A lot of misconceptions about how the draft plays out behind the scenes circulate at this time of year.
The semi-consensus reached by draftniks on player grades and draft-round projections creates an impression that most teams are going off similar big boards, when nothing could be further from the truth.
His father Larry worked for the team from 2007-2009 as an offensive line coach, and Zierlein wrote a recent article examining the Steelers draft board philosophy based in part from information his father passed on to him.
The entire article can be found here, but I want to give more attention to a few key takeaways from the piece:
Mock drafts? You can keep them. The Steelers only care about the Steelers.
My Take: As Zierlein says in the article, the Steelers create a board based on a draft "where only the Steelers pick."
The Steelers' strong philosophy about avoiding character risks and institutional clarity about what matters in their offensive and defensive systems gives them the ability to rank players based on their value to the Steelers, as opposed to how the league views the players as a consensus.
Every team should operate this way, but I suspect more than a few don't.
I scratched players off the board who I felt didn't fit their scheme or who had character issues that might preclude the Steelers from looking at them.
My Take: This step in any team big board exercise is crucial. Teams do have minimum and maximum requirements for athleticism/size at positions and distinct views on tolerance for character concerns. This is where large variance between each team's board originates.
Zierlein then proceeds to take DE Quinton Coples, C Peter Konz, DT Jerel Worthy, DE Chandler Jones, CB Janoris Jenkins, LB Zach Brown, QB Brandon Weeden, CB Brandon Boykin, LB Lavonte David and DE/OLB Cam Johnson off of his version of the Steelers board.
Next, he "stacks" the board, which means to separate players out by positions and assign round-value grades to each player. Zierlein predicates the exercise with this caveat:
The reality is, however, that you would be blown away if you found out just how differently a team's draft board may look from what you are used to seeing on draft sites.
One team will have a second round grade on a player while another team has him as a "reject" and not even on their draft board because they don't think he can play.
My Take: If teams don't have this kind of break from conventional wisdom for some players, they are committing malpractice. Organizational philosophy and the work done by area scouts almost demands it.
The last step in the exercise is to create a Steelers big board "with no consideration for what other teams might do in the draft."
That is key. If a player is top 10 in the Steelers' eyes, but some teams may not even have him in the top 50 prospects, that does not skew this board.
Some of Zierlein's projections are fascinating, including Alabama LB Dont'a Hightower at No. 9, a player that is often mocked to the Steelers by draftniks in the know.
Alabama DT Josh Chapman is another player Zierlein has very high (No. 32) based on fit in the Steelers on and off-field system.
Even if you don't have a particular interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers draft outlook, reading Zierlein's work is a must for anyone that wants more insight into how NFL franchise prepare and execute their draft plans.