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:
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
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.