Like the American auto industry that the Steel City helped fuel, the Steelers are a team running on fumes. It was apparent on the field in 2012, as stalwarts like James Harrison and Troy Polamalu struggled just to get out of the trainer’s room. It was apparent in the box score, too, as the Steelers sputtered to an 8-8 finish, scoring just 20 more points than their collective opposition all year.
How did the Super Bowl XL Champions fall so far so fast? The players that initiated so many bone-crunching plays over the years can hardly be blamed for showing a little wear on their tires. And the coaching staff that orchestrated routine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship remains largely intact. Rather, it seems the Steelers’ personnel department has fallen off in recent years.
Seems unfair to criticize a group that has seen its fair share of success over its tenure? Maybe. But the stars of this team largely came on board before the February 2010 departure of now-Buffalo General Manager Doug Whaley. Steelers’ drafts from 2010 forward have included such early round selections as Jason Worilds, Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams. Hardly household names amongst Steelers fans. Certainly not the All-Pros we have become accustomed to in Pittsburgh.
So I can hardly say I was surprised when the Steelers spent the draft’s 17th selection on the player I predicted to be this year’s biggest bust: Jarvis Jones. Jones may have talent to spare. Despite tipping the scales at 245 pounds, he was almost balletic at times at outside linebacker for Georgia. I saw plays where he floated just outside of the tackle’s reach, then quickly dipped a shoulder and countered back inside to close off a crease and wrap up a running back for no gain.
But Steeler fans will not mistake Jones for the recently-departed Harrison. Only occasionally did Jones even attempt, let alone execute, anything that could be described as an NFL-style pass rush. He shunned contact with offensive tackles, and often took advantage of delayed rushes and great coverage by the SEC’s best defensive secondary. These are not the kinds of tactics that get you to an NFL quarterback in under three seconds. If the Steelers can mold Jones into a serviceable professional outside linebacker, it is a testament to Mike Tomlin and Co., not the personnel department.
The Steelers also went off my board with their second round pick, Le’Veon Bell. Bell clearly has talent, too: he is an attractive combination of size and elusiveness. I still worry about his transition to the NFL. He tended to glide towards the hole rather than jam on the accelerator, and possibly as a function of injuries, struggled to lower his shoulder and protect his knees. Bell also put the ball on the ground a number of times this past year, albeit in the course of a whopping 382 carries. When you consider that Eddie Lacy was still on the board, I would wager that Steelers fans look back on this pick with a twinge of regret.
One thing at which the Steelers have unquestionably succeeded, before and after the departure of the aforementioned Whaley, is drafting wide receivers. The Steelers have added Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown, all from the third round on. They made another sound selection in Markus Wheaton in 2013. Wheaton runs crisp routes, has reliable hands, and sports excellent speed. Wheaton also competes from the moment he steps onto the field, whether fighting defenders for jump balls or blocking on running plays. The one question mark with Wheaton – size – is an afterthought. He was a steal in the third.
I saw a lot to like about Shamarko Thomas on tape, including a passion for hitting and range in coverage. He also took enough questionable angles and somehow played himself out of the action with enough frequency to make me wonder if he was worth a third-rounder – essentially the 2014 value the Steelers paid to get him. The trade aside, I think he was good value here. I also think he’ll stick with the team as a special teams ace, so he’ll certainly have an opportunity to play his way onto the field.
Amongst other problems, the Steelers also appear to show their hand leading up to draft day. The team was widely speculated to take Jarvis Jones in the first, and they were similarly linked to their fourth-round selection, Landry Jones. I like this pick here. Jones has as much arm talent as any quarterback in the draft, deftly flicking the ball downfield on a rope at times. His discomfort with NFL-style timing patterns and his inability to cope with pocket pressure were on full display during the Senior Bowl, though, so he will need some serious clipboard-time before he’s ready to take over for Roethlisberger. Luckily, he has just that.
Terry Hawthorne may wind up being this draft’s late round stud. Hawthorne has good size and plays an extremely physical corner. He also breaks quickly on routes and plays the ball well. I am confident he will land in the Steelers starting lineup before his rookie contract is up.
Justin Brown looks good against college defensive backs, but presents a very slight risk of impacting an NFL roster. He is big and uses his body to shield defenders from the ball effectively, in the mold of current Steeler Jerricho Cotchery. Defensive backs had to respect Cotchery’s speed in his prime, though; Brown runs a 4.6.
I didn’t see enough tape of Vince Williams or Nick Williams online to make an intelligent judgment.
The 2013 draft was not a total loss for the Steelers. They replenished their skill positions with decent talent in the wake of departures by Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall. They may have added a few useful cogs to an aging defensive unit. They may even have found a good developmental quarterback prospect.
But compare the Steelers to a team like the Packers. Green Bay walked away from the draft with perhaps its best two running backs, a 280 pound defensive lineman who projects to cause nightmares for opposing offenses, and at least one lineman who could probably start today for the Steelers. (And word is, he may do just that for the injury-plagued Pack.) When you consider that Green Bay drafted an average of 12 spots or so behind Pittsburgh in every round of the draft, its no wonder that the Steelers are losing steam – and fast.