The Pittsburgh Steelers generally have a reputation of being a strong organization when it comes to the NFL Draft, and rightly so, as they are among the winningest franchises in recent years, and one that most focuses its roster-building efforts on the draft. But a lot of that success is tied to early-round success, and by at least one metric, it seems the team is below average when it comes to finding success later in the draft.
When it comes to Day Three picks, from the fourth to seventh rounds, an ESPN study ranks the team 19th in the league by comparing the Approximate Value statistic from Pro Football Reference (the same metric used in a previous Washington Post draft study I have discussed a number of times) and comparing that with their expected approximate value based on their draft slotting.
In the study, the Steelers’ late-round draft picks only amassed a surplus Approximate Value of 117.2 from the 2006 draft to 2015, with the understanding that late-round draft picks have a low or nil expected Approximate Value, so nearly everybody will have a positive or at least neutral value.
The most successful teams accumulating late-round talent have been the Packers, Seahawks, Eagles, Colts, and Texans, according to the analysis, with the aforementioned finding Pro Bowlers such as Josh Sitton, Richard Sherman, and Antoine Bethea. The teams with the lowest value were the Lions, Chiefs, Cowboys, Rams, and Browns.
According to the study, there have been 1565 players drafted from rounds four through seven in the past 10 years, and from among them, 867 have started a game, while 53 of them went on to reach at least one Pro Bowl. The Steelers do have one of them: 2010 sixth-round draft pick Antonio Brown.
Other recent late-round successes in that span of time for the Steelers include Willie Colon, William Gay, Kelvin Beachum, Martavis Bryant, and to a lesser extent, Cortez Allen, but even most of those players have had their paths derailed, often by injuries.
There are a few factors that the study doesn’t take into account that should be worth mentioning. While the Steelers have actually had a higher than average number of late-round draft picks (54, while the average is 49), the majority of their extra draft picks have been compensatory picks in the sixth and seventh rounds, where there is a smaller chance of success than in, say, the fourth round.
The study also doesn’t take into account undrafted free agents, which is certainly a notable absence, and an area in which the Steelers have done well. A number of former undrafted free agents are projected to start this year, chief among them Ramon Foster, but also Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Chris Boswell, and Robert Golden, not to mention the contributions of James Harrison, and of past starters such as Steve McLendon.