Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Draft Analysis: the Kevin Colbert Era

About a month ago I put together a post analyzing the drafts of the Mike Tomlin era. In that post, I had indicated that ideally I'd like to be able to look back over the entire Kevin Colbert Era (2000-present) to analyze the success of the Steelers drafts. As a reminder, determining the "value" of any player is a difficult metric because unlike sports like baseball or basketball where everyone has relatively equal abilities to produce points, over half of an NFL team is generally incapable of putting points on the board. Pro-Football-Reference has created one of the best metrics for comparison that I have found in their Approximate Value measure. All players are graded on this measure and it does a good job of weighting the contributions of non-scoring players like offensive linemen against high-stat players like quarterbacks. There is no top end to the scale, though in recent years the top single-season performers have scored in the low-to-mid 20s. Over a player's career, their Approximate Value (AV for short) numbers are added together to give a Career AV (CarAV). Due to the fact that CarAV is a cumulative number, players that have been in the league for a longer period of time have higher CarAV numbers. Since I expanded the data set to be all years from 2000-2012 we get a nearly complete picture of the quality of the drafts from the early 2000s as only a few players from those draft classes are still in the league.

Let us not forget two important factors when analyzing Kevin Colbert's draft classes. The first is that the Steelers are the only team in the league to not have a Top 10 pick since 2001.

Last Top 10 Pick

If we assume no one trades out of the Top 10 in the upcoming 2014 draft, here is how that chart will look:


Interestingly, if no one trades out of the Top 10 this year, half of the teams in the league (16 of 32) will have picked in the Top 10 in the last two drafts. Going back 4 drafts to 2011, 72% of teams (23 of 32) will have picked in the Top 10 at least once.

Top 10 Picks 2000-2013

During the Kevin Colbert era in Pittsburgh, only the Steelers, Giants, Colts and Broncos have had just 1 Top 10 pick. Additionally,  the Steelers have been one of the lowest-drafting teams for both the Tomlin era and the Kevin Colbert era. Since 2000, the Steelers average first round draft position - which includes trades up in 2003 for Troy Polamalu and 2006 for Santonio Holmes - is 21.7. The only team with a higher average draft position since 2000 is Indianapolis at 24.1. This has a ripple effect throughout the whole draft where picking at the back of the first round means picking at the back of all the later rounds as well.

Were they any good?


It is common knowledge that the Steelers dominated the first round of the draft in the early days of the Colbert Era, selecting Plaxico Burress, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger and Heath Miller in Colbert's first 6 drafts. As detailed in my earlier analysis of the Tomlin era, the Steelers drafted players who were better than average in the first, third, fifth and sixth rounds. The Steelers performed poorly in the second, fourth and seventh rounds. Expanding the data set by 7 years causes some smoothing at the back end as the Steelers performances after the 3rd round regress closer to the league average, but also spikes their first round performance.

Since 2000, only the Jets and Ravens have performed better in the first round than the Steelers. However, it is important to remember that the Steelers average selection position in the first round was 21.7 whereas the Ravens was 19.2 and the Jets was 16.9.

Recapping the Cowher-Colbert Drafts

2000

1st Round - Plaxico Burress (CarAV 69, DrAV 32)
2nd Round - Marvel Smith (CarAV 47)
3rd Round - Kendrick Clancy (CarAV 23, DrAV 5), Hank Poteat (CarAV 14, DrAV 2)
4th Round - Danny Farmer (CarAV 5, DrAV 0)
5th Round - Clark Haggans (CarAV 47, DrAV 31), Tee Martin (CarAV 0)
6th Round - Chris Combs (CarAV 1), Jason Gavadza (CarAV 0)
7th Round - no selections

The Steelers entered the 2000 draft coming off consecutive losing seasons, the first time the franchise had suffered that fate since 1970-71. The team had just hired Kevin Colbert as the Director of Football Operations and had the 8th pick in the draft. The 1999 season was an unmitigated disaster after a 5-3 start the Steelers tumbled to 6-10. There were clearly quarterback issues as Mike Tomczak took over for Kordell Stewart in December but went just 1-4. Unfortunately, the 2000 draft was loaded everywhere except the QB position. For the second year in a row, the Steelers took a wide receiver in the first round. Even though Plaxico never made a Pro Bowl (14 of the 31 first rounders in 2000 reached at least one Pro Bowl), he rates as the 10th best player from this draft class. The only shadow on the Plaxico selection is that the second best player in the draft, Brian Urlacher, was the very next selection. All told, the Steelers exited this draft with 3 of the Top 32 players (Marvel Smith rates 30th and Clark Haggans 31st), which is a solid haul for Kevin Colbert's first draft. The Steelers landed players in the first (Burress), second (Smith), third (Clancy) and fifth (Haggans) rounds that were better than the league average for those rounds. Unfortunately for the Steelers, most of Kendrick Clancy's production came after he left for the New York Giants in 2005. Clancy became a journeyman defensive lineman who started only 4 games in his 5 seasons in Pittsburgh then started 42 games over the next 4 seasons with the Giants, Cardinals and Saints. The biggest miss here, which was made 198 times by the league, was passing on Tom Brady. What stings the most is that the Steelers took Tee Martin (QB-Tennessee) in the 5th round (163rd overall). Two of the next three quarterbacks taken were Marc Bulger (CarAV 57) and Tom Brady (CarAV 145), the two highest rated QBs from this draft. All told, the Steelers wound up with the 5th best draft class from 2000, finishing ahead of New England (who had a hilariously bad draft outside of Brady).

2001

1st Round - Casey Hampton (CarAV 73)
2nd Round - Kendrell Bell (CarAV 41, DrAV 30)
3rd Round - no selection
4th Round - Mathias Nkwenti (CarAV 0)
5th Round - Chukky Okobi (CarAV 7)
6th Round - Rodney Bailey (CarAV 7), Roger Knight (CarAV 4, DrAV 0)
7th Round - Chris Taylor (CarAV 0)

League-wide, the 2001 draft class rates as the best of the 2000-2006 era. The first round produced 17 Pro Bowlers and half of the top 52 (26 players) made the Pro Bowl. The Chargers traded out of the #1 pick (Atlanta took Michael Vick) but wound up with the top two players in the draft in Drew Brees (CarAV 134) and LaDanian Tomlinson (CarAV 129). The Steelers got a bargain in Casey Hampton (11th best player in the draft) with the 19th overall pick. However, with the exception of Hampton, this was one of Colbert's weaker drafts. Kendrell Bell was lightning fast but had injury issues and ultimately departed in free agency. Chukky Okobi and Rodney Bailey were decent depth players but never cracked the starting lineup.

2002

1st Round - Kendall Simmons (CarAV 37)
2nd Round - Antwaan Randle El (CarAV 41, DrAV 25)
3rd Round - Chris Hope (CarAV 45, DrAV 15)
4th Round - Larry Foote (CarAV 56, DrAV 53)
5th Round - Verron Haynes (CarAV 8)
6th Round - Lee Mays (CarAV 1)
7th Round - Lavar Glover (CarAV 0), Brett Keisel (CarAV 58)

Following one of the best prospect classes of the 2000s was one of the worst, as the 2002 draftees rank below 2003 and 2006. However, Kevin Colbert certainly made the most of a weak class, finishing with the best draft class of his career and the second best in 2002 (behind only Philadelphia). The tale of 2002 was the teams that drafted early and late as the best 5 draft classes were taken by Philly (26th pick), Pittsburgh (30th pick), Baltimore (24th pick), Carolina (2nd pick) and Houston (1st pick). Even though the Steelers didn't receive the maximum value from all of the players they selected in 2002 (with Hope, Foote and Randle El leaving in Free Agency), this class still formed the anchor of the team that would win 15 games in 2004 and win Super Bowl XL in 2005. The Steelers scouting staff certainly flexed their muscles in 2002, coming away with 4 of the Top 40 players in the class (Keisel 13th, Foote 14th, Hope 30th, Randle El 39th).

2003

1st Round - Troy Polamalu (CarAV 94)
2nd Round - Alonzo Jackson (CarAV 2)
3rd Round - no selection
4th Round - Ike Taylor (CarAV 51)
5th Round - Brian St Pierre (CarAV 0)
6th Round - no selection
7th Round - JT Wall (CarAV 0)

The Steelers traded their 1st, 3rd and 6th round picks to Kansas City to move up to take Troy Polamalu, who has been the second best player from the 2003 draft. The Steelers certainly won that trade in landing Polamalu and finished with a slightly-above average draft class from what amounted to be the second-best talent pool during the 2000s. Alonzo Jackson started the troubling trend of the Steelers being absolutely terrible in the second round, as well as missing on outside linebacker prospects. The bright spot in the later half was Ike Taylor, who Mark Madden once called the worst draft pick in Steelers history. Taylor currently rates as the 27th best player from this draft and should break into the top 25 as the next few players ahead of him have retired.

2004

1st Round - Ben Roethlisberger (CarAV 94)
2nd Round - Ricardo Colclough (CarAV 2)
3rd Round - Max Starks (CarAV 44)
4th Round - no selection
5th Round - Nathaniel Adibi (CarAV 0)
6th Round - Bo Lacy (CarAV 0), Matt Kranchick (CarAV 0)
7th Round - Eric Taylor (CarAV 0)

For the second consecutive season, the Steelers landed the second best player from this draft class. Surprisingly, Philip Rivers actually is the highest rated CarAV player from this draft, but I don't think anyone in Pittsburgh would prefer Rivers over Roethlisberger. Once again, the Steelers were able to find a talented player in the middle rounds, as Max Starks rates as the 32nd best player from the 2004 class. Much like 2001, the Steelers had a slightly-better-than-average draft but after landing Roethlisberger in the first round they were instant Super Bowl contenders.

2005

1st Round - Heath Miller (CarAV 40)
2nd Round - Bryant McFadden (CarAV 28, DrAV 22)
3rd Round - Trai Essex (CarAV 19)
4th Round - Fred Gibson (CarAV 0)
5th Round - Rian Wallace (CarAV 2)
6th Round - Chris Kemoeatu (CarAV 27)
7th Round - Shaun Nua (CarAV 0), Noah Herron (CarAV 3, DrAV 0)

The 2005 draft was the worst crop of prospects in the Colbert-Cowher era, but the Steelers managed to emerge from the draft with 3 eventual starters and a depth lineman, which is better than a lot of teams can say. Even though Heath Miller rates as the 36th best player from this draft, it is hard to argue that the Steelers did not geta steal with the 30th overall pick. In terms of value to the drafting team, Miller actually rates 20th in this draft class and is one of just 9 players from the draft that has started all 9 seasons of his professional career. McFadden was one of the better second round picks of the Colbert-Cowher era and was a starter and contributor on Super Bowl teams, including a huge pass breakup in the end zone at the end of the Colts playoff game to force a field goal attempt. Essex was not a terrible selection and developed into a decent depth lineman, but he was badly out-performed by the next 4 of the next 5 tackles taken (Adam Snyder - CarAV 33, 5 years starting; Nick Kaczur - CarAV 36, 5 years starting; David Stewart - CarAV 48, 8 years starting; Todd Herremans - CarAV 49, 7 years starting). Gibson was a standout receiver at Georgia but didn't even make it out of training camp with the Steelers. None of the receivers drafted after him did anything of note either though. Darren Sproles was taken the selection before Gibson. The Steelers did land a late-round steal in Chris Kemoeatu, who was a 3-year starter that played in 75 games and committed 75 holding penalties. That's actually not true, he actually committed 17, but it sure felt like one a game. That said, Kemoeatu rates as the 3rd best player taken in the 6th round and the 20th best player taken outside the top 100.

2006

1st Round - Santonio Holmes (CarAV 47, DrAV 35)
2nd Round - no selection
3rd Round - Anthony Smith (CarAV 12, DrAV 9), Willie Reid (CarAV 1)
4th Round - Willie Colon (CarAV 33, DrAV 29), Orien Harris (CarAV 2, DrAV 0)
5th Round - Omar Jacobs (CarAV 0), Charles Davis (CarAV 0)
6th Round - Marvin Philip (CarAV 0)
7th Round - Cedric Humes (CarAV 0)

In Bill Cowher's last year as head coach, coming off a Super Bowl XL victory, the Steelers made a bold move in the first round to trade up from the 32nd selection to 25th to take Santonio Holmes. Even though he was eventually traded away to the Jets (in a trade the Steelers definitely won), Holmes was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII so it's hard to argue with this move. The Steelers traded their first, third and fourth round picks to the Giants who took Mathias Kiwanuka (CarAV 33), Gerris Wilkinson (CarAV 6) and Guy Whimper (CarAV 13). The Steelers traded down out of the second round so that Minnesota could select Tavaris Jackson. The Steelers got two third round picks in the deal and took Smith and Reid. Smith was most famous for trash talking the undefeated Patriots in 2007 and then getting toasted by Brady. Reid made a name for himself with an outstanding Orange Bowl against Penn State but his speed and play-making ability never translated to the NFL. The Fourth Round of the 2006 draft was loaded with talent and actually rates as a better round of picks than any other 4th round of the Colbert era and better than all of the 3rd rounds except for 2001. The Steelers had two 4th round picks, but both were compensatory picks (34th and 36th in the round) so they couldn't make a move up and had to watch players like Owen Daniels, Jahri Evans, Jason Avant, Stephen Tulloch, Leon Washington, Brandon Marshall, Domata Peko, Barry Cofield, Ray Edwards and Elvis Dumervil fall off the board. By CarAV numbers, Colon rates as the 10th best player from the 4th round of 2006, which isn't bad considering the other names in that list. There were some very good players taken in the last 3 rounds of this draft as well, but the Steelers didn't find any of them. The Bills took 3-time Pro Bowl DT Kyle Williams (CarAV 53) the selection after the Steelers took Harris. Safety Antoine Bethea went at the end of the 6th round and Courtland Finnegan and Marques Colston went in the 7th while none of the players selected by the Steelers after Colon ever played in a game for the team.

Comparing Cowher to Tomlin

One of the common refrains among Steelers fans is that "Tomlin only won with Cowher's players." However, when stacking up the drafts side by side, we see something interesting.


Both the Cowher/Colbert and Tomlin/Colbert tandems have completed 7 drafts during their tenure with the Steelers. The immediate number that jumps out is that Cowher's average selection was three spots higher than Tomlin's (19.86 to 22.86). Cowher did execute 3 first round trades (down 3 spots in 2000, up 11 spots in 2003 and up 7 spots in 2006). Interestingly, if you query all of the players drafted in the 3 spots ahead of where the Steelers have selected under Tomlin, there were 3 Pro Bowlers taken in those spots. Of course, I am speaking in hypotheticals and averages, but it is important to note that two of Cowher's trades netted Pro Bowl players (Hampton and Polamalu) and the other netted a Super Bowl MVP (Holmes). Factoring out those trades, Cowher and Tomlin would have had essentially equal draft positions (22.0 to 22.9). Under Tomlin, the Steelers have stood pat in the first round and not made aggressive moves up the draft board and the results have been reflected in the quality of the players they selected.

The numbers of "Future Starters" under Tomlin could still grow if Markus Wheaton, Shamarko Thomas and/or Sean Spence are able to work their way into starting roles. While Tomlin has not landed as many Pro Bowlers as Cowher did, but has also had far fewer absolute busts. Only 5 of the 59 players (8.5%) of the players drafted by Tomlin have never suited up for an NFL game while almost three times that many (22.2%) of Cowher's draftees never saw the field in the regular season. Another aspect to remember is that the players drafted by Cowher during the 2000-2006 span have had at least 7 more years than any player drafted by Tomlin to enter a starting lineup or play in an NFL game. By raw numbers, the draft picks from 2000-2006 under Colbert/Cowher played in 3362 while Colbert/Tomlin's selections from 2007-2013 have played in 1866. Comparing the Steelers efforts to others around the league, we see a similar story.

Standard Deviations Above or Below League Average

When looking at the average Career AV numbers for the Steelers draft picks in each round, the story reiterates itself. Cowher dominated the first round of the draft to the tune of 1.67 standard deviations better than the legue average. After that, Cowher's drafts were very hit and miss, finishing below the league averages for the second, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. Mike Tomlin's first round picks have not been nearly as good as Cowher's were, but Tomlin's drafts have been much better in the later rounds, especially in the 5th and 6th rounds. The general conclusion here is that Bill Cowher and his scouts were very good at analyzing the top of drafts to find future stars, but very poor at finding diamonds in the rough in the later rounds. In his last 7 years, Cowher only netted 3 players in the 5th-7th rounds with double-digit career AVs (Haggans in the 5th in 2000, Keisel in the 7th in 2002 and Kemoeatu in the 6th in 2005). Remember that Career AV is a cumulative number that increases the more years a player has in the league. Mike Tomlin also has selected 3 players with double-digit Career AVs, but they have amassed those numbers in a shorter time than Cowher's picks have had (Gay in the 5th in 2007, Mundy in the 6th in 2008, Brown in the 6th in 2010). By the end of next season, Tomlin could add 2 more to that list as Jonathan Dwyer (CarAV 8) and Kelvin Beachum (CarAV 9) are both close.


When the draft classes are ranked based on total Career AV, the 2002 draft comes out as the best class of the Colbert era. Since CarAV is a cumulative metric, it should not be a surprise that the drafts of the Cowher/Colbert era rank higher than most of the drafts of the Tomlin/Colbert era for total value rendered to date.


When the data is normalized for the number of players selected in that draft, the 2002 draft remains as the best of the Colbert era while 2003 takes a step forward because of the tremendous value the Steelers got despite just making 5 selections. Almost all of the 2003 value came from Troy Polamalu (CarAV 94) and Ike Taylor (CarAV 51). Trading away 3 picks in order to move up to get Troy was clearly the right move.


Finally, when the data is normalized based on the number of years removed from a given draft, we see that the drafts of the Tomlin/Colbert era are actually tracking ahead of the 7 drafts from the Cowher/Colbert era. This normalization is worthwhile to show how the recent picks are tracking in their development, but as more players retire and are phased out of the league, the numbers from the recent drafts will decline. Normalizing based on years in the league was the only way I could think of to draw a comparrison across multiple years for a cumulative metric. The one takeaway from this chart should be that the 2012 draft has not been nearly as bad as the prior charts indicated whereas the 2008 draft was clearly the worst of the Colbert era.

During his tenure as General Manager, Colbert has produced 4 draft classes that ranked in the top 5 in the league in their given season. With Cowher as head coach, the 2000 and 2002 drafts were among the league's best. With Tomlin, the 2007 and 2010 drafts rated among the top 5 in the league. Only once in 13 drafts (excluding 2013 because of limited data) has Kevin Colbert selected a draft class that ranked in the bottom 5 in the league (2008). During that time, only Seattle and Carolina have never had a draft class ranked in the Bottom 5 in a given year and only Denver and Philadelpha have had more Top 5 draft classes (though both the Broncos and Eagles have had 3 draft classes ranked in the bottom 5). Given that only the Colts have had a lower average draft position than the Steelers during this time, this is an impressive feat. On the whole, the Steelers rank as the 11th best drafting team during Colbert's tenure. The Colbert/Cowher tandem ranked as the 10th best from 2000-2006 and the Colbert/Tomlin tandem ranked as 13th best from 2007-2012.

The Steelers have been very good at finding Pro Bowl talent and rank 9th in the league with 12 Pro Bowlers drafted since 2000. The flip side is that the Steelers have also seen some of the biggest flame outs. They had the fifth highest number of players (28) that have produced zero value in their career and the third highest number of players (41) that produced zero value to their drafting team. Additionally, the Steelers rank second in the league in number of players drafted that never played in an NFL game (14). This means that on average, Kevin Colbert has selected about one player per year that will never see the field, 2 players per year that will have no career value and 3 players per year that will yield no value to the Steelers. The Steelers are right in line with the league average in that they average about 4 players per draft that never become starters, slightly below the league average.


During the Colbert era, an average draft has consisted of 8 selections. of those 8, nearly half (3.85) have become starters and about one per year (0.92) have become Pro Bowlers. Two more of the selections have become reserve players and another is a player that will never give the Steelers any value but will catch on with another team as a free agent. For the final two-plus players (2.15), one will never yield any value and one will never play in a game. Compared to the league average, the Steelers draft slightly more starters but also draft more players that yield no value to the team (3.15) and less reserves (2) than the league averages (2.38 draftees with no value, 2.34 reserves). Most of this discrepancy actually comes from the Cowher/Colbert era when the Steelers drafted 18 players that yielded no career value, 12 of them never even seeing the field in a game. By contrast, the Tomlin/Colbert tandem has selected far fewer players that never reach the field (just 2 from 2007-2012) but have had 9 players that they drafted that yielded no value to the Steelers be able to catch on and provide value to other teams. I addressed this a bit in my post on the Tomlin Drafts, that because the Steelers had so many Pro Bowl caliber players that they selected under Colbert/Cowher, they had limited salary cap and roster space to retain some players like Kraig Urbik (2009 3rd rounder who became a starter for Buffalo) or sign valuable players to contracts after their rookie deals expired (like Mike Wallace or Keenan Lewis).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Recapping the Steelers Offseason Moves

Recently, someone asked me what the heck the Steelers were doing this offseason. To the casual outside observer, the Steelers failed to re-sign almost all of their starters that were pending free agents, save Jason Worilds who they used the Transition Tag on before cutting LaMarr Woodley. Since the Steelers are now right about at the Salary Cap, it is unlikely that they will make any more big signings this offseason. We can look at the picture as a relative whole with the benefit of hindsight and formulate an answer to just what did the Steelers do over the last month?

To understand the situation of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are two factors that are in play - the Salary Cap and the Depth Chart. To get a sense for how the front office tackled free agency, here's a look at how things stood for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the end of the 2013 season:


Of the 65 players that ended 2013 on the active roster or injured reserve, 21 were pending free agents. On top of that, the Steelers were facing a salary cap squeeze. In 2013, the top 10 cap hits totaled $70.5 million (about 57% of the $123 million cap). Three of those 10 players (Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood) were pending fee agents. The remaining 7 players had a cap hit of about $83 million on the books for 2014 because of contract escalators. Even when the 21 pending free agents were removed from the roster, the Steelers were hovering right around $135 million in cap hits, which would have put them over the cap for 2014.

Jason Worilds

The first move that the Steelers made this offseason, which came as a bit of a surprise, was to use the Transition Tag on Jason Worilds. The Transition Tag provided Worilds with a guaranteed 1-year contract at $9.75 million, which solidified the Steelers outside linebacker position but also put them about $14 million over the $133 million cap. To offset this, the Steelers made a series of moves to get into cap compliance.

Heath Miller Extension

Heath signed a 3-year extension on his current deal which saved around $3 million in salary cap space. This was a very team-friendly deal in that his cap hits for 2015 and 2016 will be under $6 million and the Steelers would have minimal dead money if they decided to release Heath before the end of his contract ($3.3 million dead if cut in 2015, $1.7 million dead if cut in 2016). If he plays through this extension, Heath Miller would be a Steeler through the end of the 2016 season.
(via Spotrac)

Troy Polamalu Extension

Similar to the Heath Miller contract, Troy signed a team-friendly extension through 2016 that reduced his 2014 cap hit by about $4 million. Once again, the Steelers would incur relatively low amounts of dead money if they cut Troy before his contract ends ($4.5 million dead if cut in 2015, $2.3 million dead if cut in 2016).
(via Spotrac)

Three Cuts: Larry Foote, Curtis Brown, Levi Brown

The Levi Brown move was one that everyone knew was coming. Levi had a $6.25 million base salary with no bonus money, and the Steelers saved $6.25 million against the cap by cutting him. Curtis Brown was a player that never reached his potential as a 3rd round draft pick, despite being an excellent special teams player. Curtis was best known as a cornerback who Kevin Colbert said "hits like a linebacerk...and covers like one too." Curtis Brown's cut saved around $1 million against the cap, and cutting Larry Foote saved about $1.5 million.

Restructures and Reductions: Ike Taylor and Antonio Brown

Ike Taylor only had 1 year left on his contract and saved the Steelers about $4 million in cap room by accepting a reduced salary for this season. This was a smart move by Taylor who was likely put in a similar situation to James Harrison last year where he was given the option to play for less money or be released. Taylor chose to play for less and freed up some cap room for the Steelers. Additionally, Antonio Brown restructured his contract by converting most of his base salary into bonus money. In doing so, Brown got a check for $5.27 million right away, but the Steelers were able to amortize that amount over the remaining 4 years of his contract for cap purposes. This saved about $4 million in cap space for the Steelers in 2014.
Antonio Brown Contract Restructure:
(via Spotrac)

When Free Agency started on March 11, the Steelers had about $7.5 million in cap space and plenty of holes to fill. Additionally, the Steelers designated LaMarr Woodley as a June 1 cut, which meant that Woodley hit the free agent market but the Steelers would not receive salary cap relief until June 1. They did this so that they could spread out the "dead money" left in his contract over two years ($5 million in 2014, $8 million in 2015) rather than incurring all $13 million in dead money this season if they would have cut him outright. If you can stomach it, here's a look at the Steelers depth chart when free agency began.


There were obviously holes that needed to be filled in this roster, and with only $7.5 million in cap space, the Steelers had to make judicious decisions with their money.  One thing working to the advantage of the Steelers is a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that veterans signed to minimum contracts only count 60% against the Salary Cap. Therefore, the Steelers were able to re-sign veteran safety Will Allen at a minimum deal which will pay Allen $955,000 but he will only count $570,000 against the cap.

Safety

The first move the Steelers made in free agency was to sign safety Mike Mitchell to a 5-year, $25 million deal. This might seem high for a 26-year old that only has one season as a starter. However, Mitchell's contract is structured in a way that gives the Steelers a relatively easy out should he not pan out. Mitchell's contract has a $2 million roster bonus built in for 2015, which the Steelers could save if they cut him after this season (though it would likely take a disastrous 2014 for that to happen). Mitchell's base salary does not increase to $5 million until 2016, the third year of the deal, at which point the Steelers could cut him with less than $3 million dead against the cap. Mitchell had the best season of his career at the back end of Carolina's defense last year, finishing 4th on the team in tackles and had 4 interceptions and 10 passes defended.
(via Spotrac)

By comparison, Ryan Clark just signed a 1-year deal with the Washington Redskins for $1.02 million.


Offensive Line

The Steelers made a few depth moves by signing Center Cody Wallace and Long Snapper Greg Warren. Wallace signed a 3-year, $3.48 million contract that solidifies his spot as a reserve interior lineman after he had a solid end to 2013 in relief of Fernando Velasco. Warren is one of the longest-tenured Steelers and one of the few players left on the roster with 2 Super Bowl Rings. He has been solid and consistent as a long-snapper and his 1-year, veteran minimum contract will keep the position solidified for another season. The Steelers also re-signed Guy Whimper to a veteran minimum contract. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a player go from "Oh no, he's in the game" to "Oh yeah!" as fast as Whimper did this past season. As far as veteran reserve linemen go, Whimper is good enough and can play both tackle or guard. With the re-signing of Wallace and Whimper, the Steelers offensive line should be mostly in tact for 2014 with Beachum-Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro-Gilbert and Adams, Whimper and Wallace in reserve.

Defensive End

Within the first 3 days of Free Agency, the Steelers had lost two of their free agent defensive ends. Ziggy Hood signed a 4-year, $16 million deal with Jacksonville and Al Woods signed a 2-year, $4 million deal with Tennessee. One day after Ziggy signed, the Steelers made a counter move by signing Cam Thomas from San Diego, who had played both defensive end and nose tackle for the Chargers. Here's what John from Bolts from the Blue had to say about Thomas:
"He's an above-average pass rusher from the NT spot, but he's equally terrible against the run. A strong guy that has some trouble with his core balance. His "breakout season" was in 2012, when he was almost exclusively used on passing downs. He really found out how to make an impact when there were good players around him (Liuget, Reyes, Butler, Ingram, Johnson, and Spikes were all very good that season) Had a few QBs running for their life straight into an outside pass-rusher. 
In 2013, the team thought he was ready to handle the starting role, but he was not. He was wildly inconsistent and struggled to keep his feet on early downs. The talent around him got worse (Reyes was bad, Butler was hurt, Ingram was hurt, Spikes was gone), which allowed teams to focus a little more on Cam, and it was only a matter of time before he lost his job. 
Overall, Cam has loads of potential but needs to be in the right system. I imagine LeBeau is going to find ways to tap into the things he does well and hide what he doesn't. Unfortunately, it took the entire length of his rookie contract for the Chargers to figure out what those things are, and now they need a starting NT more than they need a pass-rush specialist there. That's why they let Cam walk." (Follow John on Twitter @BFTB_Chargers
The Steelers signed Thomas to a 2-year, $4 million deal, nearly identical to the one Woods signed in Tennessee.


The biggest thing that jumps out from this comparison is that the Steelers were able to sign Thomas for 2 years for less total money than Ziggy's cap hit this year. Of course, the Steelers lost 3 defensive linemen this year (unless they decide to bring back Brett Keisel) so they will still be in the market for defensive linemen in the draft.

Wide Receiver

It was almost a foregone conclusion that Emmanuel Sanders would be gone in free agency, and he did not surprise anyone by signing a 3-year, $15 million deal with the Denver Broncos. The big surprise here was the departure of Jerricho Cotchery, who most thought would re-sign with the Steelers. Cotchery opted to sign a 2-year, $5 million deal with Carolina that included 3 club option years and could ultimately be a 5-year, $8 million deal if he stays with the Panthers for all of the option years. The Steelers countered by signing Lance Moore to a 2-year, $3 million deal (similar to the one Cotchery was playing under). Here's what our friends from the Saints Nation Blog had to say about Moore:
"Moore had a disappointing down year in New Orleans last year, which led to his release. Quite frankly he was getting paid too much for his relative lack of production. The contract he signed with the Steelers in totally reasonable, in fact I would have been fine keeping him at that price. Lance is just a great guy to have on your team. Super fun and always keeping things light at practice, while still taking his job seriously. Moore stood out for his first down celebrations and touchdown dances, he's definitely a guy that likes to call attention to himself on the field with playful antics, but he's not a prima donna at all. He's more of an entertainer looking to entertain himself while trying to win football games.  
Don't mistake my comments for him being a distraction. He's a high character guy that's just a bit of a goof. On the field he has as good of a pair of hands as anyone in the league. He is an elite pass catcher that seldom has drops. He also runs fantastic routes and is very good at finding soft spots in a zone. He's not the fastest guy on the field but his cuts are quick and he has great technique.  
The negatives are that he's tiny, not that fast and a liability as a blocker. For a running team like the Steelers, I'm not sure how much sense he makes unless there's an obvious passing down. When you're passing, Big Ben's ability to buy time with his size might actually help Moore get open and make more of an impact. Brees gets rid of the ball very quickly and his passing is all about timing, he and Lance had great chemistry. Playing against a zone he would get open quickly in the soft spot and Brees would put the ball exactly where it needed to be. But his lack of size sometimes made him struggle as a "timing offense receiver". So I think he *could* be even better with the Steelers.  
Because of his size Lance tends to shy away from contact, and he'll go down easy trying to avoid a big hit. He's not the lunch pail type of player that you usually expect to see in a Steelers uniform. He'll happily go out of bounds and give up a yard to avoid being tackled. He's more of a finesse guy. He struggled last year due to injuries early, and then he lost reps when he returned to rookie Kenny Stills who emerged as a faster, bigger and better blocking version of himself. But I don't think he's declined that much (unless of course he gets injured again).
Bottom line: he'll never be mistaken for a #1 receiver but he's a GREAT dude and he's fun and exciting to watch. All you can ask for in a non-elite receiver is that he catches what's thrown to him, and Lance almost always does that. He even makes the circus catches. And he has ridiculous leaping ability to make him play a little bit bigger than his size. He's a nice complement to any offense.
" (Follow the Saints Nation Blog on Twitter @SaintsNationBlg)
The Steelers also added Darrius Heyward-Bey to the receiving corps. DHB had a bit of a down year in Indianapolis after being surpassed by TY Hilton on the depth chart. Heyward-Bey struggled with drops but he does provide a taller target. Much like the Plaxico Burress signing, this is a low-risk-high-reward deal that could pay huge dividends to the Steelers if Heyward-Bey can fix his dropitis.


(Note: Full details of DHB's contract have not been released so the amount and cap hit are guesses based on the veteran minimum)

As we see, the Steelers got Moore for a relative bargain. Though he didn't have as many catches or yards as Cotchery or Sanders, his cap hit is $500K less than Cotchery in 2014, which gives the Steelers room to add another player on a veteran minimum contract. Given the Steelers tight cap situation, think of it as them being able to sign Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey for what Jerricho Cotchery would have cost. The Steelers weren't going to sign Sanders, and this was definitely a case of the Steelers getting the most bang for their limited buck in free agency.

Tight End

This was a relatively simple move, but one that still had positive salary cap implications. The Steelers re-signed veteran backup Michael Palmer, who played well on special teams and in a blocking role last season. Palmer was signed to a 1-year deal (likely at the veteran minimum). Meanwhile, San Diego signed  David Johnson to a 2-year, $1.7 million contract. Johnson has been on injured reserve each of the last two seasons and you can't blame the Steelers at all for letting him walk in free agency, especially when they could sign Palmer for a lower price.

Running Back

In one of the surprises of the offseason, Jonathan Dwyer opted to sign a 1-year, veteran minimum deal with Arizona. Many (including myself) thought that the market for Dwyer would be relatively limited and that the Steelers could sign him for a low price to stay in the reserve RB role. With Dwyer gone, the Steelers went out and signed LeGarrette Blount, who is basically the definition of a Steelers running back. Since I don't want to put myself through the agony of following any Patriots fans on Twitter, I went to Tampa Bay fan Ryan T for his insight:
"During his time in Tampa he was sort of an enigma. You can see that the talent is there but certain things stuck out. If he had open holes he hit them and they usually resulted in huge gains, but when there wasn't rather than trying to lower his shoulders and pick up tough yards he would look to bounce runs far too much. 
I always thought of Blount as a finesse back stuck in a power backs body. He was terrible at goalline situations. He hesitated when receiving the handoff which allowed defense to get penetration and then would end up getting little or no gains. 
When he's in the open field though he is down right impressive. The highlight reels do him justice in that aspect. Defensive backs were often too scared to tackle him head up so he would jump over them, leading to all the highlights. 
He's never been a good pass protector or receiver out of the backfield. His hands are alright, but the pass blocking is the bigger concern. He would blow assignments bad living usually Freeman's blind side wide open for defenders. 
With all that said I think he's a great fit in Pittsburgh. Last year with the Patriots it appeared that he finally started listening to coaching. I saw improved leg drive, commitment to staying where the run was supposed to go. I think he is the perfect closer to a game when he has fresh legs and the defense is tired." (Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanTerrana)
Blount's 2-year, $3.85 million contract will solidify the backup running back spot for the near future and give us that 1-2 punch that we have been missing in the backfield.



As a comparison, the Steelers had also looked at Maurice Jones-Drew, who signed with Oakland for 3 years, $7.5 million and has a 2014 cap hit of $2.5 million, which is double what the Steelers have on the books for LeGarrette Blount in 2014.

Defensive Depth

The Steelers also signed two veteran players for depth on the defensive side of the ball. They added linebacker Arthur Moats from Buffalo and cornerback Brice McCain from Houston on 1-year, veteran minimum deals. Moats could play both inside or outside linebacker and might be able to win the starting role next to Lawrence Timmons. McCain will likely be in a depth battle for the 3rd/4th/5th corner spot but provides a solid special teams player to replace what the Steelers lost when they cut Curtis Brown.

Bills Mafia Editor-in-Chief Ryan (not the same as Bucs fan Ryan that helped us out with the Blount info) was kind enough to drop some Moats knowledge on us:
"Defensively, Moats won't jump off the screen to fans at home, but when he's in the game he does very well in terms of run defense. He'll also be a solid special teams contributor for the Steelers. Moats is a player who will do anything asked of him. I was told that the Steelers want to play Moats at OLB, but he has the versatility to play ILB too.  
Moats' biggest weakness is in coverage. He struggles in this aspect of the game, but I know the Steelers will be wise in how they use him. 
I almost felt sorry for Moats in terms of how he was used. Due to his versatility, the Bills kept flipping him back and forth between OLB and ILB. It's almost as if he couldn't get settled in one spot early in his career. In 2010 and 2011, Moats lined up as the Sam and Will LB and played a bit as a defensive end. Moats' snaps were limited in 2012 but he mostly played Sam LB. This last season, Pettine lined him up mostly as the right inside linebacker. I know Pettine and the Browns pursued him for the same role this offseason." (Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanTalbotBills)
As things stand right now at the beginning of April, the Steelers have a minimal amount of cap room remaining and probably won't make many other moves unless they are able to find a way to reduce their current cap hits. The easiest way to do that would be to sign Jason Worilds to a long-term contract that could potentially reduce his 2014 cap hit from $9.75 million to around $5 or $6 million. The Steelers will get enough relief from the Woodley cut (about $8 million) on June 1 to sign their draft picks, so they will not have to cut anyone to be in cap compliance by the beginning of training camp. Here is how the Steelers depth chart looks right now:


Right now there are 60 players on this depth chart, as I did not include the players the Steelers signed to reserve/futures contracts during the offseason (with the exception of punter Brad Wing). The Steelers have 9 picks in the 2014 draft, so it is likely that 10-15 of the players that appear here will not be on the final roster. Despite having limited salary cap space, the Steelers were still able to add 11 players to their roster during the first 3 weeks of Free Agency.



The Steelers were able to sign 12 players and add just $11.5 million to their salary cap while the 7 players that they lost in free agency will count for $13.5 million in cap hits this season. Now, you might be wondering how the Steelers can go from having $7.5 million in cap space to being able to add $11.5 million. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, only the top 51 salaries count towards the cap during the offseason. This is known as the "Rule of 51" and means that even though teams can have up to 90 players on their offseason rosters, only the highest 51 salaries count against the cap. Therefore, in the case of LeGarrette Blount, his 2014 cap hit of $1.375 million displaced a $495,000 salary so the net increase to the Steelers 2014 cap number was less than $1 million. It is unlikely the Steelers  will be able to add another player without first renegotiating a current player's contract (Lawrence Timmons is the logical choice here) or extending a player that is entering the last few years of their contract (Ben Roethlisberger is the obvious candidate here) or extending Jason Worilds to lower his 2014 cap hit.

On the whole, the Steelers did the most that they could given their limited amount of cap space. They added veteran players and only 5 of the 12 players that were signed are returning from the team that went 8-8 last year. Given the number of players that were pending free agents, the Steelers are clearly better now than they were 3 weeks ago when free agency began.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Saturday's Most Likely Tournament Upsets

I've been pretty much spot on with my tournament analysis so far, so I'm going to keep rolling the dice with these upset prediction posts until I finally get my comeuppance and am totally wrong. If you've been following along the last few days, though, I've been accurate to a scary degree.

1. (12) North Dakota State over (4) San Diego State
6:10pm on TNT

North Dakota State hit a miracle three at the buzzer to take Oklahoma in overtime where the Bison prevailed. They draw a San Diego State team that doesn't have a lot of size and doesn't play very good interior defense. San Diego State lost twice to New Mexico this season and has struggled to execute in the half court - something NDSU will make them do. The Aztecs are at their best when they can get out and run in transition and use their athleticism, but NDSU is a fundamentally sound team and the best shooting team in the nation, which gives them a great chance to reach the Sweet 16.

2. (7) UConn over (2) Villanova
9:40pm on TBS

Both teams got a bit of a scare in their opener, with UConn being taken to overtime by St Joseph's. Villanova couldn't buy a 3 for much of their game against Milwaukee, allowing the Panthers to hang in well into the second half before the Wildcats finally pulled away. UConn plays a staunch defense, particularly on the perimeter, which could give Villanova's 4-guard lineup problems.

3. (7) Oregon over (2) Wisconsin
7:45pm on CBS

Wisconsin was in a battle with American in the first half, but utterly dominated the Eagles and pulled away for a huge victory. Oregon beat BYU in a shootout. Wisconsin's defense hasn't been great all year and Oregon is one of the best offensive teams in the Pac-12, which could be the recipe for an upset.

4. (9) Pittsburgh over (1) Florida
12:15pm on CBS

Talk radio in Pittsburgh has been throwing around the "what if" scenario on this one since the brackets were announced. The Panthers are playing with house money and if they can continue to dominate on the inside with Zanna and on the outside with Patterson and Wright, they will have a chance to stay close with Florida. The Gators have an experienced lineup that has gone deep in the tournament before, so this doesn't seem highly likely, but Pitt is playing their best basketball of the season, so the possibility exists.

5. (7) Texas over (2) Michigan
5:15pm on CBS

If there is one place on the floor where Michigan is lacking, it is on the inside. Texas big man Cameron Ridley was a force in the paint against Arizona State, finishing with 17 points (including the game-winning basket at the buzzer), 12 rebounds and 4 blocks. If the Longhorns can continue to dominate the glass and in the paint, they'll have a chance to hang around with the Wolverines.

6. (11) Dayton over (3) Syracuse
7:10pm on TBS

The Flyers scored in the closing seconds to upset Ohio State in the first round while Syracuse dominated Western Michigan. Cuse's zone is tough to prepare for in a short turnaround, but Dayton has some players that can shoot from the outside and that can drive. Ultimately, Syracuse should find their way back to the Sweet 16.

7. (12) Harvard over (4) Michigan State
8:40pm on TNT

Tommy Amaker made it deeper into the tournament than Coach K. Make of that what you will. But simply put, Sparty is just playing too well right now. Michigan State dominated Delaware. The Blue Hens battled hard to stay within 10-15 but at the end of the day Michigan State was too good. Harvard is talented enough to keep this close, but Sparty is simply better.

8. (5) St Louis over (4) Louisville
2:45pm on CBS

NC State was my #1 upset pick on Thursday and they almost came through for me until they decided to forget how to shoot free throws and let St Louis back in the game. Ultimately, the Billikens won in overtime. I was scarily accurate with my analysis of the Manhattan-Louisville game in saying that Manhattan would keep it close but Louisville would be too good at the end. The Cardinals are hitting their stride and I have a really hard time seeing St Louis pull this one out and reach the Sweet 16.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday's Most Likely Tournament Upsets

Yesterday I published an article which I thought was just-for-fun, throwing out the most likely upsets for Thursday's games. Well, in retrospect, my analysis was actually pretty spot on in most cases (except for NC State blowing a huge lead against St Louis, but that's what happens when you miss foul shots and don't get the ball to the ACC Player of the Year with the game tied and 13 seconds left). After the rousing success of yesterday's article, I decided to take another stab at it today. As a reminder, I took two things into consideration when making these rankings. First, I considered the seed differential. A 9 seed beating an 8 seed or a 7 beating a 10 doesn't qualify as that big of an upset, so those games automatically dropped down my rankings. Secondly, I considered the likelihood of the upset happening. Given the high numer of games today between closely seeded teams (there are 3 8-9 games today), the first rule came into effect when constructing these rankings.

1. (12) Stephen F Austin over (5) VCU
7:27pm on truTV

This one has all the makings of an upset. Stephen F Austin has seen full-court pressure before against Northwestern State and has been able to handle it this season. The Lumberjacks play a slow and deliberate offensive game and are very good at executing in the half court. On defense, Stephen F Austin plays a half-court trap that will force VCU to speed up.

2. (11) Tennessee over (6) UMass
2:45pm on CBS

Tennessee built some momentum with their win over Iowa and have two talented players in Jordan McRae (18.6 PPG) and double-double man Jarnell Stokes (14.8 PPG, 10.4 RPG) that will give UMass problems. Tennessee is a very good defensive team and they are good at executing in the half court. UMass will keep this close but the Vols have a very good chance to pull the upset.

3. (11) Providence over (6) North Carolina
7:20pm on TNT

The biggest question mark here is which Tar Heels team will show up? The one that won 12-straight games in the ACC or the one that got blown off the court by Duke and Pitt in their final two games? Point guard Marcus Paige is the key for UNC and this one could turn into a shootout between Paige (who scores 65% of his points in the second half) and Providence's Bryce Cotton (21.4 PPG, 5.8 APG). Providence proved they could pull upsets in beating Creighton twice this season and this one should be a fun game to watch.

4. (14) LA-Lafayette over (3) Creighton
3:10pm on truTV

No one really knows much about LA-Lafayette and you probably didn't watch their come-from-behind overtime win over Georgia State in the Sun Belt. Point guard Elfrid Payton (19.1 PPG, 6.0 APG) has shown flashes of NBA potential, forward Shawn Long averages a double-double (18.7 PPG, 10.5 RPG) and forward Bryant Mbamalu is coming off a performance that earned him the Sun Belt Tournament MVP. Lafayette is not a good defensive team and Creighton has only lost once when scoring over 70 points, but both of these teams average over 80 points a game and have talented scorers that can put the ball in the bucket. Don't count out the Ragin' Cajuns from pulling this upset.

5. (14) Mercer over (3) Duke
12:15pm on CBS

I went on the record on Twitter and in my Midwest Region Preview saying that this matchup terrified me. Mercer is a talented offensive team and Langston Hall is one of the most dynamic guards in the country. Duke has struggled to defend guards that can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket. Duke has also been known to squander second-half leads and go cold down the stretch, so this one will definitely be closer than is comfortable.

6. (13) Tulsa over (4) UCLA
9:57pm on truTV

UCLA finally started to come together at the end of the season and looked like the dominant team with NBA-level talent that many thought they would be at the beginning of the year (the absolute dud they laid against Washington State aside). Tulsa is coming off a Conference USA Championship and has the talent to give UCLA a run.

7. (11) Nebraska over (6) Baylor
12:40pm on truTV

Yesterday my 7th ranked upset was Western Michigan over Syracuse, which I thought had a minimal probablity of happening. Having Nebraska as the 7th ranked team on this list shows just how tight these games are going to be today. The Cornhuskers are a good offensive team that will need to put their loss in the Big 10 Tournament (where they let Ohio St come back from 18 points down) behind them. Baylor is one of the hottest teams in the nation and has returned to their form from the beginning of the year that had them ranked in the Top 10.

8. (16) Coastal Carolina over (1) Virginia
9:25pm on TBS

1 seeds don't lose to 16 seeds. But they do get scares. This one has the potential to be a scare as Coastal Carolina boasts three big men from African Nations (The Senegal and Cameroon) that could give Virginia some problems on the inside. The actual probability of this happening is pretty low, and Virginia is one of the best defensive teams in the nation, so Coastal Carolina won't be able to get much offensive consistency. The reason this rates so high is that Virginia doesn't score much either, so this could be a low-scoring affair, which will keep the Chanticleers in the game for longer than they need to be.

9. (16) Cal Poly over (1) Wichita State
7:10pm on CBS

Why not? Cal Poly's miracle run continues. The 7th-seeded team in the Big West defeated the #2 and #1 seeds en route to their Conference Tournament title the won a play-in game over Texas Southern. In all likelihood, the undefeated Shockers will run all over Cal Poly, but wouldn't it be fun to see a team that entered the Tournament with a losing record keep it close against the first team to enter the Tournament undefeated since 1991?

10. (10) Stanford over (7) New Mexico
1:40pm on TBS

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - New Mexico is a poor man's Wisconsin. That said, Wisconsin dominated American yesterday. Stanford will need to get strong play from their big men on the inside and control the glass against a very good rebounding Lobos team. This one has all the makings of another tight finish.

11. (14) North Carolina Central over (3) Iowa State
9:50pm on TNT

I have Iowa State in the Elite 8, so obvioulsy I don't think they're going to lose this game. However, Iowa State losing would rate as a much bigger upset than any of the 9 seeds beating any of the 8 seeds, so that's what it ranks above them. NC Central is a tough defensive team, but Iowa State is simply too good with tremendous play-makers at all 3 levels of the offense.

12. (9) Oklahoma State over (8) Gonzaga
4:40pm on TNT

Much like the Pitt-Colorado game yesterday, this is a game I expect will be won by the 9-seed but it ranks so low because the seeding differential indicates these teams are essentially even. Oklahoma State was a Top 10 team before suffering a 7-game losing streak, punctuated by Marcus Smart's suspension. The Cowboys are a completely different team with Smart in the lineup and should roll over Gonzaga.

13. (9) George Washington over (8) Memphis
6:55pm on TBS

These are two evenly matched teams in that neither are very deep but both have very good scoring depth in that all 5 players on the floor can score in bunches. Both teams struggle from the free throw line, ranking in the bottom 40 in the nation under, coming in with team averages under 66%.

14. (9) Kansas State over (8) Kentucky
9:40pm on CBS

Two things are in play here. First, the seeding. Given the closeness in their seeding, Kansas State beting Kentucky simply shouldn't be considered a huge upset. Secondly, Kentucky played their best basketball of the season in the SEC Tournament while Kansas St has struggled away from home, going just 4-10 in road and neutral court games.

15. (15) Eastern Kentucky over (2) Kansas
4:10pm on TBS

On paper, this looks like a game with some upset potential in that Eastern Kentucky is a very good shooting team (11th in field goal percentage and 24th in 3-point percentage) but Kansas is simply too good. The Colonels may be able to keep it close for a little while, but even without Joel Embiid, Kansas still has multiple future NBA players in their lineup and is just too good.

16. (16) Weber St over (1) Arizona
2:10pm on TNT

Much like the Albany-Florida game yesterday, this one finds its way to the bottom of the rankings because it is extremely unlikely, though it would probably rate as one of the biggest tournament upsets ever. Weber St has a dynamic scorer in Davion Berry (19.1 PPG) but they're simply overmatched.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thursday's Most Likely Tournament Upsets

As a fun last-minute exercize, just to mess with your head as you're thinking about making some last minute changes to your bracket, I decided to take a look at the 16 games on the slate today and rank them in terms of their potential for upsets. I took two things into consideration when making these rankings. First, I considered the seed differential. A 9 seed beating an 8 seed or a 7 beating a 10 doesn't qualify as that big of an upset, so those games automatically dropped down my rankings. Secondly, I considered the likelihood of the upset happening. Basically, sorry Albany. Though a victory over Florida would possibly qualify as the biggest NCAA Tournament upset of all time, the likelihood of it actually happening is incredibly small, so you're going to get ranked behind Pitt-Colorado, where the 9th-seeded Panthers are actually favored over the 8th seeded Buffaloes.

1. (12) NC State over (5) St Louis
7:20pm on TNT

Statistically speaking, 12 seeds have won more than 25% of their opening round games, which basically means that at least one 12-5 upset has happened every year. NC State boasts the most dynamic scorer in the nation in TJ Warren and St Louis has lost 4 of their last 5 games. I know I keep hammering on this fact, so hopefully it sinks in -- even though St Louis won 13 games in conference play, only 3 of those wins were by more than 8 points. That's a recipie for an upset right there.

2. (12) Harvard over (5) Cincinnati
2:10pm on TNT

Harvard topped #3 seed New Mexico last year and return 5 of their top 6 scorers from that team. What makes me waiver on locking this in as the top possible upset is that Cincinnati is brutally tough on the defensive end, ranking in the top 25 in the nation in steals and blocks. Cincinnati isn't a great offensive team, but they will give Harvard's shooters problems on the defensive end.

3. (13) New Mexico State over (4) San Diego State
9:57pm on truTV

The Aztecs have a great win over Kansas on their resume and are a talented athletic group that can look like the Harlem Globetrotters at times. The only thing they lack is size, which is something New Mexico State has in bunches with 7'5" center Sim Bhullar. If the Aggies can do what New Mexico did in the Mountain West Championship game and slow down San Diego State and force them to paly a half-court game, they will have a chance to pull the upset.

4. (11) Dayton over (6) Ohio State
12:15pm on CBS

This one has a very real chance of happening. Dayton has been one of the hottest teams in the A-10 down the stretch and Ohio State has been up-and-down all season. The Buckeyes are a hard team to figure out - sometimes they look like one of the best in the Big Ten when they are executing efficiently on offense and getting steals on defense (like in their 18-point comeback against Nebraska) and other times they look totally outmatched (like when they got down to 18 against Nebraska). This game is in Buffalo and you have to believe Dayton will be fired up to take on their in-state rivals.

5. (13) Manhattan over (4) Louisville
9:50pm on TNT

If you're planning on staying up late tonight, be prepared to crap your pants when Manhattan keeps it close against Louisville. The Jaspers are coached by Rick Pitino's former assistant Steve Masiello who has molded Manhattan's game after Pitino's style of coaching. Both teams will press and both teams can score in transition. This has the feel of an up-and-down game that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Ultimately, Louisville is the bettter team, but don't be surprised if this one stays close for a while.

6. (12) North Dakota State over (5) Oklahoma
7:27pm on truTV

Oklahoma quietly finished in 2nd place in the Big XII this year, but in North Dakota State they draw the best shooting team in the nation (51% FG%). If the Sooners aren't tight on the defensive end, they could wind up in a shootout with the Bison (which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, as Oklahoma is 7th in the nation in scoring). Both teams can score and both will go 8 or 9 players deep on their bench, so this is another one that could come down to the wire. As we know from tournaments past, never give an underdog a shot to win at the buzzer, or magical things will happen.

7. (14) Western Michigan over (3) Syracuse
2:45pm on CBS

This one is entirely dependent on which Syracuse team shows up for the Big Dance. Will it be the one that rattled off 25 straight wins to start the season and was the #1 ranked team in the nation? Or will it be the one that lost home games to Boston College and Georgia Tech? Western Michigan has a great inside-out duo of Shayne Whittington (16.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG) and guard David Brown (19.4 PPG). Syracuse's zone presents a tough matchup for anyone and if the Orange get back to form with Ennis driving, Cooney getting open looks from deep, Fair creating his own shots, and the Grant/Christmas/Keita trio dominating the inside, they are going to be a tough team to beat.

8. (10) Arizona State over (7) Texas
9:40pm on CBS

These are two incredibly evenly matched teams, so it would be hard to call this one an "upset." Both teams like to bang on the inside and have shot-blockers and rebounders that can be game-changers. This is probably one of the most literal "toss-up" games, so it's hard to call a 50-50 game much of an "upset" (especially given the closeness in seeding) which is why this falls right in the middle of the list.

9. (10) St Joseph's over (7) Connecticut
6:55pm on TBS

Yesterday was the Feast Day of Saint Joseph. Today, in all likelihood, will be a feast day for UConn. Even though St Joe's won the A-10 tournament, I have a hard time seeing them handling the defensive pressure that UConn will put on them. The Hawks had an answer for VCU's press, but UConn's length and athleticism on the defensive end is something else entirely.

10. (15) Milwaukee over (2) Villanova
9:25pm on TBS

This ranks so highly because I really don't know what to make of Villanova. I thought they were one of the top teams in the nation (and the committee did too, giving them the #5 overall seed in the tournament), but their loss to Seton Hall in the opening round of the Big East Tournament scares me. Milwaukee is hot and essentially playing with house money right now after beating top-seeded Green Bay in the Horizon league semi-finals and Wright State in the title game. No one expected the Panthers to rise from their 5th place finish in the regular season to win the conference title, and Villanova has been known to struggle in tournament openers before (see: Robert Morris).

11. (13) Delaware over (4) Michigan State
4:40pm on TNT

Sparty finally got everyone healthy and looked like the dominant team that started the season when they ran through the Big Ten Tournament. Delaware was the best team in the CAA all season and has a trio of scorers that can cause problems for any team in Devon Saddler (19.7 PPG), Davon Usher (19.4 PPG) and Jarvis Threatt (18.1 PPG). The Blue Hens play fast and can score, so they have a chance to keep it close against Michigan State, but ultimately Sparty is just better.

12. (9) Pittsburgh over (8) Colorado
1:40pm on TBS

You might be wondering why this game is so far down the list when Pitt is favored to win. As I said at the outset, seeding differential played a factor in my rankings, so I'm not saying that this is an unlikely upset (far from it, I fully expect Pitt to win by double-digits) but that it really doesn't rank high on the "upset" scale.

13. (10) BYU over (7) Oregon
3:10pm on truTV

This would be somewhat surprising given that BYU just lost their best all-around player Kyle Collinsworth to an ACL injury. Collinsworth was 2nd on the team in scoring, 1st in rebounding and 1st in assists. Oregon is getting hot at the right time and should breeze through this game. BYU is one of the top scoring teams in the nation, but it's hard to say how they will adapt to life without Collinsworth on the floor.

14. (15) American over (2) Wisconsin
12:40pm on truTV

A lot of people seem down on Wisconsin, but this is a well-coached team that was as high as #3 in the nation at one point this season and finished second in the Big Ten. Wisconsin plays one of the best team games in the nation and shares the ball incredibly well. The only way American wins this is if Jesse Reed (47% from behind the arc) goes off.

15.(15) Wofford over (2) Michigan
7:10pm on CBS

The Wolverines are playing some of their best ball of the season and Wofford is...well, Wofford.

16. (16) Albany over (1) Florida
4:10pm on TBS

As I said at the outset, if this actually happened it would probably be the biggest upset in Tournament history. But it's simply not going to happen.