Battle of the AFC North: Assessing the 2013 2nd Round Draft Picks
by Rebecca Rollett
Last week I started a series revisiting the 2013 draft for the Steelers. You can read about the first-round picks here.
It is impossible to properly assess a draft pick at the time they are drafted. Obviously teams have spent vast sums of money and many weeks and months following college players, watching their tape, and in some cases speaking with them to try to get a feeling for how a given player is going to turn out.
And yet they get it wrong quite often. Less so with the first round, but there is still a fairly substantial failure rate even for the first round. In fact, there are those (you know who you are) who have already declared the Baltimore Ravens’ first round pick Matt Elam a bust. I think it is too soon to say that, but since he is injured and out for the coming season he only has one year after that left on his rookie contract to persuade someone, even if not the Ravens, that he belongs.
There are also those who are already calling the Steelers’ first-round pick, Jarvis Jones, a bust. There were plenty that year who thought the Ravens did a good bit better, linebacker-wise, with their second round pick than the Steelers did with Jones. Certainly this is the year for Jones to demonstrate he belongs.
But what does that mean? Some would say he should already be a star, given that he was drafted at No. 17. But frankly, the historical data shows that only the top ten picks (and less in some years) seem a completely sure-fire thing. And even then there are exceptions.
One needs only look on the Steelers’ roster for a cautionary tale. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey is playing mainly special teams, and to his credit he seems willing to do whatever is necessary to make the roster. But this is a long fall from the heady days when the Oakland Raiders drafted him No. 7 overall.
As far as I’m concerned, if Jones turns out to be a serviceable linebacker with occasional flashes of brilliance, that’s just fine. If he gets jumped in the depth chart this year or next by another first-round pick, Bud Dupree, or by an undrafted free agent who totally outperforms his non-drafted status, (and it has been known to happen, even on the Steelers), that’s okay. As Mike Tomlin is fond of saying at training camp, “We don’t care how you got here—we’re only interested in what you can do.”
And as Ivan Cole points out in his latest article, you are never going to get everything (or, I suppose everyone) right, because there are too many factors for which you can’t control and which are very difficult to determine beforehand. So no matter how due your diligence, you are going to come a cropper from time to time.
So after that rather long preamble, let’s have a look at the second round picks. Subsequent articles will start to bunch them up a bit, but the second round was particularly interesting in 2013, I think.
The Picks and the Pundits:
Cincinnati Bengals: Pick No. 37, RB Giovani Bernard
Cleveland Browns: Forfeited their pick to take WR Josh Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft
Pittsburgh Steelers: Pick No. 48, RB Le’Veon Bell
Cincinnati Bengals: Pick No. 53, DE Margus Hunt
Baltimore Ravens: Pick No. 56, LB Arthur Brown
The Bengals had two second-round picks, annoyingly enough, through a brilliant piece of horse-trading in which they got rid of their seriously discontented quarterback Carson Palmer and robbed the Oakland Raiders blind. In exchange for Palmer, they got Oakland’s 2012 first round pick, giving them two that year, and the extra second round pick in 2013. They were able to move their 2011 bargain basement second-round pick, Andy Dalton, into the QB slot.
The Ravens traded up with Seattle for their second, fifth and sixth round picks.
So now let’s check out what the draft experts had to say. It was not always possible to separate the first and second round remarks, which is why there are some of both. The grades are for the draft as a whole, not for any given round.
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 lack of a second-round pick really hurt the Browns, who could have used a higher- rated guard.
Steelers: The Steelers also got a running back, I just thought Le’Veon Bell was a bit of a reach. I’ll say this for him, however: Bell played behind some pretty awful blocking last year and still managed to be productive.
Kiper’s grades for each team: Ravens, A-, Bengals A-, Browns C+, Steelers B
Bucky Brooks: NFL Network:
Ravens: [Arthur] Brown, a plug-and-play starter at inside linebacker, has the athleticism to rack up gaudy production as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker.
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: [no comment]
Steelers: Le’Veon Bell is a big back with quick feet and outstanding instincts. Additionally, he is a natural pass catcher with the receiving skills to play a prominent role in the pass game.
Brooks’ 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…
Browns: [no comment]
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 grades: Ravens, B; Bengals, A; Browns, C; Steelers, B-
The Actual Numbers
Following the previous article’s format, I looked up the rankings for these guys according to Pro Football Focus. Pro Football Focus isn’t perfect, but no one else is making the attempt to collect and interpret stats on every single NFL player in such a comprehensive way.
First, how much were they on the field? Part of a pick’s value is just being there. Interestingly, the time they got on the field varied a good bit, and this will naturally become more marked as we dive into the lower rounds.
Here are their (non-special teams) snap counts, (blue bar) compared to the average snap count (green bar) for their position each season:
Unlike the first round picks, all of whom played reasonably close to the average number of snaps for their positions in 2013, the second round picks were sharply divided between the offensive players (both running backs, both playing distinctly more snaps than the average for their position,) and the defensive players, neither of whom came close to playing the average number of snaps. Given that the defensive positions are probably more complicated to learn, this wouldn’t be terribly surprising.
In 2014 the separation grows even larger. Curiously, there was only one of the first round picks who played close to or above the average for their position (Barkevious Mingo.) This was mainly due to injury. But both of the second round running backs played substantially more snaps than their position average, and neither defensive player made much headway. In fact, the self-same Arthur Brown who at least some Steeler fans thought would have been a better choice than Jarvis Jones did not play a single regular game snap. He did play some special teams, but he did not even have a substantial number of special teams snaps.
Let’s look at the defensive guys first. Hunt began training camp on the PUP list with an ankle injury which he had been “dealing with” the previous season. And indeed he missed four games in the middle of the season. Arthur Brown only played in four games (all, as noted, on special teams,) and although the Ravens put him on Injured Reserve at the end of December, there’s little reason to assume the “thigh injury” had anything to do with his previous demotion.
Now let’s look at how they performed when on the field:
These are not, perhaps, entirely obvious when you first look at them. PFF establishes a player performance baseline at 0.0, which is equivalent to the mythical MLB ‘replacement level’ player, I suppose. 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.
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. I extrapolated all rankings to position out of 100, with 100 being best, to keep it consistent visually.
In 2013 only Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert, out of the four first-round picks, was deemed to have played above replacement level. Curiously, all of the second round picks played above replacement level, although in the case of both defensive players it was just barely.
This changed rather drastically in 2014. Arthur Brown wasn’t even on the chart. Both Giovani Bernard and Margus Hunt were “below the line.” Le’Veon Bell was distinctly above it.
Looking at their first year, it’s easy to say the best values were the running backs. In their second year the running backs still represent the “class” of the AFC North second-round class. However, their relative position changed.
Because a number of excellent college backs were in the 2013 draft, there was a lot of talk about who the best one was, with experts arguing among themselves. If I had to guess, it seemed most thought Eddie Lacey had the best chance to impress in the NFL.
In 2013 Lacey was No. 5 overall for PFF. Bernard was No. 3. Le’Veon Bell was No. 31. Last season Lacey was No. 4, Bernard was No. 35, and Bell was No. 1. It will be interesting to see if this is how they have “shaken out,” or whether the positions will flip around yet again. They all seem to be talented backs—I expect that in the end a lot of it will depend on how durable they prove to be.
As for the defensive guys, the story still remains to be told. Arthur Brown is said to have bulked up and to be poised to make more of an impact. Rather like Jarvis Jones, this may be his last chance to prove he belongs. Margus Hunt may be able to prove this year that it was his ankle holding him back or he may continue to underwhelm.
I left Josh Gordon out of the discussion until now, as his case is more complicated. First of all, he wasn’t a rookie in 2013, and he wasn’t playing a lot in 2014. Not because of poor performance, of course. He is incredibly talented. In 2013 he had the first ever back-to-back 200 yard games in NFL history and went to the Pro Bowl. But the Browns took a huge chance in drafting him, as his character concerns were well known, and unfortunately his demons seemed to have won. He is suspended for the 2015 season. Whether he will ever play again remains to be seen.
So an assessment of his relative value is pretty difficult to make. Any team would want a player with his gifts if they didn’t come packaged with his problems. As a result a lot of teams passed on him, and it would seem they were right to do so.
The Conclusions—For Now
How does any of this translate to this coming season?
Assuming they stay healthy (always the proviso,) there is ample reason to think both Bell and Bernard will have good seasons. Steelers fans hope, with reasonable cause, that Bell will continue to wow the league. It will be interesting to see whether Bernard will improve or continue to regress from his heady first season.
I pretty much covered the defensive guys. Of the two, I would be more hopeful for Hunt, but Brown may surprise everyone.
Returning to the original point of the post, who “won” the 2013 second round? Cleveland, however you look at it, won in the short term and lost in the long term. Both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh did well, even very well. Time will tell which pick was better, although as a Steelers homer I would take Bell every day of the week.
But in the long term, it’s possible one of the two defensive guys turns out to be the overall best player. After all, halfbacks have one of the shortest NFL “lifespans.” But then, if the majority of the value of a pick goes to the team who picks up his second contract, the question is still open for debate, at least assuming the team who picks up the second contract is not the team who drafted him.