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The Steelers’ NFL Draft history hints at what we should expect from the class of 2020

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If you look at history, it will show you what we can expect from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 draft class.

New Mexico v Notre Dame Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Now that the dust has settled on the recently completed NFL draft, it’s time to speculate on the impact these newest Steelers might make.

One way to do that is to draw on recent history. In this article, I break down the Steelers’ draft classes from 2010-2019 with the following questions in mind: what does history tell us about the contributions we can expect from the 2020 class? How many starters are likely to be produced? How many backups and role players? How many will be cut or fail to make an impact? And, of course, which draftees may fulfill which roles? It’s an inexact science, of course, and with only six picks in 2020 the past may not translate as cleanly. But, as a framework for expectation, it’s a worthy exercise.


In breaking down the past decade worth of drafts, I have created three categories to assess the Steelers’ selections. They are as follows:

Starters

Backups/Role Players

No impact

There is no exact way to predict which picks should become starters but we can make some generalizations. A study by Forbes magazine published in 2015 showed that 29.9% of starters in the league at that time had been selected in the first round while another 30.1% were selected in rounds two and three. Therefore, with 60% of the starters in the league selected in the first three rounds, teams would do well to produce two starters in a given draft from those (on average) first three picks. The remaining 40% of starters were either day-three picks (rounds 4-7) or undrafted free agents. Finding a third starter among those picks would be ideal. Landing between two and three starters on average in the draft might not seem like a high bar. The numbers, however, suggest that it is.

This chart shows the results of the Forbes study breaking down starters by draft slot (2015).

All starters are not created equal, of course. To put Ben Roethlisberger, a starter, in the same category as, say, Marcus Gilbert, who would also qualify as a starter using this metric, undervalues Roethlisberger’s impact on the franchise. Among the starters a given draft produces, teams must hope to occasionally find stars. Starting-quality players often solidify a draft but a star can define one. For example, the Steelers’ 2004 draft produced just one notable player besides Roethlisberger (tackle Max Starks) and included six players who ranged from memorable busts (Ricardo Colclough) to dudes you’ve simply forgotten about (Bo Lacy, Matt Kranchick and Drew Caylor, anyone?). A draft where just two of eight players selected make any sort of impact would typically be considered a failure. Yet only a career cynic or a rigid stat geek would argue against the 2004 draft as one of the greatest in franchise history. I have no metric for star players here but landing one can truly transform a draft class or even a franchise.

The second category includes backups and role players. These are players who may have started a game or two along the way but who generally filled substitute roles or contributed on special teams. These players tended not to hang around very long, either seeking opportunities elsewhere once their rookie contracts expired (Tyler Matakevich) or eventually being traded or released by the franchise (Josh Dobbs). Backups and role players are commonly replaced once younger and cheaper alternatives become available. Still, a reliable backup at a key position, like quarterback, nickel corner or a swing player along the offensive line, can be extremely important. Finding a player like this in the draft can have great value to the franchise.

Finally, there are the players who fail to make an impact. Some are cut right out of camp while others hang around for a year or two without ever really contributing. Players like Brian Allen and Jerald Hawkins fit the latter description while guys like Sutton Smith and Joshua Frazier fit the former. According to Pro Football reference, about 54% of draft picks fall into this category (16.7% who never play for the team that drafted them, 37% who make almost no contribution).

So, to summarize, the league average suggests a team should hope to find about two starters per draft while roughly half of their picks (46%) should make the team and contribute in some fashion. How have the Steelers measured against this metric over the past decade? Here’s a breakdown by class, with their draft slot in parenthesis:

2010

Starters - 4: Maurkice Pouncey (1), Jason Worilds (2), Emmanuel Sanders (3), Antonio Brown (6)

Backups/Role Players - 1: Jonathan Dwyer (6)

No Impact - 5: Thaddeus Gibson (4), Chris Scott (5), Crezdon Butler (5), Stevenson Sylvester (5), Doug Worthington (7)

Summary: 5/10 picks wound up contributors (50%), with two stars (Pouncey and Brown) and four starters. This draft was low on role players but its star-power made it a great draft.

2011

Starters - 2: Cam Heyward (1), Marcus Gilbert (2)

Backups/Role Players - 1: Cortez Allen (4)

No Impact - 4: Curtis Brown (3), Chris Carter (5), Keith Williams (6), Barron Batch (7)

Summary: 3/7 picks wound up as contributors (43%), with one star (Heyward) and two starters. A decent draft that was also light on backups and role players.

2012

Starters - 1: David DeCastro (1)

Backups/Role Players - 2: Sean Spence (3), Kelvin Beachum (7)

No Impact - 6: Mike Adams (2), Alameda Ta’amu (4), Chris Rainey (5), Toney Clemons (7), David Paulson (7), Terrence Fredrick (7)

Summary: 3/9 picks wound up as contributors (33%), although that figure looks worse due to four long-shot 7th round picks. Only one starter (DeCastro) but he turned out to be a star. A big miss in the 2nd (Adams) and a poor character pick in the 4th (Ta’amu). Overall, not a great draft.

2013

Starters - 4: Jarvis Jones (1), Le’Veon Bell (2), Markus Wheaton (3), Vince Williams (6)

Backups/Role Players - 2: Shamarko Thomas (4), Landry Jones (4)

No Impact - 3: Terry Hawthorne (5), Justin Brown (6), Nick Williams (7)

Summary: 6/9 picks wound up as contributors (67%) with one star (Bell) and four starters. The raw numbers look a bit better than the reality, however. Jarvis Jones was a starter but one of the least productive 1st round picks of the decade. Wheaton started just 22 games in four years in Pittsburgh, which isn’t great for a third-round pick. Thomas and Landry Jones qualify as role players but both were disappointing overall. This is a tough draft to assess.

2014

Starters - 3: Ryan Shazier (1), Stephon Tuitt (2), Martavis Bryant (4)

Backups/Role Players - 1: Dan McCullers (6)

No Impact - 5: Dri Archer (3), Shaq Richardson (5), Wesley Johnson (5), Jordan Zumwalt (6), Rob Branchflower (7)

Summary: 4/9 picks wound up as contributors (44%), with one star (Shazier) and three starters. This draft was great at the top but diminished from there, especially in light of Bryant’s inability to keep his personal life together.

2015

Starters - 2: Bud Dupree (1), Jesse James (5)

Backups/Role Players - 1: Anthony Chickillo (6)

No Impact - 5: Senquez Golson (2), Sammie Coates (3), Doran Grant (4), Leterrius Walton (6), Gerod Holliman (7)

Summary: 3/8 picks wound up as contributors (38%), with no stars and two starters. James didn’t quite feel like a starter, however, and Dupree only emerged last season. A lack of star-power, Dupree’s mediocre first four seasons and big misses in rounds 2-4 make this the second-least effective draft of the decade.

2016

Starters - 3: Artie Burns (1), Sean Davis (2), Javon Hargrave (3)

Backups/Role Players - 1: Tyler Matakevich (7)

No Impact - 3: Jerald Hawkins (4), Travis Feeney (6), Demarcus Ayers (7)

Summary: 4/7 picks wound up as contributors (57%) with no stars and three starters. Despite the solid percentage of contributors, this was the least effective draft of the decade. Burns started 32 games but was a bust as a 1st round pick. Davis was disappointing as well. Hargrave was a solid player but is now gone. No players from the 2016 draft remain with the Steelers. That says it all.

2017

Starters - 3: TJ Watt (1), Juju Smith-Schuster (2), James Conner (3)

Backups/Role Players - 2: Cam Sutton (3), Josh Dobbs (4)

No Impact - 3: Brian Allen (5), Colin Holba (6), Keion Adams (7)

Summary: 5/8 picks wound up as contributors (63%) with one definite star (TJ) and two others with star potential (Juju and Conner). Dobbs, although he didn’t do much while in Pittsburgh, did yield a fifth-round pick in the trade with Jacksonville that the Steelers used in part to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick. A great bounce-back draft after two poor ones.

For 2018-2019, I will speculate on certain players since it’s too early to make a definitive assessment of the draft class.

2018

Starters - 2: Terrell Edmunds (1), James Washington (2)

Backups/Role Players - 3: Mason Rudolph (3), Chuks Okorafor (3), Jaylen Samuels (5)

No Impact - 2: Marcus Allen (5), Josh Frazier (7)

Summary: 5/7 picks are shaping up as contributors (71%) with Allen having the chance to make it 6/7 should he emerge in 2020. There are no stars in this group but Edmunds and Washington are both improving. Rudolph should develop into a competent backup, as should Okorafor. So far, this looks like a solid depth draft.

2019

Starters - 2: Devin Bush (1), Diontae Johnson (2)

Backups/Role Players - 4: Justin Layne (3), Benny Snell (4), Isaiah Buggs (6), Ulysses Gilbert (6)

No Impact - 3: Zach Gentry (5), Sutton Smith (6), Derwin Gray (7)

Summary: 6/9 picks are shaping up as contributors (67%), with two potential stars in Bush and Johnson and a host of role players from the mid-rounds. Gentry and Gray could both become decent backups at some point, which would make this a great draft. As is, it looks another solid one.

Totals, 2010-2019:

Draft Picks: 75

Starters: 26/75 (2.6 per draft)

Backups/Role Players: 18/75 (approx. 2 per draft)

No Impact: 31/75 (approx. 3 per draft)

Summary: the Steelers have produced 44 contributors out of 75 total picks for a percentage of 58.6 (it will be over 60% if Allen, Gentry or Gray pan out). That’s well above the league average of 46%. Their 2.6 starters per draft seem, the best I can tell, slightly above league average as well. The Steelers are often thought to be a team that drafts well and the numbers bear that out.

What does this mean for the 2020 draft class? With only six picks, the raw numbers may be altered. Still, if the percentages hold, the Steelers will likely procure 2-3 starters and a couple of role players. Here’s an opinion on which category each of our picks may fit:

2nd round, Chase Claypool (Starter/Star)

From 2010-2019, the Steelers made nine second-round picks. Seven became starters while Le’Veon Bell was a star and Juju is on the fringe. Two of the second round picks were busts (Mike Adams, Senquez Golson).

It seems almost impossible that Claypool will bust. He’s just too big, fast and talented and he has no known character issues. Claypool seems destined to become one of the starter’s from this draft class and could develop into a star.

3rd round, Alex Highsmith (Role Player/Starter)

The Steelers success in round three has been mixed, with some solid picks (Conner, Hargrave, Emmanuel Sanders) and some weak ones (Curtis Brown, Dri Archer, Sammie Coates). I have my reservations about Highsmith as a future starter. I’m leery of edge rushers who lack the power or craft to beat NFL linemen with something other than speed. Highsmith will undoubtedly get stronger and hopefully, with solid coaching, will develop into a more complete player. For now, I see him as a special teams contributor and situational pass rusher more than a long-term partner for TJ Watt. Scouting reports indicate he’s a determined individual and a hard-worker, however, so I won’t be shocked if he proves me wrong.

4th round, Anthony McFarland (Role Player), Kevin Dotson (Starter)

In the past ten years, the Steelers fourth-round picks have produced one starter, five role players and four players who made no impact here. That’s a solid 60% contribution rate from the round. This year could be one of their best fourth-round hauls in recent memory.

McFarland has a skill set (speed) the team lacks in the backfield. He seems like a perfect change-of-pace back to compliment the power-running style of James Conner and Benny Snell. Dotson is a physical run-blocker who most pundits believe was a steal in the fourth. With no established starter or recent draft pick at the guard position opposite David DeCastro, Dotson has a clear path to the starting lineup. I expect him to join Claypool as the second definite starter from this draft class.

6th round, Antoine Brooks (Role Player)

I’m going to buck the percentages and give the Steelers a fifth contributor out of their six picks. Brooks is just too good of a tackler, and the Steelers have too big a hole at sub-package linebacker, for him to flame out. If Brooks does fail it will be because he’s too small to fill the sub-package role and not good enough in coverage to make it as a two-deep safety. But there is always room for a guy who can run and tackle on special teams, which seems a likely spot for Brooks this season as he learns the sub-package role. I like this kid and I think he’ll stick around for a while.

7th round, Carlos Davis (No Impact)

In ten years, the Steelers have never had an entire draft class contribute. With just six picks, 2020 could be the year. Still, I don’t see a way Davis makes the team unless the Steelers carry a seventh defensive lineman, which is doubtful. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs and Dan McCullers are all ahead of Davis on the depth chart. He’d have to beat one of them out to stick. The odds say he won’t.


Recent history tells us the Steelers usually land between two and three starters and four to five total contributors per draft. This draft class should follow suit, with Claypool and Dotson looking like starters, Highsmith a starting candidate and McFarland and Brooks as contributors. The draft has been the heart of the team’s success over the past decade. Hopefully, the 2020 class will continue that tradition.