It seems, every spring, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert talks about not drafting for need but going after the best player on the team's board.
A lot of general managers talk like that, of course, as do coaches, the media and fans. It's kind of not true, though. For the longest time, Laremy Tunsil, the big tackle from Ole Miss, was at the top of most draft boards. Why? Because not only was he considered the best prospect; the Titans, the team with the number one selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, were expected to take Tunsil, who would then hopefully protect the blind side of Marcus Mariota for the next 10 years, or so.
However, even before Tunsil was bonged out of the top of the draft and all the way down to the 13th pick, he was effectively dismissed as a potential top choice when Tennessee traded the first overall selection to the Rams on April 14. With Los Angeles' desire to draft a quarterback, suddenly Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were thrust to the very top of the draft board. One or the other may have been selected second by the Browns, but there was simply no way either was going to Tennessee, who drafted Mariota with the second pick in 2015.
Eventually, the Eagles, with their need for a quarterback, made a trade with Cleveland in-order to move up to the second spot, and then it was a foregone conclusion that the two quarterback prospects would be the first players selected. But how could this be? After all, Goff and Wentz weren't considered the top two prospects on most boards.
Obviously, in-terms of draft value, both Los Angeles and Philadelphia reached for positions of need.
And that's perfectly fine, because, let's be real, the draft is set up based on need.
It's why certain prospects are pegged to be drafted at specific spots in the first round.
If a team is in need of a running back, like the Cowboys were heading into the draft, a player like Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliot is a top five prospect. Would he have been that high of a prospect if DeMarco Murray still played in Dallas, and no other team in the top 10 needed a running back?
Speaking of the running back position, it used to be one that teams targeted in the first round of the draft, with several being selected each and every year. Running backs were players that, in-addition to quarterbacks, coaches built their offenses around.
In the modern NFL, this is no longer the case. Now it's more common to see one running back (and sometimes less than that) selected in the first round (Elliot was the only back taken in the first round this year). But is the position less valuable on Sunday afternoons?
Of course not, it's just that most of your productive running backs are coming into the NFL as second round picks or later. Take the Steelers Le'Veon Bell, for example. As productive as he was in college at Michigan St. (1,739 rushing yards in his final year), do you think he would have lasted until the second round had he played in a bygone era, like, say, the 1990s?
Today, teams are placing greater value on offensive tackles and wide receivers, which is why you see more of those players taken in the first round each year (there were four tackles and four receivers drafted in the first round last Thursday).
Speaking of positions of value, there were five cornerbacks taken on the first night of the draft this year, with the Steelers nabbing the fifth and final one--Artie Burns--at 25.
As you know, this caused a bit of a fuss and shocked a lot of people. However, it was no secret Pittsburgh needed to address the cornerback spot, and Burns, with a 5.91 grade on his NFL.com draft profile (William Jackson III, the player taken just ahead of Burns, graded out at a 5.93), was the corner Colbert and Co. went with.
But why pick the fifth or sixth best corner at 25 when you could have had the third or fourth best defensive lineman? For starters, it's a little too early to call Burns the fifth or sixth best corner (after coaching and some NFL seasoning, that ranking could go way up when all is said and done). Secondly, as Colbert said when he addressed the media shortly after taking Burns, there's a premium at corner in today's NFL:
"There's a premium in the NFL right now. There's big receivers and when you look for corners and find somebody with that kind of length, that kind of speed, that kind of athleticism (you take him). "
People talk about a value pick, and sometimes I wonder what that even means. Sure, I know it means that you get a player at a point in the draft where you didn't figure him to be. David DeCastro, the highly-touted guard out of Stanford who slid to the Steelers at 24 in the 2012 NFL Draft, is maybe the best example of a value pick. In-fact, given Pittsburgh's need to upgrade its offensive line in those years, DeCastro was maybe the best example of value meeting need.
And believe it or not, when Rashard Mendenhall, a running back who was considered a top 10 talent, slid to Pittsburgh at 23 in the 2008 NFL Draft, that proved to be a valuable selection. It may not have seemed so at the time, what with Willie Parker leading the NFL in rushing as late as Week 16 of the 2007 season before suffering an injury. But it proved to be, after it became apparent that Parker's wheels had pretty much been ridden off, and Mendenhall soon became the starter and a valuable member of the 2010 Super Bowl XLV team.
However, with all things being fairly equal, maybe value wasn't what the Steelers should have been looking for this year. Sure, the depth along the defensive line was lacking, but they still had two horses in Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt starting at defensive end.
It's like if you go to the mall looking for a comfortable pair of shoes to help with your back, but along the way to the shoe store, you spot a bargain for a really awesome smartphone. But you already have a smartphone. So what? You can use one for work and the other for your free-time. You spend your money on a luxury phone and forget about the need for shoes, and your back pain persists.
The secondary was a big enough issue for the Steelers that they needed to address it, and they did with the selection of Burns, a player with first round credentials by enough people to justify the pick.
Was Burns a great value pick for the Steelers at 25?
I guess we'll have to wait and see.