For every franchise, the annual NFL Draft is an exciting opportunity to cultivate team success for the seasons ahead, and Steelers fans have been spoiled by a number of fantastic selections.
In the past decade, rookies have included a franchise quarterback, a game-breaking wide receiver and the most free-flowing, aggressive locks of hair to ever blow in the winds of an NFL defensive backfield.
Unfortunately, for every managerial draft dream, there is an unenviable recruitment reality that is the draft bust. The long-term success of an NFL franchise can be secured or eradicated with one decision, as every Manning vs. Leaf debate only ever seems scary in retrospect. At the time of selection, everybody knows "everything," but anybody could know nothing.
There are no guarantees!
While the urgency of these choices diminishes as rounds pass, there are steals to be had throughout the selection process, evidenced by James Harrison. The linebacker went undrafted in 2002.
With the lockout nearing its final days (hopefully) and NFL action seemingly ready to resume, Steelers fans will soon become much more familiar with seven great athletes looking to make a name for themselves while wearing black and gold polyester.
As always, it will be compelling to find out which players stand out, surprise or fall short. With the aforementioned lockout keeping the team's new players from a proper rookie offseason, as well as the scourge of public evaluation, it is an even more challenging feat to determine how the new Steelers will fare.
The 2011 NFL Draft saw Pittsburgh select the following players, in order of round:
1) Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State (6'5", 294)
2) Marcus Gilbert, OT, Florida (6'6", 330)
3) Curtis Brown, CB, Texas (6'0", 185)
4) Cortez Allen, CB, Citadel (6'1", 197)
5) Chris Carter, OLB, Fresno State (6'1", 248)
6) Keith Williams, OG, Nebraska (6'4", 318)
7) Baron Batch, RB, Texas Tech (5'10", 207)
Which players will excel at their positions?
Will any secure a roster spot via hard work, such as excelling on special teams?
What are the team needs, and how will this affect each rookie?
Who will make the community proud by wearing the distinct black helmet with those triple hypocycloids on only one side?
With these questions on the mind of every Steelers fan, it's time to look ahead at each Steelers rookie.
The following list is worst to first ranking of the team's draft picks based on their potential impact on the franchise this upcoming season! Not to be ignored are the draftee's long-term abilities, which will also be addressed.
If NFL offensive lines were a balance of 90 percent strength and raw aggression, Keith Williams would be the envy of most linemen.
Superlatives lack in terms of Williams' sheer size and brute force, leaving only an entry from the animal kingdom to do the work that adjectives cannot:
Able to knock defenders around during his stead at Nebraska, he could be described as a mauler. This is not surprising from a member of the Cornhuskers, who have fielded college greats such as center Dave Rimington.
Yet, for his raw size and physicality, Williams lacks athleticism and footwork, making him slow off the snap and occasionally unbalanced. As such, he could struggle at times to pick up linebackers and other free blitzers, a relatively damning attribute in the NFL ranks.
Aside from his muscle, Williams appears from the observer's perspective to fit the mold of a sixth or seventh round selection. To put it more succinctly, he lacks in key skills that are typically prerequisite for the transition from college to professional ranks.
This will probably ensure his cut from the roster, even on a team that many feel clearly needs to address serious issues along the offensive line.
Short-Term Grade: D-
Long-Term Grade: F
Odds of Making Steelers Final 2011 Roster: 15 percent
The Steelers' fifth round draft selection out of Fresno State, Chris Carter seems a hodgepodge of positives and negatives.
In one column, a lists of his strengths is a tutorial "how-to" for being a fine NFL linebacker, though he spent his career to-date playing defensive end.
The other column is not as glowing. His negatives representing a laundry list of detractors against his selection.
One thing that the youngster has in his favor is his selection to a team that fields an aging linebackers unit that is educated by coaches in a seeming "linebacker factory." The team has a knack for producing standout linebackers who excel at their position.
Being mindful of his surroundings, Carter's inherent football savvy is a strength noted by many of his peers.
His smarts are combined with sure tackling and a penchant for meeting the ball carrier via the shortest possible path. In other words, he is able to get to running backs quickly and make the tackle efficiently.
His ability near the trenches makes him a fine prospect, but his lack of strength prevents him from being considered as defensive end material. He has been dubbed by scouts as a great find for "4-3 defensive schemes at the linebacker position."
Sadly, a smart player who tackles well lacks both strength and speed. In other words, not only does Carter project to struggle in isolated matchups with offensive linemen, but his abilities as a linebacker are limited to defending the run.
A strength of the Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme is the diverse abilities of its linebackers, and Carter's lack of speed and ability to change direction make him very susceptible against the short passing game that opponents love to implement against Pittsburgh.
His presence would almost 100 percent assuredly give today's offenses a distinct advantage, mismatches of the passing game against the linebacker favoring the offensive unit every time.
Calling Carter a work in progress would be a generous statement, but his projected position combined with his presence in Pittsburgh could make him the next surprise NFL star. Operative word: surprise.
Short-Term Grade: D
Long-Term Grade: C-
Odds of Making Steelers Final 2011 Roster: 20 percent
Cortez Allen's college career begs one specific observation: He played for the Citadel.
There have been a cornucopia of great NFL athletes discovered at smaller schools, but scouts and franchises are always more comfortable to evaluate the potential of a player against the best possible competition.
In this way, the ability of Cortez is shrouded in mystery, meaning the pendulum of his potential has a large distance to swing when the Steelers finally gather at St. Vincent College for training camp.
Physically imposing, the 6'1" corner meets the normal size prototype attributed to NFL defensive backs.
He is athletically gifted, a great cover corner against the vertical (or "deep") passing game and not shy to make a tackle. He is an ideal member of the backfield for preventing big plays and stopping the run.
Despite his strengths, some question his football savvy.
His main weakness is his footwork, a long-legged lack of shiftiness making him susceptible to small, nifty receivers who dominate the sticks and short to mid-level passing game.
Wes Welker, anybody?
Allen is a raw talent with a lot to prove, especially considering two factors.
A) The level of competition he faced in college was not ideal for a accurate summation of his skills.
B) The Steelers drafted a defensive back earlier in the draft who appears to have more potential.
One of the team's first priorities at the end of the lockout will be addressing the defensive backfield.
Will Ike Taylor remain? If he goes, will Pittsburgh aggressively pursue a free agent corner, such as Jonathan Joseph?
Those answer to those questions will determine the depth and ability of the team at the corner position, likely deciding this draftee's fate.
Unlike a few of the other draft selections, Allen does have the benefit of a few factors working in his favor. Defensive backs are a key area on an NFL team's depth chart, adding stability to the defense in dime and nickel situations. The team does have a need for a physically imposing corner, which Cortez has the potential to showcase. Most importantly, Allen could make the transition to safety in the NFL.
While fans may argue that better options were available at the time of his selection, the Citadel standout may just surprise those who doubt his ability. Considering the potential to contribute in other areas of the team, his odds of making the final roster are greater than many fans realize.
Short-Term Grade: C-
Long-Term Grade: C-
Odds of Making Steelers Final 2011 Roster: 40 percent
Mewelde Moore has proven over the past few seasons that the value of a third-down running back can be monumental.
In spurts, Moore's contributions had an underrated impact on the team's ability to make crucial, drive-saving plays. One of his best efforts came in a pivotal game at Jacksonville during the Steelers' 2008 championship season, a 26-21 victory in the final seconds. It was a showcase for the fourth-rounder out of Minnesota, proving that those with talent can eventually contribute in unexpected ways.
With the crafty late-round selection becoming an eligible free agent, the Steelers will likely be looking to fill the void.
While not the most flashy running back among the 2011 draft class, Baron Batch has a list of strengths that make him an ideal third-down running back.
He is not the fastest back, but he does not lack speed.
He is not the strongest back, but he isn't weak and is able to block well.
He has excellent hands, making him a dual threat as both a runner and pass catcher.
Batch has been injury prone (sound like Charlie!), and he wouldn't make 60 percent of NFL rosters without a clear need or a standout performance on special teams.
Whether or not the team resigns Mewelde Moore will likely decide the youngster's fate, as running back is not a key concern area for a Steelers squad that already showcases Rashard Mendenhall and brute Isaac Redman.
If he is able to make the squad, I fully expect the runner to be a draft steal. Contributing numbers similar to those achieved by Mewelde Moore in 2008 would be difficult, but 800 all-purpose yards is not out of the question.
The following grades assume Mewelde Moore's departure from the Steelers:
Short-Term Grade: B
Long-Term Grade: C+
Odds of Making Steelers Final 2011 Roster: 65 percent
The young Gilbert is strong, has great footwork and had experience playing at both tackle positions in college. The latter attribute may be his strongest on a team where the offensive line (in both performance and health) has showcased the stability of an uncorked grenade.
The ability of Gilbert to be placed interchangeably along the offensive line between both the tackle and guard positions is an asset that cannot be undervalued in the Steel City.
There is a great deal of uncertainty about the talent along the o-line and a 2011 season plagued by injury necessitates such flexibility.
While there has been speculation about the team releasing Max Starks following an injury last season in order to create cap space for other key signings, I predict that the franchise will retain the veteran tackle. Working opposite of Flozell Adams, it seems unlikely that Gilbert will see an immediate starting role at offensive tackle without Starks' departure.
Yet, it's not as though the Steelers offensive line features stalwarts across from tackle to tackle, so immediate playing time is almost assured for the second round selection.
The negatives involving the Florida standout are his run blocking skills, but scouting reports have seemed to indicate his struggles are able to be remedied by coaching. In addition to a few fundamental improvements, Gilbert needs to become more consistent, as the level of his play would waver between seasons and even games in college.
For his flexibility and NFL readiness, Gilbert has great value to the Steelers as both a potential starter and "lineman warranty." At worst, he's a fantastic replacement plan in his rookie season. Having a former teammate on the same offensive line should facilitate his ability to learn the professional game.
Short-Term Grade: B
Long-Term Grade: A-
Odds of Making Steelers Final 2011 Roster: 100 percent
By waiting until after the second round of the draft to select a corner, the Steelers either:
A) Felt a strong need to address an aging defensive line.
B) Knew they were going to sign Ike Taylor or a comparably talented free agent.
Either way, I believe Pittsburgh has a draft steal with Curtis Brown, who will contribute in nickel and dime situations at worst to start his rookie season.
Like the aforementioned Taylor, Brown is a fast athlete and has shown to-date that he is able to be relied upon in man coverage.
Despite the comparison to Ike, the Steelers player that may have the most in common with Brown is Mike Wallace.
Curtis Brown was regarded as a five-star college recruit exiting high school, largely coveted by a number of premier programs.
For those fans who despised every dropped interception during Ike Taylor's career in the Steel City, they'll be excited to learn that Brown's recruitment prospects were the result of a stellar high school tenure....at WIDE RECEIVER!
A natural athlete, the detractors cite Brown's lack of size as his most glaring drawback. Apparently, those same prognosticators failed to take a look at the most recent NFL Pro-Bowl, which featured the following cornerbacks:
Darrell Revis (5'11")
Champ Bailey (6'0")
Devin McCourty (5'10")
DeAngelo Hall (5'10")
By comparison, Brown's six-foot frame should be able to stand up to the rigors of NFL competition.
Coaches have mentioned the corner for his competency in both man and zone coverage schemes, a smart player with enough speed to keep up with the NFL's fastest receivers.
In addition to his skills in the defensive backfield, Brown could find playing time elsewhere. Depending on the Steelers' depth at corner after free agency, they could call upon Curtis's extensive experience on special teams, where the diverse player has recorded over 30 tackles and returned 14 punts for nearly 200 yards without a muff in Texas.
For his raw skills and long-term potential, Brown should almost assuredly secure a roster spot. The sky is the limit for this talent, and proper grooming could develop him into the finest selection of the Steelers' 2011 draft class.
Short-Term Grade: B
Long-Term Grade: A-
Odds of Making Steelers Final 2011 Roster: 95 percent
Many fans are blinded by the modern conception of a great defensive end, getting off of the snap with explosiveness, twirling around defenders at rapid speeds and sacking quarterbacks with regularity.
The Dwight Freeney prototype is very real. Yet, while there are very few Peppers and Freeneys to be found on the football landscape, a large part of their sack production stems from the defensive concepts of their respective teams.
In the Steel City, the defensive line is designed perfectly around the 3-4 scheme, which predicates two strengths that a defensive end must have:
1) Stuffing the run.
2) Controlling the line and allowing lanes for the rest of the defense to create its normal Sunday chaos.
Beyond that, the rest of the "fantasy stats" are nice toppings to the "I Scream (on) Sunday" that most opposing offenses endure.
With Aaron Smith's injuries in consecutive seasons, the Steelers have the need to find the next great defensive end.
While they don't necessarily need a pure replacement, fans in the Steel City know that their "Curtain" runs better when there is depth.
While many of those same loyal fans may have preferred a secondary star or offensive lineman in the first round, they have to accept the drafting of a defensive end as one of a few potential moves that could be labelled as smart.
Smith's injuries, coupled with the aging of Brett Kiesel, made the acquisition of Heyward a necessary gamble. With their first draft pick of 2011, the Steelers may have hit the jackpot.
Cameron Heyward's size and build are labelled as comparable to Aaron Smith, while his skill set is compared by locals to Ziggy Hood.
Both strong and fast, he is able to dominate most offensive tackles in singular match-ups. He is able-minded against both the run and the pass.
Even more impressive is his experience, as playtime in the 3-4 scheme while at Ohio State has prepared him for a natural transition to defense in Pittsburgh.
Whether or not the team chooses to utilize the 3-4 defense in the long-term, the presence of a standout defensive end has always been a critical element to the Steelers defense, albeit in the era of the "Steel Curtain" or the "Steel Trap."
In this way, the acquisition of Cameron Heyward was an excellent decision by a franchise with a tradition of defensive excellence.
Expect Heyward to share time equally with his peers behind Smith.
Short-Term Grade: A
Long-Term Grade: A+
Odds of Making Steelers Final 2011 Roster: 100 percent