Steelers Ain’t Bad at Moving Up (and Down) Draft Board

I remain conflicted about who the Steelers should draft in the first round. This is not unusual. I do have it narrowed down to defensive back or offensive lineman, undoubtedly because those are the two positions where Pittsburgh annually needs help. And, hell, maybe even defensive line, depending on how the first 30 picks shake out.

In the last few weeks I have written on CB vs. OL, and why we should temper expectations for a Mike and Maurkice reunion should it happen. Now, after finally getting through all the NFL Network combine footage that had been taking up way too much room on my DVR, here’s a first pass at the Steelers’ early-round draft strategy.

1) Get an o-lineman in the first round. This has less to do with need than available talent. As I have written before, the Steelers can win with the current cast of characters, both in the secondary and lined up in front of Big Ben. So if the depth at safety and cornerback were top-heavy, I’d have little trouble suggesting the Steelers should go safety or cornerback early and sort out the offensive line with later picks.

As it stands, Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara will be long gone when Pittsburgh goes on the clock. Mike Mayock loves Jimmy Smith’s physical skills but his off-field issues will likely mean the Steelers won’t be interested. It’s not clear if Aaron Williams is a better safety than cornerback, and if you believe the predraft obfuscation, safety Rahim Moore is no longer a first-round pick. According to the National Football Post, “Moore didn’t time very well, and he turned off some teams in the interview room too,” although Mayock and Deion Sanders loved his combine workout.

There appear to be seven or eight offensive linemen who could be first-round selections. And six weeks out from the real thing, some mock drafts have Mike Pouncey falling to 31 (admittedly, that seemed like a stretch in Indy when everybody and his brother couldn’t talk about how much Mike blew them away both physically and in interviews). There’s also a chance tackle Derek Sherrod is around, or guard Danny Watkins.

Shutdown Corner’s Doug Farrar absolutely loves Sherrod (and unlike me, Doug really knows what he’s talking about), and Pouncey II or Watkins could be Day 1 starters. That would be less likely with the crop of DBs still available at the bottom of first round. Which leads me to this…

2) Get a defensive back in Rounds 2-3. Gretz wrote about it last week but the Steelers have drafted exactly one cornerback in the first round since 1996. That’s not to say they haven’t needed one for 14 straight drafts, it’s just that the whole best-player-available philosophy got in the way.

The second- and third-round results are mixed — Colclough redefined bust and B-Mac was adequate before he returned from his one-year stint on the frontier of Steelers West. Hank Poteat’s claim to fame is that he went to Pitt and Keenan Lewis’ claim to fame is that he knew Mike Wallace before the rest of us did. But good buddy Jim Wexell, speaking prior to the draft, and some insights about the Steelers’ draft strategy (via Behind the Steel Curtain).

So with corners, a lot has to do with size and speed at the Combine, so that’s a little caveat. Otherwise, there are like 17, 18 corners that get third- or fourth-round grades. So it’s a deep class. Not only do you have a guy like Patrick Peterson who could possibly become the first cornerback ever chosen at No. 1, it’s a deep crop. So I don’t know that they have to get one in the first round. I went through a little mini-mock….because Kevin Colbert had said on the first day that this draft is deep in corners, offensive tackles, and wide receivers, and we could mix and match and get one of at the bottom of each of the first three rounds. Mix and match. So I went into that thinking, mix and match, let’s get one of each. And I came away regretting getting a cornerback in the first round because there were so many good ones available in the third. And I wonder if the Steelers will be thinking that way.

Wex mentioned guys like Utah’s Brandon Burton (he has two scheduled meeting with the Steelers) and Virginia Tech’s Rashad Carmichael. And then there’s Rahim Moore. Pittsburgh just hired Carnell Lake as their new defensive backs coach Want to guess who Lake coached up at UCLA? Yep, Lake (and (Randy mentioned this last week in the comments).

Moore had 10 picks as a sophomore and Mayock referred to him as “a poor man’s Earl Thomas.” There are worse comparisons. (“Rich man’s Brent Alexander, for example.) And if he checks out with the Steelers, maybe he’s a possible second-round target, although Pittsburgh will probably have to trade up to get him.

3) Trade up if you think it’s absolutely worth it. A few Friday’s back I wrote about the expectations that would accompany Mike Pouncey to the Steelers a) should they want him and, b) if he isn’t drafted by another team first. In the comments, Easy Like Sunday Morning brought up the idea of trading up or down if the Steelers have their heart set on their notion of “best player available.”

I reflexively wrote in the post that, “In general, I’m opposed to trading up.” Although, after thinking about it for 10 seconds, I have no idea why.

ELSM’s comment ended with this: “I also like it when we trade up or down because it is a sign that BPA, our need, and the needs of teams around us have converged. Our success rate with such trades seems like it has been pretty good relative to expectations (eg, compared to our other picks and other teams’ pick success rates). A blog post reviewing our success rate on trading up and down would be interesting.”

Okay, let’s do this. A brief history of the Steelers’ draft-day trades and the subsequent consequences.

Steelers traded their first-round (No. 16) selection to the New York Jets for the Jets first- (No. 19), fourth- (No. 111) and sixth-round (No. 181) selections. New York selected Santana Moss, WR, Miami. Pittsburgh selected Casey Hampton, DT, Texas; Mathias Nkwenti, OT, Temple and Rodney Bailey, DE, Ohio State.

New England Patriots traded their second-round (No. 39) selection to Pittsburgh for the Steelers second- (No. 50) and fourth-round (No. 112) selections. Pittsburgh selected Kendrell Bell, LB, Georgia. New England traded No. 50 to Detroit (Dominic Raiola, C) and traded No. 112 to San Diego (Carlos Polk, LB). []

Using the trusty CarAV statistic created by the folks at Pro Football Reference (explained here), we can begin to compare how the players worked out for each team (Note: there’s a good chance I missed some trades, and misreported others. This is not intentional. Let me know in the comments and I’ll fix it):

Name		CarAV
Hampton		 66
Bell		 41
Nkwenti		  0
Bailey		  8

Moss	         66
Raiola		 44
Polk		  7

Based on CarAV, it’s a wash, 115-117. But the Steelers got what they wanted — a chubby guy to plug up the middle of the line — even if they whiffed on Nkwenti.

No trades. [ Day 1, Day 2]

Steelers get: No. 16 overall pick. Chiefs get: No. 27 overall and Pittsburgh’s third-round pick (No. 92) and sixth-round pick (No. 200). The fallout: Afraid USC’s Troy Polamalu wouldn’t last until its pick at No. 27, Pittsburgh moved up to get the hard-hitting safety. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were still able to land Penn State RB Larry Johnson as insurance for Priest Holmes, and selected DB Julian Battle wat No. 92. They later traded the sixth-round pick (No. 200, QB Brooks Bollinger). [ESPN]

Name		CarAV
Polamalu	 75

Johnson	         56
Battle		  2
Bollinger	  6

The Steelers gave up their 44th pick (Bob Sanders, S) and their 107th pick (Kendyll Pope, LB) to move up to 38 to get Colclough. [HSS]

Name		CarAV
Colclough	  3

Sanders	         32
Pope		  0

Yeah, that Bob Sanders guy might have fit in nicely in Pittsburgh.

* I couldn’t confirm, but I think the Steelers took Matt Kranchick (!) with the pick they got from St. Louis in the Troy Edwards trade. I didn’t include it above, but mention it here for completeness.

No trades. []

Steelers get: 25th pick in 2006 draft (selected WR Santonio Holmes).
Giants get: 32nd pick in 1st round (selected DE Mathias Kiwanuka), 32nd in the 3rd round (96th overall, Gerris Wilkinson MLB) and 32nd in the 4th round (129th overall, Guy Whimper DE).

Vikings get: 32nd pick in 2nd round (64th overall, selected QB Tarvaris Jackson).
Steelers get: 19th pick in third round (83rd overall, selected Anthony Smith) and 31st pick in third round (95th overall, selected Willie Reid)
. [ESPN]

Name		CarAV
Holmes		 38
Smith		 12
Reid		  1

Kiwanuka	 22
Wilkinson	  6
Whimper		  2
Jackson		 12

It’s interesting that the Steelers struck gold by trading up to get Holmes, but took a dump in the pool when they traded back for Smith and Reid.

Steelers, Packers swap fourth-rounders.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Acquire pick No. 112 (selected P Daniel Sepulveda).
Green Bay Packers: Acquire picks No. 119 (fourth round, Allen Barbre OT) and No. 192 (sixth round, Korey Hall LB).

Name		CarAV
Sepulveda	  0

Barbre		  7
Hall		 11

And I had such high hopes for ROBO-PUNTER.

The Pittsburgh Steelers trade their 2008 7th round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for kick/punt returner Allen Rossum. []

Name		CarAV
Rossum		  2*

Zinger		  1

* 2 was PFR’s approximate value for Rossum in 2007, his one year in Pittsburgh as a returner.

Pittsburgh trades a second-round pick (No. 64: Richard Quinn) and a fourth-round pick (No. 132: Seth Olsen) to Denver in exchange for two third-round picks (Nos. 79: Kraig Urbik and 84: Mike Wallace) []

Name		CarAV
Urbik		  0
Wallace		 18

Quinn		  3
Olsen		  0

Josh McDaniels, everybody!

Arizona Cardinals: Acquire pick No. 155 in 2010 (John Skelton, QB)
Pittsburgh Steelers: Acquire pick No. 195 in 2010 (Antonio Brown) and DB Bryant McFadden.


Name		CarAV
Brown		  2
McFadden	  8*

Skelton		  0

* 8 was PFR’s approximate value for B-Mac in 2010. (I was shocked, too.). Whatever, even Brown for Skelton straight up is a win for the Steelers.

So, the takeaway from all this? Like most things, the people making personnel decisions on the South Side have a pretty good grasp on what they’re doing. Which means that if there is a player they think is absolutely worth trading up (or back) for, they should probably do it.

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  • Anonymous

    “the Steelers have drafted exactly one cornerback in the first round since 1997″

    No. They drafted one IN 1997. Since 1997, none.

    Also, your comparisons are faulty in that the guys the other teams picked with the picks they got from the Steelers are not necessarily whom the Steelers would have picked. So it works as a plug-in number but is really meaningless.

    • ryan

      Fixed ‘since 1997′. Thanks.

      RE: faulty comparisons — well, no, it’s not faulty at all.

      I’m using a crude measure of player value (CarAV, which isn’t position specific) since anecdotally saying “I think Player A is better than Player B” is useless. I’m not suggesting the Steelers would have had any interest in the players other teams drafted, but I think it’s useful for the purposes of what I was looking at here: Pittsburgh’s success at trading up and down in the draft.

      Even if the Steelers weren’t in the market for, say, Bob Sanders, there is no scenario where drafting Ricardo Colclough makes sense. But in order to determine if something is good or bad generally requires comparing it to something else.

  • Gretz

    I still wonder what 2001 could have looked like had Kendrell Bell not been destroyed by injuries.

    • Anonymous

      You mean 2002? He was DROY in 2001.

      • Gretz

        By 2001 I meant the 2001 draft. He was a beast as a rookie, but then the injuries started.

    • Anonymous

      In any case, wasn’t the big knock on him was that he wasn’t bright enough to really fit in as more than one-dimensional?

  • Randy Steele

    I, too, have finally narrowed down whom I think the Steelers should pick in the first round: Someone who can play either offense or defense.


    Even if trading up is a possibility, I tend to think that we are going to stay put, and if we do so, I am more and more convinced that it will be a D-line player, Cameron Heyward would be great or Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State could be very interesting, as far as I have read. If this is a class as deep as it s projected on d-backs and o-line, I have no problem whatsoever bringing those positions on the second and third round. And yes, there is no way in hell tha Pouncey II makes it all the wat to the 31st and trading up for a GUARD, well, I just do not see it.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Ryan, not surprisingly, I liked this piece. Thanks for writing it. Having read your other time machine pieces, I also wonder if, when we traded back, we missed out on guys who were substantially better than our picks. With Hampton, Bell and Wallace, I’d guess the answer is no.