Drafting quality over quantity

Between 1995 and 2002, no AFC North team used more draft picks per year on average than the Pittsburgh Steelers. They averaged 8.88 used draft picks per season, more than Cincinnati (7.13), Baltimore (7.43) and Cleveland (8.4). This, despite the fact that Cleveland and Baltimore received extra picks in their expansion seasons each round.

But there's more to the story. Used picks were emphasized earlier for a very specific reason. During that eight-year time frame, Pittsburgh stockpiled their picks and used them, as opposed to some of their AFC North counterparts, who aggressively traded many of their picks in order to move up in rounds to get "their man".

This begs the question: whose strategy proved most successful? What team brought on the most – and best – talent over that time?

First, a comparison of success by round for each team (pro-rated by years in existence during this time-frame) was established. Points were granted, by round, for each pick on a scale of 1-4; 4 being a pro bowler (Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, etc); 3 a solid starter (Chad Scott, Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, etc); 2 a career backup (Lee Mays, Jason Simmons, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala); 1 an injury loss (KiJana Carter); and 0 a player that never makes the roster (Jeremy Staat, Danny Farmer, Lavar Glover, etc.).

Of the four teams, they ranked this way in terms of round-by-round success:

Round 1:: Baltimore – 3.78 average, Cincinnati – 2.88 average, Pittsburgh – 2.75 average, Cleveland – 2.0 average

Round 2:: Baltimore – 2.4 average, Cincinnati –2.0 average, Pittsburgh – 2.0 average, Cleveland – 2.0 average

Round 3:: Baltimore – 2.3 average, Cincinnati – 2.3 average, Pittsburgh – 2.23 average, Cleveland – 2.0 average

Round 4:: Baltimore – 2.3 average, Cincinnati – 2.14 average, Cleveland - 2.5 average, Pittsburgh – 1.8 average

Round 5:: Baltimore – 1.43 average, Pittsburgh – 1.36 average, Cincinnati – 1.33 average, Cleveland – 1.17 average

Round 6:: Cincinnati – 1.71 average, Baltimore – 1.54 average, Cleveland – 1.0 average, Pittsburgh - .58 average

Round 7: Pittsburgh – 1.13 average, Cleveland - .86 average, Baltimore - .67 average, Cincinnati - .64 average

Breaking down the numbers:

Pittsburgh drafted pro-bowlers during this time at a 6% rate of all picks, compared to 14% for Baltimore, 9% for Cincinnati and 0% for Cleveland.

Pittsburgh drafted non-pro bowl starters during this time at a 25% rate of all picks, compared to 21% for Baltimore, 16% for Cincinnati and 17% for Cleveland.

Pittsburgh's picks failed to make the squad 37% of the time, compared to 26% for Cincinnati, 25% for Baltimore and 24% for Cleveland.

The remaining players were career backups – Cincinnati drafted these 49% of the time, Cleveland 59%, Baltimore 40% and Pittsburgh 32%.

Was Baltimore that good? Cincinnati? And was Pittsburgh that much worse?

Some of Baltimore's successes can be attributed to having high early-round picks. Yet, they hit high marks on those picks – rarely missing badly. From Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden to Jamal Lewis. At worst, players simply started unspectacularly (Travis Taylor, for example). And they often succeeded in scoring high marks even when they picked lower, after their Super Bowl victory (Todd Heap, for example).

Cincinnati scored with some solid selections in early rounds, where they drafted Chad Johnson, Corey Dillon, Takeo Spikes, Brian Simmons, and Justin Smith, though they had failures similar to Pittsburgh‘s with the likes of Akili Smith. They remained consistent though in getting some value from each round – something Pittsburgh struggled with in later rounds.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, missed with a number of high round picks, from Troy Edwards and Jamain Stephens to Staat in round two. So it's not just about who picked when. It's about how they treated their picks in total, and how well they selected.

Quantity versus quality:

Certainly, two different philosophies existed. Baltimore and to a lesser extent Cincinnati both believed that quality superceded quantity – that depth was less of a concern than attempting to draft higher-quality talent was. They often traded away picks to select what they felt were better talented players. Whereas Pittsburgh believed in stockpiling those picks to help add depth to their team – and that in quantity, you'd find that quality.

Yet, 37% of Pittsburgh's picks never made the roster. Compared to the mid-20's for Baltimore and Cincinnati, meaning that even though Pittsburgh kept more picks, they ultimately did not create value for Pittsburgh as they did not make the roster. Factoring in the pro-bowlers, the drafting of starters was about equal as a percentage.

Overall, what this adds up to is that while Pittsburgh drafted more players but kept no more on their roster in the end than did their Bengal and Raven rivals. Meaning they received no value for those picks.

Compare that to Baltimore and Cincinnati, and you'll see that all three teams came out about even in terms of drafted players that made their rosters, but Cincinnati and Baltimore got better players on average by using less of their picks, instead trading away some of them to move up in rounds in order to draft higher quality players that were much more likely to make the roster.

Present day

We've seen Pittsburgh adopt a less possessive attitude about their picks since Baltimore's Super Bowl win, perhaps moving to the quality versus quantity notion more. The signing of the more aggressive Colbert as the Director of Operations in 2000 signaled a bellwether change in the way the organization was addressing the draft and free agency. Since then, they began to use less picks and trade more frequently. Draft-day trades involving Colclough, Polamalu, Hampton, Bell, and then Santonio Holmes and Anthony Smith this year all show that, perhaps, Pittsburgh was watching Baltimore's success closely as well – realizing that perhaps, quality can't always be found in quantity.

The issue now is to get more out of the day two picks they retain – this team is aging in some critical areas – offensive line and linebacker specifically. And as they are not as aggressive in the free agency market as their AFC North counterparts and therefore can't fill in gaps in talent when picks fail, it's critical that they find talent this draft to step up and replace some of those aging players in those key roster areas. Some of this will need to be accomplished on day two – something they have had less success in doing in years past.

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