Pittsburgh Steelers: 7 Late-Round Prospects Who Could Contribute as Rookies
When they entered in the league in 2010, Jonathan Dwyer and Antonio Brown were both sixth-round draft picks who had an uphill battle if they were going to contribute at the NFL level. Now as they enter their fourth season, Dwyer and Brown are slated to be the Steelers’ top options at running back and wide receiver, respectively.
These are the types of draft picks that can take a good draft with a strong first three rounds to a great draft by finding late-round gems who develop into quality players.
Brown made an impact early in his career as he earned a significant amount of playing time in just his second season. He would eventually win the starting job over Hines Ward as he compiled 69 receptions for 1,108 yards and two touchdowns.
This was impressive as Brown had a slow start to his career with 16 receptions as a rookie, but had a huge 58-yard reception to help set up the game winning score in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens and caught the game-sealing 14-yard reception in the AFC Championship game against the New York Jets.
Dwyer wasn’t as impressive as a rookie and did not receive significant playing time until last season, but has developed into a potential full-time starting running back.
Starved for talent, the Steelers need to find some late-round gems in the 2013 draft and there are a number of options who not only could develop into quality players, but some who could contribute this season as rookies.
Here is a look at seven prospects that may be available between the fifth and seventh round who could contribute as rookies.
Khaled Holmes, C, USC
Injuries and the Steelers offensive line go hand in hand. Just as Kelvin Beachum.
Beachum was a seventh-round draft pick last season who normally would have sat the bench all season, but with the Steelers injury situation, he actually started at right tackle and performed well.
After such a successful rookie season, Beachum will enter next season as the top backup at tackle and probably guard as well.
However, the Steelers could use an upgrade on the interior to replace Doug Legursky, and Khaled Holmes would be the perfect fit.
Holmes is an athletic lineman who is a good fit for a zone-blocking scheme. He can play both center and guard and does have potential to start one day.
All five offensive line positions are already accounted for, but injuries happen and the Steelers need quality depth on their offensive line. Holmes has the talent to earn the top backup spot at center and guard as a rookie and would be a quality addition.
Rodney Smith, WR, Florida State
The Steelers have two young receivers at the top of their depth chart with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, but they could use a developmental prospect behind them.
Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress are limited and are nearing the end of their careers and the Steelers will look to the draft to add a future starter to the mix.
While they may take a receiver early, there is no reason to believe that they also wouldn’t consider one late in the draft. They have had success in the draft with receivers and could use one, if not two options.
Rodney Smith is a big-bodied receiver who would provide Ben Roethlisberger with a tall option and a large catching radius.
At 6’5”, Smith has impressive speed running the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds. He has the types of physical tools that cannot be taught.
Despite his size, Smith has room to add strength so he can better fight off defenders for 50-50 balls and will need to improve his route running—which virtually all rookie receivers must do.
But given his size and the age at the position, Smith would have an opportunity to get on the field in four-receiver sets and potentially move up to third on the depth chart if he develops quickly.
Conner Vernon, WR, Duke
As the ACC’s all-time leading receiver, Conner Vernon is a late-round prospect who cannot be ignored.
Vernon does not have impressive size (6’0”) or speed (4.68-40), but he has terrific hands and is not afraid to go over the middle of the field.
His skill set make him a good fit for the slot position, which is an area that the Steelers will be looking to fill with Brown and Sanders playing on the outside.
The only thing that will hold Vernon back is his lack of speed as he will have trouble beating NFL defensive backs. He will have to use his quickness and refine his route running so he can find tight spaces between defenders.
Vernon may never develop into a top receiving option, but he could turn into a safety outlet for Roethlisberger and find a spot on the field on passing downs.
It was difficult to select a single late-round running back because there are so many quality options.
Mike Gillislee (Florida), Kenjon Barner (Oregon), Stepfan Taylor (Stanford) and Ray Graham (Pitt) are all backs who may be available in the fifth round or later.
Gillislee averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season while rushing for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has good speed running the 40 in 4.55 seconds and has the ability to get to the outside, but can also contribute as a blocker on passing downs.
Taylor had an impressive 2012 season at Stanford with 1,530 yards while averaging 4.8 yards per carry with 13 touchdowns. His numbers were particularly impressive considering his lack of size and speed.
He is a powerful runner who has demonstrated the ability to carry the load while also contributing in the passing game as a good receiver out of the backfield and as a blocker.
The Steelers could stay local and go with Graham who recovered well from an ACL injury. Though undersized and not a burner, Graham has plays faster than he was timed and had a very productive career.
Graham can get to the outside and run between the tackles, but will be limited to a part-time back because of his size. He is also a solid receiver and can take over the role as the third-down back.
If the Steelers wanted a faster option, they could go with Barner.
Barner is a speed back who would provide a different dynamic in the Steelers’ backfield. He had 1,767 yards and 23 touchdowns last year while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He can also contribute in the return game.
Both Taylor and Gillislee could develop into starting running backs in time while Graham and Barner would each serve a specific role in the offense.
Regardless of who they would take, any of these running backs would get plenty of carries as a rookie.
Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State
Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote will start at inside linebacker in 2013, but the Steelers' depth is thin behind these two.
Sean Spence may not be ready to play next season and the Steelers must address this position in the draft. Gerald Hodges could be a perfect option.
Hodges is well-schooled coming from “Linebacker U,” and at the very least would be able to contribute on special teams as a rookie.
It would be a challenge, but Hodges does have potential to steal some snaps from Foote as a rookie. He was a leader on the defense with a high football IQ and used his smarts to locate the ball-carrier to make the tackle, but also excels in pass coverage.
Hodges came to Penn State as a safety and transitioned to linebacker, but his pass coverage skills have not eroded. Last season he had seven passes defended and two interceptions.
Though it would not be a lot of snaps, Hodges could find his way onto the field on passing downs if his coverage skills translate to the NFL level.
B.W. Webb, CB, William & Mary
Mike Tomlin could look to his alma mater for a developmental prospect at cornerback. B.W. Webb would add a very talented option to the Steelers’ secondary.
William Gay is slotted to play in the nickel role next season, but this job should not be guaranteed. The coaches will be tempted to stick with the veteran, however the need to have an open competition.
Every defense needs three quality cornerbacks and the Steelers need to go with their top three options regardless of experience. Webb is a player who could challenge for this role, or at least a role on passing downs.
Behind Gay, the Steelers do not have any cornerbacks who have impressed and Webb could be the answer.
Webb was a leader on the defense who had 11 career interceptions and was a three time all-conference selection. He has the ability to run with most NFL receivers and is physical enough to play run defense.
However, playing at a small school, Webb will have to prove that he can match up against NFL talent. But he would be given every opportunity to beat out Curtis Brown for the fourth spot on the depth chart and may even have a chance to jump Gay at some point during the season.
Beyond his ability to play cornerback, Webb has also been a successful punt returner and could fill the hole that the Steelers have at this position.
Josh Evans, S, Florida
The Steelers will be looking for young talent at safety and Florida will be one of the schools that they look at. While Matt Elam gets all of the headlines, Josh Evans could be the type of safety that the Steelers will go for.
Evans is a well-rounded safety who was solid last year with 83 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions. He has good size at 6’1” and 207 pounds and could be the future at free safety.
Like Ryan Clark, Evans played more of a safe role in Florida’s defense so Elam could make plays. This is exactly the type of player that the Steelers need.
Evans has good, not great speed, but will make up for this with his ability to recognize plays.
There is nothing spectacular about Evans, but he does a lot well and with the Steelers looking to upgrade their depth at safety, he could earn a role as the top backup as a rookie. Given the injuries at the safety position, odds are he could see a lot of playing time as a rookie.