Two seasons ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers reached the Super Bowl. A year later, they were embarrassed by Tim Tebow in the first round of the players. Last year, they failed to reach the playoffs.
In a season riddled with injury, the offseason was no less frustrating, seeing major losses in the forms of Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, James Harrison, Will Allen, and others.
Tight against the cap, they are rarely much of a factor in free agency, and this season was no different. This led many to believe that this draft was more important than most for the six-time Super Bowl champion Steelers, one in which many needs had to be filled.
This list looks at the team’s 2013 draft class on a selection by selection basis and tries to determine both their immediate impact and their long-term potential for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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Jarvis Jones, OLB
Contrary to popular belief, the Pittsburgh Steelers did not project outside linebacker as nearly the dire need that everybody outside of the team made it to be, despite using their first round pick on the position. While they parted ways with James Harrison, the team was likely content with Jason Worilds in his spot if Jones wasn’t there at 17 overall. Worilds, when healthy, has shown flashes of production in his limited opportunities to start over his first three seasons, and had a career high five sacks a year ago. Rookies simply do not start on defense for the Steelers, and don’t expect Jones to do so either.
Jarvis Jones can be considered a risky selection. Although he was highly productive at the collegiate level in the SEC, he was also more or less the centerpiece of his defensive unit, gearing the scheme toward making things happen for him, which arguably resulted in an inflated sack total. He played outside linebacker in college, suggesting that he is at or near his top level already. The Steelers typically prefer to draft undersized defensive ends from college and convert them to 3-4 outside linebackers, with LaMarr Woodley being a textbook example. He is already older, has a potential serious medical red flag in the future, and, on tape, plays more like his 4.9+ 40 yard dash time than you would like. There is a lot of boom or bust potential here, more than many fans of the team are willing to admit.
Still, as a rookie, he could find a niche role as a pass rusher in select sub packages, which was his greatest strength in college. He will have to work on getting stronger and playing the run before he can start. Given the recent injury histories of the Steelers’ OLBs, however, he may have to before he’s ready.
Le’Veon Bell, RB
Some were aghast that the Steelers chose to draft Le’Veon Bell while Alabama running back Eddie Lacy was still on the board. It surfaced later that Lacy had a medical red flag regarding a toe injury, however. Some still felt that Bell was slightly overdrafted. Yet there are those who believe that Bell is the most complete back in the draft with his work in pass protection and catching. Also factoring into the equation was the poor offensive line that Bell played behind at Michigan State, not to mention an offense built around his productivity. Those things project well to the NFL behind a better offensive line. Bell could certainly be a day one starter following the departure of Rashard Mendenhall, and suggests that the job of one of either Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer could be in jeopardy enter the 2013 season.
Markus Wheaton, WR
Markus Wheaton claims to have run a 4.3 40 yard dash in the past, despite not reaching such heights at the NFL combine. The Steelers just lost a guy with that kind of speed in Mike Wallace. Maybe Wheaton is not going to become Wallace, but he can help maintain a component that he brought to Pittsburgh’s offensive arsenal: stretching the field. He could fill the niche role that Wallace filled his rookie year, running go routes and opening the field for other targets. Wheaton is a more polished receiver and superior route runner, however, who can also carry the ball, opening the possibilities of him emerging as an offensive weapon, both out of the gate and into the future, especially with Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, and Plaxico Burress all slated to be free agents after this season.
Shamarko Thomas, S
The Steelers traded their third round pick for the 2014 draft for a fourth round pick this year in order to select safety Shamarko Thomas, which should tell you how they feel about his potential. The team lost both of their backup safeties from a year ago and their starters are aging, making safety depth a critical need. Despite underwhelming height, Thomas is a hard hitter who can also cover from the safety position, adding versatility to the secondary that could get him on the field sooner than normal in sub packages, and could potentially take over as a starter in a year or two, depending on what the future, and the salary cap, holds for Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.
Landry Jones, QB
The majority of fans of the team, and many beat writers, seem to absolutely hate the fact that the Steelers selected Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones in the fourth round this year, citing a litany of needs at other positions. While it is true that the best case scenario is that Jones never plays a down (meaning Ben Roethlisberger is never injured), Big Ben’s career history simply does not add up to that reality. He missed three games last year alone. Also consider how often he has played through injury. Perhaps if the Steelers had a more reliable backup plan, they would have been more comfortable allowing Roethlisberger to sit rather than struggle through a poor, losing performance anyway. Landry Jones presented good value in the fourth round, and many believe that he was placed in a bad situation last season, citing his sophomore and junior year tapes, He could be the answer to the backup quarterback questions for years to come, and could even emerge as valuable trade bait in the future, as others like Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn became.
Terry Hawthorne, CB
Terry Hawthorne was once a more highly regarded prospect than the fifth round, but after his entire team had a major downswing a season ago, so too did his draft stock. And he knows that. Hawthorne is an aggressive, press corner with good height and high upside. Which kind of fits the description of the team’s two starting cornerbacks this year, Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, both former fourth round picks. With former Steelers safety and cornerback Carnell Lake as his position coach, he could be molded into another quality late-round project. Behind Taylor, Allen, William Gay, and Curtis Brown, Hawthorne will cut his teeth on special teams early on in his career, but he could potentially emerge in dime packages as a rookie, as Allen did two seasons ago.
Justin Brown, Wr
Another sixth round wide receiver named Brown…no, Justin Brown is not likely to reach the heights of Antonio Brown, who is now the team’s top receiver. In fact, he may very well end up on the practice squad. But he is a tall, raw receiver with potential. He transferred from Penn State to Oklahoma a season ago and became one of Landry Jones’ favorite targets as the season wore on. He won’t be asked the contribute early on in his career. Although, with all but Brown and fellow rookie Markus Wheaton projected to become free agents next year, he may have to a year from now.
Vince Williams, ILB
During his press conference for the selection of Vince Williams, linebackers coach Keith Butler all but stated that it would be a miracle if Sean Spence, the team’s third round draft pick from a year ago, played football again, let alone this year or next. With that in mind, many found it odd that they didn’t address the anemic depth at inside linebacker earlier. However, given the lack of depth, Williams very much has the potential to make the roster. A proven leader and signal caller in college, he must prove that he can be a three down linebacker at the NFL level and improve his instincts and angles. What he does have going for him is the ability to shed blockers. But for now, he will have to make due on special teams.
Nicholas Williams, DE
Defensive line coach John Mitchell made it a point to stress repeatedly that Nick Williams was a project and would not play. Yet he still gushed about his potential. He has surprising athleticism for his size and has the frame and work ethic to add or lose weight as necessary. Mitchell likes these types of projects, because he likes to strip a player down and teach him the 5-technique anyway. With Cameron Heyward and Al Woods already on the depth chart behind the starters at defensive end, Williams is slated to spend a season or more on the practice squad, but with Brett Keisel, a former seventh round pick who spent years cutting his teeth on special teams, as a role model and Mitchell as his coach, who knows what the somewhat distant future holds for him?