No NFL draft class should be judged until at least three full seasons are complete. However, the 2010 Steelers’ draft class has immediately made an already deep roster even better, since eight of 10 picks are still with the Steelers , and five have made major contributions to the Steelers’ 5-2 start.
That marks the most players offering significant contributions as rookies from a Pittsburgh draft class since the 2002 class ultimately had six players earn playing time that fall.
This is somewhat surprising because the Steelers had fortified their depth through their uncharacteristic but pleasant high rate of off-season activity that brought in veteran additions Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Will Allen, Aranz Battle and Jonathan Scott through free agency, as well as Bryant McFadden and Byron Leftwich through trades. Furthermore, historically the Steelers do not play rookies very often.
Still, the Steelers are currently tied for the AFC North lead and are a legit Super Bowl contender, in large part due to the contributions of their 2010 draft class. Let’s take a look at how those players are faring:
1. Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida: Has started every game, upgrading the caliber of play at center the Steelers had not seen since Jeff Hartings retired following the 2006 season. Pouncey is already close to being a Pro Bowl-level player and his presence was a key reason Pittsburgh was able to run the ball successfully in the first four games while superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended. Pouncey should be a star center for the next decade.
2. Jason Worilds, OLB, Virginia Tech: There was a lot debate among Steelers fans after this pick, with most of the comments critical in nature. Adding depth at OLB was undoubtedly a need for the Steelers in the 2010 NFL Draft. Since starters James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are the best OLB tandem in the NFL and starting ILB Lawrence Timmons is athletic enough to move to the outside in the event of injury, it was shocking that the Steelers passed over other needs to take Worilds so early. It was even more surprising, because no other pure 3-4 OLB prospects were drafted after the Worilds pick until the Steelers selected Thad Gibson in the 4th round of a deep draft for 3-4 outside linebacker prospects.
Pro Football Weekly went as far as ranking Worilds as the third worst pick of the entire NFL draft and comparisons to famed Steelers second-round bust Alonzo Jackson began surfacing when Worilds struggled with nagging injuries throughout training camp and the preseason.
But guess what, Worilds has exhibited big-time athleticism and Pittsburgh fans would be feeling far less confident if their team was 4-3 right now, which likely would be the case if the Steelers did not have a strong pass-rush performance from Worilds in a 1-point win at Miami that saw Woodley leave the game due to injury. Worilds has also proven to be a great inside player on the most improved kick-coverage unit in the NFL. He likely will not start for several more years, but expect Worilds to be getting more reps in pass-rushing down next season. He has already contributed more this season that most expected.
3. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, SMU: Sanders was the AFC special-teams player of the week for his efforts in the Miami game. Although he needs to work on ball security, Sanders is a quality kick returner who will hopefully also replace Randle El as the team’s primary punt returner. Sanders is in on snaps when the team goes with 4 WRs, although that is a rare formation used by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
More important, he is now starting to get more reps in the Steelers’ often-used, 3-WR set, where he replaces the reliable Randle El. When Sanders is on the field, defenses have to be more respectful of his speed than when the slow-footed Hines Ward and Randle El are on the field together. Hopefully, Sanders will be the team’s No. 3 WR by the playoffs, which will open up the deep patterns more for Mike Wallace and especially the underneath routes for Ward and tight end Heath Miller. Sanders appears confident, has excellent hands, is a tough blocker, and looks like an eventual starter.
4. Thad Gibson, OLB, Ohio State: Gibson was recently released to create a needed roster spot for a defensive lineman and was subsequently claimed by the 49ers. Based on pre-draft rankings, Gibson was actually a good value pick in the 4th round and he was impressive in limited playing time in the preseason. He did not have the speed or special-teams experience of Worilds, and thus did not dress for any of the Steelers’ first six games this season. But this was a bad pick, because OLB was Pittsburgh’s best position, and the team had already used a second-round pick to add depth and young talent at the spot. NT Cam Thomas would have been a much better need pick and would have also represented good value on the draft board. Still, with a draft like this, it is hard to complain too much about one illogical, wasted pick.
5a. Chris Scott, OL, Tennessee: Scott spent the first six weeks the PUP list due to a foot injury. This worked out perfectly for both the Steelers and Scott, because Pittsburgh had a logjam fighting for the final roster spots on the offensive line and this way Scott was guaranteed to be part of the team. He is currently in a 21-day window where he is allowed to practice with the team. Afterward, Pittsburgh can either (A) place him on IR for the rest of the season; (B) Find a spot for him on the 53-man roster, likely by cutting Tony Hills; or (C) Cut him. Placing him on IR is the most likely option at this point. Regardless, it is way too early to place judgment, because no one expected Scott to play for at least a couple of seasons.
5b. Crezdon Butler, CB, Clemson: Butler was a reach at this point based on many pre-draft projections. However, he was one of the most impressive rookies in the preseason, earning a roster spot in the process. He has not dressed for any games this year but has long-term starting potential. Too early to tell, but I am very optimistic that this may be the steal of the draft similar to Kevin Colbert picking Brett Keisel in the 7th round of 2000 and Ike Taylor in the 4th round. Both were raw and saw little/no action as rookies. But both ended up as excellent starters on a pair of dominating defenses that won Super Bowl titles.
5c. Stevenson Sylvester, ILB, Utah: Another linebacker? “What is Colbert thinking?” was the charge by many after this pick, particularly since many services had Sylvester pegged as an OLB in a 4-3 defense. But Pittsburgh wisely viewed him as an inside backer for its 3-4 defense and a potential contributor on special teams. Turns out this guy may the best baddest MOFO I have ever seen on kick coverage for the Steelers. He seemingly sets the tone by laying people out early in every game. As J.J. said, he may be raw, but when you see his speed and attitude, you have to think that Sylvester will eventually be a good ILB as well. But even if he’s not, this pick was a success because he is the No. 1 reason why a Pittsburgh kickoff-coverage unit that was statistically the worst in modern NFL history last year based on returns for TDs has instead been solid this fall.
6a. Jonathan Dwyer, TB, Georgia Tech: Dwyer was considered the likely steal of the draft for Pittsburgh and I do not know any Steelers fans who were not happy with this pick in the sixth round; because everyone had Dwyer going earlier, with some pegging him in the second round. But Dwyer is raw as a pro-style TB after playing FB in a triple-option, gimmick offense at Georgia Tech. He is even more of a work in progress as a receiver and picking up blitzes. That is why he is essentially redshirting this fall as a member of the 53-man roster who does not dress.
While it was disappointing that he showed up at training camp out of shape and did not produce, Dwyer did flash solid potential over the last two preseason games. Time will tell if he capitalizes on that potential.
6b. Antonio Brown, WR, Central Michigan: Brown has already paid huge dividends by returning the opening kickoff for an important touchdown against the Titans. He has since lost kickoff return duties to Sanders, though, because Sanders is a better receiver, and because Brown has not shown the common sense of when to let punts bounce or to just take a knee on deep kickoffs. In short, the Steelers’ staff does not yet trust him. But this guy could end up an excellent punt and kick returner, who also could contribute at WR down the line. Considering he was taken late in the 6th round, this is another pick that has already paid off for Pittsburgh.
7. Doug Worthington, DL, Ohio State: As expected after he was drafted, Worthington was eventually cut and re-signed to the Steelers’ practice squad. No reason to get upset, because this is par for the course for 7th-round picks, most of whom never make contributions for any team.
Overall, one has to be surprised at quick the impact the 2010 Steelers’ rookie class has made for a deep, veteran-laden team. In the long run, I expect this class to produce a perennial Pro Bowl selection in Pouncey, 4-6 eventual starters, and 5-7 guys who make contributions to the Steelers.
If my optimistic predicton is correct, then this may be the draft class that helps Pittsburgh remain competitive in the future depsite having an aging roster that will create much turnover after the 2011 and 2012 season.