Over the last decade the following wide receivers have been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, and Juju Smith-Schuster. That is a very impressive haul for a ten year stretch. Those are six players with at least one 700 yard receiving season. Those are some decent players, some good players, and even one great player. Heck, the Jets have barely drafted more than six quality players in total over the last decade.
What makes it even more impressive is the Steelers have used zero first round picks at the wide receiver position in the last ten years. More than that, Smith-Schuster is the only second rounder from that group of six players.
Pittsburgh hasn’t been perfect in its wide receiver hunting. The Steelers have picked sime who haven’t amounted to anything. There was even an early rounder or two in that mix. (Limas Sweed, come on down.)
When we talk about Draft philosophies, the discussion tends to fall along familiar lines. The concepts of best player available, need, scheme fit, and position value are frequent topics.
What seldom draws our attention is figuring out the optimal way for a team to invest its premium resources. We can’t say for sure whether the Steelers avoid first round receivers when all things are equal as a core philsophy, but it would be difficult to blame them if they did. The franchise has shown an aptitude for producing quality players at the position with later picks. Why invest a first round pick at the spot when you can find a blue chip prospect elsewhere and still be confident in your ability to find a quality receiver later?
Some teams are just good at value shopping at certain positions. The coaches are good at developing and molding players with certain traits, and the front office is good at finding them.
Another example that comes to mind is the 2013 Seahawks. Their cornerback depth chart consisted of Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond, Byron Maxwell, and Jeremy Lane. Sherman was the only player from the group who was a genuine star, but the other players all had value within a certain role. Sherman was a fifth round pick. Thurmond was a fourth rounder. Lane and Maxwell were sixth rounders. Browner was a CFL import. The Seahawks didn’t have to spend premium resources to build quality depth. They were good at finding and developing talent.
I bring this topic up because I have been thinking a lot recently about the depths to which the Jets have fallen. They are here because of a number of poor decisions a number of regimes have made over a number of seasons.
In recent years, the Jets have targeted one spot on the field over all others in the early rounds of the NFL Draft, the defensive line. The Jets have used four first round picks there since 2011.
The thing is the defensive line has been one of the few places on the field where the Jets have successfully developed talent over the last decade. Sione Pouha, Mike Devito, and Damon Harrison come to mind as success stories who the team did not use premium resources to obtain.
This isn’t really a criticism of Mike Maccagnan or Todd Bowles. All of these decisions aside from drafting Leonard Williams were made before they were part of the franchise. It isn’t even really a criticism of Mike Tannenbaum, John Idzik, or Rex Ryan. I’m not sure you can necessarily conclude the Jets made the wrong choices. Three of the four linemen chosen were successful picks.
There are also many competing forces that go into a selection. Take the case of Williams. Another one of those familiar philosophical Draft concepts is the question of a propsect’s ceiling and floor. At the time of the Draft, nobody really knows exactly how a player will turn out. Certain players do, however, possess skillsets that make them likely to have successful careers even if they fail to reach their utmost position. Three years into his career, it doesn’t seem like Williams is going to be the Reggie White/JJ Watt type of dominant force Jets fans dreamed of the day he was chosen. But he does look like the type of player who will be a plus starter for a long time, and that was generally viewed as the “worst case scenario” at the time he was chosen. That has plenty of value. The Jets could have just as easily chosen a total bust with that pick. You never want to totally miss a pick.
I think it is an open question, though. Nobody will ever know the answer for sure, but it does seem worth questioning. Were the Jets been smart to invest their premium picks at the one spot where they did a good job developing less heralded talent?
Even if the answer is yes, there is nothing the Jets can do about it. But they can keep it in mind going forward if they find they excel developing players at a certain position.