It’s said a draft class can’t be fully graded until at least three years after the picks are made. That’s why after submitting grades for every Pittsburgh Steelers pick made in 2021, I began going back through and grading previous Steeler draft classes beginning with 2018. Today continues the fourth class in that exercise, with the Steelers’ third-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft: Sammie Coates, a wide receiver from Auburn.
This exercise follows the six viewpoints (listed below) for examining and re-grading a pick. Each of the first five viewpoints gets examined and assigned a letter grade, before taking that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made; consider the grades weighted. For example, to return a high grade in pick value, a first-round pick should have a long and impactful career, while a later-round pick needs only a couple seasons as a back-up or modest contributor to be worth the selection used on him.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 3, Pick 23: Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: D
At the time of his drafting, Sammie Coates was another exciting piece to a developing Steelers’ receiver room. Antonio Brown had earned his first All-Pro nod that season. Markus Wheaton had set career-highs as the starter opposite AB, and Martavis Bryant showed immense potential as a rookie. Standing over six feet and coupling physical play with 4.43 speed, Coates profiled very similarly to Bryant, and was an insurance pick in case of regression from he or Wheaton.
But where Bryant continued to see his star rise as a young playmaker, Coates never got his star to light. Things didn’t start well, when he failed to beat out any fellow receivers for a better spot on the depth chart, and spent his rookie season as a fourth and fifth receiver, or an outright inactive on Sundays. His first season consisted of exactly one catch for 11 years, and more importantly, only 36 offensive snaps and 17 special teams snaps.
Coates spent one more season in Pittsburgh, again failing to win a starting job but this time sticking as a contributor, as the team’s third receiver for much of the season. Behind Brown and Wheaton, Coates set career-highs with 21 receptions, 435 yards and his only two NFL touchdowns. A 20.7 average on his receptions showed Coates’ big-play ability, but he still did not play well enough to avoid spending multiple weeks as an inactive.
For all his promise and status as a one-time potential first-rounder, Coates did not impress the franchise enough, and the team addressed the position with the selection of JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2017’s second round. Pittsburgh traded Coates prior to his third season, and within the division, no less. The Steelers dealt him and their seventh-round pick in the 2019 draft for the Cleveland Browns’ sixth-round pick in the 2018 draft.
NFL CAREER: D-
Coates’ second season in Pittsburgh was the only one in his career where he played over 100 snaps on offense. Now with the Browns, Coates again failed to unseat anybody in a training camp battle and wound up buried on the Browns’ depth chart. He played only 92 snaps and made just six catches for 70 yards for the winless Browns, and was released after the season.
His 2017 season, spent with the Houston Texans, was almost an exact copy of how his career began as a Pittsburgh rookie. Coates played 37 total snaps on offense, and made one reception for 12 yards. The Texans cut him prior to the end of the season. He has not played in the NFL since, his last exposure to the league a two-month stint with Kansas City during the 2019 offseason.
Like many other former Steeler picks, Coates looked to other leagues to continue his career. First in the XFL, Coates was fifth on the Houston Roughnecks with 61 receiving yards on six catches prior to the league folding. Later that year, Coates signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL, joining fellow former Steeler picks Demarcus Ayers and Keion Adams. His first CFL season begins in August.
PICK VALUE: D
By the Steelers’ incredibly high standards of drafting receivers, Coates did not live up to a third-round selection. By normal NFL standards, he still didn’t come close to living up to it, failing to become a starter or even a depth option. No one could fault the pick at the time — Coates’ profile had him as a potential first-round pick at some points. Getting him in the third was a smart move by the Steelers then. But he failed to become an NFL receiver, and any Day 2 receiver has to stick as some kind of contributor to bring back solid value.
POSITIONAL VALUE: D+
With the exception of the Oakland Raiders drafting Amari Cooper and maybe the Seattle Seahawks drafting Tyler Lockett, the 16 teams who drafted a receiver before the 146th pick wish they could toss their player back and take Stefon Diggs instead. The Day 3 pick starred with Minnesota and now as Josh Allen’s No. 1 target in Buffalo, and has only Cooper and Lockett as true rivals for the best receiver in this class.
Diggs is the only huge miss at receiver that went after Coates, in a pretty weak class for depth. Jamison Crowder (105th, Washington) just keeps on providing numbers in the NFL, now in his seventh season and with 388-847 yards each one of his six years prior. J.J. Nelson (159th, Arizona) had two 500-yard seasons with the Cardinals. But for receivers who stayed at that position, most of the Day 3 picks in the class went the way of Coates: Little to no NFL production, and unable to stick in the league. In comparison to a lot of them, Coates was actually a decent enough pick.
This doesn’t count Darren Waller, taken in the sixth by Baltimore, later flipped to tight end by the Raiders and turned into one of the best weapons at the position in the game today. Nor does it Ty Montgomery, taken in the third by Green Bay and converted to running back. But Diggs alone is enough to bring this grade down, and Crowder helps add to it.
OTHER OPTIONS: D+
Alright, so Danielle Hunter already made an appearance and helped add insult to literal injury on Senquez Golson’s retrospective yesterday. But going the very next pick after Coates, the Pro Bowl defensive end is a glaring alternative to Pittsburgh’s pick at 87 overall. He isn’t the only end going in that range. Trey Flowers (101st, New England) developed with the Patriots and is one of the highest-paid ends in the NFL now with Detroit.
Steven Nelson, another name mentioned yesterday and one very familiar to any Steeler fans, went 98th in Kansas City and became a lockdown cornerback in Pittsburgh the last two seasons. As is becoming a theme in a fairly weak class for depth, options beyond the first few names thin out quick. Crowder’s name is in that range, as is Darryl Williams (102nd, Carolina), who has started four seasons at tackle in the NFL. A few others have made careers as backups or depth.
OVERALL GRADE: D
Even when Pittsburgh misses on a pick, by a little or by a lot, the team’s logic and what they were going for makes total sense. It does again in looking back on Coates, someone who fit with what the team wanted in a new group of receivers to compliment Antonio Brown. For all the physically gifted and athletic Auburn prospect had to his advantage, he just didn’t have what was needed to succeed in the NFL at that time.
Pittsburgh got good value in taking a fringe first-rounder late on Day 2, and getting one with Pro Bowl upside. It’s a pick smart teams make time and time again, and that has rewarded teams with stars like JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and Michael Thomas, to name a few. Countering those stars are Coates, Zay Jones, Dorial Green-Beckham, Jaelen Strong, and many others. The players with the same type of potential, but can’t put it all together. Coates retains the traits that made him a Day 2 pick. In a pass-happy league, perhaps he can unlock what was missing in his NFL stint.