There's more to NFL.com's AFC North Draft Grades than just 'grades' | Steel City Underground

Steel City Underground

Collegiate players on stage with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft (USA Today Sports)
USA Today Sports

Every year, after the completion of the NFL Draft, I like to take about a week to a week-and-a-half to digest the post-selection analysis. One, because I enjoy seeing how many mock drafts were completely and utterly wrong versus mocks that were kind of close (because there are never any that are completely 100 percent correct). Two, because there is so much funny chatter amongst analysts, 'experts', and fans about whether their team's Draft was a "win" or a "bust" without them having seen anything else from the player(s) - nope, not even a snippet of video evidence of them playing with their new NFL team. And finally, so that I can see how the representative website of the National Football League decides to grade each team's draft selections. Not to be a sports conspiracy theorist, but there is some suspicious analysis coming from that website's experts this year that have me asking if there isn't more to their Draft Grades that just a grade.

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Over the years, NFL.com has delved deeper, in my opinion, from its once-intended purpose (to be a definitive source of NFL news, including player and team stats and game/box scores) into the more speculative reporting that is shared among many popular sports reporting sites. I don't necessarily fault the site for adding analysts and expanding their services because, hey, they have the official stamp from the league (so they must be authorities, right?) and they have to compete with what many fans like to call "sports blogs" instead of  "journalism" - mainly due to the fact those same fans see that said reporting is conducted by people who can't be authorities because they don't work for the NFL (sarcasm intended). All that without mentioning ESPN, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, etc.

Maybe the NFL made changes to the site because fans wanted more access or those who enjoy sports betting thought it would give them an inside hook or tip. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that the NFL already makes billions of dollars and wants to actively compete for fan readership/viewership by getting them to visit the "official" site instead of what may, or may not, be their competitors in the reporting and analysis world.

Alas, I digress.

So, perusing the 2019 NFL.com Draft Grades, I sought out the AFC North. As a Steelers fan and someone who actively professionally covers the team, why would I not be curious about how those with that official stamp of league approval had to say versus analysts who are among the great unwashed (i.e. not paid by the NFL)?

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Dan Parr drew the lucky straw in being asked to give his grades for the AFC North. He began by outlining who he felt had "notable selections" in three categories: "best pick", "most surprising pick", and "biggest sleeper". Devin Bush (Michigan), the linebacker the Pittsburgh Steelers moved up to grab at No. 10 overall in the first round, was his selection for "best pick". First, this is not a surprising take on Parr's part. Everyone and their dogs were crossing "T's" and dotting "I's" that the Steelers were going to take a "Devin", whether it was Bush or White. So, in essence, Parr makes a safe assumption in saying that this selection was going to be a success. I doubt there are too many fans out there that aren't excited about what Bush will bring to the Steelers defense. Parr did, however, mention something that struck me as a bit odd:

[The Steelers] had to part with some valuable picks to get Bush, but GM Kevin Colbert absolutely made the right call to be aggressive and save himself from the nightmares that would have ensued at least twice annually had he stood pat at No. 20 and potentially allowed the former Wolverine go to the division-rival Bengals -- another LB-needy team -- with the 11th pick... Unless the Steelers moved up for either Devin White (who went fifth overall to the Bucs) or Bush, they were probably not going to find an adequate replacement [for Ryan Shazier] in this year's draft.

First off, Colbert gave the Denver Broncos one 2019 second-rounder and one 2020 third-rounder out of ten - yes TEN - total picks the Steelers could have spent in 2019. I wouldn't necessarily sell the move as giving away "valuable picks" when only one pick in this year's draft was traded in the deal. If, however, you are the type of fan who wants the team to always keep all of its picks, you'll likely disagree with me.

If Bush was the guy the Steelers wanted all along, then it makes sense to make the move in the manner they made it. There is nothing clandestine about the parting of picks (I give Parr a "D" for trying to be overly dramatic).

Parr's "most surprising pick" was Greedy Williams (LSU, CB) to the Cleveland Browns in the second round (No. 46 overall). Due to the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, the Browns did not select in the first round this year. To me, that just meant they didn't grab a quarterback in the opening round or at No. 1 overall like they have for how many years now? Ok, yes, I still have to give Browns fans a little jab here and there.

Parr suggested that the pick was surprising, however, because "John Dorsey traded up a few spots 'parting with a fifth-rounder' to get Greedy, but it was still a good value to land a tall, speedy running mate... for Denzel Ward." I honestly think the only thing surprising about the Williams pick is that there were so many experts who could not fathom "Greedy" falling into the second round before being selected. There is no suspense or surprise that Dorsey wanted a playmaker in the Cleveland defensive backfield. That he traded up a few spots is hardly shocking, either, if he thought another team might grab Williams. (I give Parr an "F" for the fake bombshell).

As for Parr's "sleeper"? His take on the Cincinnati Bengals selecting Renell Wren (Arizona State, DT) was so sleepy that the only part I paid attention to was this: "...consistency wasn't his strength... I won't be surprised at all if he becomes one of the better players at his position in time." What? Ok, I am now officially giving Parr the equivalent of a Benadryl award for this lackluster pick.

THE STEELERS PICKS

Round 1: (No. 10 overall) Devin Bush (LB, Michigan)
Round 3: (66) Diontae Johnson (WR, Toledo); (83) Justin Layne (CB, Michigan State)
Round 4: (122) Benny Snell (RB, Kentucky)
Round 5: (141) Zach Gentry (TE, Michigan)
Round 6: (175) Sutton Smith (OLB, Northern Illinois); (192) Isaiah Buggs (DT, Alabama); (207) Ulysees Gilbert (LB, Akron).
Round 7: (219) Derwin Gray (OT, Maryland)

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HOW THE NORTH WAS GRADED

Next came the official heralding of the team-by-team grades. This is where I suddenly started seeing what appeared to be the first forms, like phantom mists on a sea covered in heavy fog, of a possible conspiracy. It wasn't the rank order or even the grade, per se, that blew the fog horn. There was, however, a bit of something between the words. A grading between the grading, perhaps.

The Bengals earned an "A-minus" grade and were ranked as the best in the AFC North as far as the NFL.com draft 'gradees' were concerned (as Parr was joined by Gennaro Filice in covering this assignment for the site, including all NFL divisions and 32 teams). The Baltimore Ravens earned a "B-plus" while the Browns earned a solid "B". What did the Steelers earn? A "B-minus". Hey, that's not that bad, right? I mean, it could be worse.

Wait, what?!

Parr: "This draft started with a bang for Pittsburgh and kind of petered out after that, with some interesting swings along the way..."

What were those "interesting swings"? Apparently, it was that the Steelers didn't make Parr feel "super great" (his words) about "the payoff for one of the greatest receivers of our time" in Antonio Brown.

First off, we all know how the Brown story went... and went... and went. Nothing more needs to be said about that. And we all know how NFL.com, NFL Network, its analysts and commentaries, got knee-deep in that business as well. So, are the Steelers seriously getting a knock in their overall "draft grade" because they didn't select someone who is without-a-doubt an absolute future Hall of Fame player with the picks they received from the Oakland Raiders for Brown? Seriously? Are they?

Realism being what it is, there is no way for any draft analyst to know, at this point in time, if any player that was selected in the 2019 NFL Draft will ever make it to the Hall of Fame or be one of the best players "of our time", so the statement was ridiculous. It smacks of playing to Brown's ego because, frankly, it is.

I do not doubt the veracity of Parr's feelings towards Brown as a great player. I do, however, question why he feels he has to feel "super great" about how the Steelers chose to spend draft picks at all. Brown is a fantastic football player, but draft grades are supposed to be about the players selected who are coming into the league. Those grades shouldn't be curved based on emotions about players who are already in the league.

Was he the only one that felt this way, that the grade the Steelers received depended on how Pittsburgh handled the picks they got for Brown? Now I had to get down to the bottom of all this emotion over how the Steelers drafted! So, I looked at a few other sites to see what they were saying about the Steelers.

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ESPN's Jeremy Fowler looked at each of the Steelers' picks and said this, "The Steelers use(d) the pick from the Antonio Brown trade to select a player with shades of Brown... On paper, this might be a reach, but [Diontae] Johnson and [Darryl] Drake both insist he's quicker on the field than his 4.53 40 time suggests." Fowler did not list a "grade", but he still brought up Brown.

247Sports gave the Steelers a "B-plus" and mentioned this: "Johnson was a bit of a reach in the third round but he has the speed that the team is losing from Antonio Brown." Okay. They gave the Ravens a "B" grade; the Bengals an "A-minus" for finally addressing their offensive line by selecting Jonah Williams (OT, Alabama). The Browns earned a "B-plus".

Sports Illustrated gave the Steelers an "A-minus" grade, overall, but mentioned, "The Antonio Brown trade wound up yielding third-round receiver, Diontae Johnson and fifth-round tight end, Zach Gentry. It’s realistic to think that together, they might provide half the production that Brown would have, at least in these first couple of years. But on the plus side, they’re much cheaper than Brown and, presumably, not despicable teammates." Ouch! They gave the Ravens a "B", the Bengals a "B-plus", the Browns a "C-minus".

Looks like there isn't much consistency in draft grades anymore than there are in mock drafts, huh?

I certainly feel there is more to the way draft analysts, not just at NFL.com but especially on that site, grade teams' drafting skills.

First, it appears many analysts weight, or grade on a curve, based on popular big-name NFL players (insert star here if you wish) who have left the team being graded (via free agency or trade or retirement or simply because they no longer love football) and not necessarily on the merits of the drafted player(s).

Second, it appears that in grading in such a manner, they overlook the key factor in why fans are looking at draft grades - to see the potential that class (and its players) might have on the team's success or lack thereof in the upcoming season.

Finally, I think it is a thinly-veiled way for sports analysis sites to use those big star players' names in order to get readers and viewers to pay attention and come visit the site to see what else there is to be said. In other words: name-dropping. I left all player names out of my headline for a reason. I wanted to talk about grades!

For now, I'm throwing this out there that I see grading between the grades and it isn't necessarily on the up-and-up among all analysts looking at the 2019 NFL Draft (or the NFL Draft in general). It certainly seems that the NFL.com analysts weren't just looking at who each team took. Call it a conspiracy if you like. I'd much rather read grades based on the actual players chosen in the Draft, however, than why analysts may or may not give my team a spot on the "honor roll" due to big-name players who aren't even with the team I cheer for.





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  1. Goodness Christina — your snark level was absolutely perfect in this piece. My mouth was watering and my face was smiling reading your words in the first several paragraphs. Thanks for that. It was genuinely beautiful!

    Now, on to the subject at hand, I agree with your overall assessment. The other thing I felt was absolutely silly (i.e. stupid) was that (I believe) I recall reading in that article (the NFL.com grading one) that the Browns were getting what amounts to extra credit because they managed to get OBJ in the off-season. Like, what?!?! How in the living fraschnappelbuck does that affect the draft grade? I remember laughing out loud when I read that. Enough said about how seriously to read that article…

    • Joe Kuzma says:

      BeCuZ ObJ iS WeRtH a FiRsT RoUnD PiCk

      Or… they tend to forget they gave up more in that trade, including their former first round pick and starting safety Jabrill Peppers! WTH is right!

  2. Dave, I was concerned that my saltiness might turn some readers off, but I’m glad I could make a few smile. I didn’t want to delve into the OBJ was a plus, Shazier another minus – in how the draft grades were weighted – because it was just too much.
    There were other teams that had funky grades, too, based on non-factors (namely players who were not drafted in 2019, and who either left or were added to that team ahead of the draft). I stick by my theory of nepotism and a conspiracy of infatuation with certain players skewing the grades and making them a farce. I’ll take my tin foil hat off when they fix the way they grade. Lol

    Thanks for reading & leaving a comment!

  3. I always try to comment around these parts. I thought your saltiness/snark level was perfect! But, then again, I am fully fluent in English, Sarcasm & Smarta$$ as three primary languages. So, you were singing a song of freedom to me! 🙂

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