Staying competitive in the NFL over the long term requires that teams constantly refresh and improve their rosters. Players age, get hurt or retire every year. The only way to fight off this natural decay is to bring in new talent that, sooner or later, will be capable of stepping in and producing when asked to.
Some teams address this problem through free agency. The Denver Broncos, for example, went a surprising (and lucky) 8-8 and made the playoffs in 2011. During the offseason, the team made a significant upgrade at what it deemed to be one of its weakest positions. Gambling on Peyton Manning paid off, as the Broncos went 13-3 and earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Denver has rolled the dice again heading into the 2013 season, picking up high-profile slot receiver Wes Welker.
The advantage to this approach is obvious. The organization gets an experienced, NFL-tested veteran who can presumably step in and play immediately. There is no grooming period, no developmental stage.
The downsides, of course, are the higher cost and the resulting risk that comes from paying more for players. Recent NFL history is littered with examples of teams that overrated free agents and ended up with albatross-like contracts choking up their salary caps for the next few years.
This is one of many reasons why the Pittsburgh Steelers prefer to restock their roster through the draft. Though it obviously takes longer for many of their picks to be ready to contribute on the field, being wrong about a player who makes less than $1 million per year is not the type of mistake that relegates a team to the basement for a decade because it can’t afford better players.
Succeeding using the Steelers’ model requires two things from the team’s front office. First, its general manager and his staff must be ruthless about getting rid of players who have passed their prime. An aging player who has lost a step not only hurts the team in the present, he also takes away snaps that could be used to develop a future starter at his position.
If Pittsburgh’s approach to popular stars James Harrison and Hines Ward in the past two years is any indication, the organization remains as unsentimental as ever when it comes to axing its older veterans.
The model also depends on the front office’s ability to identify young talent that will be able to pick up the torch when the time comes. No matter how cheap rookies are under the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a team that errs enough times on its picks will find itself languishing at the bottom of its division for a while.
Troublingly for the team’s future, the Steelers have not done as well in this area of late. After a very good 2010 draft that produced five players who will either start or compete for a starting spot in 2013, the subsequent two classes have been better known for their propensity to get injured than for what they’ve done on the field.
As a result, Pittsburgh faces considerable pressure to get things right in this year’s draft, especially considering the team’s advanced age. According to Football Outsiders’ snap-weighted age metrics, which adjusts each club’s overall age based on how frequently players of different ages are on the field, the Steelers fielded the league’s fourth-oldest team in 2012. The problem was particularly acute on the defensive side of the ball, where Pittsburgh had the most senior unit in the NFL last year.
If the team hopes to return to the playoffs in 2013 and stay there as the decade progresses, it will have to come up with future starters at several key positions in the 2013 NFL draft.
With that in mind, the following slides lay out a blueprint for the draft that would help the Steelers address the short and long-term weaknesses in their roster. The proposed selection in each round was determined based on an analysis of both the urgency of Pittsburgh’s need at each spot on the field and the overall quality of the prospects at each position. More pressing needs are addressed in higher rounds. But if there are few quality players available at a position that is less of a priority, the Steelers will need to pick up one of them earlier in the draft.
For the purposes of this exercise, it is assumed that each prospect is available when the Steelers make their selection in the round in which the player is projected to go.