When it comes to building a team, the Pittsburgh Steelers do it through the draft. While the players selected in the first two rounds get all of the attention, it is the late-round sleepers who help build a team that can compete for championships.
Over the years, the Steelers have found a number of late-round sleepers who have not only contributed, but also earned a starting job. Last season alone, they had four players in the starting lineup drafted between the fifth and seventh rounds.
Brett Keisel and Kelvin Beachum were both seventh-round picks, while Vince Williams and Steelers MVP Antonio Brown were sixth-round selections.
The Steelers will look to add to this late-round draft success by finding some diamonds in the rough. Here are seven sleepers who would be perfect fits for the Steelers.
The Steelers will have some tough decisions to make at running back with Le’Veon Bell as the only back under contract beyond the 2013 season. Despite the lack of depth, they can take comfort in the fact that Bell has shown he can be a three-down player.
As far as the other running backs go, expect at least one of Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones or LaRod Stephens-Howling to return. All three could take on the role as the top backup with Dwyer excelling as a short-yardage back last season, while Stephens-Howling could return kicks and play on passing downs.
At just 24 years old, Dwyer would be the logical choice to bring back. He has averaged at least four yards per carry in each of the past three seasons. That would put the Steelers in need of another versatile running back.
Listed as a fifth-round prospect by CBSSports.com, James White is on the smaller side at 5’9” and 206 pounds, but he has been proved to be a tough runner with 4,015 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns in his four-year career at Wisconsin. He has solid speed and good hands with 73 career receptions. He has even shown ability in pass protection, which is extremely important for rookies if they wish to get playing time.
White began to showcase some of these skills in the Senior Bowl in which he was the leading rusher with 62 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. His versatility is a huge plus, particularly his ability in the passing game.
As the Steelers look to expand their offense—especially with the no-huddle offense—White would provide them with another multidimensional threat.
Kevin Colbert has cornered the market on short wide receivers over the years, and he could continue to do so this year.
When asked about wide receivers at the Senior Bowl, Colbert told Fox Sports Coy Wire that Wyoming’s Robert Herron was the most impressive.
Here is what Coy had to say about Herron:
If you blinked you would miss Herron’s release off the line, as he repeatedly got great releases when confronted with press coverage. He showed tremendous speed as his routes progressed down the field, pulling away from defenders on more than one occasion.
At 5’10,” 187 pounds, Herron fits into the mold of small, but speedy receivers Colbert has drafted over the years. Both of the starters at receiver last year—Brown and Emmanuel Sanders—were under 6'0".
Herron is 133rd on Draft Tek’s big board and could be a possible fifth-round selection for the Steelers. They could add a physical presence early in the draft and come back again to add another fast, quick receiver to the mix.
Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are both unrestricted free agents, leaving Cameron Heyward as the Steelers' only starter guaranteed to return. While they could re-sign either Keisel or Hood, there is a need to add depth.
Nick Williams and Brian Arnfelt flashed potential last season in training camp and during the preseason, but it takes years for defensive ends to develop and neither is a sure thing. Adding another developmental player to the mix would certainly help.
The 6’4,” 277-pound defensive end prospect from Stanford is currently listed as a sixth- or seventh-round selection by CBSSports.com. That is a much lower projection than the third-round grade that he had at the time of a season-ending pectoral injury.
Ben Gardner had an impressive college career with 34 tackles for a loss and 17.5 sacks. He has a good frame to grow into and is an ideal fit to be a 5-technique defensive end in the Steelers’ system. With an ability to disrupt at the line, he would have a role in Pittsburgh’s pass defense package as well.
It is essential to have players who can get to the quarterback, and the Steelers do not have enough. LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds suffered through injuries or lack of production last year, while Jarvis Jones experienced rookie growing pains.
Behind these three, the Steelers have nothing at outside linebacker. This is an area that they must address in the draft.
One of the biggest sleepers in the draft is Elhadji Ndiaye from Nebraska Kearney. He is the 46th-rated defensive end prospect by CBSSports.com and was identified as a "Super Sleeper" by NFL Draft Diamonds. He would move to outside linebacker for the Steelers.
At 6’5” and 240 pounds, Ndiaye has good size for a prospect but does have room to grow. He is very raw, but he is a terrific athlete with upside. In his first year as a starter, he had 44 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks, six hurries and two forced fumbles.
Ndiaye would be a project who needs two or three years to develop, but he is an intriguing developmental prospect who should be available at the end of the draft.
The Steelers should be in better shape at inside linebacker in 2014. Besides Lawrence Timmons, they can expect Larry Foote to return from injury, and Vince Williams should improve entering his second season. That does not mean they will not search for more depth.
Andrew Jackson is a seventh-round prospect, according to CBSSports.com. He has good size at 6’1” and 259 pounds, which should serve him well at defending the run.
There are some character concerns following a suspension last season, but that may not be enough to overcome his talent.
Over the past two seasons, Jackson had 134 tackles, 25 tackles for a loss, three sacks and four forced fumbles. If the Steelers are looking for another contributor late in the draft who could step in and contribute as a role player, Jackson would be a good fit.
The Steelers should be set at cornerback this season with Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay, but that does not mean they can’t improve.
Taylor no longer looks like a cornerback who can shadow a team’s top receiver and could be a cap casualty. Gay performed above expectations and was probably the Steelers’ most consistent cornerback last year; however, he lacks the physical capabilities of matching up against the best receivers in the league.
Allen still has plenty of upside and room to grow after an up-and-down 2013 season. He should take command of a starting job this year and lock down this job for the foreseeable future. However, besides Allen, the Steelers lack any young potential at cornerback. That makes this position a high priority when it comes to the draft.
Marcus Williams is a 5’11” cornerback from North Dakota State who is listed as a potential seventh-round selection by CBSSports.com. He was a consensus FCS All-American with 23 tackles and three interceptions this season.
The decorated cornerback had a brilliant college career with numerous awards, according to NDSU's team site, and records, including 21 career interceptions, with seven returned for a touchdown.
Williams did not face elite competition, but he was very productive and has plenty of upside. He actually reminds Peter Smith of WiththeFirstPick.com of a current member of the Steelers:
Though he is not as tall, Williams’ style and path to the NFL is similar to that of Cortez Allen of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Allen was even taller at 6’1” coming out of The Citadel and has been groomed in the Steelers scheme and is now one of their starting corners in his third year. That could be the type of path that Williams has.
Allen took a fast track since being drafted by the Steelers. Williams could take the same path and provide the Steelers with another future starter at cornerback without spending a premium pick on one.
There is a myth that the Steelers don’t take risks on players with character concern. If that was the case, they never would have a drafted guys like Chris Rainey or Mike Adams.
Ask yourself if you think that a guy like Vontaze Burfict or Tyrann Mathieu would help the Steelers right now? The answer to that question is an easy—yes.
For the Steelers, taking a risk on a player with character concerns is worth it late in the draft, especially if you believe that they have gotten past these problems. That is why Jonathan Dowling, a seventh-round prospect according to CBSSports.com, should be considered by the Steelers.
They have a need at safety with Ryan Clark likely finished in the black and gold and Troy Polamalu entering the final year of his deal. Dowling was one of the top high school recruits in the country who went to Florida.
Dowling would eventually get kicked off of the team by Urban Meyer for a violation of team rules. He would wind up at Western Kentucky where he had a productive career. But more importantly, he grew up there.
Dowling told Alan Dell of the Bradenton Herald that going to Western Kentucky gave him a second chance and allowed him to mature:
This was something I have been waiting on for a long time, and it felt great to be out there playing again. Coach [Willie] Taggart has given me a second chance, and it is a blessing. To beat an SEC team feels real good. No disrespect to Kentucky; it would've felt better to beat Alabama, but this was a good milestone. I can't wait to see where I am at when I am playing to my potential.
When I was at Florida, I got ahead of myself. Coming here and playing for Coach Taggart brought me back down to earth. I have the utmost respect for him. We have grown together.
So is he worth the risk? At 6’3” and 198 pounds, Dowling has terrific size and speed—4.42 40-yard dash—to not only compete in the NFL, but excel. He has potential as a coverage safety with nine career interceptions and seven passes defended last year.
A player with so many physical tools is worth the chance late in the draft. He would have strong leadership playing behind a veteran like Polamalu and under such well-respected coaches in Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake.