By Jeremy Hritz
The season is over, and it’s time to reflect on the performance of individual Steelers and their contributions to the team in 2013. Below is an analysis of the performance of the 2013 Steelers draft picks, in addition to a forecast of what type of contribution they can make in their second year.
1. Jarvis Jones, OLB (24 years old)
Jones had especially big shoes to fill, being expected to take over for the revered James Harrison at right outside linebacker, and while he didn’t tally an inordinate number of sacks, he did gain valuable experience in his eight starts that should benefit him moving forward into next season. By the end of the year, Jones had achieved an understanding of his role in Dick LeBeau’s defense, yet his lack of strength and his dearth of pass-rushing moves caused him to disappear in games. Optimistically, Jones has the right attitude in his approach to improving, and he is honest in his self-assessment, acknowledging his areas of improvement. While having a positive attitude and a willingness to do the work is half of the battle, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate into increased production on the field, and there is reason for a shred of concern about his ability to be a major player on the Steelers defense. While every player is different, and mastering the Steelers defense is a challenging task, consider the following rookie season sack totals for these elite outside linebackers: DeMarcus Ware (8), Terrell Suggs (12), Clay Matthews (10), and Von Miller (11.5). Even Jason Worilds recorded two sacks in his rookie season despite not having any starts. While it is too early to condemn the selection of Jarvis Jones, he has a steep climb to live up to his first round billing in 2014 and hit a double-digit sack total or he could be on his way to being a legitimate bust.
2. Le’Veon Bell, RB (21 years old)
Bell was easily the best pick of the 2013 Steelers draft, and it looks that he will be a fixture in the offense for many years to come. Had Bell played in the first three games of the season based on his production in the games he played, he would have rushed for 1058 yards and would have recorded 55 receptions for 491 yards, possibly putting him in contention with Eddie Lacy and Keenan Allen for NFL Rookie of the Year Honors. Factor in that Bell was running behind an offensive line marked by confusion and inconsistency early in the season, and it is easy to see why his arrow is pointed way up. While he may never provide for an explosive running game, his workmanlike approach and guaranteed three yards a carry make him the perfect fit in Pittsburgh where power backs are entrenched in the team’s culture. Barring injury, Bell will eclipse his numbers from his rookie season and will play an even bigger role in the offense. It took several years, but there is finally a true replacement for Jerome Bettis.
3. Markus Wheaton, WR (22 years old)
It’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion on Wheaton due to the fact that it was difficult for him to get on the field ahead of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, not to mention his first finger injury that caused him to miss several games. There were only two games this season in which Wheaton made receptions: against Minnesota and Detroit. Yet outside of that underwhelming production, he was quiet in 2013. With Sanders already searching real estate websites, Wheaton’s role in the offense will expand, and he will be expected to elevate his play to compensate for the departure. It is difficult and almost irresponsible to make any judgments on what he can contribute based on his limited work in 2013. Regardless, while Wheaton flashed in the preseason, those sparks were not carried over when it counted.
4. Shamarko Thomas, SS (22 years old)
Thomas is a hitter, no question, and there were a few moments when this was evident during the season. However, like Wheaton, Thomas was not expected to be a major contributor to the defense, though next year, depending on what happens with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, he more than likely will assume a starting role. Thomas got a vote of confidence from Ike Taylor in December when he said that “By the time the end of next season comes, I’m going to say I told you so…. Once Shamarko gets an opportunity to start, ya’ll going to see why we call him ‘Headache’ as a nickname. He’s a young explosive guy that can run and hit.” Don’t get too excited though, because during training camp, Taylor lavished Wheaton with praise as well, saying that he “looks like a veteran.” While Thomas got some work in sub-packages this year, it’s not enough to cast judgment on what he can bring to the team next season.
5. Landry Jones, QB (24 years old)
While many Pittsburgh beat writers are quick to cast aside Jones as a viable backup quarterback, I am willing to give this pick some time before giving up on him. Jones didn’t have a great preseason performance and looked lost, awkward, and sloppy, it will be interesting to see what he can do having a full season of experience of learning the offense at his disposal come next training camp. The Steelers are in no hurry with Jones, and they have the luxury of bringing him along slowly, and maybe, just maybe, five years down the road, he may prove to be a makeshift as the Steelers search for their next franchise quarterback. Regardless, Jones did what he was expected to do this season: be a camp body and soak up the offense.
6a. Justin Brown, WR (22 years old)
Brown had a good preseason, and he nearly made the roster had it not been for the play of Derek Moye. Brown was just resigned to a futures contract and more than likely will be nothing more than a camp body come July. Unless he has an amazing training camp, 2014 will be a repeat of his rookie season.
6b. Vince Williams, ILB (24 years old)
The rookie season of Vince Williams can be interpreted two different ways: 1) the Steelers should be satisfied that he was able to contribute as much as he did as a sixth round pick, and he has room for growth, or 2) Williams is a downhill backer that is a liability in coverage and nothing more than a two-down player. I subscribe to the former, as rookie defenders getting on the field for the Steelers is a rarity, and Williams, upon being thrown into the fire, wasn’t exactly horrible, though he wasn’t amazing either. Williams brings a high-level of enthusiasm to the defense that is an intangible that can be an asset for the team. His development will be another area to monitor closely during this offseason to see if he can improve in his pass coverage for 2014, and I believe that he needs to be given a chance before writing off his future role of as a Steeler as a career backup. By the way, it took Larry Foote until his third year with the Steelers before he became a quality starter with the team. Just saying.
7. Nick Williams, DT (23 years old)
The other Williams was drafted as a project in the seventh round and wasn’t expected to contribute in 2013. He suffered a subluxation of his left knee cap which ended his season early, and outside of a sack late in the preseason game against the Redskins, there wasn’t enough of a body of work to forecast what Williams can provide to the team. If Williams wants to stay a Steeler, he must stay healthy this offseason and through the preseason.
Overall, the Steelers got production from several players in 2013, yet it is entirely too early to condemn or sanctify any of the aforementioned picks. Each player will progress at a different rate, and unfortunately, injuries, as they played a part this season, could stifle growth in 2014. But just keep in mind the progression of Kelvin Beachum and Jason Worilds this year, one player that blossomed in his second year, and one player that blossomed in his fourth year. While output is needed next year in order for the Steelers to make strides, each player is different, and their impact on the team is difficult to predict.
Of the 2013 Steelers draft picks, who do you see as taking the biggest steps in their second year?