By Alex Kozora
Predictably and understandably, we’ve given a ton of attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 draft class. But even after giving all of our opinions, no one can deny this is all projection. The measurables, tape study, debates, all now fruitless. What happens on the field is the only thing that matters anymore.
But to finish off my articles on this group of nine, a final projection. Taking a look at the best case and worst case scenario of each prospect. If everything goes right, what kind of a career could a player have? And if everything goes wrong, what will happen? A little hyperbole in both, so don’t take it too seriously, but that’s the fun part.
At the very least, I hope this is preferred to me doing a 2015 mock draft.
Best Case: The impressive athleticism and explosion seen on his college tape seamlessly carries over into the NFL. Shazier earns the Week One starting job at “Mack” linebacker and never looks back. His athleticism lets the Steelers’ play a “true” nickel and subsequently improves the Steelers’ run defense against teams that run 11 and 10 personnel. He covers the entire field, making splash plays along with reliable, open field tackles in coverage. He finishes in the top three as defensive rookie of the year.
Still just 22 as he enters his second year in the league, Shazier’s play jumps exponentially because of his intelligence. By year two, he’s comfortable in the system and moves to the “Buck.” He becomes stronger, filled out his frame a bit, and is just as apt playing in close quarters as he is in space. The discussion over if he is better than Lawrence Timmons heats up and by the end of the year, virtually everyone agrees it’s Shazier. He earns his first Pro Bowl berth, the first of many.
He becomes a force at inside linebacker for the next ten years, becoming one of the top players at his position in the NFL. Shazier becomes the third best first round selection by Kevin Colbert trailing only Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu. Not bad company.
Worst Case: Even though he isn’t asked to make the defensive calls, Shazier struggles to pick up the playbook and doesn’t grab the starting gig as a rookie. He spends his rookie year supplanting Vince Williams on third down as the nickel linebacker.
Shazier does a fine job in that role but struggles mightily against the run. He gets pushed around, has trouble getting off blocks, and can never be relied on as a three down ‘backer.
Playing in a sixteen game season, Shazier gets dinged up. Never dealing with injury before after a healthy collegiate career, he has trouble handling it. Tries to push through too much instead of letting his body recuperate and plays hurt throughout his first season.
He does become the starter in year two or three but his big plays are overshadowed by a general inconsistency against the run.
Shazier isn’t a total bust because of his athleticism, but becomes only known for his coverage abilities and occasional splash play. After frustrating coaches and fans, everyone is looking for another inside linebacker by the end of his rookie deal.
Best Case: It may not be ideal to ask a rookie defensive end to start away, but the team does so anyway because Tuitt is simply more talented than the combination of Cam Thomas, Brian Arnfelt, and Nick Williams. The Notre Dame product opens Week One at right end.
Fully recovered from his hernia and foot injury, he has an overall positive impact during his rookie year. He sometimes struggles against the run and wears down at the end of the season after logging 700 snaps against NFL offensive tackles, but flashes his potential and becomes a big asset on third down, recording five sacks.
Another player that enters year two at just 22, Tuitt becomes more technically sound and stout against the run under the tutelage of defensive line coach John Mitchell. His sack numbers continue to rise, and he grades out effectively against the run. The pass rush of Cam Heyward and Tuitt takes the pressure off the outside linebackers, letting the team occasionally drop more into coverage and tightening up throwing lanes for quarterbacks.
Tuitt and Heyward becomes a mainstay at defensive end allowing the team to stop worrying about the position. It becomes an Aaron Smith/Brett Keisel like combination although instead of two old-school run stuffers, it’s too athletic guys that can meet at the quarterback. A pretty good life.
Worst Case: Asked to start immediately at right end, Tuitt is thrown to the wolves. It’s an overwhelming experience even for a player who played in a 3-4. Lineman are just stronger and the game of the speed is unlike anything seen in college. Like Jarvis Jones, Tuitt has an underwhelming rookie season and mentally, it bogs him down.
Dick LeBeau and Mitchell retire after the 2014 season. Mike Tomlin decides to tweak his scheme to what he has always known; a 4-3, Cover 2 look. There isn’t an immediate overhaul but incremental shifts are implemented and the coaches brought in have that 4-3 mentality. Tuitt is forced to adapt to a new system, and possibly a new position as a defensive tackle in even front, furthering hindering his progress.
By the time he becomes comfortable, his rookie contract is close to expiring and the team decides to bring in players that fit the scheme better than Tuitt.
Best Case: Archer’s junior tape doesn’t lie. The guy is explosive. Fully healed from a 2013 ankle sprain, he immediately becomes an impact return man. In Week One against Cleveland, Archer is the rookie that steals the show. He returns a kickoff to the house and takes a bubble screen for a 40 yard splash play. Mike Pettine sighs, knowing it’s going to be a long year.
Archer is used tactfully by Todd Haley. Mixed in as a runner and receiver but not overloaded in either facet while serving as the starting kick and punt returner. He becomes what Dexter McCluster couldn’t quite accomplish. Daniel Jeremiah’s prediction becomes true and Archer makes a Pro Bowl as the return specialist as a rookie, mimicking what Cordarrelle Patterson did for Minnesota in 2013.
He never becomes a 150 carry running back or a 60 catch receiver but falls into a nice 100/35 consistency for five or so seasons. He’s a shot in the arm for when the offense struggles and teams have to spend extra time game-planning against him on special teams.
Steelers’ fans scream “Aaaaaarcher” each time he touches the ball. And each time it’s in his hands, he’s a threat to score. He doesn’t have a ten year career but gives the team five great to spectacular seasons.
Worst Case: The show lasts longer than the running back. History continues to prevail by showing that 173 pound football players rarely have success in the NFL. Steelers’ fans hope for a dynamic return man but get more of an Allen Rossum type. Good, not great.
Archer’s role as an offensive player is never well-defined. Haley tries to use him as a runner and receiver but he never seems to find a home in either. Too slight as a runner and too raw as a receiver. He makes some plays in space but constantly looks to bounce runs that are designed for between the tackles. His penchant for moving laterally is a source of frustration for Steelers’ fans and the big plays aren’t enough to overcome that.
He tries to make up for this by being an elite return man. But Archer presses and becomes too aggressive at times, making poor fair catch decisions, losing yards, and fumbling too often. The biggest element Mike Tomlin looks for in a return man is trust. It’s why he can trot out players like Gary Russell and not bat an eye. Coach T quickly loses that in Archer and eventually demotes him.
Without a defined position, by the third year, Archer is fighting for a roster spot. He goes the Stefan Logan route and gets cut, characterized as a “Oh yeah, I forgot we had that guy” career five years later.
Best Case: Bryant is raw coming out of a system that asked him to run few routes but he still makes an impact as a rookie. Used in the red zone, his size and body control becomes an asset on fades. He catches three touchdown passes as a rookie.
His progression makes Lance Moore expendable in 2015. After a year honing his craft and becoming a more polished route runner, he supplants Markus Wheaton for the #2 job while Wheaton moves to the slot.
Bryant’s combination of a nearly 6’4 frame and a long-striding, 4.42 speed makes him a weapon. He stretches the field vertically and gives Ben Roethlisberger a guy he can throw jump balls to. Defenses have no answer for the 15 yard back shoulder fades commonly run today. At times, he gets compared to as a poor man’s Calvin Johnson.
He works on his run blocking and with his length, it becomes an asset. Bryant turns into a perfect “Z” receiver for the Steelers. He never catches 90 passes in a single season but like college, he makes each one count.
Worst Case: Bryant takes a page out of the Stephen Hill playbook. No longer able to get by on just talent, he fails to pick up the nuances of route-running.
He’s a vertical threat but nothing more. Slow at the top of intermediate routes, the team can’t count on him to be a full-time wide receiver. Bryant becomes a “What if” player. Fans still fantasize about what he’s could do but the Limas Sweed comparisons are unavoidable.
He grabs a couple touchdown passes in his career but never has more than 20 receptions in his three year career with the Steelers.
Best Case: Blessed with size and athleticism, he makes a big contribution on special teams in 2014, primarily as a gunner. The team is thankful for that, letting a former gunner Markus Wheaton to focus more on wide receiver.
The Steelers predictably do not renew Ike Taylor’s contract after the 2014 season. Cortez Allen slides in as the #1 cornerback. Following the team’s mantra of not drafting a cornerback early coupled with the promise Richardson showed, he gets first crack at the starting gig. He grabs it and starts opposite of Allen in 2015.
His time spent on special teams let him focus more on his technique as a tackler and he becomes more fundamentally sound, learning to wrap up and drive through. He’s still able to deliver a big blow though and becomes an ideal Steelers’ cornerback. Perhaps even a better one given his ball skills.
Having a daughter and working with Carnell Lake, a person he’s comfortable with, ensures his past maturity issues are fully behind him. Richardson is never a top-tier player, but a quality starting cornerback for several years.
Worst Case: With six cornerbacks (counting Shamarko Thomas) already on the roster with NFL experience, Richardson can’t find a spot on the 53. Missed tackles in the preseason means he loses out to Brice McCain, and Richardson begins the season on the practice squad. Still, it’s better than what happened to Terry Hawthorne.
Richardson gets brought up onto the roster late in the year but mostly serves as an inactive. He only records three tackles as a rookie.
Following Ike Taylor’s departure in the offseason, the team bites the bullet and drafts a cornerback within the first two rounds, the first time that’s happened since 2005. Richardson, still trying to carve out a role on special teams, becomes an afterthought at this point and is never seriously given consideration at cornerback .
He toils around on special teams for another year or two before being cut. He never gets a fair shake but such is life in the NFL. Window of opportunity is very small.
Best Case: Johnson’s workman-like attitude makes him a Mike Munchak favorite. Used to being the underdog and playing with a chip on his shoulder, Johnson beats out Guy Whimper for the eighth and final offensive line spot.
Johnson begins the year inactive but after injuries hit the offensive line, as you know they will, he gets a helmet. He takes his first NFL snap as a tackle eligible, the way Kelvin Beachum began 2013. It’s a role Johnson was occasionally used in at Vanderbilt so not unfamiliar territory. He even spot starts in Week 15 after Ramon Foster turns an ankle. Johnson performs well. Doesn’t make many mental mistakes and generates a good enough push in the run game. The team is encouraged by his performance heading into the offseason.
Still, he heads into his second year fighting for a job. Again, he begins the year as a backup but as the top swingman on the squad. With more injuries along the offensive line, it’s just a constant fans will have to accept, Johnson vaults back into the starting lineup at guard.
With another good showing, the coaching staff wises up and realizes they should stop looking elsewhere. He spends the next three years as a starter before starting to decline and going back into a swingman role. It’s not a spectacular career but one of the more underrated selections of the Tomlin ever. Similar to Foster’s.
Worst Case: With the offensive line crowded, there isn’t a home for Johnson on the 53 man roster. The team is against carrying nine lineman and Johnson loses out to Whimper, the veteran with the experience. The former Commodore begins his rookie year on the practice squad.
Because of injuries, Johnson is activated to the 53 mid-way through the year but never does anything more than play on the field goal units.
With the Steelers’ still boasting a quality front five and the continued strong play of Cody Wallace, Johnson has trouble carving out a role in his second year. Worse yet, Munchak jumps ship to become a head coach at the college level putting one less person in his camp. Whimper is gone at this point but Johnson still has trouble surpassing Mike Adams, who has improved slightly.
By his third season and still not much to his name, the Steelers’ are bringing in different lineman with a higher upside. Johnson’s play in the preseason exposes him. He’s technically sound and can knock around perennial backups but is a limited athlete that struggles against first-team defenses.
Swingmen are valuable but aren’t difficult to find and Johnson is released after training camp of his third season.
Best Case: McCullers lets the rest of the league fully aware there’s a 6’7, 355 pound nose tackle with over 36 inch arms and you should not try to solo block him. He flashes in the preseason with multiple tackles for a loss and a sack. He dominates the second and third stringers, tossing lineman aside the way he did at times in the SEC.
It isn’t a perfect preseason and McCullers still struggles with his leverage and first step, but the team quickly realizes he wouldn’t make it to the practice squad. It’s an easy decision to cut Hebron Fangupo instead.
He still spends most of his rookie year as a backup, mainly only seeing time in goalline formations. That includes both sides of the football as the team tries McCullers at fullback in short-yardage as Ravens have done with Haloti Ngata. Instead of calling it “Bronco” as the team did with Doug Legursky, they call it “House” and McCullers bowls over the Ravens’ Daryl Smith in Week Nine on primetime television, paving the way for a Le’Veon Bell touchdown.
McCullers becomes a cult favorite. A bobblehead is made of him, and he becomes the first figurine to have a bigger body than head.
In the offseason, he drops a little more weight and continues to rep staying low. Building that muscle memory lets him focus more on getting a jump off the snap and he makes a big leap in year two. He begins eating into Steve McLendon’s playing time. It’s not a knock against McLendon as it is the simple admission McCullers is a freak athlete.
The team doesn’t renew McLendon’s deal after 2015 and McCullers becomes the starting nose tackle in 2016.
A force at nose tackle, he attracts double-teams on running downs, freeing up the inside linebackers and getting the team’s run defense back to being one of the most fearsome in the league. In hindsight, McCullers is a steal and only Antonio Brown is a better 6th or 7th rounder under Colbert.
Worst Case: McCullers has the size but unfortunately, not much else. He’s no longer able to get by on sheer size. Offensive lineman are too strong and too well off technically, constantly getting under him and driving him off the ball. It wears on the massive nose tackle and shows on the field; his hands on his hips after every couple plays.
He makes the team over Fangupo. Barely. His rookie year is similar to Fangupo’s in 2013. Less than 20 snaps in all and he spends most of his time wearing sweats on gameday.
By year two, not much has improved. McCullers is slow off the ball and his 6’7 frame naturally makes it difficult for him to consistently get low. The occasional backfield disruption is not enough. In training camp, he’s already on the bubble. Steve McLendon has a fantastic 2014 season and is the nose tackle of the future, inking a long-term deal just before camp begins.
Worse yet, McCullers has trouble keeping his weight down. He balloons up to 370 and struggles to complete the run test on the first day of camp. Beat writers liken him to Jamain Stephens. He doesn’t get cut immediately the way Stephens did but the writing is on the wall. The Steelers give up, not even bothering to place him on the practice squad. It was a low-risk experiment but a failed one nonetheless.
Best Case: He doesn’t look like much, but when Zumwalt straps on a helmet, offenses better make sure their chin straps are tightened. He dishes out several big blows in the preseason and finds himself on the 45 man active roster Week One against Cleveland. His reckless, sacrifice your body attitude makes him a quintessential special teamer on kick and punt coverage. It’s a role he does well for the entirety of his career. He becomes the Clint Kriedwalt of the 2010 era.
Zumwalt never becomes an every down linebacker but is capable of spot starting and being a thumper on first and second down.
Worst Case: Zumwalt is a big hitter but his lack of speed is a trait that’s tough to overcome. He’s exposed in space and a poor sideline-to-sideline linebacker. That leaves room for only special teams. But with Sean Spence’s miraculous recovery and the team’s stubbornness to keep Chris Carter, there isn’t any room for Zumwalt. He’s forced to spend the entire 2014 year on the practice squad.
Lacking the potential to start, Zumwalt’s ability to crack the roster is severely limited. Special teams has their place but the team prefers to fill them with prospects that have a higher ceiling. He’s the final wave of cuts at the end of camp his second year.
Best Case: Fully healthy for the first time in approximately a year, Blanchflower is clearly more talented than David Paulson and easily wins the job as the #3 tight end. Michael Palmer stays on the squad as a blocker and special teamer.
He doesn’t see the field on offense much as a rookie but catches a goalline touchdown pass in Week 13 against the Saints.
The team lets Matt Spaeth walk after the 2014 season and Blanchflower becomes the #2 tight end. The Steelers can truly run 12 personnel effectively with two receiving threats at tight end. Blanchflower, finally playing with a competent quarterback unlike the ones he had at Massachusetts, takes full advantage. His style is similar to Miller, two well-rounded players who can catch and block.
Blanchflower remains as the #2 TE until Miller retires after the 2016 season. He then slides in as the #1 tight end and the team doesn’t miss a beat. He’s a red zone threat that catches away from his body and his size/strength lets him churn up a ton of YAC, even if he won’t run away from many defenders.
It’s a homerun selection, especially considering the 7th round value.
Worst Case: Blanchflower aggravates his groin tear during OTAs and fights the injury throughout camp. Undergoing surgery again is probably his best choice but as a seventh round pick fighting for a roster spot, he puts it off the way he did at UMass. He never truly feels healthy and thus comfortable in the offense and is unable to even beat out Paulson. The team stashes him on injured reserve for the season.
Even when healthy and given a chance to make the team, he suffers too many drops. For a player with relatively limited chances, it’s enough to keep him off the roster. He’s released following training camp in 2015.