A fair portion of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ disappointing 2012 season resulted from subpar production at several key positions. According to Pro Football Focus’ estimates, Pittsburgh got $2.3 million less value on the field from its roster than what the front office paid out in salaries last year.
This problem was particularly pronounced at the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker and safety positions, where certain players cost the Steelers $13.5 million more than what they produced in 2012.
For example, an injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 10 left the team in the incapable hands of backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch. The team went 1-2 in during their tenure, prompting the starter to rush back to the field ahead of schedule. Still injured, Big Ben struggled to regain his usual form, and the team went 1-3 to finish the season.
Pittsburgh’s committee of running backs was one of the worst in the NFL in 2012. Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey combined for the seventh-fewest total rushing yards, the second-most fumbles and the second-worst value over average of any group of running backs in the league last year. The lowlight of their dismal season was the first Cleveland game, in which the four backs coughed up the ball a combined six times.
The Steelers’ wide receiving corps came into the season with much higher expectations but produced equally disappointing results. After holding out in search of a better contract before the season began, Mike Wallace turned in one of the worst years of any everyday NFL wideout in 2012. Fellow receiver Antonio Brown wasn’t much better. A year after gaining 1,000 yards in receiving and 1,000 in returns, Brown provided less value than a replacement-level player last year.
Though inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons quietly turned in a fantastic season, his partner at the inside linebacker position, Larry Foote, was the eighth-worst player at his position last year, according to Pro Football Focus. The 32-year-old Foote often looked slow and struggled to stop the run throughout the season.
The Steelers’ struggles at the safety position came as something of a surprise, given Troy Polamalu’s and Ryan Clark’s reputations. When Polamalu played, he did perform at his usual high level. The problem, of course, was that he was only on the field for seven games in 2012. Though they don’t yet sound a death knell for Polamalu’s career, his recent injuries do highlight the fact that the 31-year-old safety isn’t getting any younger.
To rebound in 2013 and reload for subsequent years, the Steelers will have to add high-quality players at each of these positions. The team needs a solid backup quarterback who can step in when Roethlisberger gets injured and who can, hopefully, emerge as a future starter.
With Mendenhall likely to depart via free agency and neither Redman nor Dwyer apparently capable of being an every-down back, Pittsburgh has to find a running back to carry the load week after week. Similarly, with Wallace likely to sign with another team, the Steelers will need a new starting wide receiver—preferably one who can stretch defenses the way Wallace does.
On the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh has to uncover a young inside linebacker who can take Foote’s spot. Though it has a bit more time before it must find a replacement for Polamalu, the organization also needs to keep an eye out for a talented young safety.
With barely any cap space free to re-sign its own free agents, the Steelers will have to turn to the draft to address these five needs. However, filling all the holes that emerged in 2012 will require creativity.
The team’s first couple of selections (hopefully) should be safe bets to become NFL starters. As the draft progresses, however, the picks will become more and more speculative. Fixing the weaknesses in the projected 2013 roster will require that the Steelers get lucky on several of those gambles.
The following lists the player who would be the best late-round bet for Pittsburgh at each of the positions mentioned above. The list focuses on players projected to be drafted in the fifth round or later.
Any quarterback who slips to the later rounds of the draft is unlikely to be blessed with the superlative arm strength or foot speed of higher-round selections. Given how easily NFL scouts and general managers are wowed by impressive workouts, any signal-caller who can whip a ball downfield or run a fast 40-yard dash almost certainly will rise into more financially lucrative spots.
One might argue, though, that the success of NFL quarterbacks with modest athleticism—such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—indicates that the mental and emotional components of playing the position are more important than the physical.
So if the Steelers decide to look for a backup quarterback late in the 2013 NFL draft, they would be better served by pursuing a prospect who has the necessary head and heart to succeed in the pros.
Instead of searching for a physical talent it won’t find at that point in the draft, the team should look for a gamer with a proven track record. A player with the mental toughness to play the sport’s most challenging position.
No quarterback projected to go in the later rounds is more of a gamer than Jordan Rodgers. Throughout the 2012 season, he demonstrated that he possesses three key attributes that would make him a solid backup and potential future starter in the NFL.
First, the younger brother of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers won games when he was on the field. He guided a team without a tradition of winning to an above-.500 season and a bowl game for one of the few times in school history.
Second, Rodgers showed that he could elevate his game when it mattered most. The senior signal-caller played exceptionally well in the fourth quarter of the Commodores’ games last year, posting his highest quarterback rating in the last 15 minutes of Vanderbilt’s contests.
Third, Rodgers showed that he can take care of the football, which is arguably the No. 1 job of a backup quarterback on a good team. Despite throwing just under 27 passes per game, he had the lowest interception rate of any quarterback projected to be drafted in 2013.
When the other team knew he would be throwing the ball, Rodgers was even better at avoiding turnovers. The senior didn’t throw a single pick when his team was trailing in 2012.
For the Steelers (or for any team), getting a backup quarterback who wins games, plays better when the stakes are higher and doesn’t turn the football over would be great in any round of the draft. Getting one in the seventh round would be an unqualified success.
Though they are obviously not guaranteed to get that from Jordan Rodgers, he is the most likely to deliver that of any quarterback available near the end of the draft.
If the Steelers’ front office and ownership really does want the team to return to the power-rushing days of old, it will have to come up with a workhorse running back who can punish defenses 20-25 times a game.
Mendenhall’s running style never seemed suited to that sort of usage, and neither Redman nor Dwyer have proven consistently effective as a starter.
A projected late-round draft pick who appears ready to be that kind of runner is Stefphon Jefferson from Nevada. Jefferson has the build (5'11", 210 lbs.) and speed (2013 NFL Draft: Running Back Rankings" href="http://walterfootball.com/draft2013RB.php">4.53-second 40-yard dash) necessary to grind opposing teams down over the course of a game.
Size and speed, however, don't guarantee effectiveness at the running back position. Prospects need to show they can get it done on the field as well. And Jefferson did just that in 2012. On his way to the second-most yards in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the junior back rushed for six percent more yards per carry in in the second halves of games last year than he did in the first halves.
Jefferson also proved a very effective back on third downs, a situation in which the Steelers struggled last year. Pittsburgh’s running backs gained first downs on only 50 percent of their carries in 2012, whereas Jefferson converted 53.1 percent of his third-down rushes. He was even better in short-yardage situations, picking up a first down 59.3 percent of the time.
The Nevada running back's success on third downs was partly the result of his intelligence as a ball-carrier. Blessed with excellent field vision, Jefferson rarely makes bad decisions on his cuts. Instead of bouncing runs outside the tackles—a tactic that works more in college than in the pros—Jefferson generally follows his blockers patiently before finding a seam through the line. By doing so, he takes a certain three yards rather than gambling for seven but sometimes losing four.
Throw in his reputation as a high-character guy, and Jefferson makes a lot of sense for the Steelers if they are looking for a late-round running back to add to their roster.
Finding a receiver late in the NFL draft who can replace Wallace will be a tall order.
Landing a wideout with similar speed in the fifth, sixth or seventh round is certainly possible. Getting one with the full range of skills necessary to be a top-flight NFL player is highly unlikely.
Though getting a receiver like Wallace late is not realistic, the Steelers could end up with a productive NFL starter if they target intelligently. For example, if they were to go after Jasper Collins, a wide receiver from Division III Mount Union, they would get a player with the precise route-running and ability to create space necessary to be a very effective slot receiver at the next level.
Playing at the same school that produced NFL wideouts Pierre Garçon and Cecil Shorts, Collins finished with the second-most receptions in Mount Union history. He shone during his senior year, grabbing 92 receptions and 22 touchdowns. The 1,694 receiving yards he gained in 2012 were the seventh-most in a single season in Division III history and were good enough for an average of 18.4 yards per catch.
More enticingly, Collins got better as the year went on and the games grew more important. In September and October, he averaged 3.9 catches and 77.6 yards per game. In the final two months of the season, when Mount Union got into the playoffs, the wideout boosted his production to 8.7 receptions and 153.3 yards per game.
The obvious concern about Collins is the level of competition he faced in college. Clearly, he was not squaring off against NFL-caliber cornerbacks on a regular basis at Mount Union. However, the fact that he impressed scouts and draft prognosticators at the East-West Shrine Game should give some comfort that he can succeed in the pros.
The other knocks on the Mount Union receiver are his lack of size (5’10”, 183 lbs.) and blazing speed (4.53 in the 40). However, being a receiver in the NFL isn’t just about outrunning or overpowering defensive backs. It’s about getting open and catching the ball. Like any good slot receiver in the pros, Collins uses his quick feet and excellent technique to gain separation coming out of his breaks.
Assuming Collins can approximate the success of his fellow Mount Union alums, he could allow the Steelers to paper over the loss of Wallace—at least indirectly.
If Collins turns into a solid slot receiver, the team could split current slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders out and make Brown the new No. 1 wideout. That configuration probably wouldn’t be as good as what the Steelers fielded in 2011 and 2012, but it might not be significantly worse.
As history has shown, the NFL combine can distort perceptions of prospective draftees to sometimes comical degrees. The correlation between measurables and success in the pros is not always very good.
A quick perusal of the fastest 40-yard dash times and the most 225-lb. bench-press reps done recently at the combine does not turn up many All-Pros. Running fast in a straight line and lifting lots of weights aren’t the same as playing football. Even if many scouts and general managers are fooled into thinking they are.
Interpreting workouts gets even harder when the results are not straightforwardly good or bad. For example, what does one make of Iowa State inside linebacker A.J. Klein?
The senior performed better than expected at the combine but managed to hurt his knee in the process. Though Klein later insisted that the injury was not serious, it certainly could not have helped his stock to have NFL talent evaluators watch him go down in Indianapolis.
Because it’s so hard to draw lasting, reliable conclusions from a one- or two-day workout, teams would be better served by looking at what prospects have done on the field. Especially when, like Klein, a potential draftee is projected to go in the later rounds of the draft.
Scooping up players who have a history of playing well on game days but whose draft stock has dropped for other reasons is a great way to find value later in the draft. Klein represents just such a pick for a team like the Steelers that is looking to pick up a good run-stuffing linebacker in the later rounds.
Though, as mentioned above, his combine performance was pleasantly surprising, he has never been and will never be an overwhelming physical specimen. What he is, however, is a remarkably consistent player who has shown that he can get the job done game after game.
In his three seasons as a starter for Iowa State, Klein has finished with 111, 117 and 117 tackles. Though not fleet of foot, his great instincts put him in position to make plenty of stops. There are concerns that he will be too slow in pass coverage at the next level, but Klein showed a nose for the ball in college that few NFL linebackers possess. The former Cyclone returned four interceptions for touchdowns during his career, tying him for the record among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) linebackers.
If the Steelers choose to address their needs at inside linebacker in the later rounds of the draft, they could do a lot worse than Klein. Getting a solid, if unspectacular, player who can effectively stuff the run would help the team move on from the aging Foote.
If Pittsburgh decides to go after Polamalu’s eventual replacement in the 2013 draft, they will have picked the right year for it.
The draft class at the safety position is deep enough that it will push several talented players to later rounds, making them a relative bargain for the teams selecting them.
One such safety is Earl Wolff from North Carolina State. The senior strong safety is projected to go in the sixth round, even though his talent, physical skills and performance on the field normally would entice teams to take him in the earlier rounds.
The 5’11”, 209-lb. strong safety made a name for himself at North Carolina State through his relentless tackling and ability to stuff the run. Wolff racked up an impressive 95 tackles as a sophomore in 2010. He followed that with 105 as a junior and 119 in his final year in Raleigh.
More importantly, Wolff played his best when the games mattered most: at the end of the season. From August to October, he averaged 7.9 tackles per game. As the stakes got higher in November and December, the senior strong safety boosted his average to 11.2 tackles per game.
Though Wolff never caught more than three interceptions per year at North Carolina State, he was effective in pass coverage and rarely made mistakes. Though some scouts have expressed concern about his ability to get deep in coverage, Wolff ran the second-fastest 40 time (4.44) among safeties at the combine.
Much as it may pain Steelers fans to contemplate a future without one of their favorite players, Polamalu’s time as an elite safety is drawing inexorably closer to its end. Bringing in a potential replacement like Wolff will help ease the transition by giving Polamalu more plays off as he gets older and more susceptible to injury.
The bargain-basement contract paid to a late-round pick like Wolff also would help the Steelers cut costs and keep Polamalu from becoming a salary-cap casualty in the next couple of years.