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What position(s) should be the Steelers highest priorities in the draft?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Colbert Record: Revisiting the 2007 Draft

Steel Curtain Rising was launched in January 2008 and as such its inaugural edition of The Colbert Record didn’t have a very useful perspective for breaking down the 2007 draft, which was the first time Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin drafted together.

Time has given ample perspective both for analyzing the Steelers 2007 Draft and reviewing what little was said here about it.

What Was Said in 2008 about 2007…

The first thing that jumps out (aside from the typos) from my initial analysis of the 2007 draft was that only four players merited mention in April of 2008, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Matt Spaeth, and Daniel Sepulveda.

Here’s a sampling:
Sepulveda has shown he has to (sic) tools, now he needs to be consistent 
Third round pick Matt Speath hasn’t done much more than catch touch downs (sic).
LaMarr Woodley recorded four sacks in limited playing time and added two more during the payoffs – so we know why the Steelers let Clark Haggans go.
No mention of William Gay at this point, nor the other members Steelers 2007 Draft who were still on the roster at that point.

2007, Then and Now

Those other members on the roster never got much mention for a reason. Later that spring, Mike Tomlin reported that wide out Dallas Baker had looked good in OTA’s but cautioned against reaching conclusions on “Football in shorts.”

Defensive lineman Ryan McBean also held a roster spot at that point, but he, like Baker, was cut in training camp. McBean sat out training camp, but latched on with and started in Denver in 2009, played in 2010-2011 as a backup there, and finished with Baltimore in 2012.
  • The Steelers may have been starved for defensive lineman, but McBean clearly wasn’t the answer.
Of greater interest of course are the ones who stayed. Mark Kabloy of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review spoke with former Eagles, Browns, and Ravens scout and current NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah who fixed the goal of finding three starters in every draft. That’s an imperfect and imprecise metric, but one that is serviceable.
  • Judging purely by that quantitative measure, 2007 was a success for the Steelers.
LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons emerged as a full time starter and William Gay has developed into a starter if not quite a full time one, having started 48 of the 96 games he’s played in Pittsburgh. Strictly speaking, Spaeth too counts as a “starter” as he is listed as having started 41 of 64 games in Pittsburgh.
  • So using Daniel Jeremiah’s formula (which was also Art Rooney Jr.'s) the numbers say the Steelers 2007 draft was a success.
But if numbers don’t lie, they also sometimes fail to tell the full story.

Steelers 2007 Draft, Beyond the Numbers

Lawrence Timmons – Did not end up unseating either Larry Foote or James Farrior in 2008, although he did get a lot of playing time and looked to be a star in the making.

He started in 2009 and was shaky, but followed with a very underrated role on a strong 2010 Steelers defense. Yet, in 2011 Timmons played poorly only to bounce back in 2012 where he was the defenses best and most consistent player. Timmons wasn’t as strong in 2013, but he also had to compensate for the huge drop off in Vince Williams.
  • Overall, Timmons has lived up to his first round status, if unevenly at times.
LaMarr Woodley – Woodley stromed into the starting spot in 2008 and didn’t look back until his hamstrings gave out vs. New England in 2011. As Tony Defeo of Behind the Steel Curtain observed, Woodley amassed sacks during that period faster than any other defender in Steelers history. Yes, Woodley’s tenure ended in disappointment, but those disappointments came with his second contract.
  • From a pure draft evaluation stand point, Woodley was an excellent pick.
Mike Tomlin quipped in early 2007 that Matt Spaeth was a fantasy league superstar, netting 3 touchdowns in 5 catches. Spaeth picked up the slack nicely during Heath Miller’s absence in 2008, but since then his role has evolved to primarily that of a blocker. Spaeth has developed into a solid number 2 tight end in the NFL which is more than respectable.
  • Still, Spaeth hasn’t delivered the type of value you’d like to see from a third round pick.
Daniel Sepulveda finished 2008 on IR and again found himself on the list in 2010 and then again in 2011. In between those stints he showed himself to be a serviceable punter, but Sepulveda was never anything special.
  • Clearly the Steelers both missed on Sepulveda and never should have drafted him (or any punter) this high. 
William Gay saw next to no time as a rookie. In 2008 he split starting chores with Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend. In 2009 he inherited the starting slot and struggled, but did fine covering the slot in 2010. By 2011 he was a “semi-starter” on first and second downs, moving to the slot on thirds.

Like McFadden he went out to Pittsburgh West and like McFadden Gay was back in a year. Unlike McFadden, and he improved upon returning, earning him the moniker Big Play Willie Gay.
  • Gay’s taken a lot of flak from the fans in his time, but he’s delivered phenomenal value for a fifth round pick.
Final World on the Steelers 2007 Draft

When the complete body of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s collective draft work is finally know, the Steelers 2007 draft isn’t likely to be remembered as a great draft, but it certainly has earned the distinction as a good one.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Memories of Easter in Pittsburgh

As a product of the Pittsburgh diaspora, holidays in the ‘Burgh were a big part of my childhood. And although we spent more Thanksgivings and Christmases in Pittsburgh, I celebrated more than a few Easter Sunday’s at St. Wendellen’s in Baldwin and/or North American Martyrs and/or St. Bernadette’s in Monroeville.

Those Sunday morning masses were followed of course by big brunches and even bigger dinners held at exotic locales on Ceadercove Street and/or Knollwood Drive (if only it coulda been Nollwood Drive….)

And although those trips came to an end in the 1990’s as my grandparents settled into permanent residence at St. George’s-St. Joseph’s cemetery off of Brownsville Road in Mt. Oliver, those trips form small but important part of the fabric of my memories.

While Steelers paraphilia did comprise a good chuck of Christmas gifts in the late 70’s and early 80’s – before I reached double digits even, I can’t remember too much if any Steelers, Pirates, or Pen’s themed Easter Candy. But it exists, and through the magic of Twitter they can be enjoyed by all.

Can't claim any Bloomfield-related Easter memories and both of my grandfather's answered to "Grandpa." But my father certainly spent a lot of Easter Sunday's in Bloomfield as a child (long before this photo was taken) and he certainly called his grandfather "Pap."
Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all in Steelers Nation (albeit a day late.)

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Draft Needs: Tight End

Part II of Steel Curtain Rising´s analysis of the Pittsburgh Steelers needs in the 2014 NFL Draft brings us to the position of tight end.
  • Tight end is a position area where the Steelers situation is straight forward, but with a twist.
In Heath Miller the Steelers have one of the NFL’s top all around tight ends and one of the most underrated players in football. Some would say that Miller, with his ability to both be an asset in the blocking game and act as a threat down field is part of a dying breed.

Miller, who played a key role as a rookie in Steelers upset win vs. the Colts in the ’05 playoffs, is now 31 and turn 32 during the middle of the coming season. Miller was coming off of a knee injury in 2013, and if his return boosted the Steelers sagging fortunes, he was at times shaky. But Rod Woodson would attest, ACL injuries take more than a year to heal.
  • The Steelers extended Miller for 3 years, and you can count on him to finish that contract.
Behind Miller the Steelers have Matt Spaeth, who returned along with William Gay as part of the Steelers ’07 draft reclamation project. Spaeth was lost for most of the year with a Lisfranc injury, but his return saw Le’Veon Bell rush for his first 100 yard game. Hardly an accident.

Filling out the bench the Steelers have David Paulson and Michael Palmer. Paulson had a strong rookie year in 2012 followed by a very unlucky ’13, where he struggled in the blocking game and his most memorable catch ended in a fumble. The Steelers picked Palmer up as a training camp cast off and thought enough of him to bring him back to camp.
  • Taken at face value, the Steelers need at tight end is very scant.
steelers 2014 nfl draft need scale ratings priorities tight end

Certainly, the team would look to add depth late, if a quality player made himself available, but the Steelers have no pressing need at tight end.
  • But that wouldn’t and shouldn’t stop the Steelers from taking a tight end early.
Both ESPN’s Scott Brown and The Irwin Observer-Reporter’s Dale Lolley have linked the Steelers to North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron stands 6’4” and weighs in at 250 and has excellent speed. The Steelers are looking to boost their depth at receiver the distinction between receivers and tight ends is quickly blurring in the NFL.
  • Steelers need at Tight End in the 2014 NFL Draft:  Low- moderate.
However, Ebron is projected to be a mid-teens pick, and the Steelers are picking 15th. If he’s the best player on the board the Steelers might be wise to pick him

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Draft Needs: Quarterback

The 2014 NFL Draft is upon us yet still a few weeks away thanks to Czar Goodell´s decision to expand the off season into May (hey Rog, ever heard of "over exposure?"). The Steelers have been entertaining visitors on the South Side for weeks and now Steel Curtain Rising begins its look at the Steelers draft needs, beginning with quarterback.

A year ago Kevin Colbert turned a few heads by refusing to rule out the Steelers taking a quarterback in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Expect him to follow suit this year.
  • Don´t expect the Steelers, however, to do anything of the sort.
Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger will be 32 this year which is still relatively young for a quarterback. And while injuries hampered his play in late 2011 and late 2012, Roethlisberger threw every pass for the Steelers in 2013, a feat not accomplished by any quarterback in Pittsburgh since 1952.

Barring a major injury, Roethlisberger should at least have 3 or 4 more years of prime play ahead of him. He could conceivably remain a viable Super Bowl quarterback for longer, although the cumulative impact of injuries could catch up with him.
  • Still, until the Steelers see signs of Roethlisberger “Getting old” quarterback will remain a low priority for Pittsburgh in the NFL Draft.
So it will be in 2014.
steelers 2014 nfl draft need scale quarterback

Behind Roethlsiberger the Steelers have Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones, whom they took in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Gradkowski has never thrown  pass in Pittsburgh, but his body of work has him pegged as a journeyman back up, someone how more fits the Mike Tomczak mold as opposed to the Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich mold.

Jones is a complete unknown. By all accounts he looked green in preseason last year, but the entire Steelers roster looked as bad in exhibition has they did during the first round games of the season. Having invested a premium pick in a quarterback in 2013, its unlikely the Steelers would do so again in 2014.

There’s no other way to break this down. Quarterback is the lowest of priorities for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Philip Gaines, Ra'Shede Hageman Visit Steelers

The Rooneys may have reputations as devout Catholics, it may be Holy Week, but the Pittsburgh Steelers spent Holy Thursday entertaining 3 collegiate prospects on the South Side ahead of the 2014 NFL Draft.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Allen Robinson, the Steelers worked out:
  • Phillip Gaines, cornerback of Rice University
  • Ra'Shede Hageman, defensive tackle, Minnesota
  • Rob Branchflower, tight end, University of Massachusetts
Robinsion characterized Gaines as a projected day two, pick, while Hageman is seen as a potential number 1 pick. Branchflower is rated as about a third round pick.

  • Tea leaf readers will note that Gains represents the 5th corner entertained by the Steelers and the 7th defensive back to be invited to Pittsburgh for a pre-Draft workout.

While a lot of pre-draft speculation has the Steelers taking a cornerback in the first round, Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain suggested that they could wait until middle rounds, such as they did in the 2011 NFL Draft when they took Courtney Brown and Cortez Allen in the 3rd and 4th rounds, respectively.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Whether Its Podlesh or Wing, Should Pittsburgh Pray for Its Punting to Stink?

Steelers Nation’s reaction to news that the Pittsburgh Steelers had signed punter Adam Podlesh ranged from ho-hum to derision as documented by Behind the Steel Curtain.* Some of this is logical, as Adam Podlesh’s punting averages were actually worse than both Mat McBriar and Zoltan Mesko.
  • But the more refined response is: Who cares?
Seriously. Assuming he can avoid blocked kicks, how much impact does a punter have anyway?

Sure, I am sure Pro Football Focus has some saber metric that reads like this:
  • “Analysis shows that pass defenses on teams with a favorable gross/net punting ratio enjoy a statistically significant “passing yards per attempt allowed” advantage.
Or something.

Maybe Pro Football Focus has no such stat. Even if they do, it says here that the Steelers have won more Super Bowls than anyone else, and it further says that in that respect, good punting doesn’t count for squat. Read on:
Steelers punting super bowl miller colquitt walden
Does good punting = grim harbinger for the Steelers? Hum...
Number don’t lie fellow citizen of Steelers Nation. Let’s take a closer look for those who remain unconvinced.

Bobby Walden handled the punting duties for the Steelers in Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X. The Steelers ranked just above the middle of the pack and in fact were right about average in terms of punting.
  • Very little was average about those 1974 and 1975 teams laden with NFL Hall of Famers.
No offense, but the presence of players like Joe Greene, Franco Harris, and Jack Lambert explain a lot more about the 1st two Lombardi’s than does Walden.

Craig Colquitt took over the chores for Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV and the Steelers punting performance perked up just a tad. Now Pittsburgh’s defense was in decline by that point, and perhaps better punting put them over the edge.
The Steelers 6-10 ’86 season stands as an aberration. Harry Newsome had arrived, but the Steelers still ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in terms of punting. Newsome picked his performance by 1988, and the Steelers led the NFL in punting.
  • They also had their worst post-1971 finish.
Legend has it the Bubby Brister scrawled “Playoffs 1989” on the chalk board to open training camp that summer, but it’s doubtful that Pittsburgh’s punting advantage in Newsome inspired him to do so.

In 1995 Rohn Stark filled the gap between Mark Royals and Josh Miller and the Steelers were the third worst punting team in the league. Nonetheless, the Steelers came heart breakingly close to “One for the Thumb” vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXX.

Josh Miller was a fine punter, and during the “My buddy’s the cop” phase of Kordell Stewart’s starting tenure he became somewhat of a cult hero and Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon and yours truly was one of his prime promoters. Yet in 2003, Miller had the Steelers punting ranked above average, but they still had a 6-10 record.
  • The Steelers replaced Miller with Chris Gardocki, who punted on in Super Bowl XL, but One for the Thumb Came in spite of a 22nd ranking punting game.
And of course the Steelers attained further glory in Super Bowl XLIII despite the having the second worst punting game thanks to Mitch Berger and Paul  Ernster.

Rounding it out you have 2010 and the loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV, a season in which the Steelers broached the top 25% in punting.  Could getting on the other side of that 25% mark have negated Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions, Mike Wallace’s ghosting, or Mendy’s fumble? Count me a skeptic.

Prayer’s and Shout Outs

Of course this analysis only looks at punting average, and not inside 20 numbers or anything like that. And of course crappy punting can hurt you, just remember the Oakland game. But let’s repeat it:
  • Number don’t lie
In the “Post Immaculate Reception Era” there is no correlation between good punting and winning Super Bowls. In fact, if anything the data suggests something quite the opposite.

So whether Brad Wing or Adam Podlesh wins out, perhaps its best to pray for Pittsburgh’s punter to stink.

*Full disclosure. I also write for BTSC. And by complete happenstance (on my honor as a Life scout), it I saw that their Tony Defeo, a good friend and soul mate, had the same idea and beat me to the punch. Check his out here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Steelers Scrounge in Couch Cushions, Sign Adam Podlesh, Punter

The Pittsburgh Steelers, with all of 300 thousand (and a little change found in the couch cushions in Dan Rooney’s office) in salary cap space made yet another free agent signing.
  • They did so by coming to terms with former Chicago Bears punter Adam Podlesh
Podlesh brings a mixed pedigree as a punter to Pittsburgh. Last year he gross punting average was 40.6 yards which was enough to net him 33rd position in the league – not exactly a distinction of honor in a league with 32 teams.

Yet, as Dale Lolley indicates, he did pin opponents inside the 20 yard line 27 times, which is something that Mat McBriar and Zoltan Mesko together only accomplished 16 times last year.

Podlesh’s best year in the NFL came in 2011, when he sent the Chicago Bears single season record for punting. Ironically, Podlesh was drafted 11 spots ahead of Daniel Sepulveda, whom the Steelers picked in the 4th round of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Nor is this the only (comic book like?) cross over – Drew Butler will replace Podlesh in Chicago.
  • In addition to Podlesh, the Steelers also have Brad Wing under contract. 
Wing spent the summer of 2013 in training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles but was cut before camp. In addition to fighting Podlesh, Wing is also fighting is reputation – having been charged with simple battery in 2011, and thrown out of LSU for failed drug tests and arguing with coaches in-game.

When asked about Wing’s character issues, Kevin Colbert told Jim Wexell, “Again, players mature as the years go on.”

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