A Bold Move

The Steelers' decision to trade out of round two of the NFL Draft and acquire more picks in round three will be critical in determining the front office's ability to replenish an aging roster over the next two years. Read on as Frank Tursic examines further.

A little more than a week and a half since the NFL draft, I thought it was important to re-examine a key draft decision made by Kevin Colbert and the coaching staff.

That decision –- to trade out of round 2 and acquire more picks in round 3 -- will be critical in determining the front office's ability to replenish an aging roster over the next two years.

In a draft lacking top tier talent, Pittsburgh's trade down with Denver netted the team additional 3rd round selections (79th and 84th) for their own 2nd and 4th round picks.

Armed with three 3rd round picks, the team was positioned to draft for value at clear positions of need. Talent was added at OL as well as addressing free agent loses at both WR and CB.

NFL teams still consider 3rd round prospects as premium picks with the ability to impact and become core starters, so it was important for the front office to draft as many players ranked in the top 100 as possible. Players like Brian Westbrook, Jason Witten, Lance Briggs and Justin Tuck were all 3rd round picks.

For Colbert, however, the third round has not been so kind. Of the nine 3rd round selections made under his watch from 2000 – 2008, only Max Starks remains as an every down starter. Chris Hope, the other starter, was lost to Tennessee via free agency.

The reasons for this lack of success are varied, but may be explained upon closer examination.

Year Player Draft Value Comments
2008 Bruce Davis Reach Disappointing - only dressed for 5 games. No stats.
2007 Matt Spaeth Minor Reach Disappointing - poor blocker and limited athlete.
2006 Anthony Smith Good Bust - lacked ability in space and maturity to excel.
2006 Willie Reid Reach Bust - 0 games started. A mystery.
2005 Trai Essex Major Reach Disappointing - versatile backup but not a starter.
2004 Max Starks Excellent Quality starter.
2002 Chris Hope Excellent Quality starter.
2000 Kendrick Clancy Excellent Bust - 4 games started in five years.
2000 Hank Poteat Good Bust - 0 games started. Too small, too slow.

Note: Reach defined as player drafted at least 1 round higher than projected value. Major reach at least 2 rounds. Good value defined as player taken where he was projected and excellent value defined as player taken at least 1 round after his projection. Data provided from NFL Draft Scout & Huddlereport.

Only two players have become quality NFL starters -- a success rate of 22%. The jury is still out on Bruce Davis and Matt Spaeth, but both have been disappointing in their own ways. Spaeth is serviceable, but is a liability as a blocker in 2-TE sets. If the Steelers had Brandon Pettigrew as highly rated as reported after the draft that tells you all you need to know about their confidence in Spaeth. Bruce Davis, meanwhile, must make major strides this year as reserve linebacker and ST contributor.

One other thing that stands out from the table is that almost all recent 3rd round selections have been overdrafted. Only Anthony Smith was drafted where he was valued. At the other end of the spectrum you have Trai Essex, who was a major reach.

When prospects were selected where they represented excellent value they have generally become quality NFL players. Clancy is the exception, and must be considered a bust for Pittsburgh, although he did go on to play for four more years starting 42 games for various teams.

With this in mind, we'll know refocus on this years 3rd round selections.

As mentioned, the value in this draft was found in rounds 3 and 4. By maneuvering to get three picks in round 3, Colbert was able to guarantee drafting quality players that met their positional needs. In total, 8 cornerbacks, 7 receivers, and 2 guards were selected in round 3 of this year's draft. The Steelers used their three picks to get Kraig Urbik (OG), Mike Wallace (WR), and Keenan Lewis (CB).

If there was an overall theme to this draft it was getting "bigger" in order to win the battle of attrition football, something that Mike Tomlin has espoused since he first arrived in Pittsburgh.

Kraig Urbik certainly fits the bill at 6-5 and 328lbs, and he has the best chance of any rookie to see significant playing time. He'll be given every chance to compete for a starting spot at RG and has the talent to beat out Darnell Stapleton.

In 2008, Pittsburgh ranked 24th and 32nd respectively in Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) on runs up middle/guard and right tackle according to FootballOutsiders. The team also ranked 24th on percentage of TD runs in goal line situations.

Selecting Urbik should upgrade this area tremendously. He's a tough guy, having started 45 consecutive games, and possesses decent short area mobility. Just don't expect him to lead any sweeps around tackle; it's not a part of his game. Urbik's selection is a little surprising considering the team attempted to trade up for Max Unger in the 2nd round. Unger is more of a finesse player that moves well in space. Players like T.J. Lang and Tyronne Green, who pulls quite well, should have warranted serious 3rd round consideration. Green's 10-yard time of 1.69 seconds was second only to Eric Wood's time (1.68) for all interior OL prospects.

At wide receiver Pittsburgh selected Mike Wallace from Mississippi. He's a size/speed guy who has the ability to stretch defenses vertically. He was drafted to replace Nate Washington, but brings extra value as a kick returner. This is an area which he should upgrade the team immediately as he should be the first viable kick return threat since the departure of Quincy Morgan.

While Wallace's athletic talent is undeniable, he's still considered raw as a receiver. In that respect, it is similar to when Willie Reid was drafted. With only 97 career catches in college the Steelers drafted Wallace ahead of players with much better college production. Both Juaquin Iglesias and Mike Thomas were more accomplished route runners with over 200 career catches, and both can be considered dynamic return men as well. Most rating services also had Wallace rated lower, making his selection a bit of an overdraft situation. It will be interesting to see how he fits into the mix since Limas Sweed was thought to be "that" guy as far as having the ability to stretch defenses vertically when he was drafted in round 2 last year.

Finally, at cornerback Pittsburgh selected Keenan Lewis. Lewis provides the Steelers with the ability to line up two large (+6 ft) corners on the field at the same time. He's another prospect that seemed to be drafted for his size rather than being the best schematic fit. Lewis is a cover corner who wasn't asked to play much zone coverage and doesn't appear to be a big tackler either. In 48 games started (GS), Lewis was credited with 117 tackles for an average of 2.4 tackles per game. In comparison, Asher Allen was credited with 141 tackles in 24 GS for an average of 5.9 tackles per game. Allen was available as a prospect in round 3.

In summary, Pittsburgh's previous success rate with 3rd round picks has not been the best. Compared to every other NFL team they certainly are not at the bottom, but the point is Colbert could do a better job in this area. Analyzing his previous picks it appears the team has reached for players in this round. Part of the problem could be taking players to fill areas of need rather than drafting for talent -- Matt Spaeth and Willie Reid come to mind, and part of the problem seems to be improperly assessing player value –- Trai Essex and Bruce Davis seem to fit this.

In this year's draft, the Steelers clearly drafted for need in order to add youth and talent at numerous positions. They addressed their top needs -- OL, DL, CB, and WR -- with their first four selections and maximized their value by concentrating their picks in round 3. Only Mike Wallace appears to be someone that was mildly over-drafted, so it appears that Colbert has reversed this recent trend.

While the team did draft for proper value, it does appear they drafted for physical size instead of being great schematic fits. This trend started with their 1st round pick, Ziggy Hood, and continued through the core of their draft in round 3. Hood was a guy viewed more as a 4-3 end, but he does have the ability to make a successful transition. Keep in mind that he's "light years away from playing," according to Coach Mitchell.

They then drafted Kraig Urbik, who's an obvious departure from the athletic pulling guards they've selected in the past, and followed it up by selecting a man-cover corner not noted for his aggressiveness or tackling ability. They also selected a receiver, who, it seems, will battle it out with Limas Sweed to be the team's vertical threat instead of drafting a guy to groom as Hines Ward's eventual replacement.

Would they have been better off drafting players like Juaquin Iglesias, Tyronne Green, and Asher Allen? Only time will tell, but those players were all available in round 3, and did represent good value as well as being very good fits for the team.

In the end, no one really knows how these prospects will pan out today; come back in three years and then I can provide a definitive answer. In the meantime, take comfort from the fact that Pittsburgh did draft to maximize value this year as well as selecting players that ultimately fit Tomlin's core beliefs and coaching philosophies.

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