What do all of these guys have in common? They are wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 2009. These are all receivers who have had good to very good careers. In the case of the last guy on the list, Brown, the Steelers got a superstar.
Want to know an interesting fact? Limas Sweed was the last wide receiver the Steelers drafted in the second round. That happened in 2008.
Want to know another interesting fact? Santonio Holmes was the last wide receiver the Steelers drafted in the first round. That happened in 2006.
Yes, the Steelers drafted all of these players in the third round or later since 2009. How is that for scouting and player development?
It looks like the Steelers actually might have another budding quality receiver in Sammie Coates.
Sammie Coates' 47-yard catch on the first play was his fifth reception of 40+ yards, most in the NFL.— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) October 3, 2016
Guess where the Steelers drafted him. It was in the third round in 2015. The franchise has a gift.
There are only so many premium resources a team has. The salary cap limits the number of big dollar deals a team can give. Certain positions have to be prioritized over others.
Yes, you want your team to build through the Draft, but you only are given one pick in each round each season. There are only so many premium picks to allocate. Again, certain spots might take priority over others.
If you can figure out a place where your team is really good at taking raw talent and develop it, it is a huge plus. It helps fill a position without parting with a premium resource.
It is something many of the good teams in the league are adept at doing. They find a spot where they know the types of players they want and can develop the talent.
For the Seahawks, that position is cornerback. Look at the quality players they have had through the years. Brandon Browner wasn’t even in the NFL. They got him from Canada. Byron Maxwell was a sixth round pick. So was Jeremy Lane. Tharold Simon was a fifth rounder. So was the best of all of them, perhaps the best corner in the league, Richard Sherman.
Danny Kelly, now a writer for The Ringer, examined it in a piece he wrote for SB Nation a few years ago.
It comes down to scouting/acquisition, and player development. Said Pete Carroll:
There's a couple aspects to [how we've managed to build a group of talented corners]. One, we want fast guys, and long guys, that's what we're looking for.
This is obvious. Fast and long. Pete Carroll's "angular" and big cornerbacks. Carroll continues...
Then, they've been indoctrinated into the system.
Indoctrinated. Indoctrinated is really kind of a strong word. He didn't say they're "taught the system," or that "they're brought into the system." Indoctrinated.
At the end of the day, Seattle's cornerback depth is strong because they've been able to mesh good coaching with a specific and well-developed scheme. Obviously, Carroll and John Schneider have done a great job of finding talent. But Carroll's focus on the little things — indoctrinating his players into the system he's been running for decades — plays a big part of it.
Repetition, muscle memory, the confidence factor ... these all play a part in the reason this front office has been able to turn mid- to late-round picks and CFL cast-offs into All-Pro players.
Kelly does mention a specific and well-developed scheme. For smart teams, it plays into things. It might narrow down the list of attributes for a given position. Depending on your system, a certain skillset might be valuable to you at a given position. If nobody else is running the same system as you, that same skillset might not be valued highly by anybody else. That could help you find players at a certain spot at a bargain basement price.
It also might tell you which positions where you might consider bargain shopping.
Last year before the Super Bowl, we took at some of the things the Carolina Panthers did successfully to build a winner.
Two areas of the team jumped out in particular.
These are the spots the Panthers use their premium resources because they know they can find players who fit and can be coached up from the scrap heap at other spots. Two-fifths of their starting offensive line this year was comprised of undrafted players who the Panthers found off the scrap heap. At the all-important left tackle position is Michael Oher, on his third team in three years and not commanding a top twenty contract at tackle. This ragtag bunch was Pro Football Focus' second best offensive line in 2015.
The secondary has been a revolving door for the Panthers in the last few years of replaceable parts. The Panthers developed fifth round pick Josh Norman into a star. Bené Benwikere was another fifth round pick. Charles Tillman and Roman Harper are veterans making less than $2 million. Kurt Coleman is on his fourth team.
Before the season started, Andy Benoit of MMQB did film study on all of the teams in the NFL. His words on the Panthers resonate with their roster building philosophies.
The multifaceted rushing attack is what sets up Carolina’s passing game, which is aggressively vertical. The run looks mean heavy formations, with extra tight ends and running backs aligned near the ball. Those tight ends and backs become extra blockers. Extra blockers mean extra time in the pocket, which means extra time for receivers to run routes.
With a zone-based scheme, smart and rangy linebackers like Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, plus a viable four-man rush, the Panthers don’t have to ask a lot of out of their corners. The linebackers’ range leaves less field for defensive backs to defend and the D-line’s pass rush means less time those DB’s have to maintain their coverage.
The Panthers leave in extra blockers a lot. That means the offense line has to do less difficult work than your typical offensive line does. Wouldn’t that make it an obvious candidate where you would use less than premium resources to build? If the linebackers cover so much ground, isn’t the secondary a place where you might look to go bargain shopping? If you can develop genuinely excellent players at these places, all the better.
Legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd had Bill Polian discuss the Colts’ roster vision in his tremendous book The View From the O-Line.
Peyton was making big money because the first-round draft choice got paid a king’s ransom in those days. So we made the value judgment we couldn’t afford to keep the guards. Howard was heartbroken. I was heartbroken. But that’s what the model told you. We had to put people around Peyton. We had signed Ken Dilger at tight end. Marvin Harrison was coming up. You had to make value judgments.
Ours because we had Howard, guards were fungible. We couldn’t keep them. Howard was going to have to create them.
The Colts had the offensive line coach to develop guards without premium resources so that is where they saved those resources, which could be dedicated to building other areas.
Mike Maccagnan has given some indications he views certain spots along the offensive line as potential value areas.
“I think historically when you look at teams that are successful, one of the things that they do in the draft is they find value in offensive linemen prospects that they can kind of groom and develop. They don’t have to always be high picks,” he said. “A lot of teams are very successful building good offensive lines through the draft through picks from the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh round and sometimes even college free agents.”
It is one thing to say it. It is another to do it. Thus far the early returns on Maccagnan’s attempts have been less than stellar. True to his word, he has drafted an offensive lineman in the fifth round in both of his drafts. His first, Jarvis Harrison, is no longer part of the organization. His second, Brandon Shell, struggled mightily in preseason. Nobody could reasonably expect a fifth round pick to be starter material as a rookie, but Shell didn’t even look like he belonged on the same field with fringe players and some who aren’t in the league.
No general manager is going to hit all of these value picks out of the park at a certain position, though. For example, Justin Brown and Toney Clemons are other wide receivers the Steelers have drafted.
The Jets need to figure out areas where they can find and develop talent at cheap prices. There aren’t enough cap dollars and early picks to fill every position.
This type of pipeline has residual benefits. Pittsburgh has been able to let Holmes, Wallace, and Sanders walk away and replace them with middle to late round Draft picks without skipping a beat. Seattle has watched Browner and Maxwell leave in free agency and still maintained arguably the best defense in the league. Those Carolina positions have been revolving doors. That saves money without hurting performance or forcing the team to spend a lot on a replacement.
Sure, if there is a truly exceptional talent, you lock him up as the Steelers have done with Brown or the Seahawks have done with Sherman. The Panthers might live to regret not doing the same with Norman.
Ultimately, though, successful franchise find spots they are good at filling at a bargain. That isn’t the same as cheapness. A bargain means great value at a low price.
Finding them frees up the premium resources to fortify the rest of the roster.