The Luck of the Draw
Photo via Twitter
This column isn’t about the Steelers, exactly, but something I’ve been pondering this year. It has been prompted by the development (or lack thereof) of players the Steelers have drafted, and seeing some of the players many thought the Steelers should have taken instead.
Sunday’s game featured one such match-up, if you will—Steelers corner Artie Burns vs the guy most thought the Steelers really wanted, and who was drafted one slot before—corner William Jackson III. Those of us who pay attention to the smaller details are actually in some doubt about that, for various reasons. The Steelers’ pick went to Goodell seconds after the Cincinnati pick was announced. An “AFC North team” who was almost certainly the Steelers had been looking into possible schools for Burns’ younger brothers he is raising. And Mike Tomlin is known to have a penchant for helping young men like Burns. The Steelers couldn’t have drafted Jackson if they wanted to. The question is whether they wanted him over Burns, and we’ll never know that, but my guess is no.
There were other players various people liked better available when they took Burns, but I’m not going to get into that level of detail. The question is, would the Steelers have been better off with Jackson had he been available? Should they, for instance, have traded up to get him?
Well, so far Burns has turned out to be the better “value,” as Jackson didn’t play at all in his rookie season (2016) due to injury, while Burns soon became a starter, albeit one who made mistakes on a regular basis. This season Burns is playing very well. There is no doubt Jackson played a heck of a game yesterday in replacement of Adam Jones.
Frankly, if Marvin Lewis is smart, which considering everything is a somewhat dubious proposition, he should flip Jones and Jackson on the depth chart the rest of the season. The Bengals aren’t going anywhere this season from the looks of things. Jones is at the nether end of his career. Jackson is the future. And judging by the way he played yesterday, the future is now.
A lot of people were slamming the Steelers for “over-drafting” Burns, but I think he is doing just fine. And Cincinnati looks to have come up with a gem. So this is a win-win, it looks like.
Another first-round draft choice which constantly comes up is Ryan Shazier vs C.J. Mosley. (Odd that in both of these cases the guys ended up in the same division.) In this case you could say, based upon their numbers so far, that the Ravens have had the better of the deal. (And in this case the Steelers passed up a still-available Mosley.) Shazier has, of course, been oft-injured, which is part of the problem, and is a bit of a loose cannon, leading on more than one occasion to missed tackles or a lack of gap integrity.
All that said, I think the Steelers saw a possible heir to Troy Polamalu—the sort of player who can, at least on occasion, change a game all by himself—and preferred this to Mosley’s solid play. It is going to be fascinating to compare their numbers and impact at the end of their respective careers—and given what we’ve seen so far, it wouldn’t shock me in the least if Shazier’s career is rather shorter than Mosley’s. It also wouldn’t shock me if Shazier ends his career as a Steeler and Mosley ends his on another team, although the Ravens do lock up a few of their core players. At any rate, I think the jury is still out. But there is no doubt the Steelers desired to get faster on defense, and by gum, as we saw yesterday, they are seriously fast.
But the player combo which prompted the article title is not a direct contrast by any means, just a question. Two teammates at Stanford. Close friends. One protected the other. Andrew Luck was projected to be the most NFL-ready college quarterback available in the draft for quite some time. (Mel Kiper thought he was the best since John Elway.) David DeCastro was the highest-rated guard in their draft. Few thought he would fall as far as the Steelers, and thus I saw very few projections of him being picked by Pittsburgh, a team who was obviously working to build a better offensive line.
Andrew Luck went to the Colts. Manning was history—Luck was to be the future of the Colts franchise.
Peyton Manning went to Denver, and won a Super Bowl with them, due to a healthy dose of luck, some chicanery (no, I’m still not over the “giving himself up” and then popping up to complete a pass to Emmanuel Sanders), and a stifling defense, so that the game could be won with a minimum of offensive points. (And in fact the two Broncos touchdowns in the Super Bowl were on a run and on a fumble recovery for a touchdown.)
But how has Luck fared in Indianapolis? His rookie season the Colts went 11-5, a major improvement on the 2-14 2011 season that allowed the Colts to draft him No. 1 overall. This was only good for 2nd in their division, though, and they lost in the Wild Card round to Baltimore.
In 2013 the Colts earned the same 11-5 record, but this time they prevailed in the Wild Card round against the Chiefs, only to fall to the Patriots in the Divisional round.
In 2014, sporting the same 11-5 record, they won both the Wild Card (Bengals) and Divisional (Broncos) rounds, only to lose in embarrassing fashion at Foxboro, in the infamous game which set off Deflategate.
Luck started every game for those three seasons, but his luck has run out since then. In 2015 he played only 7 games. In 2016 he played in 15 games. The Colts went 8-8 both seasons and missed the playoffs. This season he hasn’t yet played, and when he was scheduled to start practicing they shut him down again. The Colts are 2-5 and are firmly ensconced at the bottom of their division.
Anyone who follows football much at all knows the problem—Luck gets hit. A lot. We are seeing what happens to QBs who get hit a lot. Another sure-fire star from Luck’s draft class, Robert Griffen III, is done, or so it would seem. (His designation at the moment is the dreaded “free agent.”) Something is not right with Cam Newton. I’m sure you all can think of other names. I remember Mike Tomlin being asked about these new hot-shot option QBs, and he said words to the effect of “Let’s see how you feel when we start hitting these guys.”
The Steelers realized that Ben Roethlisberger was going to be another casualty if they couldn’t keep him upright. They “retired” Bruce Arians, (who ironically went to Indianapolis to assure Luck kept getting hit) and worked to upgrade the offensive line and to get the ball out of Ben’s hand sooner.
The Steelers nabbed DeCastro. The elation in Steeler Nation was tremendous—I’ll never forget Homer’s famous “We got a pony!!!! We got a pony!!!!—but DeCastro has underwhelmed at times. We are finally seeing his great talent come to fruition, and a thing of beauty it is, too.
My question is, which team got the better value, the Steelers or the Colts? That may seem like a very odd question. (Or stupid, according to taste.) But if DeCastro, in conjuction with the other upgrades the Steelers have made on the offensive line, can help Ben continue to play at a reasonably high level for a few more years, that has a value it’s hard to put a price tag on. It’s a lot, though. And if the Colts, through spending the big bucks for a quarterback but not the bucks to protect him sufficiently, have burned through a potentially great quarterback and gotten only a few playoff wins in return, did they invest wisely?
It’s easy to ask these questions in retrospect, just as it’s easy to point to a bunch of players the Steelers “should” have taken instead of Jarvis Jones or Senquez Golson or Limas Sweed or any of the other disappointments/busts/what have you they have drafted in the past. But it strikes me that so much of this is luck, pun intended. Even the Great One, Bill Belichick, misses on a great many players.
And perhaps what this indicates the most is that there is really no good way to evaluate a draft pick before their rookie contract is up, unless, like Senquez Golson, they are completely snake-bit and you just have to cut your losses. Which just goes to show that when people are at issue, there are no “sure things.”
And speaking of people and how unpredictable and frustrating they can be, I watched the Steelers Live segment last night for Victory Monday, and at the end Tunch Ilkin and Bob Labriola addressed Martavis Bryant’s latest indiscretion. (If you’re out of the loop, somebody tweeted to him that JuJu is better than he is, and Bryant sent off a reply that could be considered rather rude to JuJu. He deleted it shortly thereafter and put up a different tweet that wasn’t a vast improvement. Then he didn’t show up for the mandatory film study session today, and according to his agent went to the doctor instead.)
The first takeaway from this is that Bryant may have matured in terms of his recreational drug use, but he apparently didn’t mature in any other way. And frankly, I blame this partially (if blame can be assigned anywhere else but Bryant) on the league policy which completely isolates guys from their team and teammates. For a calendar year.
At any rate, I’ll tell you what really impressed me were the responses of JuJu Smith-Schuster when asked about it by the throngs of media trying to get quotes. (Ramon Foster, when asked, said it was a shame Bryant wasn’t there to answer the questions himself instead of making his teammates do it.) At any rate, JJSS sounded amazingly mature and sensible and even empathetic. This kid impresses me more all the time.
But the best part of all of this was Tunch Ilkin sharing what locker room “stuff” was like in the old days. The Code of the West, if you will, was that nothing left the confines of the locker room. Which he admitted was a lot easier before social media. And then he gave Chuck Noll’s advice to his players on dealing with the media: “Treat them like mushrooms. Keep them in the dark and feed them crap.” Words to live by…