Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Steelers Draft in Historical Perspective

In the wake of the draft, everyone is weighing in with their opinions about which teams were the biggest winners and losers in the draft. But realistically, it's all speculation. Most of the criticism for the Steelers draft centers around not drafting a cornerback in the first round. However, that notion is built on the perceived need that people think the Steelers have in the secondary. Yes, the Packers torched us in the Super Bowl. Yes the Patriots dinked-and-dunked us to death last year. However, in the same breath you talk about Aaron Rodgers throwing for 304 yards and 3 TD in the Super Bowl, you have to remember the Steelers secondary holding Anquan Boldin and Derek Mason to a combined 1 catch for -3 yards in the Divisional round.

When most "draft experts" look at the draft, they are looking at the immediate impact they think the draft class will have.

But before trying to place a grade on the Steelers draft, we need to take a look at how they have drafted historically to try to garner a sense of their drafting strategy. I think this will dispel a few of the common threads of thought that are going around about the Steelers shortcomings in this draft.

In the Mike Tomlin era, only 1 player has gone on to be an opening-day starter in the same year they were drafted. That player was Maurkice Pouncey. Sure, you could make an argument that Frank Summers was supposedly our "starting" fullback in an offense that only used a fullback in goalline sets or Daniel Sepulveda went on to be the starting punter. But neither of them were full-time starters like Pouncey. From this, we can glean that the Steelers haven't drafted players they need to start immediately, but rather players to build their core for the future. Heck, even when Pouncey was drafted we had Justin Hartwig on the roster as the starting center and many thought Pouncey would play guard his first year until Hartwig's contract expired.

Continuing in that same vein, let's look at the early round picks the Steelers have made in the Tomlin era.

2007 - Lawrence Timmons (LB), LaMarr Woodley (LB), Matt Spaeth (TE)

Timmons and Woodley were drafted even though the Steelers had a full roster of starting linebackers with James Harrison, Clark Haggans, James Farrior, and Larry Foote. Spaeth was drafted as the #2 TE with Heath Miller on the roster as the solid #1.

2008 - Rashard Mendenhall (RB), Limas Sweed (WR), Bruce Davis (LB)

With Willie Parker coming of the best year of his career (and a broken ankle suffered in Week 16), the Steelers used their first round pick on a running back. Once again, it was a position where they had a starter, but the pick was made with a focus on 2-3 years down the road. The next two picks are unanimously considered the biggest "misses" of the Mike Tomlin era. Nevertheless, they follow the same pattern: Sweed was drafted with Ward, Holmes, and Washington on the roster, but with the thought of grooming him to be a big-time target in the future. Davis had tremendous upside coming into the draft, but lacked the motivation and work ethic to survive in the NFL. The Steelers picked him to add depth to the OLB position, even though they had James Harrison, Woodley, Arnold Harrison, and Andre Frazier on the roster.

2009 - Ziggy Hood (DE), Kraig Urbik (OL), Mike Wallace (WR), Keenan Lewis (CB)

Even though Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel had been solid anchors along the defensive line, the Steelers knew the writing was on the wall, with both players over 30. They picked Ziggy Hood in the first round, not as an immediate starter, but as someone that could be groomed to replace Smith or Keisel when they inevitably retired. The Steelers added offensive line depth to a unit that needed depth with the pick of Urbik, but he never saw time in the startnig lineup. Mike Wallace is obviously the biggest steal of the Tomlin era as a 3rd round pick. But it's important to remember: Wallace was picked with Ward, Holmes, and Sweed on the roster. Sure, he beat out Limas Sweed in the preseason for the #3 WR role, but he wasn't drafted with the expectation that he would be a starter in his first season. The Steelers had lost CB Bryant McFadden to Arizona in free agency but trusted the depth on their roster (Willie Gay & Deshea Townsend) enough to wait until the 3rd round to pick a CB. Lewis went on IR early in the season and still has yet to develop into a starting-caliber CB.

2010 - Maurkice Pouncey (C), Jason Worlids (OLB), Emmanuel Sanders (WR)

Of the top 3 picks in the 2010 draft, only 1 seemingly addressed an immediate need. Shortly before the draft, the Steelers traded WR Santonio Holmes to the Jets for a 5th round pick (that they would eventually trade to Arizona for CB Bryant McFadden, which wound up being a great move. Talk about maximizing the value of a 5th round pick.) Pouncey addressed a hole in the middle of the line, even though many expected him not to start his first year. Worlids was picked for depth at the OLB position where the depth chart was basically non-existent behind Harrison and Woodley. Some thought the Steelers would target a WR to replace Holmes sooner, but with the emergence of Mike Wallace and the signing of Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle in free agency, the Steelers waited until the 3rd round and picked Manny Sanders. Once again, the Steelers showed a propensity to choose players that were not immediate starters (besides Pouncey), but rather those that were able to add depth to the roster and be groomed into starters down the line.

This drafting strategy of choosing depth over immediate starters has run through the whole Mike Tomlin era as head coach. It was manifest again this year when the Steelers opted to take a defensive lineman (Cameron Heyward) in the first round, rather than addressing what some thought were more immediate needs (offensive line or cornerback). But when you look at the Steelers current roster, the pick makes a lot of sense. On the offensive line, Flozell Adams (who was surprisingly solid last year at RT) said he wants to return as long as he can start. Willie Colon is a free agent coming off a season spent on IR. Max Starks is coming off an injury-shortened season and Jonathan Scott probably won't garner much attention in free agency. Tony Hills showed more last year than we've seen from him in the past, but the writing is probably on the wall for him unless the Steelers fail to re-sign Jonathan Scott. Either way, the Steelers have depth at the tackle position and drafted not an immediate starter but someone who can learn the NFL game and be groomed into a starting role in a few seasons.

So, despite the criticism from some scouts and "experts," the Steelers 2011 draft falls perfectly in line with the manner in which the Steelers have drafted in the Mike Tomlin era. But the positions and depth chart situation are not the only factors to consider when evaluating a draft class. Another measure of comparison is to look at where the draft picks are coming from, specifically which schools, conferences, and levels of play. Since the Mike Tomlin era offers such a small sample size, we expanded the length of time for this portion of the analysis to include the entire Kevin Colbert era, from 2000 to present.

When one looks at the draft choices Kevin Colbert has made, the first thing that jumps out is the number of players he has drafted from major conferences. In Colbert's 12 drafts, 77% of his picks came from BCS schools with 97% coming from Division 1 schools. Only 3 players during Colbert's tenure were picked from non-D1 schools: Ricardo Colclough (2004), Willie Colon (2006), and Cortez Allen (2011). In this sense, the selection of Allen (CB-The Citadel) was somewhat of a departure from Colbert's normal patterns, but it was also the type of pick he had made in the past (Colon was a 4th round pick in 2006).

When one looks at Colbert's drafts round-by-round, selections in the first 3 rounds are almost exclusively from BCS schools. In fact, only 3 selections in the first 3 rounds (Ben Roethlisberger--2004 1st Round, Colclough--2004 2nd Round, Emmanuel Sanders--2010 3rd Round) were not from BCS schools. In this trend, the selections of Cameron Heyward (Ohio St), Marcus Gilbert (Florida), and Curtis Brown (Texas) make perfect sense and don't deviate from the trend of selecting players from BCS schools over 90% of the time in the first 3 rounds.

It should have come as no surprised that the Steelers selected a player from the Big 10 and a player from the SEC. In Colbert's 12 drafts, he has selected 20 players from Big 10 schools (the most of any conference) and 14 from SEC schools (second most of any conference). Of the 20 Big 10 players Colbert has chosen, 4 have been in the first round (Burress, Holmes, Mendenhall, Heyward) and 5 have been from Sweater Vest U (Holmes, Heyward, Rodney Bailey, Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington). Here's a look at the rest of the conferences the Steelers have drafted players from:

Big 10 - 20
SEC - 14
ACC - 12
Big XII - 10
Pac 10 - 9
Big East - 8
Mountain West - 6
Conference USA - 4
MAC - 4
Sun Belt - 2
WAC - 2
Independent - 1
FCS Schools (formerly D-1AA) - 2
Non-D1 schools - 1

As you can see, the Steelers have clearly targeted players from the six BCS conferences with the weight on players from the Big 10, SEC, and ACC. 

After the 3rd round, Colbert's track record for drafting from major programs is not as set in stone. 25% of his 4th round picks, 39% of his 5th round picks, 25% of 6th round picks, and 38% of 7th round picks have been from non-BCS schools. Of the 3 4th rounders not taken from BCS schools, 2 of them (Colon and Allen) were from non-FBS programs. The third was Ike Taylor.

The 5th round could be considered the round in which Colbert "targets" players from non-BCS schools, as he has picked a player from a non-BCS school almost 40% of the time in the 5th round. This year, the Steelers picked Chris Carter (OLB-Fresno St), adding to the ranks of players from non-BCS schools the Steelers picked in the 5th round.

Looking at the 2011 draft as a whole, the Steelers drafting strategy was consistent with what we have seen from both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert in their time in Pittsburgh. The Steelers drafted players at positions where they needed depth and stuck to their draft board, taking a number of players that are high-character guys with great work ethics. Now, this isn't to say that the 2011 draft class is going to be as legendary in Steelers history as the '74 class. But the Steelers front office stuck to their guns and came out with a talented crop of players.

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