Tonight we finish out our Steelers Draft Revisited series here at NPC with a look at last years class. The Steelers were coming off their eighth Super Bowl appearance, losing 31-25 to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV. With another AFC championship season relegating the team to the 31st pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, speculation on which way the Steelers would go with their first round pick was rampant in Pittsburgh. Would the team finally draft that first-round quality offensive tackle the fans had been clamoring for, or would they begin to address the cornerback position – a lightening rod for criticism after Packers QB Aaron Rodgers had thrown for 304 yards and three touchdowns in a Super Bowl MVP performance just three months earlier?
The team chose to continue their youth movement on the defensive line by choosing a player with serious Steel City ties in the first round, nabbing dominating Ohio State DT Cameron Heyward – the son of former University of Pittsburgh star RB Craig “Ironhead” Heyward.
Round One – 31st Overall – Cameron Heyward – Defensive Lineman– 6’5″ 294 lbs. –Ohio State
Just two years after drafting Missouri defensive lineman Ziggy Hood in the first round, the Steelers selected Heyward, possibly sealing the future of their defensive end tandem for years to come.
Rotating through both defensive tackle and end for the Buckeyes, Heyward didn’t post eye-popping numbers in his college career. However, his pedigree and leadership boosted him into the pre-draft top 10 among defensive ends. After a fantastic junior season (46 tackles/6.5 sacks), he had considered entering the draft the prior year, but ultimately decided to stay on for his senior season. He was voted a defensive captain and named to a crop of preseason award watch lists, becoming a focal point for the Ohio State defense. His senior year was considered quiet statistically, but his versatility and physical playing style against many pro-quality Big Ten offensive linemen earned him a reputation as a hard worker and fast learner, both qualities looked for in any Steelers defensive player. Injuries kept him from attending both the NFL Combine and the Ohio State Pro Day workouts, so with enormous pressure to show his skills to a host of NFL scouts he hosted a public workout at the end of March. Both head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau attended his workout, where Heyward would run a 4.95 40-yard dash and post a 35-inch vertical.
Although he may lack elite pass-rushing ability, Heyward fits in nicely for the Steelers as a run-stopping DE in the same mold as Aaron Smith. After a season spent learning the 3-4 scheme and getting his feet wet with 11 tackles and a key blocked field goal in a divisional showdown with Cincinnati, Heyward enters 2012 with a chance to grow into his role after the retirement of both Smith and longtime backup Chris Hoke.
Round Two – 63rd Overall – Marcus Gilbert – Offensive Lineman– 6’6″ 330 lbs. –Florida
The Steelers dipped back into the Florida Gators offensive line well with Gilbert, a former roommate of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. After protecting the blind side of QB Tim Tebow in college, Gilbert would spend his rookie season blocking for another highly-mobile signal caller. Thrown into the mix and starting 13 games for the Steelers due to injuries, 2011 would be an on-the-job learning experience for the 23-year old rookie. He played well enough to be named the Steelers 2011 Rookie of the Year and with a full season under his belt, Gilbert will have a chance to lock down a starting role in training camp.
Round Three – 95th Overall – Curtis Brown – Cornerback– 6’0″ 185 lbs. –Texas
Brown put together a stellar career at Texas, where he played in 52 games over four years with the Longhorns. The Steelers, still looking to find that elusive second cornerback opposite Ike Taylor, chose Brown with the intention of allowing him a full season of special teams play and learning the Steelers exotic pass defense schemes. Brown ended up playing in 12 games as a rookie, and showed signs of being a fantastic athlete in the Steelers defensive backfield. At 6’0″ he has the size to compete with most of the #2 WRs in the AFC, and the former 2009 All-American has a chance to compete with Keenan Lewis and fellow second-year player Cortez Allen for the spot opened by the departed William Gay.
Round Four – 128th Overall – Cortez Allen – Cornerback– 6’1″ 197 lbs. –The Citadel
Very few players are drafted out of The Citadel, a military institute that places very little importance on sports. Prior to the draft, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranked Allen as a “sleeper pick in the 3rd or 4th round” and described him as “a big corner who runs well, tests well athletically, and has good strength. The Steelers believed so too, drafting him in the fourth round. Allen played mainly on special teams and nickel coverage, showing great instincts. He will compete with Keenan Lewis and Curtis Brown for the starting cornerback position left behind by William Gay.
Round Five – 162nd Overall – Chris Carter –Defensive End/Linebacker– 6’1″ 248 lbs. –Fresno State
Carter was a relative unknown for eats coast fans, having played at Fresno State of the WAC and spending all of his TV time on during late night west coast starting times. Carter was a large part of the Fresno State defense during his four-year career, developing into a pass rushing hybrid player who split time between end and linebacker. The Steelers envision him as a potential middle linebacker with the tools to play outside once he grows into the position more. He played in eight games his rookie season with the Steelers, and received time on defense late in the season. Carter is a project player who fans will keep a keen eye on as the Steelers linebacking situation fleshes out over the next two years.
Round Six – 196th Overall – Keith Williams – Guard – 6’4″ 318 lbs. –Nebraska
Williams did not make it out of training camp, and was cut on Sept 2, 2011. He signed with the Buffalo Bills and joined there practice squad, where he remains. Zero value pick for the Steelers.
Round Seven – 232nd Overall – Baron Batch –Running Back– 5’10″ 207 lbs. –Texas Tech
Batch was something of a training camp phenom prior to tearing his ACL on August 11, ending his rookie season. The Steelers envision Batch as a replacement for third-down RB MeWelde Moore. After a season spent working out at team facilitates and learning the offense, Batch comes into camp healthy and ready to resume his career. Fans should expect to see a good bit of him in the preseason and he has a solid chance to be on the 53-man roster once September hits.
Steelers 2011 Draft Summary
One year is a tough curve to grade player on, but the Steelers seem to have some interesting players entering their second-season in Pittsburgh. Cameron Heyward will be in line to be the primary backup to both Brett Kiesel and Ziggy Hood on the defensive line, and showed that he has the ability to be a solid NFL player.
Marcus Gilbert was thrown to the wolves in 2011, and had some rough outings. His experience alone makes him a valuable commodity for this team, with the offensive line depth looking bleak. Nobody expected Gilbert to be playing in so many games so early, so grading him on his actual play isn’t fair. It will be interesting to watch him develop as the year progresses. He has the potential to be a Max Starks-type player if he keeps his nose to the conditioning gridstone.
Both Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen were coaching staff favorites and played well on special teams. Both players will be seeing solid time in the preseason, and if one of them ends up blowing up, they could easily be the other starter at corner opposite Ike Taylor. Both players have talent and should be a large part of the 2012 Steelers secondary.
LB Chris Carter hasn’t shown enough yet to determine a solid position for himself. He could end up on the outside as a pass rusher or on the inside as a Larry Foote-type ILB. The fact that he is still on the roster shows the confidence Dick LeBeau has in his ability, so expect to see him out there a good bit in training camp.
G Keith Williams is no longer with the team.
RB Baron Batch was a hard-luck injury last summer, but is fully-healed and ready to continue a career that looked promising last summer. With the running back situation in dire straits, he could see significance playing time for the team in 2012 as a third-down specialist.
With the exception of Williams, this class all has the potential to contribute to the team in 2012, which is about as far as we can take this review.
Check out the previous Steelers Draft Revisited articles below:
Steelers 2007 Draft Revisited – The Tomlin Era Begins - posted April 8 2012
Steelers 2008 Draft Revisited – Tomlin Take Two – posted April 13 2012
Steelers 2009 Draft Revisited – Getting Ziggy With it – posted April 16 2012
Steelers 2010 Draft Revisited – Center of It All – posted April 19 2012
Follow Jeff Snedden on Twitter @jeffsnedden
Follow Jeff Snedden on Facebook
Follow Nice Pick, Cowher on Twitter @nicepickcowherC
Be sure to get the best Steelers coverage year-round here at Nice Pick, Cowher.