Great Expectations, Abundant Disappointments? Steelers Third Round Draft Picks in the 21st Century

Historically, the Pittsburgh Steelers have done quite well at identifying talent and drafting good players. Naturally there have been a number of less-than-optimal outcomes. And despite what many people think, this did not begin with the Mike Tomlin era. Troy Edwards, anyone? Or Ricardo Colclough?

In recent years the Steelers have continued to draft some fine players. But the third round, a round in which the Steelers have drafted players such as Joey Porter, Max Starks, and Hines Ward, has seemingly been less impressive in recent years.

But have the Steelers really been that good at drafting in the third round in the 21st century? Despite a few major successes, the Steelers were right around the league average during the first decade of the 21st century. The release of Dri Archer, a player for whom many had high hopes and many more felt was a wasted draft pick, has started another round of the refrain “Tomlin doesn’t know how to draft.” This in turn prompted me to look back at the Steelers third round picks since 2000. (Ward was, of course, drafted in 1998 and won’t be considered further.) 

Since 2000, the Steelers have chosen in the third round:

  • 2001: No pick. I spent a bit of time trying to figure out where it went, and can’t. I can’t find a trade, either in 01 or 2000. None of the post-draft articles I found mention the lack of it. So it’s a mystery.
  • 2002: DB Chris Hope
  • 2003: No pick. Part of the trade up for Troy Polamalu. Hard to argue it was well-spent.
  • 2004: T Max Starks
  • 2005: T Trai Essex
  • 2006: S Anthony Smith, WR Willie Reid
  • 2007: TE Matt Spaeth
  • 2008: LB Bruce Davis
  • 2009: WR Mike Wallace, G Kraig Urbik, CB Keenan Lewis.
  • 2010: WR Emmanuel Sanders
  • 2011: CB Curtis Brown
  • 2012: LB Sean Spence
  • 2013: WR Markus Wheaton
  • 2014: RB Dri Archer

The only way to compare apples to apples that I know of is to use Pro Football Reference’s Career Approximate Value. It has the advantage of going back far enough and of distinguishing when the value was accrued. So although it is a rather crude measure, it will have to do.

Naturally, players still in the league, especially the young ones, are still in the process of accruing value, and that has to be taken into consideration. But it still gives us a way to make some comparisons.

Here are the values they give for each year’s pick(s). If the player played for any other team, you will see the total, the amount for PIT, and then any additional value with another team or teams.

  • 2001: 0
  • 2002: DB Chris Hope: 53 (17, 36)
  • 2003: 0, although I suppose one could assign a fraction of Troy’s amazing 115 career value.
  • 2004: T Max Starks 53 (53, 0)
  • 2005: T Trai Essex 18 (18, 0)
  • 2006: S Anthony Smith, WR Willie Reid: Smith: 13 (9, 4) Reid: 1
  • 2007: TE Matt Spaeth: 2 (2, 0) 
  • 2008: LB Bruce Davis: 0 (0, 0)
  • 2009: WR Mike Wallace, G Kraig Urbik, CB Keenan Lewis. Wallace: 50 (35, 15) Urbik: 24 (0, 24) Lewis: 24 (11, 13)
  • 2010: WR Emmanuel Sanders: 31 (17, 14)
  • 2011: CB Curtis Brown: 2
  • 2012: LB Sean Spence: 4
  • 2013: WR Markus Wheaton: 7
  • 2014: RB Dri Archer: 0

Prior to Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers accumulated a CAV in six years of drafting of 136, 98 of those while playing for PIT. None of those players are still in the league, so the total will not change. Since then the total is 144 (in eight years.) Seven of the players are still in the league, so that total could move upwards a good bit. However, only just over half of the CAV is with the Steelers. I would love to go back and look at the equivalent values during the older players’ early years, but that’s going to have to wait for a different post.

Since the article is focused on the disappointments, let’s define a disappointment. There are three sorts of disappointments, in my eyes. Only one is an unqualified disappointment—when a player never plays a single snap for the Steelers, or for any other team. The Steelers don’t have any of those in the 21st century.

The next sort is when a player is obviously talented but doesn’t manage to stick for the Steelers, or doesn’t play their best football for the Steelers, or enough of it. You might call them a mild disappointment. They move on to another team and make their mark there. Where one draws this line is probably a matter of personal taste. We’ll look at those in a moment, and we can debate the placement in the comments.

Finally, there are the guys who come in with great promise and never manage to fulfill it, for various reasons. Let’s call those the Heartbreakers.

Since I know little about the pre-Tomlin era Steelers other than the ones who were still on the team in 2009 I’m going to confine the discussion to the picks taken from 2007 on. This has the added advantage of beginning with a player still in the league.

The Successes

We’ll get the successes over with right away, so as to be almost unremittingly gloomy. I would consider those to be Matt Spaeth, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, and Emmanuel Sanders. Not everyone would agree, I assume.

I believe Matt Spaeth should be considered a success, despite the paltry accolades given to him either by a great many Steeler fans or by Pro Football Reference. He played out his rookie contract in Pittsburgh. He spent two years in Chicago, during which he accrued exactly 0 points. I think this makes it clear how flawed rating systems inherently are, especially ones such as PFR who paint with such a broad brush.

During the time he was in Chicago Matt Spaeth was one of Pro Football Focus’ higher-ranked tight ends. He had a number of receptions and three touchdowns, as well as further developing the blocking skills for which he has long been valued. He has been durable with the exception of his first year back in Pittsburgh and this year. That’s worth 2 points? Okay, then.

Honestly, it’s this sort of thing which prompted my Friday article on Steelers Wire. I expect Darrius Heyward-Bey isn’t accumulating a lot of CAV this season in Pittsburgh, but he brings more than sufficient value to guarantee him a roster spot.

Mike Wallace never really became more than the one-trick pony Mike Tomlin accused him of being during the span of his rookie contract. However, it was an awfully good trick, and is one of the reasons the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2010 season. His play first in Miami and now in Minnesota makes it clear that a lot of his value is dependent upon having a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger throwing to him. He wouldn’t be the first. Despite the crazy amount of hard work Antonio Brown puts in, his “value” took a nose dive this season when Ben went down, except for about the last five minutes of the Raiders game.

It isn’t hard to say whether the Steelers made the right call in letting Wallace walk—for that, just look at Antonio Browns’ game last week. Whether Wallace made the right call in turning down a contract is a bit more doubtful.

Keenan Lewis was a big disappointment for the Steelers, right up until he wasn’t. Steeler Nation, in its frequently bipolar fashion, went from declaring him a bust to declaring the Steelers made a huge mistake to not lock him up to a long-term contract. But however you view this (or viewed it at the time) it’s hard to say Lewis, in retrospect, was a poor pick. You can possibly fault the usage or the coaching, or maybe it just took a long time for the light to come on. But he’s surely a success.

It’s interesting to remember the Steelers had so many picks in 2009 because they traded down with Denver. The Broncos used the picks for Richard Quinn (CAV 0) and Seth Olsen (CAV 3). The Steelers certainly got the better of that trade, even just counting the CAV of 35 Wallace earned with PIT. And there’s no way of knowing who they might have taken in the second and fourth rounds. Perhaps they would have taken Quinn and Olsen, and Steeler Nation would really have been annoyed…

Emmanuel Sanders was another of Pittsburgh’s third round wide receiver bargains. In his time in the league he has a CAV of 31. 14 of these came in 2014, his first year with the Broncos. So while he still has more of his total value with Pittsburgh, I expect this year to wipe that out. Peyton Manning appears to be in decline, but Sanders still has at least 60+ yards in all but one game this season, and four touchdowns. He has five games with close to or over 100 yards. He went to the Pro Bowl last year. If Antonio Brown hadn’t eventually won the bone, Sanders would almost certainly still be in Pittsburgh. It’s hard to complain about that. Although people do. As Ivan Cole pointed out in yesterday’s “All-Bust” team post:

I think this is a great example of how once an idea takes hold in the minds of a critical mass of people it becomes difficult to dislodge. You may recall that the two dogs, one bone challenge originated between Sanders and Antonio Brown. You may also recall that Sanders won that competition, leading to Brown not being able to earn a helmet on game day for much of the 2010 season. If you, like me, had to opportunity to observe the two players in training camp you wouldn’t find much difference between them on a performance level.

But fans soured on Sanders for a variety of reasons. He struggled with a foot injury and the death of his mother one year, had a flirtation with the hated Patriots when he was restricted free agent, and had an important drop of a pass against the Ravens.

The Disappointments

Kraig Urbik is an Emmanuel Sanders-type scenario, but one which didn’t bring any value to the Steelers. His is a situation where it may not be so much the players’ fault as the circumstances around him. Ramon Foster, the UDFA who beat him out for the backup tackle job, has a CAV of 33. (Urbik’s CAV so far is 24, all with Buffalo.) And Foster is having a career year.

Ironically Urbik, despite grading out as PFF’s best guard in 2013, has been relegated to backup status on the Bills by the signing of Richie Incognito. He was able to thrive in Buffalo until the circumstances changed. It is certainly common for a new coach to want to bring in his own players. Especially, it would seem in the case of Rex Ryan, if by doing so you can upset people.

Urbik was considered the best guard prospect in the 2009 draft. It’s hard to say he was a bad pick, and it’s hard to complain he was pushed out by Ramon Foster, who has turned into such a good player. It’s just the breaks.

He’s also a good counterexample to those who claim the Steelers give the preference to especially higher-round draft picks when they are being outplayed by lower-round picks or UDFAs.

It’s difficult for me to imagine people ragging on a pick because he hasn’t contributed due to a devastating knee injury which was viewed at the time as probably career-ending. But’s that’s what happened to Sean Spence. And although he has been contributing this season, providing vital depth when Ryan Shazier has been out, he’s probably not the player he might have become had the injury never occurred.

Forget that his story is not only inspirational but Spence himself is a source of inspiration to his coaches and teammates. Forget what this says about the same organization who kept Rocky Bleier when it didn’t make senseIt is surely safe to say Bill Belichick wouldn’t have kept him. Personally, I would rather be a fan of an organization who would, but maybe that’s just me.

Spence’s story is one of the reasons you can never properly evaluate a draft class until all of the players are retired. Who knows? He could suffer (God forbid) another knee injury which would finish his career in the next few weeks. He could break out and turn into one of the succession of great Pittsburgh linebackers. But the most likely thing is, he plays out his career as a valuable but unheralded backup. And considering everything, that’s an amazing triumph of the human spirit.

Markus Wheaton’s career is still in the editing stage. He didn’t earn a slot as a returner, which would have greatly increased his utility to the team, and the emergence of 2014 fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant has hurt his value as a receiver. I wonder if he won’t turn out to be a poor man’s Emmanuel Sanders—a polished receiver who is starved for touches on a team with an embarras de richesse at the position.

Then there are—

The Heartbreakers

LB Bruce Davis was one of the sort of picks which gets a team declared a winner shortly after the draft. Here is an excerpt from an article published on Fansided in April of 2008:

…Tomlin and Director of Player Personnel Kevin Colbert have every right to be pleased with their work as the general consensus seems to be the Pittsburgh Steelers had themselves one of the finest hauls in this year’s draft. Scanning the interwebz, it appears many of the so-called “experts” graded our picks quite generously.

Jason Cole (Yahoo Sports) – A
Paul Zimmerman (SI.com’s Dr. Z) – Very Good
Larry Weisman (USA Today) – B+
Mel Kiper (Great Hair) – B
NPC (Me) – A

We all know how the 2008 class worked out as a whole. There is not a single player still on the team. There are only two players still on any team—Ryan Mundy plays for the Bears and Tony Hills plays for the Saints. The latter may end his career with an NFL record for number of teams he has signed a contract with. At the moment, it is 10.

As far as Bruce Davis goes, he started a mere five games for the Steelers and ultimately 15 games in the NFL. Since I wasn’t paying attention to football at all at that point I couldn’t say why. But I would guess the problem was the attempted change to OLB, which was not a success. It presumably wasn’t the coaching. A lot of other teams—the Patriots, Raiders, and 49ers, among others—tried him, but he never managed to stick anywhere.

Cornerback Curtis Brown is a tough one. He has an amazing back story which would surely make anyone with half a heart want to see him succeed, but ultimately he didn’t. In the course of not succeeding he garnered a CAV of 2. I sincerely hope he is doing well in his life’s work. At one point he was the team’s leading tackler on special teams. But he had problems with injuries and was released by the Steelers after a season ended early with an ACL tear. The Jets picked him up but released him after training camp.

Brown was one of many failed attempts by the Steelers to bolster the secondary. It’s difficult to say why they have so much success picking wide receivers on the second day or later in the draft and so little success doing the same with defensive backs. At any rate, Brown was ultimately another disappointment.

The most recent player to capture the attention, or more accurately, ire of Steeler Nation is Dri Archer. Viewed from the first as a luxury pick by most, it was in my opinion an attempt to spark the return game and get Antonio Brown off of it. I’m a big fan of the latter. We’ve already lost Le’Veon Bell, there is concern about DeAngelo Williams holding up under a heavy load of touches, and the quarterback situation is, to use British understatement, fluid. The loss of Brown would very possibly be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The Steelers essentially took Brown off of kick returns in 2012—he has set up as kick returner only twice since—but in his career he has 151 punt return attempts. He has 13 attempts this year. I would like to see it stop at 13.

Returning is a perilous business. A government study in 2010 found the incidence of brain injuries on punt returns second only to those during kick returns, probably because the blockers start out further downfield during a punt return. And that doesn’t take into account knee injuries or any of the other things which can happen when large men are running towards one another at high speed. This can also occur because of friendly fire, or what Mike Tomlin calls “Steeler on Steeler crimes.” After the league moved the kickoff line to the 35, the New York Times published a sobering article about the dangers of the return game.  An article on USA Today Sports in 2011 gave some figures:

While I don’t have access to the NFL’s data [the Competition Committee and owners used to recommend the change], I did find this study on high school athletes, entitled “Effects of Time in Competition, Phase of Play, and Field Location on Injury Severity in High School Football by Ellen E. Yard. Some of the lowlights as it relates to injuries for high school football players:

  • 32.7% of injuries on kickoffs and punts were “severe” (defined as 21 or more missed days), compared to 19.3% on other plays.
  • 20.3% of injuries on kickoffs and punts were concussions, compared to 10.9% on other plays.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how relevant those directional findings are to the NFL (which is saying, like that study, that serious injuries occur more frequently on kickoffs). I find it to be pretty self-evident that serious injury rates and concussions would be higher on plays where the acceleration portion of the Mass times Acceleration formula was greatly increased.

So while I was certainly in the minority, I was thrilled when the Steelers drafted someone who could possibly take over those duties.

It’s easy to say “they could have drafted x instead,” with x representing some high-value player still on the board. Crockett Gilmore, who is turning into a pretty good tight end for the Ravens, was taken two spots later. Perhaps more interestingly, they could have had Devonta Freeman. (Mind you, he was passed over 102 times before his name was called.) They could have taken DB Ross Cockrell, but now they have Cockrell anyhow. We can play that game all day. But as many of the preceding players demonstrate, you just never know.

As to why Archer didn’t work out, I have no idea. But it is interesting to consider what portion of the success of a draft pick is dependent upon things over which the player himself has no control. This is a question which is difficult to tease out. Sometimes a player is good but the system doesn’t work for them. Or conversely they may excel in the system in which they are placed but falter when they go elsewhere (such as Mike Wallace.) Or they may show a good deal of promise but not have the space to develop fully on the team that drafted them (which is perhaps what is happening to Markus Wheaton and is certainly what happened to Kraig Urbik.)

The denizens of this site have done some speculation as to why Dri Archer couldn’t replicate his college success in the NFL. Homer is convinced it is the return team blocking. This seems an entirely reasonable supposition. The only problem with it is, Mike Tomlin says it isn’t the blocking. It’s hard to see the advantage for Tomlin to make the statement if he doesn’t believe it to be true.

Ivan believes Archer lacks the vision to anticipate where he needs to go, but just determines as the ball comes in where he is going to run and does so, with predictably mediocre results. And yet it was only a few weeks prior to Archer’s release that Mike Tomlin commented that he had been close to ‘breaking one” a few times. Which may or may not speak to improving vision.

Great things are expected of third-round picks in these parts, and those who do not live up to expectations bring down the wrath of Steeler Nation, both on the player for not being good enough and on the team for drafting him. Dri Archer is a very intriguing player who, for whatever reason, never managed to carve out a slot for himself in the Steel City. He is also one of several recent third-round picks who didn’t (or haven’t yet) lived up to their billing.

It will be interesting to see what happens to him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end up in the CFL, or for that matter see Bill Belichick pick him up, try a couple of things, and cast him aside if they don’t work. But whatever happens, Dri, I wish you well. I very much wish your career as a Steeler had been long and prosperous, and I hope you land on your feet. Because if you do, you can really fly.

 

 

 

 

8 comments

  • I did a post at BTSC comparing draft position and AV rank (weighted, because that is what their draft finder tool uses) and while I agree that AV is a flawed mechanic it was an interesting exercise. Click here to see it.

    For example of the value of the comparison: 2004 Ben Roethlisberger was the 11th pick, he is #2 in AV for that class (AV loves Rivers), Max Starks was the 75th pick and ranks 31st in AV. More importantly though he was the 9th O-lineman taken, and ranks 6th in the class in AV. AV likes Starks better than any 1st round O-Lineman that year. Not bad.

    The 94th-125th ranked players in most drafts that have resolved run from roughly 7-16 AV. Inside that range a player has “earned” a third round grade, but mostly you need to look at a total draft class for a team and see what value they got from the class for rankings like that to be really valuable.

    My Soapbox for the exercise is the importance of getting top 50 players in a draft. Numbers dictate you get 1.56 top 50 players each year on average. That 2002 draft we scored 5. Hope, Keisel, Foote, Randle-El, Kendal Simmons. Top 50 players aren’t stars, but they cost a lot of money to replace with Free Agents. So drafting them is big.

    Top 50 players generally need 35 or higher AV for their career.

    So far Blocking TE’s seem to get the worst treatment by AV, FB’s and OL get credit for run yards, TE’s don’t seem to get any. OL are the most overvalued in my opinion, either that or average starting OLmen are far more valuable than anyone else realizes.

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  • As for Dri Archer, I see two problems. One is vision. He doesn’t seem to see where holes are developing fast enough, and fast is key, lanes don’t stay open long, you have to recognize and hit them immediately. This is why he runs to the sideline so much, he just doesn’t react fast enough when a lane appears.

    Two is he doesn’t elude tacklers. Small, fast guys that make it in the NFL either break poor tackles or dodge them. Archer doesn’t. He tries to outrun them. Willie Parker had speed, but he also would break bad tackles. Barry Sanders would dodge the tackles, and break them too, he was amazing. Archer can’t do either. You just can’t get through a hole without someone touching you. Those opportunities are very rare. You have to run through them or dodge them, mostly a combo of both for little guys. Archer doesn’t dodge, dip, duck, dive or dodge contact, and he doesn’t break poor tackles.

    The NFL isn’t going to let you make plays untouched very often as a running back or returner, and Dri doesn’t have the vision to take advantage of the opportunities when they are there.

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  • I will just leave this Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go!

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  • Since the site seems to be defunct now, I don’t know how to find the article, but college football news (CFN.com) writer Pete Fiutak used to do an annual article that discussed the percentage of college picks that made it into the NFL. He broke down from all pros, to stars, solid starters, replaceables, and busts. Historically speaking, anything after the 2nd round was like playing the lottery. Everyone remembers their own team’s misses…but conveniently don’t notice that many other teams are missing too.

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