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 fifth class in that exercise, with the Steelers’ second-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft: Stephon Tuitt, a defensive end from Notre Dame.
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 2, Pick 14: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: B+
Throughout the entire 2013 college football season, two hulking defensive linemen from Notre Dame held potential first-round status. Neither ended up cracking the first round of 2014, but each heard his name called on Day 2. Defensive tackle Louis Nix went 83rd to the Houston Texans, and a round earlier, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected defensive end Stephon Tuitt 46th overall.
Brought in to the league as a 21-year-old and sent out as a starter his second season, Tuitt has built a strong career for himself to date and become a fixture for the Steelers. Of the team’s 2014 class, he is the only one still on the roster, and Tuitt is one of the longest-tenured Steelers.
He didn’t begin as a fixture on the left side of the team’s line. Drafted to learn a season from Cameron Heyward and Brett Keisel, Tuitt started four games and appeared in all 16 for the team, recording one sack and tackle for loss (with 17 total tackles) while playing his fewest snaps of any full season of his career. Elevated to his destined starting role the following season after Keisel’s release and retirement, Tuitt finished a half-sack behind Heyward for the team lead with 6.5, while making a career-high 54 tackles (eight for a loss), and playing a career-best 873 snaps over 14 games.
Since, Tuitt has played between 12-15 games four of his subsequent five seasons. A litany of minor injuries (knee, ankle, back, bicep, elbow) have kept him from reaching 16 games again, and one major injury (chest) ended his 2019 season after five games. But those injuries have not limited his effectiveness. After a breakout year in his first season as a full-time starter, Tuitt had between three and 5.5 sacks each of the next three seasons, with between 25-45 tackles and seven-eight tackles for a loss every season. He also forced three fumbles in that span.
A better display of his effectiveness and value to the franchise comes not from statistics but from the five-year, $60 million extension the franchise awarded him early in the 2017 season. An extension that Tuitt remains under and is approaching the end of in the coming seasons.
Returning from that shortened 2019 season, Tuitt had a second breakout season where his numbers caught up to his ability. He finished with 11 sacks in 2020, set a new career best with 10 tackles for a loss, had 45 tackles, and forced two fumbles. His performance earned him status around league circles as one of the top defensive linemen in football.
PICK VALUE: A
Tuitt is entering his eighth season with the Steelers, and seventh as a full-time starter on the left half of the defensive line. Only three teammates — Vince Williams, Cameron Heyward, and Ben Roethlisberger — have been around longer as selections made by the franchise. It took a few seasons to go from that “above average” tier to “best few in the NFL”, but Tuitt got there last season and helped make this grade easy.
Even an above average player who can stick in a team’s lineup for seven years is positive value in the second round. Getting a talent like Tuitt, even if he hasn’t earned that first Pro Bowl nod yet, is some excellent drafting and one of the key reasons the Steelers boast one of the league’s highest-rated lines and defenses currently.
POSITIONAL VALUE: A+
Of all players taken 46th or later, Tuitt leads in career sacks (34.5), and part of that is because the majority of players taken at his pick or later are no longer in the NFL. Tuitt is one of the last players selected on the line with the staying power to last eight years in the league, and any who offered superior options were selected before he was.
Among those who stuck it out at defensive end, Aaron Lynch (150th, San Francisco) and Shelby Harris (235th, Oakland) are the next-closest players in sacks with 21 and 16.5. Harris just earned a three-year deal with Denver worth $9 million per season, and is the only other long-term success story at defensive end this late in the class. Lynch began his career with 12.5 sacks in two seasons, but hasn’t been able to stay on the field or keep a starting job since.
Timmy Jernigan (48th, Baltimore) began as a defensive tackle but has played a similar spot to Tuitt over his career, which ran seven seasons. He had at least four sacks each of his first three seasons, and peaked with a four-year deal worth $12 million annually from Philadelphia after a trade from the Ravens. He is currently a free agent. DaQuan Jones (112th, Tennessee) is now more of a pure defensive tackle, but spent time in Tuitt’s spot during a six-year run starting for the Titans.
Tuitt might not be the landmark lineman of the class (Aaron Donald went 13th that year), but he is far and away the best defensive lineman selected 46th or later.
OTHER OPTIONS: A-
Part of the reason Tuitt faced no immediate competition as the best lineman selected in his range is because all the best players who went over the next 32 picks went on offense. Round 2 in 2014 was a gold mine for teams in need of a superstar receiver.
Davante Adams (53rd, Green Bay) is a perennial Pro Bowler and finally earned an All Pro nod last season with 115 catches, 1,374 yards, and a league-best 18 touchdowns. Allen Robinson (61st, Jacksonville) has put up three 1,000-yard seasons and led the league in touchdowns once despite playing with failed quarterbacks his whole career. And Jarvis Landry (63rd, Miami) has had over 100 targets every year of his career, and topped 80 receptions in all but the last one, with three 1,000-yard seasons. He has five Pro Bowls to his name, and Robinson has one.
No position quite lives up to the trio of receivers that entered the league over those 11 picks. Morgan Moses (66th, Washington) is a success story on the offensive line, starting all 16 games the last six seasons with the WFT before joining the New York Jets this month. And for as much as his stock has soured, Jimmy Garoppolo (62nd, New England) at one point looked like a franchise quarterback for San Francisco, and might get a chance elsewhere to be that guy once the 49ers replace him with first-rounder Trey Lance.
It’s tough for any player in this range, Tuitt included, to top those receivers in a re-draft. But he isn’t far back with the success he has had, and tops the remainder of the players taken over the next round.
OVERALL GRADE: A
Pittsburgh had a clear focus to boost its defense with the 2014 draft, and it went a massive 2-2 starting it off with Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt’s impact on the defense is disguised for many of his seasons by low numbers, but there is a reason the team felt confident giving him such a lengthy extension. Since, he has done nothing but continue to boost his stock, and sits among the league’s best. Another long-term contract with the Steelers is something very much in consideration for the nearer future, with his current deal up after 2022.