Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 Draft: Is the Bar Set Too High?

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 Draft: Is the Bar Set Too High?
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

If the Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 draft lives up to the hype, it will be their best draft since they chose Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

No Steelers draft class since then has come with as many expectations as this one.

First-round pick David DeCastro and second-round pick Mike Adams are hailed as the saviors of the offensive line.

Third-round pick Sean Spence flies around the field like a rocket. His Miami highlights are a YouTube must-see.

Fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu is being groomed for the once-a-decade passing of the torch at nose tackle.

Fifth-round pick Chris Rainey reminds many of Darren Sproles.

We won't look beyond the first five rounds. Toney Clemons and Kelvin Beachum are worth watching, but anything a team gets from a seventh-rounder is a bonus.

One of the reasons this draft class arrives with so much fanfare is because each of the top five picks were predicted to go sooner than they did, making them "steals" in the draft vernacular.

 

Traditionally, the Steelers choose the best player available regardless of positional need. It just so happens this year that each of the Steelers' top five picks fill an immediate need.

This creates a lot of hope that DeCastro, Adams, Spence, Ta'amu and Rainey all make an impact sooner rather than later.

DeCastro comes with automatic expectations, because he's a first-round pick. A lot rides on Ta'amu, because true nose tackles in a 3-4 defense are so hard to find. The Steelers traded their sixth-round pick to move up into the fourth round to get him.

In the cases of Adams and Rainey, the Steelers are sticking their necks out for guys with baggage, so they must think they can help the team. That makes this a rare draft in which it would be a disappointment if the fifth-round pick doesn't work out.

Would the Steelers' brass be panned if 2011 fifth-round pick Chris Carter is gone in a couple of years? He showed some flashes in his rookie season, but if he ultimately fizzles out, there was very little risk in picking him.

Like their 2012 draft, the Steelers' 2011 draft has the potential to pay dividends for years to come. The difference is that the first five 2011 picks weren't as hyped as the Steelers' top five 2012 picks.

The only 2011 pick who received that kind of attention was first-rounder Cameron Heyward, who was drafted to bring some youth to the defensive line. Being the son of former Pittsburgh Panther Craig "Ironhead" Heyward also boosted his popularity.

 

Second-round pick Marcus Gilbert came with some cache as a former teammate of Maurkice Pouncey at Florida.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Steelers then stockpiled cornerbacks with third-rounder Curtis Brown and fourth-rounder Cortez Allen.

Both have a shot to win a starting job in training camp, so they've worked out so far. But at the time they were picked, they didn't generate the same buzz as Spence, Ta'amu or Rainey. When a team drafts at the same position in two straight middle rounds, it's generally OK if only one of those picks is successful.

The Steelers already have parted ways with fourth-round linebacker Thaddeus Gibson and fifth-round cornerback Crezdon Butler from the 2010 draft. No one's second-guessing the Steelers for those picks, because the trumpets didn't blare for them the way they have for Ta'amu and Rainey.

In the first round of the 2010 draft, Pouncey was more or less projected to be available at No. 18 for the Steelers. He beat out Justin Hartwig in training camp and became the starting center before anyone figured he would.

DeCastro, on the other hand, already is expected to have the kind of rookie year Pouncey had. He was considered a gift from the football gods because he was available at No. 24, and has been anointed as the starting right guard.

 

Much of the 2009 draft talk centered around third-rounders Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis being high-school teammates, as chronicled in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There wasn't much talk about Wallace's ability on the field until he actually started playing.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The frenzy over the first two picks of the 2008 draft is the only thing in recent memory that matches the hype for 2012's Fab Five.

Limas Sweed was a bust, and the Steelers might end up getting only three years out of Rashard Mendenhall. But at the time, they were considered steals.

The second day of the 2008 draft turned out to be a downer. The Steelers drafted eventual bust Bruce Davis in the third round, even though they really didn't need a linebacker. Then finally, they filled their most glaring need when they chose offensive tackle Tony Hillsin in the fourth round . It turned out to be too late, because they got little out of Hills. In the fifth round, the Steelers chose Dennis Dixon. How would he have any impact with Roethlisberger around?

A lot of anticipation surrounded the first two picks in 2007, and rightfully so. Second-rounder LaMarr Woodley has made the Pro Bowl, and it wouldn't shock anyone if first-rounder Lawrence Timmons does at some point. 

The chatter died down a little with the selection of tight end Matt Spaeth in the third round. The Steelers already had Heath Miller. Then in the fourth round, the Steelers traded up to get punter Daniel Sepulveda. There was no need to draft a punter that high. That's why they have undrafted free agency.

 

At the time, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called the Steelers' 2007 draft "one of the Steelers blandest drafts in modern times."

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"Bland" has never been a word associated with the Steelers' 2012 selections.

The 2006 draft yielded Santonio Holmes and Willie Colon, and the 2005 draft featured Miller, Bryant McFadden and Trai Essex. But does anyone remember quarterback Omar Jacobs and tight end Charles Davis in 2006? How about wide receiver Fred Gibson in 2005? All those guys were fourth- or fifth-round picks who no one expected anything from and have since been forgotten.

So much has been said about DeCastro, Adams, Spence, Ta'amu and Rainey that they're all past the point of being forgotten if their time in Pittsburgh is too short.

It's asking an awful lot for every one of the top five picks in a draft, or any five picks in a given draft, to make a lasting contribution.

Fifth-rounder William Gay joined Woodley and Timmons as thumbs-up picks in the 2007 draft. But Spaeth and Sepulveda weren't exactly great picks. Spaeth only had one season with double-digit receptions and isn't much of a blocker. Sepulveda was injured so often that he punted in only one of the Steelers' eight postseason games since he was picked.

 

You have to go back to 2002 to find a Steelers draft that includes five players who really made their mark in Pittsburgh.

Kendall Simmons, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Hope, Larry Foote and Brett Keisel were chosen that year.

Who will ultimately be the best 2012 Steelers draft pick?

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The first five rounds of every Steelers draft since then has included at least one epic bust or a no-name who can tell his grandkids that he once spent three weeks in Steelers training camp.

That's true even of the 2003 and 2004 drafts, which produced probable Hall of Famers in Troy Polamalu and Roethlisberger. Those picks were followed by second-round busts Alonzo Jackson and Ricardo Colclough.

History suggests that among DeCastro, Adams, Spence, Ta'amu and Rainey, at least one will not deliver on the promise bestowed upon this draft class.

But Steelers fans don't want to hear that right now.

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