Over the last few years, and unsurprisingly after Ras-I Dowling went on Injured Reserve and the Patriots lost two days later, several members of the media and a litany of Patriots fans have declared that Bill Belichick has become so horrible at drafting that he should be relieved of those particular duties, with some going so far to suggest that the Patriots should fire him and replace him with someone else.
But is that an accurate portrayal?
The list of so-called draft busts has been repeated so often, along with the 20-20 hindsight of ‘we could have had this guy’ that it’s a wonder this team ever wins a single game. But if it is as bad as so many are saying it is, why then is this team not alongside the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams in the won-loss column?
Could it be that it is not quite as bad as many are making it out to be?
Let me throw out a few numbers to you.
89% is the best, 50% second best, and 30% is the worst, right? In a vacuum yes, but it really depends on the context and the benchmarks in which they are being used. An NHL goalie that stops 89% of the shots he faces is going to find himself on the bench. An NFL quarterback who is completing 50% of his passes will be holding a clipboard and probably soon be out of the league. A baseball player that gets a base hit in 33% of his at bats is an all star and headed for a big payday.
As you can see, those numbers are meaningless in and of themselves unless we know the context in which they are being used and the benchmark they are being used against. I have yet to see a definitive objective study on how many players per year a team should expect to become solid contributors, starters, Pro Bowlers or elite possible future Hall of Famers per their annual allotment of seven draft picks. Yet despite the lack of this data and the accompanying barometer of what is a reasonable expectation everyone from Presque Isle to Pittsfield seems to be confident in declaring that there is no question that the Patriots’ recent drafts have been unsatisfactory. But how can so many reach any conclusion one way or the other without that information?
Now I am not going to take the time to assess the 2,560 players that have been drafted by 32 NFL teams over the last ten years, but I am willing to compare one team that many so often hold up as examples of who are allegedly far superior to the Patriots. Let’s start with Sunday’s victor, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Steelers hit on 1st round pick Santonio Holmes. Willie Colon is a three year starter on a much maligned offensive line; if he played in Foxboro fans would be calling for his ouster and labeling him as being made of glass after going on IR with torn triceps. Third round pick Anthony Smith has bounced around on five different teams and is most well known for being burnt by Tom Brady after guaranteeing a victory in 2007. Third round pick WR Willie Reid’s NFL career lasted two seasons, with a total of four receptions for 54 yards. 4th round pick DT Orien Harris never made it out of his first training camp in Pittsburgh and is now in the UFL. Four other players from that draft class never played a down in the NFL.
2007 was the arguably best draft of the last twenty years for the Steelers as they landed Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with their first two picks. In the third round they landed Matt Spaeth, a blocking tight end who was essentially a backup to Heath Miller that walked away as a free agent after four years. The Steelers then drafted punter Daniel Sepulveda, something that those who deride the drafting of kicker Stepehen Gostkowski should take note of. The Steelers used another 4th round pick on DT Ryan McBean, who made one appearance that year and was cut prior to the start of the 2008 season. McBean played one more game for the black and gold than the next pick, 5th round the OL Cameron Stephenson. With the next pick the Steelers did well, selecting DB William Gay, who has started all 72 games with Pittsburgh. There was also a 7th round pick that did nothing.
In 2008 the Steelers nabbed RB Rashard Mendenhall in the first round. Mendenhall has been a solid starter and is headed towards his third straight 1000-yard season, though he is another player that I feel Pats fans would want to run out of town if he played here due to injuries and fumbles. The next pick was WR Limas Sweed; as far as busts go he makes Chad Jackson look like a Pro Bowler. Then in the third round the steelers took LB Bruce Davis; he was inactive for all but five games and cut during training camp the following year. After spending that season on the Pats’ practice squad he bounced around with three other teams and was waived by the Raiders three weeks ago; he has a total of four tackles in his NFL career. In the 4th round the Steelers tabbed T Tony Hills, who played in four games over three years before he was cut. In the later rounds they added two backups still with the team and one that never made it out of training camp.
With their first pick the Steelers chose DE Ziggy Hood, who has started 17 games in three season. The next pick was T Kraig Urbik who was inactive for the last nine games of his rookie season and cut in the following training camp. Then in the third round there is Exhibit A of Pats fans perfect 20-20 hindsight, WR Mike Wallace – though you may want to question why Urbik was taken ahed of him if it’s so easy to draft players who will go on to be very productive. Another third round pick was backup DB Keenan Lewis, who was inactive for 19 games in his first two season. Two of the five other players from that draft are also still on the team as backups.
At this point we’re getting into drafts that are too recent to accurately evaluate, but i’ll plow ahead for argument’s sake. This draft does appear to be a very good one for the Steelers thus far, with six out of ten drafted players still on the team. Center Maurkice Pouncey was taken with the 18th overall pick and has started every game since he turned pro. Second round pick LB Jason Worilds is not a starter, but did contribute with 17 tackles last year. Third round pick WR Emmanuel Sanders had 28 receptions for 376 yards in his rookie season, and has 18 catches for 243 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half of 2011. Fourth round pick DE Thaddeus Gibson was cut during the 2010 season. Four of the six late round picks are still with the team as backups.
First round pick DL Cam Heyward has five tackles and a sack. Second round pick OL Marcus Gilbert has been starting. The five other picks are all still with the team as backups.
So overall this is where I have the Steelers from 2006 to 2010:
1st Round: Five for five – excellent
2nd Round: 1 elite player, 1 backup, 1 bust
3rd Round: 1 elite player, 1 other starter, a backup, a decent role player no longer on the team, and 4 busts
4th Round: the team’s punter, starter Willie Colon, and 4 busts
5th Round and beyond: DB William Gay, WR Antonio Brown, 7 backups and 12 player that never did anything
The Pittsburgh Steelers are in my opinion one of the most, if not the most well run organization in the entire NFL. They are applauded for their scouting and drafting abilities, and rightfully so. But is there really that much of a difference in the amount of production that have got out of their seven annual draft picks in comparison to the much maligned Patriots drafts – especially when you take into consideration that three draft picks were utilized for five years of Wes Welker and three years of Randy Moss?
By comparison here is what the Pats have gotten out of those drafts:
(7) solid starters, above average at their position: Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung, Stephan Gostkowski, Zoltan Mesko
(4) other starters, role players and backups still on team: Ron Brace, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, Taylor Price
(4) players who contributed while here but are no longer on team: Brandon Meriweather, Laurence Maroney, Jake Ingram, Jonathan Wilhite
(11) 1st to 4th round busts: never made as much impact with team as was expected or hoped for: Darius Butler, Brandon Tate, Tyrone McKenzie, Rich Ohrnberger, Terrance Wheatley, Shawn Crable, Kevin O’Connell, Kareem Bown, Chad Jackson, David Thomas, Garrett Mills
(4) good late round values: Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman, Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor
When I compare those two groups I would put the Steelers ahead, but it’s actually reasonably close. Quibble if you’d like about what category one or two players is placed in, but it’s not as if there is a stark difference.
So why is there so much consternation about the Pats’ draft? The first thing that comes to mind is that the grass is always greener on the other side. We notice LaMarr Woodley but completely forget about Limas Sweed when they are on an opposing team; when it’s our own we forget about Aaron Hernandez and Sebastian Vollmer and focus instead on Brandon Tate and Terrance Wheatley. Negativity and controversy create reactions; that’s what fuels sports talk radio, and to a lesser extent the rest of the sports media. Just look at how many people have something to say after a loss in comparison to a win whether it be on the radio, in the comments section to an article, or on a fan message board.
The other thing that fuels this thought process is that the Patriots philosophy is that since the draft is a very inexact science – the results above pretty much lay claim to that fact – the team believes more picks is better than fewer early picks. Though this can be frustrating to watch on draft day, ten straight years of double-digit wins does seem to back up this strategy. The flip side of that is that with more picks there will also obviously be more failures, and fans focus on that.
The total number of failures and the percentage of failed picks is irrelevant.
What’s important is the total number of hits, whether your strategy is to trade up, trade down, or stand pat. Obviously if you trade down you’ll have more misses, just as you will (or better) have fewer misses if you trade up. The bottom line is that the number of hits you get should be about the same – and in the case of the Patriots it is very close to that of the most elite organization in terms of scouting and player evaluation in the NFL.
Enough with this talk about how bad the Patriots draft. If that was the case they would have a won-loss record rivaling that of the current Rams, Dolphins or Colts.