The Pittsburgh Steelers are expecting tangible contributions from their newest draft class as they embark on the 2013 season.
That’s something that was missing in 2011 and 2012, when they followed a one-and-done playoff showing by missing the playoffs altogether.
It’s still too early to really assess the Steelers’ 2013 draft. These guys need to play in real football games. But with training camp and preseason games under their belt, there’s more to go on now than there was in April. The eve of the season opener is a good checkpoint for a draft class evaluation.
Expect to hear the names of first-round pick Jarvis Jones and third-round pick Markus Wheaton at least once on Sunday.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in Tuesday’s press conference on Steelers.com that Jason Worilds will start at outside linebacker in the season opener, but that Jones will play.
It’s only a matter of time before Jones starts. He recovered a fumble and forced a fumble in the preseason. He helped stuff the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles on fourth-and-1, and had an interception negated by a penalty. He’s shown a real nose for the football and is poised to give the Steelers more as a rookie since any defensive draft pick since Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell in 2001.
Wheaton likely will be the third option at wide receiver behind Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. He was second on the team in both receptions (nine) and receiving yards (139) during the preseason. The only player ahead of him in both categories was No. 5 receiver Derek Moye, who unlike Wheaton was fighting for a roster spot.
Second-round pick Le’Veon Bell, sidelined by a foot injury for Week 1, will start in 2013 once he’s healthy.
Fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas tied for the team lead with 16 total tackles during the preseason. He’ll provide safety depth and get plenty of action on special teams.
Also making the 53-man roster from the 2013 draft are quarterback Landry Jones, chosen four picks after Thomas, and sixth-round inside linebacker Vince Williams.
If Jones, Bell, Wheaton and Thomas all perform as anticipated, the Steelers will get more in Year 1 out of their first four picks than they have in any of Tomlin’s drafts.
In 2012, first-rounder David DeCastro and third-rounder Sean Spence were injured in the preseason, although DeCastro came back to play in the last four games. Second-rounder Mike Adams started six games and fourth-rounder Alameda Ta’amu, who was cut last week, didn’t dress for a game as a rookie.
In 2011, second-rounder Marcus Gilbert started 13 games on the offensive line and fourth-rounder Cortez Allen showed promise that’s since been fulfilled. But the Steelers are still waiting for first-rounder Cameron Heyward and third-rounder Curtis Brown to produce.
The learning curve of their rookies was the least of the Steelers’ problems in 2011 and 2012, but it couldn’t have helped during a two-year stretch in which the Steelers lost the only playoff game they played.
No members of the 2011 and 2012 draft classes were as much of a factor as Maurkice Pouncey and Emmanuel Sanders in 2010. Pouncey made the Pro Bowl and Sanders caught 28 passes. Sixth-rounder Antonio Brown rose to the occasion in the playoffs, and all three rookies were instrumental in getting the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV.
As fruitful as the 2010 draft has been, the first four picks didn’t pack the same punch as this year’s top four picks are capable of doing. Second-rounder Jason Worilds remains a mystery and fourth-round linebacker Thaddeus Gibson was waived in the middle of his rookie season.
Mike Wallace, chosen in the third round of the 2009 draft, burst onto the scene with 39 catches in his rookie season. However, first-rounder Ziggy Hood still hasn’t had first-round impact. Third-round offensive lineman Kraig Urbik never played a game for the Steelers. Third-rounder Keenan Lewis, the Steelers’ fourth pick in 2009, needed three years to earn a starting job.
The 2008 draft was a disaster. All the Steelers could salvage from that mess was a few good years from Rashard Mendenhall. That draft included bust triplets Limas Sweed in the second round, linebacker Bruce Davis in the third round and offensive tackle Tony Hills in the fourth round.
The 6’4” Sweed was chosen because Ben Roethlisberger said it would be nice to have a tall receiver. But he, Davis and Hills all struggled in their first training camp, just like Ta’amu did in 2012. First impressions were last impressions. That hasn’t happened with any of the Steelers’ top four picks in 2013. They’ve all impressed at one point or another.
Tomlin’s first draft in 2007 yielded Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. But Jarvis Jones has a chance to make more of a rookie impact than both of those players. Third-rounder Matt Spaeth caught five passes in 2007. The fourth-round pick that year was punter Daniel Sepulveda. Three of his five seasons were cut short by injuries.
Not since 2002 have the Steelers been successful with all of their top four draft picks. Guard Kendall Simmons, receiver Antwaan Randle-El, safety Chris Hope and linebacker Larry Foote were taken that year.
That draft, which also included Brett Keisel in the seventh round, has fueled two championship teams.
The 2013 draft is off to just as good a start.