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Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin’s Drafts Aren’t as Bad as They Seem

Amid the rubble of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 0-4 start, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Mike Tomlin’s drafts have been among the targets of that finger-pointing.

That’s certainly part of the problem. We’re fresh off ripping the Steelers 2012 draft class.

While there’s still time for some of those 2012 selections to blossom, the book is closed on the 2008 draft, which was largely a disappointment.

The Steelers did get a couple of 1,000-yard seasons from first-rounder Rashard Mendenhall. He helped them get to Super Bowl XLV with 1,273 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010.

After Mendenhall came a hat trick of busts: wide receiver Limas Sweed in the second round, linebacker Bruce Davis in the third round and offensive tackle Tony Hills in the fourth round. Quarterback Dennis Dixon was chosen in the fifth round. The best he could hope for was to become Ben Roethlisberger’s backup, but that never materialized.

The only other player from the 2008 draft who ever suited up for the Steelers was Ryan Mundy, who served as backup safety before going to the Giants after last season.

Tomlin and Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert get no amnesty for the 2008 draft.

However, the rest of their drafts haven’t been as bad as everyone is making them out to be, and there’s still a chance some of those picks can help the Steelers.

The 2007 draft, Tomlin’s first as Steelers head coach, provided defensive cornerstones Lawrence Timmons in the first round and LaMarr Woodley in the second round. Third-round tight end Matt Spaeth isn’t much of a pass catcher, but he’s a superior blocker. Fifth-rounder William Gay does get torched from time to time, but he’s been valuable as a fill-in starting cornerback and saved two wins with interceptions in 2011. The Steelers thought enough of Spaeth and Gay to bring them back after they signed with other teams.

First-rounder Ziggy Hood and seventh-rounder David Johnson are all that’s left from the 2009 draft. Hood has started 35 consecutive games, including playoffs, at defensive end. He has 14 combined tackles this season and is on pace to easily surpass his career high of 42. Johnson seems to have found a spring in his step after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Primarily a blocking tight end, he has four receptions this season at an average of 17.5 yards per catch. For his career, he’s averaging 9.8 yards per reception.

The third round of the Steelers 2009 draft also was bountiful. Mike Wallace was taken 84th overall and cornerback Keenan Lewis 96th. The Steelers offense sorely misses Wallace. Lewis, who was second in the NFL last season with 23 passes defended, has an interception (one more than any Steeler), three passes defended and a forced fumble this season for the 5-0 New Orleans Saints.

If it weren’t for salary cap constraints, the Steelers would have found a way to keep Wallace and Lewis, or at least one of them. That would have made the 2009 draft look a lot better.

Tomlin and Colbert deserve more criticism for their cap management than for the 2009 draft.

Ben Roethlisberger wouldn’t have anyone to throw the ball to were it not for the 2010 draft. Emmanuel Sanders was chosen in the third round and 2011 team MVP Antonio Brown, who’s tied for seventh in the league with 32 receptions this season, was taken in the sixth round.

A season-ending knee injury is the only thing that could break the Pro Bowl streak of first-round center Maurkice Pouncey, who received the honor in each of his first three seasons. Sixth-rounder Jonathan Dwyer is not an NFL-caliber starting running back. But he’s stuck around, even after being cut in training camp, and is developing into a strong blocker.

The selection of Jason Worilds in the second round lends a touch of infamy to the 2010 draft. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the story goes that the Steelers were set to draft linebacker Sean Lee, but Tomlin pushed for Worilds.

Lee has 50 combined tackles – and one more interception than any Steeler – this season for the Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers’ leading tackler this season? Ryan Clark with 29. Meanwhile, Worilds lost out to rookie Jarvis Jones as James Harrison’s successor at outside linebacker.

Still, the 2010 draft wasn’t a bad one at all, and it helped the Steelers reach Super Bowl XLV.

The 2011 draft is finally showing signs of life. First-round defensive end Cameron Heyward has broken up two passes this season after breaking up just one the previous two seasons. Despite the woeful performance of the Steelers offensive line, second-round right tackle Marcus Gilbert seems to be steadily improving. Dale Lolley of Steel City Insider (subscription required) observed that he might have had the best game of his career in Week 4 against the Minnesota Vikings. Pro Football Focus, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ranked him 32nd among NFL offensive tackles. By comparison, Mike Adams ranks 69th and new acquisition Levi Brown ranks 60th.

It would take a slew of injuries to get 2011 third-rounder Curtis Brown on the field at cornerback, but he’s a solid special teams player. Fourth-rounder Cortez Allen could be given a mulligan for his awful game in London. He was coming back after missing two games with an ankle injury. The Steelers have high hopes for him as Lewis’ replacement.

The 2012 draft, as we’ve said, has hurt the Steelers this season, but there’s still time for redemption.

The 2013 draft already has yielded three starters in Jones, running back Le’Veon Bell and linebacker Vince Williams.

Sure, none of these drafts have had the impact of the 2002 draft, which included Larry Foote and Brett Keisel, the 2003 draft (Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor), the 2004 draft (Ben Roethlisberger and Max Starks) or the 2005 draft (Heath Miller and Bryant McFadden).

Colbert worked in tandem with Bill Cowher on those drafts, and every single one of those players has at least one championship ring.

Now Colbert is working with Tomlin.

While Colbert has been the constant, Tomlin has been the variable in the Steelers’ draft process since 2007.

That exposes Tomlin to questions about his drafting prowess. The Worilds episode adds fuel to the theory that he’s not as good a player evaluator as Cowher. While the results of the Tomlin-Colbert drafts have been spotty, let’s not forget that Cowher’s final draft was no great shakes.

Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes was chosen in the first round, but he turned out to be so much trouble that the Steelers traded him away for a fifth-round draft pick in 2010. Fourth-rounder Willie Colon started every game from 2007 to 2009 and at times was the Steelers’ best offensive lineman, but his next three seasons were plagued by injuries before the Steelers let him go.

The rest of that nine-player haul consisted of flameouts like Anthony Smith and Willie Reid, as well as five guys who never played a down for the Steelers.

Most players drafted in 2006 are right around 30 years old. It’s reasonable in 2013 to expect contributions from those players, yet the Steelers have no one left from that class.

Sure, if Tomlin’s drafts were better, the Steelers wouldn’t need help from Cowher’s last draft. But Tomlin isn’t going anywhere. Even if the Steelers finish 2-14 this season, he and Colbert will be working together on the 2014 draft.

If they can follow up their promising 2013 draft with some gems in 2014, we’ll be able to look back and laugh about this 0-4 start.

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  1. Mike Batista

    Thanks for the comment. Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review just tweeted that Heyward will start in place of Hood. Hmmm.

  2. Milliken Steeler

    I agree except for Dwyer. Dwyer is an NFL caliber running back and Redman needs to not see the field again. The longest runs on this team with its current back belong to Dwyer last year and in very limited time, Dwyer ripped off a 25 yard run this year.

    I think the Redman over Dwyer decision was personal and not business as anyone can see that Dwyer has better skills and is a better back than Redman, At least he is the back up now making this point moot I guess. lol

    Thank you for pointing out Hoods season. I cringe every time I see people who just read headlines and repeat other articles talk about Hood. He has improved every single year in the league and this year he is set to improve a lot stats wise. He is right there with Kiesel on production and I still hear people calling for Hoods head. smh

    Heyward needs to see the field more but at the expense of the 35 year old Kiesel, not at the 27 year old and improving Ziggy’s expense.

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