With the 2013 NFL Draft approaching, it's a good time to look back and see what the Pittsburgh Steelers have done with their picks in the past. While not every selection can be a sure thing or an eventual success, making more good picks than bad is necessary if a team wants to build rosters for the long term.
The Steelers have made some questionable draft decisions in the past five years, but they've also made some good ones. Here are the biggest studs and duds among the Steelers' picks in that span.
Stud: RB Rashard Mendenhall, 2008, Round 1, Pick 23
His 2012 season aside—which didn't begin until October as he continued his recovery from an ACL tear the previous year and ended early with a benching after he didn't report for a home game—Rashard Mendenhall spent the majority of his time with the Steelers being a workhorse running back in an offensive system that wasn't too friendly to his talents.
While drafting a running back in the first round is a major risk, the Steelers managed to mostly benefit from Mendenhall's time with the team. He had two seasons with over 1,000 rushing yards and another close to it, put up 13 rushing touchdowns in 2010 and managed to catch the vast majority of the minimal passes thrown to him.
Mendenhall is no Adrian Peterson, but he played a major role for the Steelers while he was in Pittsburgh. Though it would have been better for the team to get a longer-term return on their investment, it's hard to look back at his entire body of work for the team and see him as anything but a smart draft choice.
Dud: OL Kraig Urbik, 2009, Round 3, Pick 79
The Steelers have long had issues with their offensive line, and they hoped to address them in the 2009 draft when they took guard Kraig Urbik in the third round. Instead, they found themselves with a wasted pick.
Urbik was expected to at least be the Steelers' primary backup offensive guard if not a starter, but instead he lost his spot on the depth chart to the undrafted Ramon Foster. Foster just received a new deal with the Steelers; Urbik was unceremoniously released by the Steelers a year after he was drafted, and then landed with the Buffalo Bills.
He was Pro Football Focus' 25th-ranked guard for 2012 (subscription required), ahead of his Steelers counterparts Foster and Willie Colon. His "dud" designation here is more about how the Steelers handled him rather than any comment on his career in the NFL thus far.
For a team that perpetually needs quality depth for its oft-injured offensive line, letting Urbik go without a single snap was perplexing. The Steelers' poor decision was not that they drafted Urbik, but that they released him so quickly.
Stud: WR Antonio Brown, 2010, Round 6, Pick 195
There's nothing better than taking a player in a later round and having him becoming a dominant force on the field. When the Steelers took wide receiver Antonio Brown in the sixth round in 2010, they likely saw someone who could potentially develop but didn't expect too much from him. Now, Brown will be the Steelers' No. 1 receiver when the 2013 season begins.
Brown had only 16 catches for 167 yards in his rookie season; in his second year, however, he amassed 1,108 receiving yards, with his sure hands and speed a good counterpart for then-starter Mike Wallace. His strong sophomore year led him to a six-year, $42.5 million deal last offseason.
Though his receiving yardage dipped to 787 in 2012, owing to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's decreased reliance on the downfield passing game, his reliability remained as strong as it was in the previous season. Brown could have easily been a roster bubble signing in 2010 relegated to the margins of NFL history. Now, he's the Steelers' best offensive weapon for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Dud: WR Limas Sweed, 2008, Round 2, Pick 53
Unlike Brown in 2010, wide receiver Limas Sweed was hoped to be a difference-maker for the Steelers immediately. He was a second-round pick with first-round talent who dropped because of a late-season wrist injury and subsequent surgery which scared interested teams away. At first, it seemed like the Steelers had gotten a bargain by taking him in the second round; instead, it turned out Sweed would never live up to his pre-draft billing.
Sweed played in just 18 games over his first two seasons, catching just nine passes for 89 yards and no touchdowns while dropping three passes. He was placed on the non-football injury reserve list near the end of the 2009 season for "personal reasons," tore his Achilles' tendon in minicamp the following year, spent the season on injured reserve and then was released in 2011.
Even prior to the Achilles injury, Sweed never seemed to find stable footing on the Steelers' depth chart. A second-round pick should be in the running to start, but Sweed was a marginal player at best. This was not a good use of a draft pick.
Stud: WR Mike Wallace, 2009, Round 3, Pick 84
Though it is telling that two of the Steelers' three best draft picks of the last five years are playing elsewhere this season, that's an issue for another time. Regardless of what happened in 2012—the contract holdout, the disappointing season, the locker room tension—wide receiver Mike Wallace was indeed an excellent draft addition by the Steelers, helping to effectively change the look of their offense, even if just for a little while.
Wallace played in all 16 games of his rookie season, amassing an impressive 756 yards and six touchdowns on just 39 receptions. He became a full-time starter in 2010, catching 60 passes for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns and averaged 21 yards per reception. He had over 1,100 receiving yards and eight scores in 2011, and though his production dipped in his final season—he had only 836 yards on his 64 catches—his eight touchdowns were still six more than Brown had on the year.
Wallace is now with the Miami Dolphins, having left the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent. Though the Steelers' offensive philosophy underwent a shift last year when Todd Haley took over, making the loss of Wallace less painful than it would have been otherwise, the team's passing game is going to be quite different this season without him. He may not be as good a receiver as he thinks he is, but that doesn't mean Wallace wasn't an excellent use of a draft pick.
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