The 2013 NFL Draft represented crossroads for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After a couple lean years in the draft, the Steelers find themselves with two groups of players. They have a nice group of young players they can build their future around including Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and Antonio Brown among others, but they also have a number of players who were part of one or both of their Super Bowl victories that are reaching the end of their careers such as Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Ike Taylor. James Harrison and his contract were let go as part of this process while they also lost Mike Wallace and Keenan Allen to free agency in part due to the money they were due but they were both positions that were not areas the Steelers wanted to invest any more money and cap. The Steelers could not come in and fill all of their holes without landing one of the drafts for the ages and had to make a few calculations on who they could get another year out of and who needed upgraded now. The Steelers ultimately landed what could be a great draft that not only prepares them for the future but allows them to bounce back and compete for the division again.
Every year the Steelers pick a pass rusher somewhere in the draft; usually they are able to put them in their developmental pipeline for a few years and when a hole opens up and their name is called, they step in and pick up the slack. Because of the proliferation of the 3-4 defense and specifically the Steelers style of the 3-4 defense, it has been increasingly difficult to land those types of players at good values and ultimately found themselves in a situation where they needed to make a big investment draft-wise in the position to play across from Lamar Woodley. By playing the board, the Steelers do what they always do; sit back and let the value come to them. Between concerns over his health and some concerns on tape, Jarvis Jones went from a surefire top 5-10 pick to falling into the Steelers lap at seventeen. Without having medical expertise or access to the records, it is impossible to speculate too much on Jones’s condition. He was diagnosed with a condition called stenosis that is a narrowing of the spine. The doctors at USC were unwilling to clear him to play football, but after transferring, the doctors at Georgia were willing to let him play. Jones has done a lot of work to strengthen the muscles in his neck and back to combat this condition. The Steelers clearly decided that the medical situation was not concerning enough not to pull the trigger. It is something that could come up, but for his sake, hopefully never will.
As far as Jones fit for the Steelers, it is easy to see why they would like him in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme. Much was made of his 40 time being slow, but the reality was Jones was never a speed player. He is a power player that had quick twitch ability. He does not play slow but he is never going to be Barkevious Mingo and that was evident on tape. Jones is a bulldog who just loves to attack and get up the field and make plays. He can bend well, finds holes to attack and can work in a small area. Jones is an underrated run defender and so much Is made of the fact that the Steelers love to rush the passer, but they are able to do it because they are consistently one of the best run defending teams in the league. Jones is fantastic at setting the edge and being stout at the point of attack. Despite only being around 245lbs he did a fantastic job of not giving up ground often against blockers with substantially more size than he had, forcing ball carriers to go around him and allowing teammates to make plays. In addition, he obviously has value as a pass rusher. The concern here is how he sheds blocks as he would have stretches where he would take over games but teams would let tight ends single block him and at times, he struggled to beat their blocks. Some of his production was purely based on Todd Grantham’s scheme at Georgia and used their defensive linemen like blockers to enable him to make plays, so his stats are slightly inflated in that regard. To Jones’ credit, he made the most of his opportunities and was a playmaker for Georgia. And in spite of his struggles at times, he came up big in big games. In the SEC Championship, Jones almost took Alabama’s passing game out of the equation by himself getting two sacks and nonstop pressure on their quarterback. The Steelers know what they like in pass rushers and their GM Kevin Colbert has been fantastic at finding the right guys to bring into their system, so Jones should come in and play well for them, possibly competing for the defensive rookie of the year honors. He will have to earn the spot, but he was basically penciled into the starting line up as soon as his name was announced as the pick.
One of the nagging needs the Steelers have been dealing with the past few years has been a hole at running back. They have been employing a running back by committee approach, especially after Rashard Mendenhall went down with a knee injury two seasons ago. The Steelers offensive line is built for a power running style and can create holes, but they have had trouble finding a back to do the job. In the second round of this draft, they took Le’Veon Bell from Michigan State. Bell was one of the most talented runners in this year’s draft with a ton of physical potential. He has impressive power and strength with the ability to be a work horse back behind Roethlisberger. He has the power to be a mauling runner with the agility to keep defenses honest and make a guy miss on occasion. The problem for Bell is he periodically falls in love with making guys miss and tries to do that too often, forsaking his power and becoming too much of a dancer at running back. When he does this, he is typically less effective as it is not what he does best and a dancing 240lb running back makes a big target, especially one as tall as Bell is at over 6’1”. He needs to accept what he is; a power back who can use agility. If he can do that, he will be a huge asset for the Steelers and give them a legitimate ground game to make Roethlisberger’s life easier. His height is somewhat of a problem as he tends to run tall and expose his body to punishment. It would hardly be a surprise if Bell ends up in a flak jacket several times during the course of his career as defenders blast him in the midsection possibly breaking his ribs.
In addition to being a runner, Bell is a great asset as a receiving threat. He was actually a wide receiver before converting to running back and his feet combined with his knowledge of being a former receiver make him a dangerous threat in the passing game. He is one of the best running backs as a receiver, period and having someone his size able to contribute beyond just getting extended pitches makes him a potential matchup advantage against linebackers. He flashes the ability to block and protect the quarterback but he needs to be more consistent. The physical ability has never been an issue for Bell; it is all about the mental side of the game and avoiding the identity crises that periodically brought him down in college.
Many expected the Steelers to look to the draft to replace Mike Wallace as well as plan ahead for the loss of Emmanuel Sanders next year. The draft rewarded the Steelers for being patient as a player who could have warranted a late first round pick fell right into their laps in Markus Wheaton from Oregon State. There were plenty of people who put two and two together here and projected Wheaton to the Steelers as he had a lot of similarities to Mike Wallace. Wheaton is more than just a speed threat to stretch the field. He possesses game breaking speed but he is a far better route runner than many gave him credit and he is also a guy who can be a threat on drags and other short routes to get yards after the catch. Wallace is strictly an outside receiver and is a poor fit in the slot but he is a great fit for Roethlisberger in having a guy who can go over the top and punish the defense deep to open up other receivers underneath. It is a little unfair to expect him to be Mike Wallace out of the gate but if he comes out and has a great year and has an instant connection with Roethlisberger, it would not be a surprise. Wheaton is a talented player and presents a tremendous value for the Steelers in the third round.
The fourth round was interesting as the Steelers made a move that is uncharacteristic for that organization; they traded into the fourth round and did it with a third round pick from 2014. The deal was relatively run of the mill and a pretty standard exchange but the Steelers do not normally do it and much (too much really) has been made of the fact they made the deal with their division rival Cleveland. The Steelers added the extra pick to grab what they hope is their strong safety of the future in Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas. The Steelers obviously liked Thomas but they are thin at safety behind Polamalu and Clark. Polamalu has missed a number of games over the past couple years due to injuries, so they needed someone who could fill in for that situation but also someone who could eventually take over the job as Polamalu is rapidly approaching the end of his career. Thomas is a missile at the safety position and a good fit in Pittsburgh. He flies around at a full sprint and looks for people to hit, which will endear him to the Steelers fans quickly. Thomas needs to play more under control, but he can be a disruptive player, not unlike Polamalu, who has been there for the past decade. The issues with Thomas are that he is short, like Bob Sanders was, and he has reportedly had some concussions throughout his college career. Still, the fit is great in Pittsburgh and the Steelers coaches will find places to use him both within their defense but also as a big time threat on special teams. Thomas is the type of guy who can make an impact, momentum changing hit on special teams that takes the energy out of an opposing crowd or get the home fans and his teammates pumped up. He is a great fit in Pittsburgh’s system and he could make an impact early in his career, but the reality is the Steelers would rather he did not play all that much because that means Polamalu is healthy and effective.
Four picks later with their actual fourth round pick, the Steelers picked Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, which was met with a fair amount of skepticism and confusion. Jones has had a long, inconsistent career for the Sooners, but he never took the big next step in his development. Although his stats were impressive this past year, Jones appeared to regress slightly and developed some bad habits. He still has a great deal of talent both in his arm strength and his accuracy at times. He has the tools to be a good quarterback in this league if he can develop better habits and know when to give up on a play and accept that punting is not defeat. The underappreciated aspect of this pick is that Jones has an awfully similar style to Roethlisberger and if Roethlisberger were to get hurt, Jones would represent a far more similar quarterback in a backup role than some of the quarterbacks they have had in the past. He is not as big or as athletic as Roethlisberger but he is has good size and is not quite the statue some make him out to be. And because of Roethlisberger’s style of play, it is not bad to have a reliable backup to come in if needed or to develop a long term guy for life after Roethlisberger. He just turned 31 which is not old by quarterback standards but his body has aged far more like a running back. The pick and value here may not have been ideal but it is easy to understand why the Steelers opted to go this route.
Continuing to address their secondary in the fifth round, the Steelers picked Terry Hawthorne out of Illinois. Illinois has struggled to produce victories the last several years but have produced some quality prospects, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Steelers appear comfortable with Cortez Allen moving into the vacancy left by Keenan Lewis but they could use more help at the position. Hawthorne is the type of corner the Steelers tend to like, having good height for the position at about 6’ and 195lbs with the ability to play press and help in the run. The Steelers have their starting corners all set at this point with Allen and Taylor but after that, it is going to come down to a competition for the nickel and dime spots. Beyond that, Taylor is 31 now and they are going to be looking for the next guy to come and be able to start. If Hawthorne can come in and find a role this year and develop, he could figure into the plans to start across from Allen next year or soon after.
In the sixth round, the Steelers took a flyer on a triangle numbers wide receiver going local in Penn State wide receiver Justin Brown. Both because of their proficiency in the draft and Roethlisberger’s talent, arm strength and ability to extend plays, the Steelers have had success in the mid to late rounds adding wide receiver help. Brown brings a good combination of size and speed and if he develops, he could be another steal along lines of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown before him as those later round receiver prospects that work out in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have a solid receiving core on the front line but their depth is not impressive and while they currently have Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress on the roster, Burress and possibly both may find themselves not making the cut after camp. Justin Brown will have an opportunity to make the roster if he can show the potential to develop into something down the road. If for whatever reason he struggles early and cannot beat them out, he could find himself on the practice squad.
Also in the sixth round, the Steelers added more depth at the inside linebacker position with Florida State’s Vince Williams. The Steelers are relatively thin at the position after the unfortunate knee injury to Sean Spence last year that may ultimately end his career. However, even if he does come back, he would be a backup and developmental player behind Timmons. The Steelers brought in Williams to compete for the thumping, strong side inside linebacker position. It is a little surprising to see Williams slide this far in the draft after he had some quality tape this past year and looked impressive at the Senior Bowl. He has great size and strength for the position with the ability to fill but also showed above average range for the position. He is still working to improve in pass coverage but drafting a player like Williams is for running downs primarily. If Williams can become a three down linebacker in addition to being a run stopper, he becomes a huge steal for the Steelers. As it is, if he can fill the role of being an effective run stopper, the Steelers have more than gotten their money’s worth on the pick. He could make an impact on this Steelers team earlier than some think.
In the seventh round, the Steelers finished their draft by adding Samford defensive tackle Nicholas Williams. The Steelers have a pretty solid rotation at the 5-tech defensive end position, but they are always looking to add competition to the spot. This is all about taking a flyer on competition and seeing if Williams can come in and take a spot from Al Woods or Cordian Hagans. The other part of this is that Brett Keisel is another one of the aging Steelers and while they have Cameron Heyward waiting in the wings to inherit that spot, they might see Williams as his potential backup and long term development project. This is another guy where if he cannot make an impression on the staff, he may find himself on the practice squad for a year and then after Keisel leaves or retires, he can get another shot to make the roster.
My Thoughts: I had actually projected the Steelers to take Jones, Bell, and Wheaton but had them taking Wheaton in the second round and Bell in the third. If Bell was a reach, however slight, Wheaton’s value more than made up for it and if those picks were reversed, no one would think twice about it. All three of those picks should contribute immediately for the Steelers and could play a huge impact on whether or not the Steelers are able to get back into the playoffs or if they really do need to do a little bit of rebuilding.
Jones is a talented player, but it remains to be seen if he can really be the franchise pass rusher the Steelers need. Getting coached up in Pittsburgh by their long time linebackers coach, Keith Butler, can only benefit him but it will be interesting to see if he has some troubles adjusting in the NFL to how tackles block him as opposed to the SEC. He will make plays but he could struggle if he does not do a better job of fighting off blocks. He should still be an outstanding run defender even if he is not a huge sack guy immediately.
With Bell, it is all about his mentality. If he decides he wants to be a power back who will flash agility to keep defenses and honest, he can look every bit of the most talented back in the draft which some believed him to be early in the process. If he gets into trying to jump cut and attempt to make people miss too much, he is going to drive Steelers fans and their running backs coach nuts. He has to accept being a power back and love being a power back if he is going to succeed.
It is mind boggling that the Buffalo Bills took Marquise Goodwin over Markus Wheaton the pick before, allowing him to fall into the Steelers laps. This is easily their best pick in my opinion and someone that could easily find himself as a tremendous #2 receiver across from Brown and a favorite for Roethlisberger early in the process. Wheaton is a good receiver who happens to be incredibly fast. He is not a fast receiver who is good as a result. I think this could be a pick that many teams regret not making.
I am higher on the Landry Jones pick than most are. I would have picked Zac Dysert, over Jones based on my evaluation but if I was asked to come up with a good backup option that plays the quarterback position similar to Roethlisberger, it would first been Dysert, the fellow Miami University Redhawk, followed by Landry Jones. So much of a player’s success is based off of the fit and this was a great fit for both sides. The argument is when they could have gotten Jones, but once the third day comes along, the draft becomes the Wild West in many ways because everyone’s boards are so different in where they rank players that if a team loves a player, they cannot quibble too much over the value. It remains to be seen If the damage to Jones’s career his senior year is too much to overcome but the pick was a worthwhile gamble to find out and have a nice backup option for Roethlisberger and perhaps eventually replace him.
The last pick that stood out to me as a good value was Vince Williams. He is the prototypical 2-down run stuffer that teams need as a strong inside linebacker teams are looking for in the 3-4. He has good range and can run and chase down ball carriers with the ability to hit and all he cost was a sixth round pick. He has a decent amount of upside on everything else. I think he could end up sticking around for a long time on Pittsburgh’s roster as long as he can contribute on special teams, but he may end up in the rotation in spots sooner than later.
Overall, the Steelers had a mostly typical Steeler draft. They sat tight, with the rare exception of trading in to get Shamarko Thomas, and just let good football players that fit what they look for fall right to them as they usually do. And despite picking in the latter half of the rounds consistently, they make their picks count on value and get talent that appears able to contribute early. The Steelers have three guys who should definitely contribute a great deal early this year but they added guys like Thomas, Hawthorne and Williams that could see a decent amount of playing time as rookies and increase their roles as time moves along. If there is one area of concern that always comes up with the Steelers is have they done enough to shore up that offensive line. Nevertheless, the Steelers appear poised to be in the AFC North divisional race all the way down to the end again as a result of Kevin Colbert’s handling of this year’s draft and getting back on the proverbial horse this year. And if this draft does indeed prove to be successful and they follow up with another next year, they are contenders again.
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