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’ first of two sixth-round picks in the 2015 NFL Draft: Leterrius Walton, a defensive tackle from Central Michigan.
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 6, Pick 23: Leterrius “L.T.” Walton, DT, Central Michigan
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: D+
Picking almost 200 selections in to the 2015 draft, Pittsburgh went back to the smaller school that produced Antonio Brown five years earlier, and selected Walton. It was the fourth consecutive year the Steelers brought in a defensive tackle on Day 3. None of them worked out as more than a depth player, but Walton actually had the second-longest career with the franchise. The only one drafted from 2012-2015 that lasted longer was Daniel McCullers.
McCullers was one of the names that buried Walton on the depth chart as a rookie in 2015 (he was also stuck behind Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu during his career), where he played only 29 defensive snaps over six games, with no recorded statistics. The next two seasons, Walton flipped that and supplanted McCullers on the depth chart. Appearing in 10 games in 2016 and playing a career-high 255 snaps, Walton made his only four career starts and broke on to the stat sheet with eight tackles (two for a loss), a quarterback hit, and a pass defensed.
Walton’s best career season came in 2017. Despite his snaps getting cut by almost 50 percent (down to 144), Walton set career-bests as a backup along the line with 12 tackles (another two for a loss), three quarterback hits, and his only two career sacks. Even with his modest increase in production, Walton couldn’t retain a spot as one of the primary backups on the line. He slipped back behind McCullers and others, playing only four games and 52 snaps, with two tackles. Pittsburgh elected not to re-sign him after the season.
That ended Walton’s on-field career, but his NFL career lingered a season longer. Signing briefly with Buffalo during offseason work, he was cut during roster cutdowns in 2019. The Steelers actually brought him back during that season, but he lasted only one month without appearing in any games and landed on injured reserve.
PICK VALUE: C+
Walton was almost the 200th selection in the 2015 draft, and stuck it out on the Steelers’ roster for the length of his rookie contract. Even if only two of his seasons came as an actual contributing backup and the other two were as an unused depth piece, that’s still something for a selection so late. Only nine of this fellow sixth-rounders from 2015 played in more NFL games. Walton returned the value of the pick used on him, even if he only just got to that line during his career.
POSITIONAL VALUE: B
Drafted as a defensive tackle, Walton played that position and at end for the Steelers in his four seasons. Looking at the players taken after him at both positions, not many players were able to overcome their draft slots to become even backup players for more than a season. Two defensive tackles, taken on back-to-back picks, played past late sixth-round selections to be long-time NFL contributors.
Christian Covington (216th, Houston) is on his seventh season and fourth NFL franchise in 2021, but has earned spot starts his entire career and last season started 14 of Cincinnati’s 16 games. He is fighting for a roster spot with the Chargers this year. And one pick later, Rakeem Nunez-Roches (217th, Kansas City) jumped from the front-runner in the AFC to the front-runner in the NFC. After three seasons in K.C., the last as a starter, Nunez-Roches jumped to Tampa Bay and won a Super Bowl ring as the Buccaneers’ starter in 2020.
At end, Walton’s career outmatches that of all remaining picks who stayed at the position. The only one who found success drafted at the spot was Steeler teammate Anthony Chickillo, who jumped up from the line to play outside linebacker.
OTHER OPTIONS: D
Covington and Nunez-Roches are among the next 32 picks taken after Walton, and like prior Day 3 retrospectives from this year’s class, not many players panned out taken so late. But one player the entire league missed on did go, and got past a bad start to his career to become a superstar.
Selected 204th by the Baltimore Ravens, Darren Waller was a receiver from Georgia Tech who didn’t fit that position and caught only 18 passes over his first three seasons. The third came with the Raiders, who tried something in covering Waller to tight end that offseason. The result was immediate and extraordinary. Waller’s athleticism made him one of the best few tight ends in football, and he has had 1,100-yard seasons both tears starting at the position. His presence makes the rest of the picks in the sixth look a lot worse by comparison, including Walton.
One pick after Walton went Quandre Diggs, a name appearing in the retros for both Senquez Golson and Doran Grant and another who converted positions and elevated his NFL game. Selected 200th by Detroit, Diggs had a third-year breakout at corner, converted to safety, and made his first Pro Bowl last year in Seattle. He has had at least three interceptions each of the last four seasons.
Few other names are any of note, minor exceptions being Bobby Hart (226th, N.Y. Giants), who started four of the last five years at tackle, and Austin Reiter (222nd, Washington), who started the last two years at center for Kansas City and won a Super Bowl. Waller is a tremendous miss shared by Pittsburgh and the rest of the league, and Diggs one pick after Walton is another player who would go much earlier in a re-draft.
OVERALL GRADE: C
For an earlier selection, a career like Walton’s is easier to poke holes in. For the 199th overall selection, it’s harder to be upset about a player who made it through his entire rookie contract and spent two of those four seasons as a top backup along the defensive line. It isn’t a lot of production, but not many of the alternatives who went later in the draft even made it as far as Walton did.