The Pittsburgh Steelers have long been considered one of the best drafting teams in the NFL. However, to hear it from many analysts, they’ve sputtered in regard to scouting, selecting and developing players since Mike Tomlin took over.
Early-round busts, little success in the later rounds and slow-developing players pervade the talk regarding the Steelers’ recent draft classes.
Well, Steelers Nation, I’m here to tell you that it’s not all bad.
Some of those players have begun to develop, and some made an impact right from the start.
Some aren’t with the Steelers anymore, and some may even be on their way out.
Some others are just getting what may turn out to be stellar careers underway.
So who are the Steelers top 10 draft picks under Tomlin? Read on to find out.
Criteria: In order to decide who would slot where on this list I considered a number of factors. Primarily potential, productivity and value. The players who've best exuded all three rank the highest.
Now onto the honorable mentions...
Emmanuel Sanders has undeniably been a valuable asset to the Steelers this year. He’s already set career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns this year, but I have to wonder how much of that is out of necessity.
With the loss of Mike Wallace and Heath Miller coming off a torn ACL, the Steelers have been forced to rely on players like Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery more than ever before.
Before this season, Sanders’ career stats read like those of a career third receiver, and while he should be commended for a solid season, many will remember the plays Sanders didn’t make when this season concludes.
Probably the best thing that can be said about Ziggy Hood’s career thus far is he’s managed to maintain a tenuous hold on a starting spot since it began.
However, this year Tomlin finally grew fed up with his underperforming and sat Hood in favor of Cameron Heyward. Initially, it seemed as though the plan was for Hood and Heyward to bookend the Steelers D-line like Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel did before them.
In order for that to come to fruition, Hood would have to, you know, start. And as he can’t even do that, it’s tough to justify a spot for him among the Steelers better recent draft picks.
I know, I know. Starting this list off with a player who has all of 11 games under his belt is making you question my credibility right away.
But consider the honorable mentions. Would you trade Bell’s promise for the underperforming Hood or mid-level second receiver in Sanders? I sure wouldn’t.
No, Bell’s statistics won’t wow you. He’s averaging only 3.3 yards a clip and has yet to top 100 rushing yards in a game. But that’s due to an injury-riddled offensive line more so than Bell.
What the box score doesn’t show is Bell’s heart.
The 21-year-old has provided fans with a number of memorable plays this year. For example, Bell piled up 136 total yards in the Thanksgiving matchup with the Baltimore Ravens, and his season-long 43-yard run in that contest reinvigorated what was a stagnant Steelers offense. Of course, the play most fans will remember from that game is the one Bell won't.
In the video above, Bell toughs out a touchdown run that wasn't because his helmet was knocked off in the middle of the play, forever endearing himself to Steelers fans.
Bell has a ways to go before he’s mentioned with the likes of Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris. But with a few more quality big men up-front, Bell has the potential to spearhead a dominant rushing attack Steelers fans so often pine for.
When the Steelers selected Jason Worilds in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, fans were left scratching their heads.
They already had two stalwart outside linebackers in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and a second-round pick is a hefty price to pay for a rotational player. But if this season’s any indication, Worilds could prove to be much more than just a rotational player.
The Steelers proved smart to cut ties with Harrison, who’s totaled just two sacks this year. And there is speculation that they could take the same approach with Woodley, who’s been hampered by injuries in each of the past three seasons.
If that’s the case, and Worilds is retained, he’d become the team’s top pass-rusher. It's a role he’s flourished in this season.
Worilds has tallied all of his team-leading seven sacks after the Steelers’ Week 5 bye. Some would contest that this sudden sense of urgency is due to this being a contract year, but I’d implore them to recognize that Worilds has steadily improved in every year since he’s entered the league.
He’s set a new career high in sacks every season, culminating with his ferocious 2013 campaign. He’s also notched a career best in tackles and forced fumbles this year.
While it’s entirely possible Worilds will just be a flash in the pan, he’s proved this year that he’s capable of being the Steelers' next dominant sack-master.
As with Worilds, Cameron Heyward was a perceived draft bust coming into the year. Both players seem to have put it together in the second half of the 2013 season, but Heyward ranks ahead of his counterpart because he’s done so in his third year, as opposed to Worilds who’s in year four.
Heyward entered the season without a start under his belt and appeared to be resigned to the same fate this year. He amassed just two tackles in his team’s ugly 0-4 start, but Coach Tomlin opted to insert him into the starting lineup in hopes of igniting a struggling defensive unit.
Good call, coach.
Since becoming a starter, Heyward’s tallied 48 tackles, four sacks and has even managed to knock down six passes with those big mitts of his.
All of a sudden, Heyward’s among the best 3-4 defensive ends in the game, and he's proving the Steelers' strategy of developing their draft picks is fruitful.
It may seem hard to believe now, but Rashard Mendenhall was once a pretty good running back.
In fact, between 2009-2011, Mendenhall totaled 3,309 rushing yards and 30 total scores. Unfortunately, in Week 17 of the 2011 season, Mendenhall looked to be on the way to a third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign, but a torn ACL derailed those plans.
Not only that, but the injury also derailed Mendenhall’s career in Pittsburgh and possibly his career as a featured back. Since tearing his ACL, Mendenhall’s gained just 759 yards on 237 carries. His longest run in that same span went for only 20 yards.
In all likelihood, Mendenhall will probably never recapture the form that made him a top-15 running back, but that shouldn’t detract from what he did accomplish in the Steel City.
The Steelers boasted a steady run game with Mendenhall but have floundered around the bottom of the league since losing Mendenhall to injury in 2011.
And were it not for Mendenhall’s 121-yard game against the New York Jets in the 2010 AFC Championship Game, it’s possible the Steelers wouldn’t have made it to their record-tying eighth Super Bowl.
As with several of the players who preceded him on this list, David DeCastro failed to meet expectations in his first year in the NFL. The perceived steal of the 2012 draft, DeCastro suffered a torn MCL and a dislocated kneecap in the preseason and was only able to salvage the last quarter of the season.
In truth, DeCastro looked nothing like the heir apparent to Alan Faneca at the conclusion of 2012. Ben Roethlisberger taking 10 sacks in DeCastro’s three starts is evidence of that. In the other 10 games Roethlisberger played in 2012, he hit the deck a total of 20 times.
However, the difference in DeCastro’s play from this year to last is night and day. DeCastro has been the Steelers best offensive lineman by a wide margin this season.
OK, that’s not saying much. Well, DeCastro’s also consistently ranked among the best guards in the NFL on a weekly basis according to Pro Football Focus.
Of course, that’s made all the more impressive by the fact DeCastro hasn’t been playing alongside Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (more on him later) this year.
It’s exciting to think of the Steelers' offensive line when those two are finally (and hopefully) able to line up alongside one another.
Though some Steelers fans are reluctant to admit it, before Mike Wallace opted to chase a big payday in Miami, we all loved him—and for good reason.
Sure, he might’ve been a “one-trick pony,” as Tomlin put it. But it was one hell of a trick.
Paired with a strong-armed quarterback in Roethlisberger, Wallace became the NFL’s premier deep threat in Pittsburgh.
As you can see in the video above, Wallace has a tendency to take the top off the defense. In his four seasons wearing black and yellow, Wallace caught a pass of at least 40 yards in 24 different outings. He averaged about 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns per season as a Steeler.
In other words, Wallace is the reason Santonio Holmes was deemed expendable, and he helped the Steelers transition from Hines Ward’s tenure as the team’s primary target.
What garners Wallace a spot in the top half of this list is the fact that he was able to excel at a position that is often difficult for rookies to grasp from the moment he entered the league.
Had this list been compiled a few years ago, Woodley would’ve undoubtedly been in contention for the top spot.
Unfortunately, Woodley’s been stunted by lower-body injuries since going on a midseason tear (7.5 sacks between Weeks 5-8) in 2011. When this season ends, Woodley will have played in just 26 of a possible 40 games since then and have notched nine sacks in that same time frame.
However, Woodley’s recent injury woes shouldn’t detract from the havoc he wreaked on quarterbacks in his first four seasons.
In his first four seasons, Woodley put opposing signal-callers in the turf 38 times, a number made more impressive when one considers that only four of those came in his rookie year.
In his first two seasons, Woodley broke Willie McGinest’s playoff record by posting four consecutive multi-sack games, including a key one at the end of Super Bowl XLIII to squash the Arizona Cardinals comeback hopes.
Still not content, Woodley notched a QB takedown in each of his team’s games en route to Super Bowl XLV.
Yes, Woodley’s failed to meet expectations in recent years, but his contributions to the best Steelers teams since the ‘70s means he has to be considered one of the best Steelers draft picks in recent memory.
Once upon a time, the Steelers were lauded for their consistency at the center position. From Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson to Jeff Hartings, the men who snapped the ball fluctuated as frequently as head coaches in Pittsburgh: very little.
Then, in 2006, Hartings opted to call it a career, and that changed things entirely. From there, Steelers fans suffered through the likes of Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig, the latter of whom nearly cost the Steelers Super Bowl XLIII with a critical late-game holding penalty in the end zone.
Having seen enough, the Steelers decided it was time for a change and spent their 2010 first-rounder on the consensus No. 1 center, Maurkice Pouncey. To his credit, Pouncey’s been a revelation in the middle of an embattled offensive line.
The 24-year-old received Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in each of his first three seasons. Finally, it appeared the Steelers had regained consistency at the center spot. Unfortunately, Pouncey suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 1 this year on a DeCastro cut block gone awry.
Provided Pouncey can regain the form that earned him so many accolades, he and DeCastro should make for one of the best interior duos in the NFL for years to come.
Lawrence Timmons might seem like an odd choice to place above Maurkice Pouncey to some, but the truth is he’s been just as productive on the opposite side of the ball without all the nagging injuries.
Timmons took some time to get acclimated to the Steelers defense, starting only two games in his first two years. But after notching five sacks and a pick in his second year, the team deemed Larry Foote expendable and plugged Timmons into the starting lineup.
He hasn’t disappointed.
In fact, in his five years as a full-time starter, Timmons has tallied 520 tackles, 19 sacks and seven interceptions. Last year he proved his playmaking ability by leading the team in both sacks and takeaways.
At only 27, Timmons is just now entering his prime and should lead the way for this Steelers defense for the foreseeable future.
As the only player on this list who was selected outside of the first three rounds, Brown didn’t get the top spot on this list solely for his productivity.
No, the sixth-round pick ran away with the No. 1 ranking because of the tremendous value the Steelers got from selecting him.
What many don’t remember is Brown was a direct result of the Steelers trading Holmes to the New York Jets. While fans (myself included) were understandably upset that the Steelers would trade a Super Bowl MVP for a fifth-round pick, they managed to parlay that into Bryant McFadden and the Cardinals' sixth-round pick.
That sixth-round pick would turn out to be Antonio Brown.
Is anyone still bummed about that trade?
While Brown doesn’t have a Super Bowl MVP on his resume (yet), he does have some other records that make his contemporaries envious. For one, Brown is the only player in NFL history to gain 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season.
Coupled with that, Brown is on pace to break two major single-season Steelers records this year. He needs 18 receptions (doable) and 92 receiving yards (done deal) to break the team marks held by Ward and Yancey Thigpen, respectively.
Proving that Brown has not only been spectacular, as evidenced by the catch-of-the-year candidate in the video above, but he's done so on a consistent basis.
With a second team MVP in four years likely headed Brown’s way this season, there’s no question who the Steelers best draft pick under Tomlin has been.