Thursday, May 9, 2013

Grading the Draft: Pittsburgh Steelers

(Originally posted at

Jones_draftThe Steelers lost a few big names to free agency in the offseason, namely wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker James Harrison and running back Rashard Mendenhall. With the rest of their roster mostly intact, their draft strategy this season was to replace the players they lost and get younger in the process. Not surprisingly, the Steelers used their first three draft picks to replace those veterans and ended up picking players who profile similarly to the ones they lost, as Chris Tripodi reviews their draft.

Jarvis Jones/LB/Georgia (Round 1/Pick #17): Early in the pre-draft process, Jones was considered a candidate to go in the top 3 based on his college film and domination of the SEC. Jones was a disruptive force at Georgia after transferring from USC and took over countless games, totaling 44 tackles for loss and 28 sacks in his final two college seasons. Red flags came out on Jones as the offseason wore on though, as questions regarding the spinal stenosis that ended his USC career and his lack of elite size (6-2, 245) and speed (4.81) hurt his draft stock. Jones’ loss was the Steelers’ gain, as they started the second half of round one with a player who dominated the best conference in college football and plays a similar game to Harrison, the player he is expected to replace. If Jones can prove his injury concerns were overblown, this is a great value pick by a team with a knack for taking solid football players.

Le’Veon Bell/RB/Michigan State (Round 2/Pick #48): Bell was a curious pick for Pittsburgh with Eddie Lacy still on the board, but Pittsburgh was concerned about Lacy’s lingering toe injury and perhaps they even felt Bell was a better prospect, although Draft Insider would disagree. Despite his size (6-1, 230) and reputation as a bruiser, Bell impressed with his quickness and elusiveness at the combine and posted the best time of all running backs in the 3-cone drill. The former Spartans star showed solid receiving skills at Michigan State and is also an effective pass blocker, giving Pittsburgh a well-rounded back with the power to grind out tough yards and the ability to stay on the field in any situation. Bell’s insane workload as a senior (382 carries) is a slight concern but he fits the Steelers offense extremely well and should step into the starting lineup immediately. He’s a power runner in the same mold as Mendenhall and likely backup Jonathan Dwyer, but is far superior on passing downs.

Markus Wheaton/WR/Oregon State (Round 3/Pick #79): One of the few popular mock draft picks that actually hit, Wheaton fits the mold of former Steelers third-round pick Mike Wallace, who signed with Miami in free agency. He isn’t a world-class burner like Wallace but runs a more complete route tree and should make an instant impact as a slot receiver with the potential to eventually overtake Emmanuel Sanders in the starting lineup. Wheaton may be slightly limited by his size (5-11, 189) at the NFL level but his combination of speed, acceleration and run after catch ability should more than make up for his strength deficiencies. Pre-draft comparisons to Wallace were widespread and while Wheaton was probably the most similar receiver to Wallace in this draft class, he should have an opportunity to make his own mark on the Pittsburgh organization.

Shamarko Thomas/S/Syracuse (Round 4/Pick #111): With an aging set of safeties in Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, the Steelers drafted another player who looks to be a good fit for their defensive scheme. Like Polamalu, Thomas is small (5-9, 213) but flies around the field and is known as a hard hitter. He has good speed (4.39) but is often late to the sideline and lacks ball skills. Also like Polamalu, Thomas is prone to head injuries as he suffered multiple concussions as a senior at Syracuse. Pittsburgh likes his aggressive, physical style of play and while it could get him in trouble at the NFL level, Thomas should stand out early in his career on special teams and may get a chance to start at some point during his rookie season if the veterans ahead of him can’t stay on the field.

Landry Jones/QB/Oklahoma (Round 4/Pick #115): Jones was a hot prospect early in his Oklahoma career and his physical ability has never been in question, as he was generating top-10 buzz after a strong sophomore season in 2010. When given a clean pocket, Jones can show off his strong arm, good touch and a sense of timing with his receivers. The NFL rarely provides a clean pocket for quarterbacks though, and Jones has shown a tendency to unravel under duress. He has enough mobility to get outside the pocket but his decision making falls off a cliff under anything but ideal circumstances. Jones also struggles reading defenses and is prone to mental lapses, throwing at least 10 interceptions in each of the past three seasons. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t getting any younger and has issues staying healthy, but Jones will need to quickly learn from the veteran’s poise and improvisational ability if he expects to be a suitable backup.

Terry Hawthorne/CB/Illinois (Round 5/Pick #150): A prospect that did himself more harm than good by staying in school, Hawthorne may have gone a few rounds earlier if he left Illinois after his impressive junior season. His instincts seemed to take a step back last season but despite those struggles, his talent kept him in the draft’s top 150 picks. Hawthorne has sub-4.4 speed and explosive quickness, showing an ability to quickly locate the ball in the air and the hands to create turnovers when given the opportunity. He has the size (5-11, 195) and ability to stay physical with receivers but needs to refine his fundamentals and may benefit from consistent practice reps at the professional level. Hawthorne’s natural ability makes him a potential nickel back in the NFL if he can play at the level he did as a junior with the Illini.

Justin Brown/WR/Oklahoma (Round 6/Pick #186): Brown enjoyed a very productive senior season after transferring from Penn State to Oklahoma, more than doubling his reception total from his junior season catching balls from Landry Jones in the Sooners’ spread offense. His familiarity with the Steelers’ fourth-round pick may be the best thing going for him though, as his game grades out as average in almost every aspect. Brown has decent size (6-2, 205) and speed (4.55) and while he uses his frame well, his struggles creating separation will likely continue in the NFL. With three established receivers on the roster and the team’s earlier pick of Markus Wheaton, Brown will likely have to stand out on special teams and impress in camp to latch on as Pittsburgh’s fifth receiver.

Vince Williams/LB/Florida State (Round 6/Pick #206): The Steelers used the sixth round to add roster depth at positions that needed it and to handcuff their earlier picks. Brown should help round out the receiver depth chart behind Markus Wheaton and Williams should give the team depth behind Jarvis Jones, who isn’t a sure thing to stay healthy. Williams should also be a solid special teams player and rotational linebacker with the ability to fill in on all downs. He has good athleticism despite below average speed and improved his game in each of his last three years with the Seminoles. Williams has good cover skills and gets depth on his pass drops, making him a useful linebacker in nickel packages. He’s not likely to ever start in the NFL, but could play a key role on a contending team’s roster.

Nick Williams/DT/Samford (Round 7/Pick #223): The second Williams taken by Pittsburgh on the draft’s third day, Nick Williams was probably the Steelers’ best value pick of the day. Rated as a fourth or fifth-round prospect here at Draft Insider, Williams is very athletic for his size (6-4, 309) and gets off the snap quickly. He has plenty of growth potential on his frame as well and if he can improve his playing strength, Williams could turn into a serviceable 3-technique tackle or 5-technique end. A late bloomer who was an All-Conference performer as a junior and senior, the Samford product could prove to be one of the better values of the final rounds with a season or two of development.

Grade: B. It’s not unreasonable to say that the Steelers picked the best player available in two of the first three rounds and both Jarvis Jones and Markus Wheaton will immediately step in to fill needs as well. Le’Veon Bell gives them a complete running back they can play every down while their later picks provide the team with solid depth behind their aging players and departed free agents. This was a good draft for a Pittsburgh team looking to replace some missing pieces and infuse some young talent into a roster that has fallen behind the Ravens and Bengals in the AFC North. If their stars can stay on the field along with the expected return on their early picks, the Steelers have a chance at a bounceback season in 2013.

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