Aside from Jarvis Jones and Le'Veon Bell, their first- and second-round picks, respectively, the majority of Pittsbugh's picks were to boost what had slowly but surely become depleted depth at a number of key positions. With many starters pushing or just past 30 years old, it was important that the Steelers finally make some aggressive moves.
It started in Round 3 with the drafting of wide receiver Markus Wheaton, a near-clone of former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. He's fast and has great height and hands, but he's an even better route-runner.
Though Emmanuel Sanders is expected to take on the job Wallace's departure left vacant, Wheaton's presence on the depth chart gives them more options in the passing game immediately. He's a potential starter in a year's time and keeps them from having to rely on older players like Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress in the long term.
Round 4 saw the Steelers take safety Shamarko Thomas, probably the team's most valuable selection despite filling an immediate need by drafting Jones in Round 1. Thomas is a strong safety in the mold of Troy Polamalu, and that's not a coincidence—it's indicative of a plan.
Polamalu is 32 years old and since 2006 has played just two full, 16-game seasons. The Steelers lacked depth behind him, as well as free safety Ryan Clark, with both Ryan Mundy and Will Allen leaving in free agency, so it became imperative for the Steelers to not only draft a safety who provides the ability to come in and play if either man cannot in 2013 but to start in 2014 if, let's say, Polamalu chooses to retire.
Thomas isn't a late-round pick with potential developmental prospects—he's a mid-round selection with considerable talent who, like all Steelers defensive rookies, will spend a lot of time on special teams in his first season but is likely pegged to be a future starter, as early as next year. If the Steelers didn't make this move—which was achieved by trading up with the Cleveland Browns—they'd be in trouble, not only from a depth standpoint but in terms of their future options as well.
The trade-up to get Thomas also didn't cost the Steelers their own fourth-round pick. Instead, they traded their 2014 third-rounder to do it, saving them their Round 4 selection to address another important depth need—quarterback.
For years, Steelers starter Ben Roethlisberger has been backed up by players older than himself: Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. With Roethlisberger now 31 years old and his injury history lengthening, the Steelers needed to get younger at backup quarterback.
They did this—sort of—by signing free agent Bruce Gradkowski, who is 30 years old. Gradkowski is in no position to be the Steelers' quarterback of the future, however, so it seemed like this year might be a good one for the Steelers to perhaps pick up Roethlisberger's successor. Maybe Landry Jones, that fourth-round pick, can become that after a few years on the bench and some development.
At the very least, even if Jones never improves enough to take over for Roethslisberger whenever he may leave Pittsburgh, the Steelers got themselves a young player to have on the bench behind him, something they probably should have done sooner.
Even Jarvis Jones can be considered a smart depth move, even though it was ultimately a perfect-timing conflation of need and of him being the best player available that pushed the Steelers to draft him in Round 1. Now, instead of Jason Worilds being the guaranteed starter to take over for outside linebacker James Harrison, Jones provides competition for the job.
Further, another outside linebacker simply helps the Steelers' depth at this crucial position, one that has seen its fair share of injuries in the past few seasons.
Interestingly enough, one position the Steelers were linked to in this year's draft went without the team's attention—tight end. With Heath Miller still recovering from a major late-season knee injury, the possibility exists that the Steelers' top offensive weapon for Roethlisberger may not be able to take the field when the 2013 season begins.
With that in mind, a number of draft experts believed the Steelers would be targeting top tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round. After the third round had wrapped, with the Steelers taking Jones, Bell and then Wheaton, it looked less and less likely that Pittsburgh would find someone to do Miller's job, should Miller not be able to do it come Week 1.
There are two potential reasons why Pittsburgh chose not to address its tight end depth, which currently consists of 2012 draft pick David Paulson, tight end-fullback hybrid David Johnson and free-agent signings Jamie McCoy and Matt Spaeth.
The first is that the Steelers are confident that Miller will be 100-percent healthy to start the season. Head coach Mike Tomlin says that Miller's recovery "is going according to plan," but whether that plan means a Week 1 return isn't yet clear.
The other is that this year's tight end draft class was rather weak. Aside from Eifert, Zach Ertz and (debatably) Travis Kelce, there aren't many rookie tight ends who have what it takes to be starters in their first year. With Paulson still developing in to what very well could become a future starter and the Steelers' tight end depth chart not all that shallow, there simply wasn't a need for another one this year even if their depth doesn't include a Miller clone.
Though it's not pleasant to think about, a number of the Steelers' most high-profile players are getting older and closer to the ends of their careers. Finally, the Steelers realized this and made some important selections in the 2013 draft.
Now, their depth at safety, receiver and quarterback has a much-needed injection of youth all while providing the team with future starting options rather than just late-round bodies who may never take a significant snap. It was an aggressive 2013 draft for the Steelers, and while there's still much time ahead before any of these rookies play a game, it's hard to look at it and call it anything but a success.
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