Evaluating the Steelers’ 2016 Acquisitions: Setting the Table

via pennlive.com

This is going to be a multi-part series, naturally, as quite a few guys have been added to the team in the past few months. Included in this will be the free agent acquisitions, but at least to start we will be focused on the new draftees and UDFAs.

And before we begin, let me make it clear that I have absolutely no football credentials, and am not going to try to evaluate the players in a football sense. I may bring in some information by evaluators who do have such credentials, just for interest’s sake, but honestly, they don’t seem to have a particularly good track record in predicting who will actually succeed, especially beyond the first round. The problem is that there are way too many variables to be able to say how a given player will work out on a given team.

The pre-draft veteran free agent signings are another matter, and we’ll also look more closely at them in the coming weeks. As we look at the featured players I will pose some questions we’ll be continuing to consider in the days and weeks to come. Why, for example, was a player like the Steelers’ last pick, Tyler Matakevich, passed over by so many teams? His college production was prodigious, and he won some impressive awards during the course of it. There’s a story there, and I’ll be looking for it.

Of course, it’s really difficult to say with any degree of certainty how well a player will translate his game to the NFL. This is why the “experts” would never be able to hold a job in many fields, at least given their success record in the past.

As I discussed at length in yesterday’s postit is at least reasonable to think part of the problem is that where a player ends up may have an enormous effect on how well they do. And it isn’t even because of the recent successes or failures of the team drafting the player or the credentials of the coaching staff or the stability of the franchise management. There are also a number of mundane considerations, like just how many players already on the roster are “blocking” a new inductee. I think the Steelers’ reluctance to play rookies on the defense, at least from about 2010 on, had a lot to do with the feeling that there was possibly another Super Bowl run in the veterans of Super Bowl XLV.

This hypothesis is supported by the Steelers’ uncharacteristic reluctance to let grizzled veterans move on, something they have been very successful doing in the past. There were several veterans they arguably kept at least a year too long, including players dear to Steeler Nation such as Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and even Troy.

This naturally has the effect of slowing the development of your draft picks, to the point that in many cases little value was extracted from the post-2011 CBA rookies, for whom they only had four years of evaluation time. Although there may well have been other things going on in the case of someone like, say, Keenan Lewis, nonetheless the Steelers got about one good year out of him before he moved on in free agency.

And although you can look at the case of someone like Shamarko Thomas and say the Steelers might have moved on from Troy Polamalu a year sooner had he developed as they expected him to, it really isn’t that simple. Perhaps having to sit on the bench for so much time meant that they lost the teachable moment, if you will. But again, I don’t know anything about football. I do know a lot about teaching, though, and I know that you can sometimes “lose” a student by trying to go at too slow a pace. Sometimes you really do just have to throw them out there, and sometimes that needs to be before they have accumulated too many complexes…

There is also the question of the fit between teacher and student. An article I wrote some time ago about Carnell Lake illustrates this. Back in 2011 I went to a Ladies Event at the Steelers’ Southside practice facility, and the featured speaker was new DB coach Carnell Lake. During his talk he laid out his coaching philosophy. He asks the players to prepare, to give a good effort, and have a great attitude. He tells them that in turn he can help them with the following:

  • Assignment—knowing what you are supposed to do.
  • Alignment—knowing where you are supposed to be.
  • Technique—knowing how to defend the area or person you are charged with defending.

He is telling them that there are things he can teach them if they are willing to learn. But the initial desire and work has to come from them. He told a story about a rookie DB the year he was drafted who was too interested in the ladies to pay much attention to the playbook, and was cut during the early weeks of camp. But then there are the guys who are trying but don’t really get it. One of those seemed to be Keenan Lewis, and Lake said the following about him:

I have a soft spot for Keenan. Keenan was a 3rd round pick three years ago, but never really played much. When I came on board he was like a little sad puppy.

He came to me in July and said “I’m glad you’re here, Coach; whatever I can do, I want to help, and if you have any extra time can you work with me?” And so we started working together after practice. The guys already had double practices on those days, and yet he still wanted to do more. This made me feel that he might be something special.

He’s big—over six feet tall. I’m six feet tall, and he’s a little taller than I am. He’s just as fast as the other DBs, so how come this guy’s not playing? I started asking some questions, and they would say “He’s not this, he’s not that.” I decided to just work with him and decide for myself whether Lewis had what it took or not. I wanted to see that he got a shot.

Keenan has been playing better every week, and last week he sealed the deal against Kansas City with the interception. I was walking past the guys saying ‘good job’ and so on, and Lewis grabbed me, gave me a hug, and said “I love you, Coach!” That was my first great experience as a coach here.

There’s a lot that can be parsed out of this story. First, Lewis had the desire and was willing to put in the work. But he needed help he, for whatever reason, hadn’t been getting from the previous DB coach. And note that the rest of the coaching staff had more or less made up their minds already about Lewis. It took a newcomer to see the positives, because it would seem the rest of the coaches were mainly seeing the negatives at that point.

It makes me wonder how many guys never make it in the NFL because they don’t know how to come out of the gate quickly. A certain perception about them takes a hold of the people responsible for coaching them or giving them playing time, and it’s very difficult to rethink those, especially with 90 guys on the roster who will shortly have to be cut down to 53.

Perhaps another team saw something and picks them up. Ross Cockrell is an example of that, although how good a corner he becomes is still speculation at this point. But the Bills gave up on him. Ironically, one of the Bills’ starting guards for about five years was a guy (Kraig Urbik) the Steelers cut, and he turned out to be rather better than the guys the Steelers kept, or at least he was at the time. But maybe he wouldn’t have become as good had he stayed a Steeler, because the intersection of ability, opportunity, and the coaches you work with are frozen in time and can’t be replicated. Perhaps if we could actually access those parallel universes we keep hearing about…

Then there are the things one can never know about a player until they actually start practicing and playing, assuming they get that far. These are the attributes teams work really hard to try to find out about in the interviews and players (or, more precisely, their agents) try hard to keep teams from knowing by careful coaching prior to the interview. I wrote about this several weeks ago. Here’s the most germane bit of it:

If there is some way to get a look into the minds of the players, perhaps the part they don’t even know about, I think you would actually have a far better idea of who is likely to succeed in the NFL. The talent level, especially after you get out of the top round, is separated by a very fine line. The big question is, who is willing to put in the work?

And it isn’t even necessarily being willing to put in the work, but knowing how to work so as to accomplish what needs to be learned in the correct way. When I taught harpsichord at the college level I was amazed at how few students knew how to practice. They knew how to shut themselves in a practice room for hours, pounding away, and wasted amazing amounts of time in the process, because they didn’t know how to eliminate the unnecessary stuff and just focus on what needed to be accomplished. Yes, a lot of keyboard playing, or running routes, or a pass rush, is “muscle memory” (which doesn’t really involve either muscles or memory per se) but mindless repetition can actually be counterproductive.

But enough of my preamble. It’s almost certain that not all of this year’s draft class is going to succeed in Pittsburgh. First of all, at most positions they have an awful lot of established competition. But mainly it’s just really difficult to project with any certainty how a player’s college game, and for that matter college persona, will translate to the NFL.

It’s even less likely the undrafted free agents from this class will make the club. But now and again someone such as Ramon Foster does, and that has to give hope to the guys who were passed over in the draft. But what we all want to find out is, who can help us this year? If you have the answer, I’m sure Mike Tomlin would love to know.

to be continued


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