Battle of the AFC North: Assessing the 2013 1st Round Draft Picks

via Post-Gazette, Matt Freed photo

by Rebecca Rollett

Back in 2013 I did a series of articles comparing that year’s draft picks by the AFC North teams. The idea was to compare their college stats and decide who made the best picks. Naturally I was hoping the Steelers would win the competition, but I tried to be fairly objective.

As I was well aware at the time, it is impossible to assess a draft pick, college stats or no, for at least several years after the draft. Some even say it takes longer than that. You may have a player who impresses immediately but has a career-ending injury partway into his rookie year. You have the late-bloomers, who in fact may never make a huge impact for the team who drafted them, especially in these days of short rookie deals.

But isn’t that what this time of year is all about? It’s still about potential and promise. Our hopes haven’t yet been confirmed, or crushed, by the actual product on the field. So I thought it might be fun to revisit those picks and see how they have fared.

The Picks and the Pundits:

Cleveland Browns: Pick No. 6, DE Barkevious Mingo

Pittsburgh Steelers: Pick No. 17,  LB Jarvis Jones

Cincinnati Bengals: Pick No. 21, TE Tyler Eifert

Baltimore Ravens: Pick No. 32, S Matt Elam

While we realize how meaningless they tend to be in the long run, it’s always fun to look at what the supposed experts said at the time. So here they are again, and we can view them with two years worth of hindsight. I’ve separated the first and second round comments where possible, but sometimes they were commingled, if you will.

Mel Kiper: ESPN

The Ravens needed to come out of this draft with an inside linebacker and a safety, and with their first two picks, they got two really good players at those positions.

The Bengals somehow didn’t address a pretty big need early (and they don’t have many) and still really impressed me. The pick of Tyler Eifert is just a steal (I had him No. 8 on my final Big Board).

The Browns’ first pick was Barkevious Mingo, a player I’m at once infatuated with as a talent, but skeptical of because of what I considered production that didn’t match up with his talent…

Steelers: I love the selection of Jarvis Jones in Round 1. We’re talking about the most productive pass- rusher in college football over the last two seasons, and he did it against the best competition…

Kiper’s overall grades for each team: Ravens, A-, Bengals A-, Browns C+, Steelers B

Bucky Brooks: NFL Network:

Ravens: Safety Matt Elam replaces Bernard Pollard as the designated tough guy in the back end, bringing better ball skills and awareness.

Bengals: add[ed] explosive playmakers in Tyler Eifert and [Giovani] Bernard to an offense

brimming with talent. Cincinnati is in a position to be a legitimate contender in the AFC for years to come.

Browns: [They] landed a pair of potential impact defenders in pass rusher Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Leon McFadden. Mingo in particular is an athletic freak with the speed and quickness to create disruption of the edge. Now, he is not polished as a rusher at this point, but his overall athleticism could shine in defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s aggressive scheme.

Steelers: [They] grabbed one of the most productive pass rushers in the draft in [Jarvis] Jones. Jones’ disruptive game is reminiscent of former Steeler James Harrison, which makes him a viable candidate to start as an edge player.

Brooks’ overall grades: Ravens, B; Bengals, A; Browns, C; Steelers, A-

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports:

Ravens: I love second-round linebacker Arthur Brown. He is a perfect Ravens style of player. He will step in and start right away…Getting Matt Elam (first) and Brown will really amp up the defense.

Bengals: I don’t usually like taking backs high, but Giovani Bernard in the second round is perfect for this team. They need a space back, and he is that…It’s not that first-round pick Tyler Eifert isn’t a good player, but they already had Jermaine Gresham. Then again, there aren’t a lot of holes on the roster.

Browns: Taking Barkevious Mingo in the first round is questionable. They had two outside rushers and had some other bigger needs. He’s a good player, but not a great fit [for the Browns].

Steelers: [I didn’t like] taking Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell in the second round. I just think he takes too long to get to the line of scrimmage. He is more of a plodder…[Steelers] General manager Kevin Colbert is one of the best in the business. He likes picking productive college players. First-round pick Jarvis Jones was that and more. The Bell pick lowers the grade.

Prisco’s overall grades: Ravens, B; Bengals, A; Browns, C; Steelers, B-

The Actual Numbers

Let’s have a look at how they did. I looked up their rankings according to Pro Football Focus.  I certainly don’t agree with everything I see there, but they do make an effort to be thorough and impartial, and no one else is collecting and interpreting stats on every single NFL player in such a comprehensive way. In other words, it’s about the best thing we’ve got, particularly when you get down to players who are fairly low on the depth chart (as will doubtless be the case as we get into the later round picks.)

So the first question is, how much value did the team get out of them? Part of the value is just being on the field, and all of our guys got significant playing time in the first year, although the second season snaps were cut into by injuries. So first, here’s their snap counts. I decided it would make sense to compare them to the average snap count for their position each season, as you can see:

 Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 9.53.16 PM

As it happens, all of the guys played reasonably close to the average number of snaps for their positions in 2013. (These don’t take into account special teams snaps, but neither does the average, so it doesn’t matter.) But in 2014 the only player to even come close to the league average for his position was Mingo.

In the case of both Eifert and Jones injuries cut into their 2014 seasons. Eifert was injured in the first game of the season, and although it didn’t seem to be immediately serious, he didn’t return the rest of the season. Jones was injured in Game 3 and missed the next 10 games. But Elam was healthy—he was just demoted. 

Now let’s look at how they performed when on the field.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 9.53.04 PM

These are not, perhaps, entirely obvious when you first look at them. PFF establishes a baseline at 0.0, which is equivalent to the mythical MLB ‘replacement level’ player. Over the course of the season they score each player for each game on a number of categories, and the sum of those scores is the weekly overall score. Those weekly scores are added together to make the season total. So if they deem you to be playing badly, you keep descending into the underworld, and if you begin badly but play better every week you have to first cancel out the sub-zero scores before you start accumulating a positive total. So the PFF overall score for the season is the blue bar, and the green bar is where that score would rank when compared to all the other players of that position for the season.

So for 2013 we can see that only Eifert was deemed to have played above replacement level, but even so he would have only rated 55th out of 100 players (I extrapolated all ranking to 100. His actual ranking was, if I recall correctly, 22nd out of 49. After I calculated the ranking out of 100 I flipped them so that higher is better. I think it is confusing when everything else on the chart is better when it is higher but the ranking is the opposite. ) 

The worst of the four was Mingo, who was also the highest pick, but he was, as Bucky Brooks noted, rather raw, with a great deal of upside. It’s also interesting to note that while he was considered a DE when drafted he has been playing as a 3-4 OLB for the Browns. 

For 2014 things aren’t quite so easy to assess. Given that both Jones and Eifert were injured a good bit of the season, sample size is a serious issue, particularly for Eifert. He may have gone on from strength to strength, or he may have been up and down, which is more usual. But his positive ranking, predicated on less than a whole game, stands, for what it’s worth.

Jarvis Jones, while he had a lot more snaps, seemed to be making some improvement before being injured, and for the most part when he came back the arrow was, as Mike Tomlin might say, pointing up. In fact, his last few games were greatly improved. So it’s tempting, at least, to think he would have been a good bit better had he not lost so much time. We’ll never know, but if he stays healthy and plays well this season it will be a reasonable conclusion.

The only unequivocally good news, at least if you are a Browns fan, is Barkevious Mingo. He had a great second season.

The Conclusions—For Now

How does any of this translate to this coming season?

Matt Elam is the only sure thing, in the negative sense. He has a biceps tear and is out for the season. It’s hard not to wonder if this is it for him. But as a first round pick he’s almost certain to get one more opportunity to redeem himself next season.

Tyler Eifert has the chance to grab the No. 1 TE position this season, and while there are no guarantees, there’s also little reason to think he won’t manage it.

Barkevious Mingo seems like a pretty good bet, or he did until yesterday, when the Browns announced he is having arthroscopic knee surgery. He was hurt on a play during practice, but no one is quite sure which one. However, more good news if you’re a Browns fan—the recovery time is about a month, so in theory he will be ready for the season opener.

Jarvis Jones is under the microscope. OLB coach Joey Porter sent Jones a little tough love, as he told the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette: 

“The first year was the first year, you don’t judge that. The second year I thought you started off pretty good. You had two sacks in the first three games and then you got hurt. So they’ll be patient with you then.”

“But please believe they’re counting on you to have a big year this year, they are. You’re going to get scrutinized, I’m going to get scrutinized. I’m going to help you the best I can to play at a high level. You put in the work to prepare yourself to play at a high level, and we’ll go from there.”

Porter played the same position at right outside linebacker at a high level, and he was followed there just as successfully by James Harrison, who, at 37, has had a profound impact on Jones throughout the year, his coach said.

“His mindset is right,” Porter said of Jones. “He came back, he’s been practicing hard, he picked up a little more weight because he thought he was light. It’s early in camp. I’ll get a bigger judgment from him once we start getting into these preseason games.”

t is worth mentioning at this point that one would expect a substantial difference between a 6th overall pick (Mingo) and and 32nd overall (Elam.) Although it isn’t as clearcut as you might think, overall, top-ten picks pan out (at least if they aren’t quarterbacks—they seem to be a bit more volatile.) Picks in the middle of the first round, like both Jones and Eifert, don’t seem to vary as much as you might think, in terms of how good a player they eventually become, from the picks late in the first round. Or at least that was historically the case several years ago. Perhaps I should exhume those statistics and see whether the trend has continued. 

But let’s go back to the original point of the post and decide who “won” the 2013 first round. At this point it’s pretty hard to say. If you just look at how much each player was on the field, Mingo wins hands down. If you are looking for upside, at the moment it looks like a contest between Mingo and Eifert. It’s tempting at this point to declare Elam a bust, and in terms of value since he was drafted that is certainly true. Not on the field is not on the field, whether the cause is injury or lack of production (or both.) I’m still not quite ready to say he’s never be a great player in the NFL, but his window is closing. At this point you would have to say the Browns won, (which they should, given they had the 6th-overall pick,) followed by the Bengals, the Steelers, and the Ravens. 

As for Jarvis Jones? Well, Porter told it like it is. Put up this year, or shut up. And I sincerely hope he puts up. He’s a fine young man, and I hope he is able to grow into his promise.

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