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Snapshot in time: Comparing Cowher, Tomlin drafts

| Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin looks on during practice Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, at Memorial Stadium in Latrobe.

Bill Cowher is in his eighth season of sitting on the CBS studio set every Sunday analyzing NFL games, yet his legacy remains with the Steelers.

Not just with the Lombardi Trophy won during the 2005 season, which is proudly displayed at the Steelers' South Side headquarters, but perhaps in an unexpected place — on their roster.

Seven of the current Steelers' 53 players are from the Cowher era that ended after the 2006 season: Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Heath Miller and long snapper Greg Warren.

That's a striking number, especially in comparison to this: Only six players remain from coach Mike Tomlin's first four draft classes from 2007-2010, and only nine are around from his first five classes.

All of this adds to the conversation these days, from talk radio to tailgate debates: Is the deterioration of the once-mighty Steelers due to poor drafting over the first seven years of the Tomlin era?

The Tribune-Review performed an extensive review of Tomlin's and Cowher's first seven drafts to attempt to answer a long-standing question among Steelers fans: Who's drafted better, Cowher and general manager Tom Donahoe or Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert?

It's a snapshot in time, but comparisons of Cowher's classes to Tomlin's beyond 1992-98 would be unfair, given Tomlin has only seven years of results to examine.

The answer: At comparative stages of the draft picks' careers, the Tomlin/Colbert drafts of 2007 and '10 were the best two, but the Cowher/Donahoe drafts were generally better from top to bottom and produced more star-caliber players.

And except for the 2010 draft that yielded Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds and Antonio Brown, the Tomlin/Colbert drafts have declined since the first draft in 2007 yielding Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.

Using a statistical formula that rewards players for the performances all teams are seeking when they draft — Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections, big statistical seasons and MVP awards, plus years of service — the Trib ranked the first seven drafts of each coach/general manager-director of football operations combination.

Only the first seven Cowher draft classes (1992-98) are compared directly to Tomlin's, because this is the current Steelers coach's eighth season and eighth draft class. The Cowher-era players were ranked only on how they performed at the same stages of their careers as the Tomlin-era players.

The Tomlin vs. Cowher rankings reward drafts that produce not just top-of-the-league play but also consistency, and penalize those in which large numbers of players quickly washed out.

Already, entire Tomlin-era draft classes are wiped out — not one of the 16 players drafted in 2008 and 2009 remains. Only 10 of the 42 selected from 2008-12 remain, or 23.8 percent — and that should be the core of this team. By comparison, the Atlanta Falcons retain 16 of 38, or 42.1 percent.

The failures of these draft classes, two of which followed Super Bowl seasons, might best explain why the Steelers are 19-19 over the last three seasons — with 13 losses to .500-or-worse teams since 2009.

“The 2008 draft was a total washout. … In 2009, (first-rounder) Ziggy Hood was a bad pick, but he played a lot of snaps. I was really critical of the Hood pick when they made it,” said Matt Williamson, an ESPN NFL analyst and a former Cleveland Browns scout. “It made no sense at all. He was a Warren Sapp-type player that never fit their scheme.”

Time also has changed how each coach drafted.

“In some ways, I think it was easier to draft if you were Cowher because fewer teams were running a 3-4 (defense),” Williamson said. “Jason Gildon (a third-rounder in 1994) would be a first-round pick now. There are so many teams running the 3-4 now that an Aaron Smith type, or an outside linebacker who can really rush the passer, they don't fall anymore. You don't get those guys in the third round anymore. That was an advantage.”

But while Tomlin's three most recent classes still are developing, there are plenty of trouble signs — five of nine players from 2012 are gone, and only three of seven remain from 2011. This year's fifth rounder, offensive lineman Wesley Johnson, was cut last week.

Some of the best recent picks — Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Emmanuel Sanders — are playing in their prime for other teams because the Steelers didn't re-sign them.

Because so many of the Tomlin/Colbert picks already have washed out, comparisons between the Tomlin/Cowher drafts likely will be more one-sided favoring Cowher as Tomlin's career progresses, unless the drafting suddenly gets better.

For example, the 1998 draft that produced two of the best Steelers players of all time, Alan Faneca and Hines Ward, had yet to produce much by Year 2 and thus was one of the lowest-ranked Cowher/Donahoe drafts in these rankings. (That Year 7 draft for Cowher is the equivalent of Tomlin's 2013 draft class led by Jarvis Jones.)

But those players' careers began taking off a season later, that draft ultimately turned out to be the best of the Cowher era.

What Tomlin's current-day Steelers prove is that an NFL team is only as good — or as bad — as its drafts.

Staff writer Mark Kaboly contributed to this report. Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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