For as long as I can remember, it’s been naive to question the Pittsburgh Steelers this time of year.
Those whose job title includes talent evaluator — which should be just about everybody if a franchise is to run fluidly — rarely made a misstep for nearly a decade.
They wouldn’t overpay for top-end free agents, they weren’t afraid to let veteran players go if they felt their production was decreasing and, most importantly, they drafted as efficiently as anyone addressing both need and value.
It’s a reputation they’ve been carrying for some time now and it’s deserved. It’s rewarded them over the years with draft selections like Aaron Smith (1999, fourth round), Brett Keisel (2002, seventh round), Ike Taylor (2003, fourth round) and Antonio Brown (2010, sixth round). Not to mention the countless first-rounders who have been staples in the black and gold for the past two decades.
It’s also allowed them to part ways with the likes of Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, James Harrison, and, most recently, Ryan Clark — all of whom were on the back end of their careers.
But in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, the Steelers have fallen short in the areas where they have built their reputation. And as a result they’re coming off back-to-back .500 seasons.
Since 2005, the organization has struggled in the draft. And that’s putting things nicely.
From the 2005 draft class to the 2010 class, there are just seven players still on the roster. That’s just under a 14-percent success rate — probably good enough to hit sixth in the Pirates batting order — but nowhere near the mark a team needs to have in the NFL draft.
Included are the ‘06, ‘08 and ‘09 draft classes that have yielded a whopping zero players remaining on the roster. So the next time someone on the barstool next to you asks why the Steelers are still relying on a 34-year old cornerback to cover their opponents’ top receivers, you’ll have some numbers to back it up.
The inept scouting has created a snowball effect, too. With very little depth built through the draft, it’s forced the Steelers hand to (a) get more involved in the free-agent market and (b) hold on to older players longer than they probably want or should.
Which brings us to this year and the mess the front office has gotten itself into. Without getting too detailed, the Steelers were up against the salary cap and had to shed some weight. The biggest casualties were Clark and Keisel. One might also argue they were on their way out anyway.
To counter those losses, the Steelers signed safety Mike Mitchell and interior lineman Cam Thomas. They also signed wideouts Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, running back LeGarrette Blount and linebacker Arthur Moats.
When in the world was the last time Pittsburgh was that busy in free agency?
Bottom line is the talent evaluators must do a better job of doing just that, because right now the Steelers are paying for a half-decade of bad drafts. Literally.
Their two biggest needs entering this year were arguably defensive back and wide receiver ... which they finally addressed on day three of the draft.
Who are the naive ones again?