The Pittsburgh Steelers rarely enter a draft looking to add immediate impact players. Instead, they let their draftees develop behind a veteran presence for a year or two.
The drafting and development pattern established by the Steelers has worked well, helping them to three Super Bowl appearances, including two championships, since 2005.
However, even the Steelers are not without their faults.
Enter the 2008 draft. Pittsburgh had a disappointing home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and needed to add some pieces to take the next step to a title.
Pittsburgh achieved the title, but it was without much help from the draft. Now three years later the Steelers have an aging roster in need of youth at key positions. Parts of these issues are a direct result from the lack of success in the 2008 draft.
Much to their surprise, the Steelers found themselves on the clock with one of the top running backs available on the board.
Running back was not an immediate need, but Rashard Mendenhall was too good to pass up.
After spending most of his rookie season on the injured reserve with a shoulder injury, Mendenhall stepped into the starting role ahead of Willie Parker.
The second-year back ran for 1,108 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and had seven touchdowns.
Mendenhall topped those numbers this past season with 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns, though his average dropped to 3.9 yards per carry.
Though he hasn’t reached the elite level, Mendenhall has improved in each of his two years as a starter, becoming both a running and receiving threat.
Mendenhall was also needed sooner rather than later as Parker aged before our eyes, losing his best asset, his speed.
The blend of speed and power has served Mendenhall well, but he has to continue to develop and use these skills as he grows as a player. At times he has been tentative to hit the hole and has shied away from contact.
Mendenhall seemed to turn the corner down the stretch of this last season and should be poised to have his best season next year, if football is played, with a healthy offensive line ahead of him.
It was an offensive coordinator’s dream come true. To land one of the top running backs in the first round and to have one of the better receivers, who also happened to be 6'4", fall into their laps in the second round. The Steelers offense appeared to have been in gear.
Sweed has been a bust, with only seven career receptions in 20 games, and he spent this past season on the injured reserve.
The highlight of Sweed’s career will be a devastating block that he threw as a rookie in the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens. However, that came after he dropped a wide open pass that would have resulted in a touchdown. The drop could have cost Pittsburgh the game.
Despite being able to create separation, Sweed’s hands have plagued him in his time in Pittsburgh and the mental aspect of his game seems to be lacking.
With emergence of rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, Sweed will have a difficult time retaining his roster spot.
That was the collective comment amongst Steelers’ fans when Bruce Davis’ name was called.
This selection brought about anger and disappointment within the fanbase, while the optimists tried to justify his selection.
Davis was the third linebacker the Steelers selected in the first three rounds in Mike Tomlin’s two years as head coach.
Unlike the first two, Davis did not make it a second season.
Davis was not a good fit for Pittsburgh’s defense and did not show any signs of success in his limited time during camp and the preseason.
Now the Steelers have depth issues at outside linebacker, and Pittsburgh spent two draft picks at the position in last year’s draft.
Additional depth issues on the offensive line or at defensive back could have been addressed.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line issues have been around for quite awhile, so it was surprising that they waited until the fourth round to address the issue.
Once again, the Steelers did not have much success with their selection.
Over his first three seasons, Hills has primarily spent his time on the inactive list. In fact, he showed no signs of ever developing through his first two training camps.
Finally, in his third season Hills put together a strong camp and at points shined. He had success in the preseason and looked as though he could be a solid backup.
Then he had the opportunity against better competition and Hills displayed that he was still out of his league.
If not for depth issues, Hills would likely not make the roster this season.
Pittsburgh made an exciting pick in the fifth round when they nabbed one of the most electrifying athletes in college football.
If not for an injury, Dennis Dixon may have won the Heisman and almost certainly would have been drafted higher.
Regardless, he still had a long time to go as an NFL passer.
Dixon had the opportunity to earn a starting role to start the 2010 season and played well in his preseason action. However, inconsistencies that plagued him in practice also showed up in games against the better competition.
In the end, it was an injury that derailed any chance that he had to start and even flashing potential, some will still question whether Dixon will ever be a viable backup quarterback.
Mike Humpal looked as though he could be a special teams contributor and not much more, but he never had a chance.
As a rookie, Humpal was injured and did not make the roster.
Pittsburgh signed Larry Foote prior to the 2010 season and drafted Stevenson Sylvester in the 2010 draft.
With their final pick in the 2008 draft, the Steelers finally got another keeper in Ryan Mundy.
Mundy is a smart player who lacks some athleticism which will limit his potential to a backup at best and that is the role that he has taken over for the Steelers.
After spending time on the practice squad as a rookie, Mundy saw limited time on defense in his second year and was second on the team in special teams tackles.
This past season, Mundy played a more integral role in the defense as one of the top backups.
Mundy also had an opportunity to start two games and finished the season with 29 tackles and four passes defended.
He proved to be a solid late-round selection who should be a viable backup at safety for years to come.
The 2008 draft was one of the worst for the Steelers in recent memory.
Now with issues at defensive back and offensive line, draft picks could have been better served elsewhere rather than luxury selections such as Sweed and Davis.
Five of the seven draft picks are still on the team, but only Mendenhall has established himself as a starter.
Mundy is the only other roster player who has had significant playing time, and he can now be considered as a top backup.
Hills and Dixon are both third string players who may never be anything more than depth players, while Sweed is likely on the outs.
As these players continue to grow and develop, Pittsburgh needs Mendenhall to play at or near a Pro Bowl level and for Mundy to continue to succeed as a backup. Anything more that they can get from Hills or Dixon would be a bonus at this point, and Sweed will have one more chance to survive cuts.
The lack of success in this draft forced the team to take two outside linebackers and an inside linebacker in the last draft as well as two receivers. However, it may have worked out, as the Steelers appeared to have found some hidden gems.
Even if the surprising rookies continue to develop, those were all still positions that could have had established backups if the 2008 draft was a hit.
Final Grade: D
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