I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a “team in transition.”
Numbers of meaningful players either retired or left as free agents over the last two offseason periods, and next spring is shaping up to be a downright disaster for Colbert & Co. in terms of the potential personnel losses on the horizon. Due to the fact that the franchise is in the thick of a “roster-overhaul” process, Pittsburgh’s brass might be forced to rely on some of their rookies and younger players earlier than they had in years past.
Exactly how much and how often could certain members of the Steelers’ 2013 draft class be able to contribute to the team’s success this fall?
Well, I have some thoughts on the matter….
At the moment, the Steelers have zero experienced depth at the defensive end position behind Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward and Brett Keisel. What makes the situation even more problematic is the fact that Hood and Keisel will be UFA’s next March. With only Al Woods behind the veterans after the 2012 season ended, it came as no surprise to me that Pittsburgh’s brass selected a talented yet developmental prospect like Williams (6’4″ 309 lbs.) in the 7th round of last month’s draft.
The former Samford Bulldog is actually newer to the game of football. In fact, he only began playing the sport late in his high school career. The former high school basketball standout finally began to scratch the surface of his potential during his last two years at Samford, and he really shined as a redshirt senior last fall. Overall, Nick racked up 31 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, and an impressive 6.0 sacks from the interior of the defensive line.
Due to his lack of football experience, the Steelers might be able to stash the former Bulldog on their practice squad this fall, especially with Hood, Keisel, and Heyward locked in as 1-2-3 on the depth chart. Unfortunately, teams in need of 3-4 defensive ends with roster spot or practice squad spots to spare could be primed to sign Williams if the Steelers cut him after the preseason with the intention of adding him to their practice squad. So if Pittsburgh’s coaching staff fear that Williams will be signed by another franchise off of the waiver-wire if he is released, they might just have to add him to their 53-man roster instead of the practice squad.
Regardless of whether or not Williams is on the 53-man roster or the practice squad, he is unlikely to play at all during his first year with the three veterans in front of him. Nevertheless, the rookie defensive lineman has some excellent physical tools for his position coach, John Mitchell, to work with and develop over the next two seasons.
53 Man Roster, Zero Regular Season Snaps
Many speculated that the Steelers would select a quarterback in the middle rounds of April’s draft, and the team did go in the signal-caller direction when Colbert & Co. took Landry Jones of Oklahoma in the 4th round.
Pittsburgh’s brass obviously have confidence that Jones will be able to develop in time, and I am sure that they were pleasantly surprised that he fell to them on the draft’s final day. The former Sooner has the prototypical size (6’3″ 221 lbs.), a strong arm, the ability to make every throw on the field, and was a danger to pick apart a defense at all levels of the field in college. Confidence in the rookie’s upside aside, the Steelers are probably hoping that Landry does not have to step foot out on the field during a regular season game for at least two years if not more.
To his credit, Jones enjoyed a very stupendous career at the University of Oklahoma from a statistical perspective. A four-year starter with the Sooners, Jones threw for over 4,000 yards during three of those years, led his team to multiple BCS-bowl berths, and tossed 123 touchdowns. Gaudy accomplishments aside, Jones still has some kinks to work out in his overall game like his ability to handle a pass-rush and making better decisions under duress (53 career interceptions).
Concerns aside, Jones will be in a great learning environment in Pittsburgh with his position coach Randy Fichtner, a two-time Super Bowl winner in Ben Roethlisberger, and a savvy backup like Bruce Gradkowski. As long as Jones has two to three years to sit, learn, and better himself as a player, he could be a great option for Pittsburgh to turn to in the “P.B.-era” (Post-Ben). For now though, let’s just hope that “number seven” can stay healthy and finish out his current contract, while Jones can absorb everything he can on the bench over the next few years.
Full Time Special Teams
Justin Brown, Vince Williams, Terry Hawthorne, Jarvis Jones
Pittsburgh’s 1st round pick was an absolute pass-rushing force during his two-year career at the University of Georgia, and he became one of college football’s most lethal defensive players during that span too. Overall, Jones (6’2″ 245 lbs.) was the “splash-play king” of Georgia’s defense during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Jarvis registered 155 tackles, 28.0 sacks, 45.5 tackles for loss, and even forced 10 turnovers in 2012! Sadly for the Jones fans in “Steeler Nation,” the former Bulldog will probably be forced to sit, learn, and rot during his first year despite his high draft status.
Barring injuries to Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley, 1st round pick Jarvis will likely be relegated to special teams duty as a rookie. I agree that Jones definitely needs to work on his pass-coverage and holding up against the run, but I would still like to see him on the field attacking the opposing quarterback in sub-packages as early as possible.
While Jones might be the “biggest name” on Pittsburgh’s special teams this fall, the player who I believe will most likely stand out as the team’s “special teams demon” is actually Vince Williams.
The stout (6’1″ 250 lbs.) former Florida State Seminole has an aggressive attitude and tenacity to his game, and those attributes could make him a great weapon on Pittsburgh’s special teams coverage units. It wouldn’t shock me at all if Williams became a long-time special teams standout for the Steelers, but he could be given the opportunity to play his way onto the defensive side of the ball.
The time on special teams will also be good for Williams over the next couple of seasons so he can be brought along as a backup at inside linebacker. As a run-defender and “in-the-box” linebacker, Williams was very productive at Florida State in that role (2011-2012: 113 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, 1 interception). On passing downs however, Vince was removed from the game and replaced by a defensive back. Thus, if the Steelers want him to shine on more than special teams, the former Seminole must prove that he has the speed and agility to stick and stay with potential pass-catchers when he is asked to drop into coverage on passing downs.
During his first year, 5th round pick Terry Hawthorne (2011-2012: 105 tackles and 4 interceptions) will likely have to ride the pine behind starters Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, and it is unlikely that he will unseat veterans William Gay and Curtis Brown for sub-package chores this fall either. Nevertheless, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake is a fan of the rookie’s upside, and has a firm belief that he can develop him in a year or two. While the former Illinois cornerback must work on his technique and consistency, he has the “height/weight/speed/physical play” combination (6′, 190 lbs., 4.44 speed) which the Steelers look for in players at the position.
Justin Brown (2012: 73 catches, 879 yards, 5 touchdowns) could be a sleeper at wide receiver in a year or two, and I believe that his size (6’3″ 209 lbs.) would be a tremendous asset to the Steelers “smurf-like” receiving corps. While the 6th round pick will have to sit behind Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton and Jerricho Cotchery this year, Sanders and Cotchery will be UFA’s after the 2013 campaign ends. Brown’s contract size could also force the Steelers to make Plaxico Burress expendable and take a chance on their 6th round pick over him.
Like Jones and Williams, Hawthorne and Brown will probably be destined for special teams duty. Unlike Williams and Jones though, Hawthorne and Brown could be in the mix to field kickoffs and punts. Hawthorne returned kickoffs during his senior year at Illinois (12 for 255 yards), while Brown was a successful punt returner at Penn State and Oklahoma (1 touchdown and 13.6 yards per return last season). Although LaRod Stephens-Howling was signed to help out with the return chores, don’t sleep on Hawthorne or Brown as some potential competition for the veteran.