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Steelers Draft Report Card: Grades for the Mike Tomlin Era

How can we publish a Steelers draft report card before the 2018 NFL draft has even happened?

We’re not grading the upcoming draft. We’re grading the 11 Steelers drafts since Mike Tomlin was hired as head coach in 2007, and we’ll finish by spinning forward a little bit to the 2018 draft.

As soon as Mr. Irrelevant gets his No. 256 jersey on Saturday afternoon, cyberspace will be flooded with draft report cards for every team. And in five years, we’ll be laughing at a lot of those report cards. Grading these picks before any of the players have played a snap is like handing out report cards on the first day of school.

It’s too early to even evaluate the 2017 draft, although the picture on a draft becomes clearer with each passing year.

Steelers fans who are growing impatient with the team’s 10-year championship drought have criticized Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for some of their drafts, although the tandem is standing by one of its most pivotal picks by exercising the fifth-year option on 2015 first-rounder Bud Dupree.

Let’s crunch some numbers and try to objectively evaluate just how well the Steelers have drafted since 2007.

Using Pro Football Reference, we tallied how many First Team All-Pros, Pro Bowlers and starters the Steelers have drafted, and compared those numbers to the rest of the league.

We multiplied each pick by the number of years since that pick. For example, the Steelers drafted eight players in 2017, giving them eight potential player seasons from that draft. The Steelers also made eight picks in 2007. Eleven seasons have gone by since that draft, giving those players 88 potential seasons in the NFL.

We then looked at how many of those seasons were First-Team All-Pro seasons, Pro Bowl seasons and seasons in which the drafted player was the “primary” starter at his position, as defined by PFR, to come up with the percentages in the table below.

This data isn’t without flaws. PFR didn’t consider JuJu Smith-Schuster a starter last season. On the other hand, Dupree is credited with one season as a starter. Smith-Schuster looks like a better pick than Dupree so far. However, we’re not necessarily evaluating individual picks. This is a big-picture look at the Steelers’ drafts over the last 11 years. Furthermore, while the numbers don’t give the Steelers the credit they deserve for picking Smith-Schuster, they get too much credit for Dupree. So it evens out.

Also, not every First-Team All-Pro, Pro Bowl or starter season has come with the team that drafted the player. Emmanuel Sanders has been a starter for five seasons, but just one with the Steelers. However, there are plenty of these scenarios around the league and the volume of the data irons out these wrinkles. Since 2007 the number of NFL draft picks multiplied by the seasons since each player was drafted comes out to 16,786.

If that explanation isn’t satisfactory, then think of it this way. Even though Sanders has spent the prime of his career with the Broncos, he was still a good pick by the Steelers.

With that out of the way, below is a table that illustrates the numbers. The first row is an aggregate for all the drafts. The Steelers’ 91 draft picks since 2007 could have potentially played 549 seasons. During that time, those players have combined to make 26 Pro Bowls, or 4.7 percent. Meanwhile, of the 16,786 potential seasons league-wide since 2007, 600 of those have been Pro Bowl seasons, or 3.57 percent.

Looking only at 2017, the Steelers’ draft has produced no Pro Bowlers to this point, while four of the 253 picks league-wide made Pro Bowls. That’s 1.6 percent.

Here’s the chart, and we’ll follow it with some takeaways:

 

All-Pro Pro Bowl Starter
Steelers NFL Steelers NFL Steelers NFL
2007-2017 2% <1% 4.7% 3.57% 22.4% 22.6%
2017 0 <1% 0 1.6% 12.5% 16.6%
2016 0 1% 0 3.2% 28.6% 25.7%
2015 0 <1% 0 2.5% 12.5% 23.2%
2014 0 <1% 5.6% 4.4% 25% 26.5%
2013 4.4% <1% 6.7% 3.1% 22.2% 25.9%
2012 3.7% 1.1% 5.6% 4% 18.5% 26.4%
2011 2% 1.5% 2% 4.8% 20.4% 24.1%
2010 7.5% 1.5% 17.4% 5.4% 22.5% 23.8%
2009 0 <1% 1.2% 2.8% 30.9% 22.1%
2008 0 <1% 0 2.7% 7% 20%
2007 0 1.2% 2.3% 3.6% 31.8% 18.8%

Takeaways

Much of the Steelers’ drafting success has come between 2010 and 2014

The Steelers appear to have drafted First Team All-Pros and Pro Bowlers at a better rate than the rest of the league since 2007, but much of their success has been concentrated between 2010 and 2014. All-Pros Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Cameron Heyward all were drafted during that time. The Steelers haven’t drafted an All-Pro since 2013 and they haven’t drafted a Pro Bowler since 2014.

Not surprisingly, only one of the Steelers’ 11 All-Pro seasons have come on the defensive side of the ball. Much of their offensive core has been built through the draft between 2010 and 2013.

The supply lines have to keep moving, however. If the Steelers’ last three drafts don’t start churning out some Pro Bowl-caliber talent, the tank could empty. On the positive side, six of their eight starter seasons since 2015 have come on defense. Perhaps that bodes well for the improvement of the unit, although they’ll need to find a replacement for Ryan Shazier on Thursday or Friday to maintain any such progress.

The Steelers’ 2008 draft was awful and their 2009 draft wasn’t much better

If any number on this chart needs an asterisk, it’s the 30.9 percent starter rate from the 2009 draft.

First-rounder Ziggy Hood is considered a three-year starter for the Steelers, although during the Tomlin Era only Jarvis Jones has turned out to be a worse first-round pick than Hood.

Mike Wallace has been a starter for each of the last five years since he left the Steelers. Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley are other members of the Steelers’ 2009 draft class who have been starters in other places.

Third-rounder Keenan Lewis had one decent season before leaving in free agency. Wallace had the biggest impact from the draft class, but not even he could get a second contract.

That underwhelming 2009 draft came on the heels of the Steelers’ worst draft of the last decade. First-rounder Rashard Mendenhall gave them two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but he was gone after his age-25 season. He was followed in that draft by busts Limas Sweed and Bruce Davis. The only other member of that draft class to start anywhere was Ryan Mundy, and that was with the Bears in 2014. You never want Mundy to be the second-best player of your draft class.

The Steelers’ fortunes over the last six years can loosely be traced to the quality of their drafts from 2008 to 2014. They went 8-8 in both 2012 and 2013, when they could have used more manpower from their 2008 and 2009 drafts. Then when they started to reap the benefits of those subsequent drafts, or maybe it’s as simple as Bell rising to stardom in 2014, they returned to the playoffs and made it one round further each year before last year’s premature exit.

The jury is still out on the last three drafts

If Dupree ultimately doesn’t pan out, the 2015 draft could turn out to be almost as bad as the 2008 draft.

The 2015 grade is hurting right now with busts in the second round (Senquez Golson), third round (Sammie Coates) and fourth round (Doran Grant). The only saving grace so far are the contributions from late-rounders Jesse James and Anthony Chickillo.

The 2016 draft will hinge on whether Artie Burns can fulfill the promise he showed as a rookie after going sideways in his sophomore season. Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave have at least proven to be serviceable starters, with Davis in particular showing the potential to break out.

The 2017 draft could turn out to be a home run for the Steelers. T.J. Watt and Smith-Schuster showed Pro Bowl potential as rookies, and third-round cornerback Cameron Sutton showed flashes of promise.

Conclusion

One of the reasons the Steelers are championship contenders is the talent at the skill offensive positions and offensive line that they drafted between 2010 and 2014. But they still have to get past the Patriots and now the Jaguars if they are more than a one-year wonder. There’s still a good chance that players from the 2015 and 2016 drafts can help the Steelers get over those hurdles. But the Steelers also will have to follow a strong 2017 draft with a 2018 draft that provides the same kind of immediate impact.

Grade

This section was added about 24 hours after original publication because we realized we failed to deliver on the title and include a grade.

We’re giving out one overall grade for the Steelers’ drafts since 2007. We’re hedging between B and B-plus. The Steelers would probably get at least an A-minus for their drafts between 2010 and 2014, but that grade gets dragged down by the two drafts before that and the slow development of some of the players drafted since.

Tomlin’s best draft came in 2010. Pouncey has been a Pro Bowler every year that he’s been healthy and Brown was a great find in the sixth round. They also got one decent year out of second-rounder Jason Worilds and a 67-catch season from Sanders, who they took in the third round.

2007 was Tomlin’s best draft when it comes to rank-and-file starters. Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Matt Spaeth, Daniel Sepulveda and William Gay all spent most of their starting seasons with the Steelers. Since then, the Steelers have lagged a little in finding role players even while coming up with elite ones like Pouncey, Brown, Bell, Heyward and DeCastro.

The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. It’s been eight years since Tomlin’s best draft. That’s too long. This grade could rise with breakout seasons from players like Dupree, Davis and Burns. But for now, the Steelers get this grade for their drafts during the Tomlin Era:

B

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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