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.
Though most of NFLDRAFTSCOUT.com’s analysts have Pittsburgh picking Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore with its first pick, the Steelers’ most pressing need heading into the 2013 season is arguably at the wide receiver position. With Mike Wallace set to play in Miami in 2013, the team now has a hole at what was previously one of its strongest and deepest spots on the offensive side of the ball. And getting the offense back on track after a disappointing 2012 will require restocking quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s arsenal.
With Wallace gone, Antonio Brown will assuredly become Pittsburgh’s No. 1 wideout in 2013. If the season were starting today, the team would then split slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders wide and replace him inside with Jerricho Cotchery. The problem with this solution, though, is that the offense would be replacing one of the league’s best slot receivers with a fairly average one (subscription required).
Drafting a quality No. 2 wide receiver would allow the team to keep Sanders in the slot, where he is most effective. That prospect, however, would have to be ready to start almost from the beginning, and that means he probably has to be a first-round pick.
The crop of receivers in this year’s draft is pretty deep, so Pittsburgh has several good candidates for its first pick. The best option, though, is probably Clemson wideout DeAndre Hopkins.
The junior receiver has pretty much everything a team would want from a first-round draft choice. For starters, Hopkins has shown the full range of skills necessary to succeed as a wide receiver at the next level.
He can stretch defenses. Though he supposedly lacks elite speed, the wideout averaged 17.13 yards per catch, the 25th-highest rate in the country last year. He also turned 67.1 percent of his receptions into gains of 15 or more yards.
He is an effective possession receiver who can help a team march methodically down the field. On third downs with seven or more yards to go, Hopkins hauled in 14 passes (17.1 percent of his total receptions on the year). More importantly, he got his team a new set of downs with 84.6 percent of those catches. The seven first downs Hopkins picked up on third down with seven to nine yards to go were the third-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in 2012.
He excels in the red zone. Hopkins turned 87.5 percent of his catches inside the opposing 20-yard line into in touchdowns. The seven times the receiver scored in the red zone ranked eighth among FBS wideouts last year.
He saves his best for the toughest games. In a bowl game against a very stout LSU defense, Hopkins put up a staggering 13-catch, 191-yard performance.
Most importantly, he is consistent. Unlike many of his fellow draft prospects whose draft stocks are essentially based on one great year, Hopkins put together a body of work that indicates that his 2012 season was no fluke. As a freshman in 2010, Hopkins caught 56 passes for 626 yards and four touchdowns. He topped that the next year, going for 71 catches, 961 yards and five touchdowns, despite losing touches to superstar freshman wideout Sammy Watkins. As a result, a 2012 campaign in which he had 82 receptions and was fourth in the FBS with 1402 yards was not a complete shock.
With Brett Keisel starting to show his years a bit, Ziggy Hood ranking as one of the worst 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL in 2012 and Cameron Heyward unable to secure a bigger role thus far (subscription required), the Steelers have serious question marks on their defensive line heading into 2013. Though shoring up the defensive end spot is not quite as imperative as getting a starting receiver, the team does need to improve a unit that was no better than average at stopping the run and rushing the passer last year.
The crop of defensive ends coming into the 2013 draft has some players at the top end who look like legitimate NFL starters. Unfortunately, though, the quality drops off pretty quickly. By the third round, prospects are too inconsistent, too slow or too inexperienced to warrant a pick even that late in the draft.
Even the players likely to go in the second round are not without flaws. As a result, the Steelers may be looking at a gamble no matter where they pick. And if that’s the case, then the team should aim for the prospect with the biggest upside. Among defensive ends likely to go in the second round, that would be Margus Hunt from SMU.
A monster who only started playing football in 2009, Hunt is obviously a very raw talent. The Latvian’s size (6’8”, 277 lbs.) and athleticism (he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and was the first man to win gold medals in both the shot put and discus at the Junior World Championships) give hope that he can become a J.J. Watt-like disruptive force in the NFL. In his four years at SMU, Hunt blocked an astounding 17 kicks, tying him for the second-most in NCAA history.
But his game-to-game performance as a defensive end can only be described as up-and-down. After a freshman season in which he frequently (and understandably) looked confused, Hunt racked up 45 tackles as a sophomore and looked to be on an upward trajectory. Unfortunately, that turned out to be his best year in that category.
At the same time, however, he steadily increased the number of tackles for losses he recorded each year. In his senior year, he racked up 11.5, which put him in the top 100 among all FBS players in 2012.
So given this rawness and inconsistency, why does it make sense for the Steelers to take Hunt so early?
In addition to the aforementioned lack of depth in the 2013 crop of defensive ends, Pittsburgh also has the right environment for a player like Hunt to develop. First, he will not be required to play every down from the first day of training camp. Heyward was effective enough in limited action last year to merit more snaps this year in place of the disappointing Hood. And Keisel is still good enough to hold down the other side, giving the team time to groom Hunt to be his replacement down the road.
Second, that development process will be overseen by a group of experienced veteran mentors. Having the oldest snap-adjusted defense in the league means the team has a lot of accumulated wisdom and maturity. Being surrounded by that would be a great way for a raw talent like Hunt to learn the game.
The Steelers’ running backs were an unmitigated disaster in 2012. Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey combined to produce the seventh-fewest yards in the NFL last year. As a result, the team’s running game had the second-lowest Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) in the league. By Football Outsiders’ calculations, the Steelers’ rushing “attack” was 18.1 percent worse than a replacement-level ground game.
With Mendenhall rejoining Bruce Arians in Arizona, neither Redman nor Dwyer established as the No. 1 back and Rainey looking for work after an ugly off-the-field incident, Pittsburgh very much needs to acquire a feature back in the 2013 draft. Though the team’s strength on offense probably will continue to be the passing attack, it will need a credible running game to ease the pressure on Roethlisberger.
One of the best value picks at running back this year is Montee Ball of Wisconsin. Despite registering one of the most successful college careers of any running back in recent memory, Ball is projected to go in the 2013 NFL Draft: Running Back Rankings">third round of the 2013 draft. A slightly down year in 2012 seems to have erased from NFL scouts’ collective memories the 5,140 yards, 5.6 yards per carry and FBS-record 83 touchdowns he compiled in his career.
But was his performance last year really that bad? Only in comparison to a 2011 season in which he gained 1,923 yards, averaged 6.3 yards per rush and scored 33 rushing touchdowns. His stats in a “disappointing” 2012 campaign? 1,830 yards, 5.1 yards per carry and 22 touchdowns on the ground. A slight dip, to be sure, but the first and third figures were still good enough for third and sixth place, respectively, in the FBS. And the drop-off was not all that surprising considering the Badgers lost Russell Wilson and a slew of offensive linemen to the NFL before last season.
This drop in his draft stock is bad news for Ball, but it’s a boon for smart teams like the Steelers. Taking the former Badger in the third round would be a great way to get a deal on a player who produced consistently at a high level.
With two-time Super Bowl winner and potential Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger behind center, the Steelers should be set at the quarterback position for about the next half-decade. Even with the addition of local boy Bruce Gradkowski, however, the team is lacking depth and quality after its elite signal-caller. And as 2012 showed, the play of backup quarterbacks can make or break a season.
More importantly, even with the sort of stability at the starting quarterback spot that most teams would kill for, the Steelers do need to begin thinking about a long-term replacement for Big Ben. A prospect who could give them the solid backup they need in the short term and the potential starter they want in the long run is Landry Jones from Oklahoma. A likely fourth-round pick with first- or second-round abilities, Jones also offers great value for money.
Like Ball, Jones seems to be paying the price for producing at a high level with a numbing consistency. In his four-year career, the quarterback averaged more than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns per season. Though he completed 66.1 percent of his passes, threw for the second-most yards in the FBS and picked up first downs on nearly 40 percent of his pass attempts during his senior year, the quarterback’s draft stock has stagnated due to questions about his accuracy and ability to come through in the clutch.
Why scouts are worried, however, is not entirely clear. In his four-year career, the quarterback completed a respectable 63.6 percent of his passes, ranking him 14th all-time among Big 12 passers. Though the absolute quantity of his interceptions is on the high side, they were more a reflection of the sheer volume of his attempts (third-most in the FBS) than a tendency to misfire. At 1.98 percent, his interception rate was one of the lowest among quarterbacks likely to be drafted in April.
Jones displayed similar poise and efficiency when the Sooners needed him most. When Oklahoma trailed by 14 points or less, the senior quarterback completed a higher proportion of his passes (68.1 percent) and threw fewer interceptions per attempt (1.7 percent).
Getting a backup quarterback who takes care of the ball and plays better under pressure is always great. Getting one who has the potential to blossom into something more is even better. Getting one at fourth-round prices is an absolute steal.
The Steelers’ recent re-signing of Larry Foote comes as something of a surprise, considering Pro Football Focus ranked the aging inside linebacker as the eight-worst player at his position in 2012 (subscription required). However, the move was probably more an acknowledgement of the team’s lack of depth at that spot than a reflection of Foote’s talents. After superstar-in-the-making Lawrence Timmons and Foote, Pittsburgh has two second-year players (Sean Spence and Marshall McFadden) who have yet to log appreciable time on the field.
Though the Steelers have young potential replacements for Foote on the roster, they should still look at stocking up on prospects in the later rounds of the 2013. Fortunately, A.J. Klein, a very solid player out of Iowa State, should be available in the 2013 NFL Draft: Inside Linebacker Rankings" href="http://walterfootball.com/draft2013ILB.php">fifth round. If he falls to Pittsburgh, the club should not hesitate to scoop him up.
Klein probably doesn't have the physical tools of the prospects projected to go in the earlier rounds of the draft. His particular skills, though limited in some ways, do complement very well the talent that the Steelers already have at the linebacker position.
For example, he will probably never develop into a great pass-rusher. But given the pressure Timmons and LaMarr Woodley (last season notwithstanding) can generate, it is unlikely that Pittsburgh would need Klein to fill that role in the team’s defense.
What the team would need him to do is stop the run. Though the Steelers’ linebacking corps was generally good in this area last year, Foote was by far the weakest link. According to Pro Football Focus, the 11-year veteran was the seventh-worst against the run among inside linebackers who played in at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps. Worst still, his lowest rating from the site’s analysts came in this particular area (subscription required).
Klein, by contrast, excels at playing the run. Thanks to excellent instincts and positioning, the inside linebacker recorded 111, 117 and 117 tackles in his three years as a starter in Ames. His nine tackles per game ranked 48th among all defensive players in the FBS last year.
The Iowa State rookie would also improve the Steelers’ pass defense. There have been some concerns about Klein’s lack of speed and its impact on his ability to drop back in coverage. But a better-than-expected 40-yard dash time at the combine and an FBS-record four career interceptions returned for touchdowns should dispel concerns about his coverage skills. And given that Pro Football Focus ranked Foote as the 17th-worst pass defender among inside linebackers in 2012 (subscription required), Klein wouldn’t have to be great to be an upgrade.
Sad as it is to say, the Steelers probably need to start looking for a long-term replacement for star strong safety Troy Polamalu. Though the popular and iconic player is still among the best at his position when he’s on the field, keeping him healthy seems to be more of a challenge with every passing year.
Polamalu has played a full 16-game season only once in the past four years, and the Steelers defense clearly missed the safety in the nine games he missed due to a calf injury. Backup Will Allen was serviceable when filling in (subscription required), but at age 30, he is clearly not the answer for the Steelers after Polamalu decides to hang it up.
Fortunately, the 2013 crop of strong safeties is deep enough that Pittsburgh should be able to get a pretty good deal on a prospect in the later rounds. For example, Earl Wolff from North Carolina State has the skills and production of a second- or third-rounder, but will probably still be available in the sixth round. If he is, the Steelers should pick him up as a potential future project.
Like Klein, Wolff was a tackling machine in college. He took down 95 ball-carriers in 2010, 105 in 2011 and 119 in 2012. Those stats placed him 21st, 16th and fifth, respectively, among FBS defensive backs and ranked him among the top 100 defensive players in the college football’s premier division in each season.
More impressively, like Hopkins, Wolff saved his best performances for the biggest stages. In the first few months of the season the safety notched 7.9 tackles per game. As North Carolina’s games got tougher in the final two months of the year, he started tackling everything in sight and averaged 11.2 tackles per contest.
Will Wolff ever be a superstar like Polamalu? Probably not. But can he develop into a very productive and sound NFL strong safety? Possibly. Is it worth spending a sixth-round pick to see if he does blossom? Absolutely.
The seventh and last round of the draft is generally the point at which NFL teams roll the dice on long-shot prospects whose one or two good points slightly outweigh lots of flaws. For smart teams, it can also be a great time to pick up high-quality—but unknown—players from smaller schools. The Steelers, for example, could use their seventh-round pick to acquire Stefphon Jefferson, an unheralded workhorse running back out of Nevada.
Though drafting Ball should address most of Pittsburgh’s deficiencies at the running back position, the team was bad enough at that spot in 2012 that it could use some insurance in case Ball doesn’t work out. With that in mind, why not pick the guy who finished just ahead of the Badgers running back on the NFL leaderboard? Especially considering he’ll be around in the seventh round? Having a productive 5’11”, 213-pound back at that price would come in very handy.
Blessed with the size, speed (4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and patience of an every-down running back in the NFL, Jefferson showed in 2012 that he could play as well as any college player. The back finished second in the FBS with an astounding 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns.
More importantly, if the Steelers’ ownership does want to emphasize the running game going forward, Jefferson has shown that he has the endurance to grind down opposing defenses over the course of the game. The junior back rushed for six percent more yards per carry in in the last 30 minutes of the Wolfpack’s 2012 games than he did in the opening halves.
His endurance was also on display in the few situations in which the Wolfpack were winning by 15 or more points and needed Jefferson to close out the game. The back averaged 6.67 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns on only 12 carries in those situations.
Jefferson also displayed excellent power—a skill that Steelers running backs lacked last year. When running the ball on third down with less than three yards to go, the back picked up a first down 59.3 percent of the time.
Throw in Jefferson’s good health and reputation as a great locker room presence, and he makes an intriguing pick for a Steelers team looking for a hidden gem late in the draft.