Every year as the NFL Draft approaches, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers begin watching college ball players, the NFL Combines and Pro Day reports. Every year someone is unhappy about at least one player that was selected by the Steelers. It’s the nature of a prediction game that can’t go everyone’s way. “I don’t like to say [the Steelers] ‘need’ something more than we ‘want’ something,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert pre-draft. During the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers may have seen players they wanted, but they were successful at filling their team’s needs as well.
With the departure of long-time Steelers veteran James Harrison from the outside linebacker position, one of the Steelers’ wants and needs was to find someone who could be groomed quickly to fill in at that spot. Taking Jarvis Jones in the first round (17th overall) was a boon. Although Head Coach Mike Tomlin and linebackers coach Kevin Butler made a statement that appeared as if Jones will have to compete for a starting role, most rookies do. “I think it’s a daunting task for rookies to start in any system and play and perform well,” Tomlin told the media. “Obviously it is difficult when you have established veteran players like we have with a lot of continuity. We are not going to close the door on [Jones] or anyone else on earning an opportunity, and that is what this is about — people taking advantage of opportunities. So he’ll be given that.”
The Steelers are stretched a bit thin at the linebacker position, however. With a lackluster performance by LaMarr Woodley for a majority of the 2012 season, and only three starts by fourth year linebacker Jason Gildon the same year, there is plenty of room for Jones to step at least into second place on the depth chart. Adrian Robinson is untested on the defensive line and spent the majority of his first season with the special teams or inactive. Linebacker Vince Williams, who was drafted in the sixth round (206th overall) this year, the door appears wide open for him to make a competitive move for Robinson’s job. Attending rookie camp as an undrafted rookie free agent will also be linebacker Alan Baxter from Northern Illinois.
During the 2012 season, three running backs came up with a bad case of the ‘fumbles’. Rashard Mendenhall (who has been signed with ‘Steelers-west coast’ – Arizona Cardinals), Isacc Redman and Jonathan Dwyer were all put into a rotation. Whoever could keep the ball and be productive got to remain in the game. It seems the Steelers aren’t wanting to have the same situation happen in 2013. They needed, or wanted, a running back that could fit into Todd Haley’s offense and get in the pile and burst through. They have found that type of rusher in Le’Veon Bell (selected in second round, 48th overall). With LaRod Stephens-Howling joining as a free agent, the Steelers
And in the third round, the Steelers addressed a need at wide receiver by selecting Markus Wheaton. Mike Wallace has moved on to the Miami Dolphins. Until Emmanuel Sanders made an agreement with the Steelers in the last few weeks, his position would have been open as well. On the depth chart, the Steelers list only Antonio Brown, Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery in addition to Sanders. Burress and Cotchery are competent receivers, but age is working against them. Fellow rookie wide receiver, Justin Brown, selected in the sixth round (186th overall) isn’t a shoe-in, but has good size and the ability to be physical with defensive backs.
A smaller receiver at 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, Wheaton holds the all-time Oregon State Beavers receiving record with 227 catches. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley loved what he saw in Wheaton. “[Wheaton] can stretch the field,” Haley said. “He plays inside-out and is a pretty versatile, good, polished football player at the receiver position.” Wheaton’s style of play has provided plenty of opportunities for him to get open. Wheaton could be very effective in Haley’s quick passing scheme.
In the following rounds, the Steelers also selected a safety (Sharmarko Thomas), a cornerback (Terry Hawthorne) and a defensive end (Nicholas Williams). NFL.com and Steelers ‘insiders’ understood that the positions that the Steelers could use depth at included exactly what the Steelers drafted for. Any unsigned rookie free agent that attends mini-camp and shines enough to make it through training camp this year in Latrobe will be an additional bonus.
Draft picks don’t always work out, as everyone who follows the NFL understands. No matter how Tomlin and the Steelers spin it, they may have liked many of the players on the draft board, or even wanted them desperately, but they effectively drafted for the future and depth (a need). Only one player, Landry Jones, seemed out of place to most, but may make perfect sense for the Steelers organization. We will all have to wait and see.
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