth round selection. Had he been taken in the third round, the Steelers may have turned to him to be the number one tight end rather than make a trade for Vance McDonald. Even if they still made the trade, the two may have been on more equal grounds.

If James was a third round selection, would the Steelers haven given him a contract before he hit free agency? Would they have been more likely to retain him because of where he was selected? I think so.

New Expectation:

Jesse James in the 3rd: The Steelers sign him to a long-term deal before free agency in 2019.

Sammie Coats in the 5th: The Steelers never trade him to Cleveland. He sticks around at the bottom of the roster for another season before being released.


2014

Dri Archer (3rd round) and Daniel McCullers (6th round)

I almost went with Martavis Bryant, but I feel switching him and Archer would not have made much of a difference. If Archer would have been selected in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, there’s a good chance he would not have even made the 53-man roster. It’s seed apparent his desire to play football was lacking and the only reason he stuck around into his second season was because they had used a third round pick to obtain him.

Personally, I feel the Steelers have treated Daniel McCullers like a player they drafted in the third round. There have been many times where fans wondered why the Steelers have been sticking with him for so long with so little production. It was almost as if he had been highly drafted and they were continuing to see how he would develop. But as only a six round pick, it’s surprising he was not cut loose several seasons ago.

New Expectation:

Daniel McCullers in the 3rd: The Steelers continue to try to develop him on cheap contracts hoping he will pan out (in other words, no different than what they have done).

Dri Archer in the 6th: straight to the practice squad his rookie season, if he even bothered to report.


I hope you all enjoyed this exercise as much as I did. It was fun to think about how our perspective would change with the numerical value placed on a player when they came into the league. We’ll never know what would have really happened, and it’s okay if you completely disagree with my expectations. Please feel free to post your own!

Personally, I’m going to work very hard to forget where players were drafted by the Steelers and only think about how they have produced on the field. If we could do this at fans, we should constantly be satisfied with the production of a good number of the Steelers draft picks.