Pace wins the race in free agency

After losing out on Andy Lee, the Steelers are in the market for a punter. That's about as exciting as free agency gets in Pittsburgh. Ryan Wilson also ponders the first round of the NFL draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a week into free agency and so far they have tendered restricted free agent punter Andy Lee a contract that was later matched by his current team, the San Francisco 49ers. Woo-hoo!

Every off-season, some fans think that because other teams blow through cash like Pac-Man Jones at a Vegas strip club in an effort to build a Super Bowl contender, the Steelers are somehow worse off for taking am ore measure approach. And every regular season, those same teams with a roster full of high-priced, big-name free agents, inevitably fall on their faces.

Pace wins the race, as they say. In the last few years, Pittsburgh fans have been more accepting of this strategy that eschews overpriced soon-to-be has-beens in favor of signing one or two complementary players on the cheap, and building through the draft. If the first week of free agency is any indication, I don't expect things to change anytime soon.

I'll admit not knowing who Andy Lee was before the Steelers tendered him a contract. But at 24, he seemed worth the seven-year, roughly $7-million deal, especially since Chris Gardocki quit trying sometime around Week 8 of the 2005 season. With the team on the skids for most of last season, a part of me wonders if Gardocki was like, "You know what? This team isn't very good, I'm probably going to get cut because I make way too much for a guy who makes his living as a glorified kickball player. I might as well make sure I end my career without ever having a punt blocked. If that means the occasional 15-yard kick, well, so be it. Ray Guy can't even say that."

Anyway, losing Lee means Pittsburgh can draft a punter next month. I was pimping Baylor's Daniel Sepulveda late last season and I still think he should get serious consideration. And I would be fine if the Steelers used a fourth-round pick on him. (If you think that is too high, just look at some of the recent Steelers' fourth-rounders.) Plus, special teams, in general, are undervalued, and maybe no position is more undervalued on special teams than the punter. Last year, the Ravens and Seahawks both drafted punters and both were among the best in the league (and better than Lee ... and, obviously, Gardocki). Baltimore's Sam Koch was a sixth-rounder and Seattle's Ryan Plackemeier went a round later. Before you conclude that an early Day 2 pick might be too early for a punter, consider the Kansas City Chiefs: they drafted Dustin Colquitt near the end of the third round of the 2005 draft and he was the NFL's second-best punter behind Buffalo's Brian Moorman.

Obviously, there are no by-the-book guidelines when it comes to drafting punters -- Moorman, after all, was signed as an undrafted free agent -- and I'm not married to the idea that Pittsburgh has to find Gardocki's replacement in the fourth round. I just don't want the 2007 Steelers special teams to be an encore presentation of the 2006 unit because the club waited one round too long to find a player who can kick the ball more than 20 yards in the air. But enough about punters...

*******
I have mentioned before that most of my player-personnel knowledge leading up to the draft is courtesy of Mike Mayock, Jim Wexell and Rob Rang. I don't watch a lot of college football, and I spend March and most of April playing catch-up. Still, this doesn't preclude me from having some draft-day rules of thumb -- theories about how teams should make player-personnel decisions, especially in the first round. (Keep in mind, these aren't laws, they are rules of thumb; suggestions based on a little data analysis.) Anyway, to the theories...

1) Teams should avoid drafting running backs in the first round. Obviously, the later you get in the first round, the more flexibility there is with this rule of thumb. But it makes very little sense to invest a top-15 pick in a back when similar production can be found at a fraction of the value later in the draft. Anecdotes aren't analysis, and one of my off-season projects is to revisit this issue. In the meantime, here is one of my favorite anecdotes for why teams should avoid first-round running backs:

Early in the 2004 off-season, there was speculation the Steelers might be in the replacing-the-Bus business, after Jerome Bettis started the 2003 season on the bench behind, ahem, Amos Zereoue, and the team stumbled to a 6-10 record thanks, in part, to the league's worst running game. In March, the talk was about Kevin Jones and Steven Jackson, two running backs guaranteed to go in the first round. Luckily, Ben Roethlisberger landed in Pittsburgh's lap, and we know the rest. A few days after the draft, the Steelers signed undrafted free agent Willie Parker. Jackson and Jones were first-rounders, though neither was selected before the 24th-overall pick. Here's a look each player's production since 2004 (remember, DPAR measures a player's total value and DVOA measure a player's value per play):

DPAR         2004    2005    2006  

Jackson      18.4     7.3    36.3 

Jones        16.8     5.6    -5.7 

Parker        5.9    14.5    21.6 


DVOA         2004    2005    2006  

Jackson     15.5%   -8.0%   10.2% 

Jones        2.8%   -6.9%  -22.3% 

Parker      34.4%    0.2%    1.1% 


Rush yds     2004    2005    2006 

Jackson       673    1038    1528 

Jones        1138     664     688 

Parker        186    1206    1495 


TDs          2004    2005    2006 

Jackson         4       8      13 

Jones           5       5       6 

Parker          0       4      13
I understand these numbers don't prove anything; nor they suggest teams absolutely, under no circumstances, should ever draft a running back in the first round. But it does show that comparable first-round production can be found on the cheap. And it doesn't get any cheaper than an undrafted free agent. Now, there are hundreds of counterexamples of second- and third-day afterthoughts who don't make it out of training camp. I'm not recommending teams shouldn't draft a running back no earlier than the fourth round; but as the most fungible position on the roster, it's much easier to replace a 1,000-yard rusher than it is to replace, for example, the left tackle blocking for that 1,000-yard rusher.

I know the Steelers probably won't draft a running back with the 15th-overall pick, and I would be perfectly happy if they stocked the position a round later -- assuming, of course, the team doesn't take my advice -- but I'm just going on the record in case something crazy happens between now and when Pittsburgh goes on the clock.

2) Tall wide receivers are overrated. I can't write that loud enough. Everybody falls in love with a guy because he's 6'4" and can run really fast in a straight line. But save Randy Moss, since 2000, no one taller than 6'1" has ranked in the top-20 in DVOA for at least two seasons.

(That means every wideout standing 6'1" or taller -- again, other than Moss -- has only finished in the top-20 on a value-per-play basis no more than once. And more likely, never.)

Torry Holt, maybe the best wide receiver nobody talks about, is 6'1" and has ranked in the top-20 in DVOA every year of his career but one. Keenan McCardell, also 6'1", has done it three times, and he's almost 50. Hines Ward and Reggie Wayne -- both listed at 6'0" -- pulled off a top-20 ranking three times; Derrick Mason (5'11") and Troy Brown (5'10"), four times each; and Santana Moss (5'9") three times.

Taking it a step further, using correlation coefficients gives us the following results (for non-stats geeks, the correlation coefficient refers to the relationship between two or more variables; the range of possible correlations is between -1 and +1. A result of -1 means a perfect negative correlation, +1 means a perfect positive correlation, and 0 means no correlation at all.):

Relationship between WR height and:

DPAR value: 0.056

DVOA value: 0.063

Receiving yards: 0.064

TD receptions: 0.077

Catch %: 0.063

The correlation coefficients for each of these variables suggest there is no relationship between a wide receiver's height and his NFL production. Nada. Remember, correlation doesn't equal causation, but these stats offer a pretty convincing argument for not drafting, oh, I don't know, somebody like, say, Dwayne Jarrett. You know, just in case you were of that opinion. It's worth noting that I have only taken a cursory look at the data -- closer inspection might reveal some other nuggets (which I will happily pass along to you), but I don't suspect it will in any way affect the outcome above.


Steel City Insider Top Stories

\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nThe Pittsburgh Steelers are a week into free agency and so far they have tendered restricted free agent punter Andy Lee a contract that was later matched by his current team, the San Francisco 49ers. Woo-hoo! \r\n\r\n

Every off-season, some fans think that because other teams blow through cash like Pac-Man Jones at a Vegas strip club in an effort to build a Super Bowl contender, the Steelers are somehow worse off for taking am ore measure approach. And every regular season, those same teams with a roster full of high-priced, big-name free agents, inevitably fall on their faces. \r\n\r\n

Pace wins the race, as they say. In the last few years, Pittsburgh fans have been more accepting of this strategy that eschews overpriced soon-to-be has-beens in favor of signing one or two complementary players on the cheap, and building through the draft. If the first week of free agency is any indication, I don't expect things to change anytime soon. \r\n\r\n

I'll admit not knowing who Andy Lee was before the Steelers tendered him a contract. But at 24, he seemed worth the seven-year, roughly $7-million deal, especially since Chris Gardocki quit trying sometime around Week 8 of the 2005 season. With the team on the skids for most of last season, a part of me wonders if Gardocki was like, \"You know what? This team isn't very good, I'm probably going to get cut because I make way too much for a guy who makes his living as a glorified kickball player. I might as well make sure I end my career without ever having a punt blocked. If that means the occasional 15-yard kick, well, so be it. Ray Guy can't even say that.\" \r\n\r\n

Anyway, losing Lee means Pittsburgh can draft a punter next month. I was pimping Baylor's Daniel Sepulveda late last season and I still think he should get serious consideration. And I would be fine if the Steelers used a fourth-round pick on him. (If you think that is too high, just look at some of the recent Steelers' fourth-rounders.) Plus, special teams, in general, are undervalued, and maybe no position is more undervalued on special teams than the punter. Last year, the Ravens and Seahawks both drafted punters and both were among the best in the league (and better than Lee ... and, obviously, Gardocki). Baltimore's Sam Koch was a sixth-rounder and Seattle's Ryan Plackemeier went a round later. Before you conclude that an early Day 2 pick might be too early for a punter, consider the Kansas City Chiefs: they drafted Dustin Colquitt near the end of the third round of the 2005 draft and he was the NFL's second-best punter behind Buffalo's Brian Moorman. \r\n\r\n

Obviously, there are no by-the-book guidelines when it comes to drafting punters -- Moorman, after all, was signed as an undrafted free agent -- and I'm not married to the idea that Pittsburgh has to find Gardocki's replacement in the fourth round. I just don't want the 2007 Steelers special teams to be an encore presentation of the 2006 unit because the club waited one round too long to find a player who can kick the ball more than 20 yards in the air. But enough about punters... \r\n\r\n

*******
\r\n\r\nI have mentioned before that most of my player-personnel knowledge leading up to the draft is courtesy of Mike Mayock, Jim Wexell and Rob Rang. I don't watch a lot of college football, and I spend March and most of April playing catch-up. Still, this doesn't preclude me from having some draft-day rules of thumb -- theories about how teams should make player-personnel decisions, especially in the first round. (Keep in mind, these aren't laws, they are rules of thumb; suggestions based on a little data analysis.) Anyway, to the theories... \r\n\r\n

1) Teams should avoid drafting running backs in the first round. Obviously, the later you get in the first round, the more flexibility there is with this rule of thumb. But it makes very little sense to invest a top-15 pick in a back when similar production can be found at a fraction of the value later in the draft. Anecdotes aren't analysis, and one of my off-season projects is to revisit this issue. In the meantime, here is one of my favorite anecdotes for why teams should avoid first-round running backs: \r\n\r\n

Early in the 2004 off-season, there was speculation the Steelers might be in the replacing-the-Bus business, after Jerome Bettis started the 2003 season on the bench behind, ahem, Amos Zereoue, and the team stumbled to a 6-10 record thanks, in part, to the league's worst running game. In March, the talk was about Kevin Jones and Steven Jackson, two running backs guaranteed to go in the first round. Luckily, Ben Roethlisberger landed in Pittsburgh's lap, and we know the rest. A few days after the draft, the Steelers signed undrafted free agent Willie Parker. Jackson and Jones were first-rounders, though neither was selected before the 24th-overall pick. Here's a look each player's production since 2004 (remember, DPAR measures a player's total value and DVOA measure a player's value per play): \r\n\r\n

DPAR         2004    2005    2006  \r\n\r\nJackson      18.4     7.3    36.3 \r\n\r\nJones        16.8     5.6    -5.7 \r\n\r\nParker        5.9    14.5    21.6 \r\n\r\n\r\nDVOA         2004    2005    2006  \r\n\r\nJackson     15.5%   -8.0%   10.2% \r\n\r\nJones        2.8%   -6.9%  -22.3% \r\n\r\nParker      34.4%    0.2%    1.1% \r\n\r\n\r\nRush yds     2004    2005    2006 \r\n\r\nJackson       673    1038    1528 \r\n\r\nJones        1138     664     688 \r\n\r\nParker        186    1206    1495 \r\n\r\n\r\nTDs          2004    2005    2006 \r\n\r\nJackson         4       8      13 \r\n\r\nJones           5       5       6 \r\n\r\nParker          0       4      13
I understand these numbers don't prove anything; nor they suggest teams absolutely, under no circumstances, should ever draft a running back in the first round. But it does show that comparable first-round production can be found on the cheap. And it doesn't get any cheaper than an undrafted free agent. Now, there are hundreds of counterexamples of second- and third-day afterthoughts who don't make it out of training camp. I'm not recommending teams shouldn't draft a running back no earlier than the fourth round; but as the most fungible position on the roster, it's much easier to replace a 1,000-yard rusher than it is to replace, for example, the left tackle blocking for that 1,000-yard rusher. \r\n\r\n

I know the Steelers probably won't draft a running back with the 15th-overall pick, and I would be perfectly happy if they stocked the position a round later -- assuming, of course, the team doesn't take my advice -- but I'm just going on the record in case something crazy happens between now and when Pittsburgh goes on the clock. \r\n\r\n

\r\n\r\n2) Tall wide receivers are overrated. I can't write that loud enough. Everybody falls in love with a guy because he's 6'4\" and can run really fast in a straight line. But save Randy Moss, since 2000, no one taller than 6'1\" has ranked in the top-20 in DVOA for at least two seasons. \r\n\r\n

(That means every wideout standing 6'1\" or taller -- again, other than Moss -- has only finished in the top-20 on a value-per-play basis no more than once. And more likely, never.) \r\n\r\n

Torry Holt, maybe the best wide receiver nobody talks about, is 6'1\" and has ranked in the top-20 in DVOA every year of his career but one. Keenan McCardell, also 6'1\", has done it three times, and he's almost 50. Hines Ward and Reggie Wayne -- both listed at 6'0\" -- pulled off a top-20 ranking three times; Derrick Mason (5'11\") and Troy Brown (5'10\"), four times each; and Santana Moss (5'9\") three times. \r\n\r\n

Taking it a step further, using correlation coefficients gives us the following results (for non-stats geeks, the correlation coefficient refers to the relationship between two or more variables; the range of possible correlations is between -1 and +1. A result of -1 means a perfect negative correlation, +1 means a perfect positive correlation, and 0 means no correlation at all.): \r\n\r\n

Relationship between WR height and: \r\n

\r\nDPAR value: 0.056 \r\n

\r\nDVOA value: 0.063 \r\n

\r\nReceiving yards: 0.064 \r\n

\r\nTD receptions: 0.077 \r\n

\r\nCatch %: 0.063 \r\n\r\n

The correlation coefficients for each of these variables suggest there is no relationship between a wide receiver's height and his NFL production. Nada. Remember, correlation doesn't equal causation, but these stats offer a pretty convincing argument for not drafting, oh, I don't know, somebody like, say, Dwayne Jarrett. You know, just in case you were of that opinion. It's worth noting that I have only taken a cursory look at the data -- closer inspection might reveal some other nuggets (which I will happily pass along to you), but I don't suspect it will in any way affect the outcome above.\r\n","mobileBody":" \r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nThe Pittsburgh Steelers are a week into free agency and so far they have tendered restricted free agent punter Andy Lee a contract that was later matched by his current team, the San Francisco 49ers. Woo-hoo! \r\n\r\n

Every off-season, some fans think that because other teams blow through cash like Pac-Man Jones at a Vegas strip club in an effort to build a Super Bowl contender, the Steelers are somehow worse off for taking am ore measure approach. And every regular season, those same teams with a roster full of high-priced, big-name free agents, inevitably fall on their faces. \r\n\r\n

Pace wins the race, as they say. In the last few years, Pittsburgh fans have been more accepting of this strategy that eschews overpriced soon-to-be has-beens in favor of signing one or two complementary players on the cheap, and building through the draft. If the first week of free agency is any indication, I don't expect things to change anytime soon. \r\n\r\n

I'll admit not knowing who Andy Lee was before the Steelers tendered him a contract. But at 24, he seemed worth the seven-year, roughly $7-million deal, especially since Chris Gardocki quit trying sometime around Week 8 of the 2005 season. With the team on the skids for most of last season, a part of me wonders if Gardocki was like, \"You know what? This team isn't very good, I'm probably going to get cut because I make way too much for a guy who makes his living as a glorified kickball player. I might as well make sure I end my career without ever having a punt blocked. If that means the occasional 15-yard kick, well, so be it. Ray Guy can't even say that.\" \r\n\r\n

Anyway, losing Lee means Pittsburgh can draft a punter next month. I was pimping Baylor's Daniel Sepulveda late last season and I still think he should get serious consideration. And I would be fine if the Steelers used a fourth-round pick on him. (If you think that is too high, just look at some of the recent Steelers' fourth-rounders.) Plus, special teams, in general, are undervalued, and maybe no position is more undervalued on special teams than the punter. Last year, the Ravens and Seahawks both drafted punters and both were among the best in the league (and better than Lee ... and, obviously, Gardocki). Baltimore's Sam Koch was a sixth-rounder and Seattle's Ryan Plackemeier went a round later. Before you conclude that an early Day 2 pick might be too early for a punter, consider the Kansas City Chiefs: they drafted Dustin Colquitt near the end of the third round of the 2005 draft and he was the NFL's second-best punter behind Buffalo's Brian Moorman. \r\n\r\n

Obviously, there are no by-the-book guidelines when it comes to drafting punters -- Moorman, after all, was signed as an undrafted free agent -- and I'm not married to the idea that Pittsburgh has to find Gardocki's replacement in the fourth round. I just don't want the 2007 Steelers special teams to be an encore presentation of the 2006 unit because the club waited one round too long to find a player who can kick the ball more than 20 yards in the air. But enough about punters... \r\n\r\n

*******
\r\n\r\nI have mentioned before that most of my player-personnel knowledge leading up to the draft is courtesy of Mike Mayock, Jim Wexell and Rob Rang. I don't watch a lot of college football, and I spend March and most of April playing catch-up. Still, this doesn't preclude me from having some draft-day rules of thumb -- theories about how teams should make player-personnel decisions, especially in the first round. (Keep in mind, these aren't laws, they are rules of thumb; suggestions based on a little data analysis.) Anyway, to the theories... \r\n\r\n

1) Teams should avoid drafting running backs in the first round. Obviously, the later you get in the first round, the more flexibility there is with this rule of thumb. But it makes very little sense to invest a top-15 pick in a back when similar production can be found at a fraction of the value later in the draft. Anecdotes aren't analysis, and one of my off-season projects is to revisit this issue. In the meantime, here is one of my favorite anecdotes for why teams should avoid first-round running backs: \r\n\r\n

Early in the 2004 off-season, there was speculation the Steelers might be in the replacing-the-Bus business, after Jerome Bettis started the 2003 season on the bench behind, ahem, Amos Zereoue, and the team stumbled to a 6-10 record thanks, in part, to the league's worst running game. In March, the talk was about Kevin Jones and Steven Jackson, two running backs guaranteed to go in the first round. Luckily, Ben Roethlisberger landed in Pittsburgh's lap, and we know the rest. A few days after the draft, the Steelers signed undrafted free agent Willie Parker. Jackson and Jones were first-rounders, though neither was selected before the 24th-overall pick. Here's a look each player's production since 2004 (remember, DPAR measures a player's total value and DVOA measure a player's value per play): \r\n\r\n

DPAR         2004    2005    2006  \r\n\r\nJackson      18.4     7.3    36.3 \r\n\r\nJones        16.8     5.6    -5.7 \r\n\r\nParker        5.9    14.5    21.6 \r\n\r\n\r\nDVOA         2004    2005    2006  \r\n\r\nJackson     15.5%   -8.0%   10.2% \r\n\r\nJones        2.8%   -6.9%  -22.3% \r\n\r\nParker      34.4%    0.2%    1.1% \r\n\r\n\r\nRush yds     2004    2005    2006 \r\n\r\nJackson       673    1038    1528 \r\n\r\nJones        1138     664     688 \r\n\r\nParker        186    1206    1495 \r\n\r\n\r\nTDs          2004    2005    2006 \r\n\r\nJackson         4       8      13 \r\n\r\nJones           5       5       6 \r\n\r\nParker          0       4      13
I understand these numbers don't prove anything; nor they suggest teams absolutely, under no circumstances, should ever draft a running back in the first round. But it does show that comparable first-round production can be found on the cheap. And it doesn't get any cheaper than an undrafted free agent. Now, there are hundreds of counterexamples of second- and third-day afterthoughts who don't make it out of training camp. I'm not recommending teams shouldn't draft a running back no earlier than the fourth round; but as the most fungible position on the roster, it's much easier to replace a 1,000-yard rusher than it is to replace, for example, the left tackle blocking for that 1,000-yard rusher. \r\n\r\n

I know the Steelers probably won't draft a running back with the 15th-overall pick, and I would be perfectly happy if they stocked the position a round later -- assuming, of course, the team doesn't take my advice -- but I'm just going on the record in case something crazy happens between now and when Pittsburgh goes on the clock. \r\n\r\n

\r\n\r\n2) Tall wide receivers are overrated. I can't write that loud enough. Everybody falls in love with a guy because he's 6'4\" and can run really fast in a straight line. But save Randy Moss, since 2000, no one taller than 6'1\" has ranked in the top-20 in DVOA for at least two seasons. \r\n\r\n

(That means every wideout standing 6'1\" or taller -- again, other than Moss -- has only finished in the top-20 on a value-per-play basis no more than once. And more likely, never.) \r\n\r\n

Torry Holt, maybe the best wide receiver nobody talks about, is 6'1\" and has ranked in the top-20 in DVOA every year of his career but one. Keenan McCardell, also 6'1\", has done it three times, and he's almost 50. Hines Ward and Reggie Wayne -- both listed at 6'0\" -- pulled off a top-20 ranking three times; Derrick Mason (5'11\") and Troy Brown (5'10\"), four times each; and Santana Moss (5'9\") three times. \r\n\r\n

Taking it a step further, using correlation coefficients gives us the following results (for non-stats geeks, the correlation coefficient refers to the relationship between two or more variables; the range of possible correlations is between -1 and +1. A result of -1 means a perfect negative correlation, +1 means a perfect positive correlation, and 0 means no correlation at all.): \r\n\r\n

Relationship between WR height and: \r\n

\r\nDPAR value: 0.056 \r\n

\r\nDVOA value: 0.063 \r\n

\r\nReceiving yards: 0.064 \r\n

\r\nTD receptions: 0.077 \r\n

\r\nCatch %: 0.063 \r\n\r\n

The correlation coefficients for each of these variables suggest there is no relationship between a wide receiver's height and his NFL production. Nada. Remember, correlation doesn't equal causation, but these stats offer a pretty convincing argument for not drafting, oh, I don't know, somebody like, say, Dwayne Jarrett. You know, just in case you were of that opinion. It's worth noting that I have only taken a cursory look at the data -- closer inspection might reveal some other nuggets (which I will happily pass along to you), but I don't suspect it will in any way affect the outcome above.\r\n","skipOnMobile":true,"skipOnMobileReason":"Unsupported Markup","unsupportedMarkup":"body","media":[],"dateOverride":"2007-03-11T06:45:00","authorOverride":"Ryan Wilson","role":"SteelCityInsider.com","isPremium":true,"isHotNews":false,"isRumor":false,"syndicationFlag":true,"isClassified":true,"hotNamesLinked":true,"storyImage":"[MEDIA:349012]","mainImage":{"url":"[MEDIA:349012]"},"thumbnailImage":"[THUMBNAIL:388679]","heroImage":{},"authorImage":"","tags":[{"id":"182","name":"Pittsburgh Steelers"},{"id":"Free Agency","name":"Free 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