Should The Steelers Take A QB In The First Round? Probably Not! - By Ryan Wilson

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

The Steelers will have the 11th pick in the upcoming NFL draft and Cowher and company are still deciding their draft strategy as April 24th approaches. This, however, has not stopped fans from offering their opinions on which players would best meet the needs of a team trying to rebound from a 6-10 season. You can spend all day on message boards discussing the merits of taking a quarterback in the first round, getting a halfback in the second round (because there are plenty of good halfbacks in this year's draft) and maybe signing a cornerback through free agency. Scenarios like this will play themselves out daily until draft day. And unlike ten years ago, the countless mock draft websites give fans easy access to player statistics and scouting reports.

Of the mock drafts that I have seen, many are projecting the Steelers to select among two halfbacks (Kevin Jones and Steven Jackson), two cornerbacks (Chris Gamble, DeAngelo Hall), a quarterback (Philip Rivers) and an offensive lineman (Robert Gallery-who in all likelihood will be long gone when the 11th pick rolls around).

Who should the Steelers take with the first pick? That depends on who you ask-and more importantly, whether the Steelers are trying to win now-at all costs, or build a team that makes it to the postseason year in and year out.

We know that Mark Bruener and DeWayne Washington are gone (and Amos Zereoue may soon follow), and let's assume that Chad Scott and Jerome Bettis restructure their contracts. That leaves the Steelers with immediate needs at halfback and cornerback. Not to mention the void left on the offensive line from the departure of Wayne Gandy and the subsequent injury to Marvel Smith (add to that Kendall Simmons being diagnosed with diabetes at the start of training camp, and you've got an O-line that gave up 43 sacks). Needs that are less immediate, but should be addressed include: quarterback, defensive end, outside linebacker, tight end and fullback (if the Steelers can't resign Dan Kreider).

Draft a Halfback First? With the 11th pick, many people contend that the Steelers should take either halfback Kevin Jones (Virginia Tech) or halfback Steven Jackson (Oregon St.). Their argument goes something like this:

"The Bus is out of gas, Zereoue proved that he's not a starter in this league and we have the chance to get the top back in the draft. Maybe we can keep Jerome around at a reduced salary, and he can serve as (insert name of your halfback of choice)'s mentor. We can get back to smash-mouth football and be right back in it next year!"

Maybe. But history and statistics might suggest otherwise. It has long been the mantra among most general managers, coaches and scouts that you don't take a running back high in the draft unless he is the next coming of Jim Brown. The theory goes as follows: There are too many running backs with very similar abilities, so it doesn't make sense to take a back early when a back of similar skill will be around later-instead, address hard-to-fill positions first.

This theory is also supported with statistics.

FA* 3.7 8.2 11.9 0.15
1 4.0 8.3 12.3 0.35
2 3.8 8.3 12.1 0.28
3 3.6 8.1 11.7 0.17
4 3.8 7.5 11.3 0.15
5 4.0 7.8 11.8 0.17
6 3.4 7.9 11.3 0.15
7 3.7 8.2 11.9 0.17
Average 3.8 8.1 11.9 0.20
FA* denotes signed as free agent or signed through supplemental draft.

The table above shows that despite the round drafted, halfbacks average 3.8 yards per carry (YPC) and first-rounders do slightly better at 4.0 YPC. This might give one pause when contemplating picking anything other than a halfback with the first pick, but a quick glance down the table shows that fifth round picks also average 4.0 YPC. Well, maybe it's the case that halfbacks taken in the first round prove to be better receivers out of the backfield. Again, the table shows that seventh round picks and free agents do almost as well as first rounders in terms of yards per reception (YPR).

So the question then becomes, do you want to pay first round money to a player that you can get in a later round and will give you the same production? Unless you are a team with only needs at halfback, I would say no-you can get comparable value later in the draft at a fraction of the cost.

Draft a Quarterback First? Because Tommy Maddox will be 33 when the season starts and because Charlie Batch will be a free agent in 2005, many people think the quarterback position should be addressed sooner rather than later. This is true, but where that quarterback is taken in the draft is very important. Almost all of the mock drafts have Philip Rivers available at the 11th pick-and a fair share have the Steelers selecting him. Again we can ask the question, "Can a team get comparable value from a quarterback taken in later rounds instead of a quarterback drafted in the first round?" I think the answer is a resounding, "Yes."

FA* 0.53 6.5 0.95
1 0.54 6.5 1.09
2 0.54 6.3 1.00
3 0.55 6.6 1.14
4 0.53 6.1 0.81
5 0.52 6.4 0.93
6 0.51 6.5 0.88
7 0.53 6.4 0.88
Average 0.54 6.4 0.98
FA* denotes signed as free agent or signed through supplemental draft.

Since 1970, third round picks have averaged slightly better numbers than first round picks (completion percentage, passing yards per attempt, and passing TDs per interception thrown). And as you get deeper into the draft, the numbers do not vary by much-for example, seventh round picks complete only two percent fewer passes than first round picks. So why would you pay first round money to a player you can get in later rounds?

Maybe an argument can be made that even though all quarterbacks have similar numbers (on average), quarterbacks drafted in the first round are often more successful. Let's say it's reasonable to assume that if a team makes it to the Super Bowl, their quarterback has had a successful season (a notable exception might include Trent Dilfer in 2001). If we look at quarterbacks participating in the Super Bowl since 1967, those not drafted in the first round account for 53 percent of the total. Included in this 53 percent are players taken in rounds 3-5 (21 percent), players taken in the sixth round and later (19 percent) and free agents (5 percent).

So again, we have more evidence against taking a quarterback in the first round. And as we found with running backs, unless there is a Peyton Manning or Dan Marino available, drafting a quarterback in the first round is a bad idea because there will be players with similar abilities in later rounds at much more reasonable prices (two names that come to mind are Brett Favre, taken in the fifth round and Tom Brady, drafted in the sixth round).

So where does that leave the Steelers? Well they still have immediate needs at cornerback and offensive line. The next question you have to ask is, how deep are the pool of talented cornerbacks and offensive linemen? Is the drop off in ability between the top cornerback and the fifth cornerback large? Can you get a solid offensive lineman in later rounds?

Because there are no readily available statistics on cornerbacks, I was unable to draw comparisons as I did for running backs and quarterbacks. However, looking at the cornerbacks drafted since 1995, I was unable to find one "shutdown corner" ("shutdown corner" is an ambiguous term, but here I'm referring to players like Ty Law, Bobby Taylor, Brian Dawkins, Shawn Springs, Samari Rolle, Patrick Surtain, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey and Chris McAlister) drafted after the second round. So while teams unearth late-round gems like Tom Brady and Rudi Johnson, that has not been the case with cornerbacks.

Knowing this, the Steelers should take a cornerback with the 11th pick. There is speculation that it could be either Chris Gamble (6'1", 198lbs) or DeAngelo Hall (4.38-40, 5'10"). Will Poole from USC is also moving up the draft board after a strong showing at the combines and might also figure in the mix. The Steelers then have six more picks to address their needs at halfback, quarterback and offensive line-not to mention any acquisitions through free agency. Using this strategy also eliminates the problem of overpaying halfbacks or quarterbacks taken early, when players producing similar numbers can be obtained for lesser value later in the draft.

Let's hope that Cowher and Company come to these same conclusions and takes a cornerback early. They can then address their other needs with the remaining picks, or through free agency. Otherwise, we might be having this same discussion again next year.