Draftees' longevity key for NFL success
They all don't have to be Hall of Famers. They all don't have to be Pro Bowlers. They don't even have to play their entire careers with the team that drafted them. But NFL teams hoping to be competitive every fall must find starters every spring in the NFL Draft.
Find more, and accelerate the success. Find less, and hinder the progress.
“When I was in Baltimore with Ozzie Newsome, we always tried to come out of every draft, if we could, with three starters,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout for the Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles and current NFL Network analyst. “If three years down the line three of the players we picked in that draft were solid starters we weren't looking to replace, we viewed that as a successful draft.”
Even though that's not even a 50 percent success rate, it is a baseline NFL organizations use when weighing the difference between a good draft and a poor one.
“If you can go year after year and do that, you can sustain excellence as a football team,” Jeremiah said.
Or in the Cincinnati Bengals' case, that's how to turn around an organization in a short amount of time. The defending AFC North champions — they are the only division team to make the playoffs the past three seasons — have drafted 19 of this coming season's 22 projected starters, including 14 during the past five years.
Cincinnati's first three picks in 2009 — tackle Andre Smith, linebacker Rey Maualuga, and defensive end Michael Johnson — have combined for 167 starts. The next year, the Bengals selected tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and defensive tackle Geno Atkins within their first five picks, then picked wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton with their first two picks in 2011. Green and Dalton have combined for four Pro Bowls and 95 out of a possible 96 starts.
“You have to take into account where they were picked, too,” said Matt Williamson, an NFL scout for ESPN.com and former Cleveland Browns college and pro scout. “Picking A.J. Green wasn't difficult. If you are picking in the top 10 and don't even get a starter out of the deal, then that's bad.”
The Ravens have had no Pro Bowlers or All-Pro selections and only 390 starts — 255 fewer than the Browns — come out of their past five drafts, but they have the most wins, the most playoff games played and a Super Bowl victory during that span, thanks largely to veterans.
“Some of these teams had established vets who are eating up starts (who) rookies aren't going to beat out,” Williamson said. “It is not hard to beat out the guy ahead of you if you are a draft pick on a bad team. Then you have a team like the 49ers, who didn't get anything out of their draft last year.”
Subpar drafting led the Steelers to a pair of consecutive nonwinning seasons for only the third time in more than 40 years. It forced them to go outside of their comfort zone and plug holes with mid- to low-level free agents.
The Steelers signed eight free agents this offseason. As many as four — safety Mike Mitchell, defensive end Cam Thomas, receiver Lance Moore, and punter Adam Podlesh — could start. Since Kevin Colbert became general manager in 2000, the Steelers never signed more than five unrestricted free agents in an offseason.
“Part of it, I would say, is that this coaching staff hasn't done a great job of developing talent,” Williamson said.
The Steelers have a projected 20 drafted starters for 2014, but only three of their 33 draft picks from 2006-09 are on the roster. No one from the 2006, '08 and '09 draft classes remains, but the void from '09 class appears to hurt the most.
The Steelers are one of eight teams that don't have a player left on its roster from that year, joining Carolina, Chicago, Dallas, Jacksonville, N.Y. Jets, Oakland and Tampa Bay. However, five players from the Steelers' '09 class are starting somewhere else: Ziggy Hood (Jacksonville), Kraig Urbik (Buffalo), Mike Wallace (Miami), Keenan Lewis (New Orleans) and Frank Summers (Buffalo).
“It's more about philosophy than bad drafts,” ESPN NFL insider Adam Caplan said. “The Steelers historically won't overpay to keep their own players.”
And they didn't.
Wallace and Lewis signed for big money last year. Summers and Urbik never made it past their second year with the Steelers. Hood never really fit with the Steelers despite starting 46 games.
“How can you call Mike Wallace a bust?” Williamson said. “Keenan Lewis had a great season last year. I think they made the wrong decision keeping Ike Taylor rather than Keenan Lewis a year ago, but that's not a bad draft. Just because they didn't want to pay those guys what they thought they were worth doesn't mean it was a bad draft.”
The Steelers received a third-round compensatory pick for losing Wallace and a fifth-rounder for Lewis. Since 2009, the Ravens have been awarded 12 compensatory picks, the Steelers 11 and the Bengals 10.
“Look at the Ravens, for example,” Jeremiah said. “They've had more comp picks than anybody (41 since 1997) by a good margin because these guys, they're drafting well, they're developing them and then in some cases, they're allowed to let those guys go away because they have other young players coming up behind them. That's the gift that keeps on giving because then you end up getting a comp pick.”
But selecting the right players is tricky.
Have a draft like the Steelers did in 1974, when they selected four future Hall of Famers within their first five picks, and it could propel you to four Super Bowl victories. Have draft classes like the San Diego Chargers did in 2004-05 (Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman, etc.) and the Bengals from 2009-11 (Green, Dalton, Greshman, etc.), and it could set winning in motion rather quickly.
“Things can change quickly in this league,” Jeremiah said. “To stay on pace, I think you want to have three. Every now and then when you look at the teams that have turned things around, they have one (draft) with five starters, and that will turn your franchise around really quick.”