NFL Draft: Pittsburgh Steelers Defensive Picks Must Make Impact

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NFL Draft: Pittsburgh Steelers Defensive Picks Must Make Impact
USA TODAY Sports
Jarvis Jones has a new shirt in his wardrobe.

In the 2013 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers tried to right their wrongs from their 2012 draft.

They picked more players on defense than they did on offense.

Five of the Steelers nine picks were defensive players.

They took Georgia outside-linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round, Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round, Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne in the fifth round, Florida State inside linebacker Vince Williams in the sixth round and Samford defensive lineman Nick Williams in the seventh round.

Last year, despite a graying defense, the Steelers chose only three players on the defensive side of the ball and six on offense.

They cut one of those defenders in training camp. Another one, inside-linebacker Sean Spence, suffered a brutal knee injury in the preseason. Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette over the weekend that it would be "miraculous" if Spence ever played again.

All eyes are on nose-tackle Alameda Ta'amu to save the 2012 draft from being a complete washout on defense.

Not a comforting thought.

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Only three of the Steelers projected 2013 starters on defense have been acquired in the last three years, and all of them are entering their first year as full-time starters.

Jason Worilds, assigned the task of filling James Harrison's shoes, was drafted in 2010. Cortez Allen, who's replacing Keenan Lewis, was drafted in 2011. Undrafted Steve McLendon, Casey Hampton's successor, joined the Steelers in 2010.

The rest of the Steelers defensive starters entered the NFL in 2009 or earlier.

Ziggy Hood was drafted in 2009. LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons were drafted in 2007. Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor were taken in 2003. Larry Foote and Brett Keisel were chosen in 2002.

Ryan Clark wasn't drafted, but he came into the league in 2002 with the New York Giants.

It was about time the Steelers replenished their defense in the draft.

The 2010 draft would look a lot better if Worilds can actually hold down the starting job at outside linebacker. But unless Worilds suddenly learns to strike fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks, it's hard to imagine Jones on the bench.

Traditionally, the Steelers bring along rookie defenders slowly. Kendrell Bell, drafted in the second round in 2001, was the last Steelers rookie to start regularly on defense. No rookie has done that since Dick LeBeau became defensive coordinator in 2004.

It's not too much to ask that Jones becomes the first.

Jones led the nation in 2012 with a school-record 14.5 sacks, a school-record 24.5 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles. He also broke up four passes and intercepted one. Jones did all this in the SEC, the conference that comes closest to replicating NFL competition.

The Steelers don't have time for Jones to sit and take notes for a year or two.

Thomas has a little more leeway. Just a little.

He would have to beat out Clark or Polamalu to start right away. That's a little harder than beating out Worilds. But the Steelers will need solid contributions from Thomas at some point because they put a lot of chips on the table to get him.

The Steelers traded their third-round pick in 2014 to the Cleveland Browns for their fourth-rounder this year, No. 111 overall. It was the first time in 40 years the Steelers traded a future draft pick, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That's how badly they wanted Thomas.

They did OK in the 1974 draft without a third-rounder. That class produced four Hall of Famers.

Like Polamalu, Thomas "loves to throw his body around on the field," according to an NFL Draft Scout. He forced three fumbles and intercepted two passes while leading the Orange with 85 tackles in 2012. The biggest knock on Thomas is his lack of height, but NFL Draft Scout lists him at 5'9", only an inch shorter than Polamalu.

Thomas played cornerback and linebacker earlier in his career at Syracuse. That can only help his football knowledge and could make him a versatile, chess-piece kind of player.

Thomas was drafted as an eventual replacement for Polamalu or Clark. Polamalu just turned 32 and Clark will turn 34 next season. If Polamalu again misses significant time because of injuries, however, Thomas could get some on-the-job training.

He's the first safety drafted by the Steelers since Ryan Mundy in 2008. The Steelers need more out of Thomas than they got from Mundy.

The Steelers don't expect that much from Hawthorne—not immediately, anyway. They braced themselves to lose Lewis by promoting Allen as the starter and bringing back William Gay to replace Allen as the nickelback.

Hawthorne just needs to do his job on special teams as a rookie, although it would be nice if he developed quicker than Curtis Brown.

Anything a team gets from sixth and seventh-rounders is gravy. So if either Vince Williams or Nick Williams become a regular contributor, the Steelers will have done well with those picks.

With Larry Foote about to turn 33 and forgettable Stevenson Sylvester as his top backup, it can be argued that the Steelers should have taken an inside linebacker before the sixth round. But it's not like they made any luxury picks.

The Steelers also have to score points. They desperately needed a running back (Le'Veon Bell) and wide receivers (Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown). And there's nothing wrong with getting a quarterback with a little upside (Landry Jones), considering Ben Roethlisberger's career could end on any snap with his play style.

Even if there's a little dead weight among the lot of defenders the Steelers drafted, this still could be the Steelers' best defensive draft since they took Timmons and Woodley in 2007.

For now, lets just hope it benefits the defense better than the 2012 draft.

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