The meter is running on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2013 draft class.
At a time when the Steelers need immediate contributions from their rookies because of all the holes in their roster, even more will be expected from their second-year players in 2014.
Pundits have handed out letter grades like candy to each NFL team’s 2014 draft. Those grades are about as useful as kindergarten grades in a college application. None of those players have even worn pads.
However, we can start to pencil in grades for the Steelers’ 2013 draft. There’s still a lot of projection that goes into these grades, but at least we have more to go on than scouting reports. We’ll assign letter grades to each individual pick and an overall grade for the draft.
Jarvis Jones, OLB
There’s going to be a learning curve for rookies in Dick LeBeau’s defense. However, Jones had just one sack last season, and he started eight games. LaMarr Woodley had four sacks as a rookie with no starts. Joey Porter had two sacks in his rookie year with no starts and Jason Gildon had two sacks in his first season with one start. And unlike Jones, none of those players were first-round picks. The Steelers chose Jones in the first round to follow in their footsteps. His best game last season came in the finale. He made nine combined tackles and broke up a pass in the Steelers’ 20-7 win over the Cleveland Browns. But Jones still has to prove that he can get to the quarterback.
Le’Veon Bell, RB
Bell is the jewel of the Steelers’ 2013 draft class so far. After missing the first three games with a foot injury, Bell ran for 860 yards and eight touchdowns. He only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, but over the last five games he ran at a four-yard-per-carry clip and he scored half of his touchdowns during that stretch. Bell’s 45 receptions were the most by a Steelers running back since John L. Williams caught 51 in 1994. With LeGarrette Blount on board to handle the short-yardage dirty work, Bell is poised to provide the Steelers with their first 1,000-yard rushing season since Rashard Mendenhall gained 1,273 yards in 2010. He can be the engine that helps Todd Haley’s offense hit high gear.
Markus Wheaton, WR
Here’s an unsettling Did You Know. Not only did Wheaton catch six passes as a rookie, the same number as infamous bust Limas Sweed, but both receivers caught those six passes for 64 yards. Unlike Sweed, Wheaton knew what he was doing out there, but his rookie season was beset by injuries. He missed four games after breaking his pinky in Week 4 against the Minnesota Vikings, then broke another finger in Week 16 at Green Bay. With Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery gone, Wheaton has an opportunity to become the Steelers’ No. 2 receiver behind Antonio Brown. According to Steel City Insider, Wheaton looks just as good at OTAs as he did in training camp last year.
Shamarko Thomas, S
The Steelers are holding out hope that Thomas can be Troy Polamalu’s successor. They signed Mike Mitchell more as a replacement for Ryan Clark. For now, Thomas is stuck behind a future Hall of Famer. He’ll have to wait for his chance just like Brett Keisel and James Harrison. Keisel was stuck behind Kimo von Oelhoffen before he finally became a starter in his fifth season. Harrison had Joey Porter in front of him before he broke out at age 29. Thomas has versatility going for him. He also can play cornerback. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), all of Thomas’s defensive snaps came at cornerback. After Week 10, he played exclusively on special teams. Thomas has his work cut out for him just to overtake Will Allen on the depth chart at safety. But he’s given the Steelers more than some of their other recent fourth-round picks.
Landry Jones, QB
The Steelers have taken a lot of criticism for this pick, maybe a little too much. Even though Ben Roethlisberger is in the prime of his career, it all could end with one play. The Steelers can’t be blamed for trying to find a backup younger than 30. The problem with this pick is that it looks like they chose the wrong quarterback. Jones completed just 45.5 percent of his passes in the 2013 preseason and didn’t suit up for a game in the regular season. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he continues to have problems with his accuracy during OTAs.
Terry Hawthorne, CB
Hawthorne suffered a knee injury in the spring and missed valuable practice time in training camp. He couldn’t catch up and was cut, becoming the Steelers’ first fifth-round draft pick who failed to get into a regular-season game since Cameron Stephenson in 2007.
Justin Brown, WR
Brown spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad after undrafted Derek Moye beat him out for a roster spot. The Steelers struck gold in the sixth round with Antonio Brown in 2010. They shouldn’t expect lightning to strike twice, but Justin Brown has a chance to compete for a job this year.
Vince Williams, ILB
Unlike most Steelers rookie defenders, Williams was baptized by fire. Because of Larry Foote’s Week 1 injury, he started 11 games and improved as the season went along. The Steelers’ decision to draft Ryan Shazier signals that Williams didn’t exactly knock their socks off. Still, he provided decent value for a sixth-round pick and should have a role in the Steelers’ defense.
Nick Williams, DE
The 6’4″, 309-pound Williams spent last season on injured reserve and had knee surgery in October. He has been running but not practicing during OTAs, according to Steel City Insider. Williams played at Samford, an FCS school, and didn’t take up football until his senior year in high school. Anything the Steelers get from a raw seventh-rounder like that is a bonus.
The Steelers haven’t had a flat-out first-round bust since offensive tackle Jamain Stephens in 1996. If Jarvis Jones breaks that streak, it would be a major drag on this draft’s overall grade. As it is, his performance hurts because unlike previous rookies, he wasn’t stuck behind anyone. He had plenty of chances to show what he can do but came away with just one sack.
Le’Veon Bell, on the other hand, was the Steelers’ best rookie since Maurkice Pouncey. A lot will hinge on how big of a step Markus Wheaton takes in his second season. Add in Shamarko Thomas, and there’s still a chance that the first four picks of this draft could make an impact.
If Justin Brown joins Vince Williams as a sixth-round contributor, it would speak to the Steelers’ knack for making use of late-round picks.
The Steelers’ 2013 draft bursts with potential, but the Steelers have become a mediocre team and need to make a difference right away with their drafts. Their 2013 draft hasn’t provided that kind of boost, not yet anyway.