By Alex Kozora
After providing a report on each of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ selections in the 2014 NFL Draft, it’s time for a collective wrap up. You can consider this a “grade” because I’ll be providing a letter, but it’s more of a summary of each player and how they fit with the team. Grading now is fun for blaghers like us but are fruitless and classes can’t be judged for several years. With that being said, we’ll do it anyway. Your class of 2014.
Round One: Ryan Shazier/ILB Ohio St
For most fans, the expectation was to take a cornerback or wide receiver with the 15th pick. But with Odell Beckham Jr. and Kyle Fuller off the board by the time it was the Steelers’ turn, the direction the team would take was unclear.
Too often during the draft, we (and I am certainly no exception) put ourselves in this box of “The team will take Player ‘X”, or Position ‘Y’” never to leave it and exploring other possibilities. Luckily, this franchise doesn’t follow suit.
In fact, Shazier is not a consolation prize. He may turn out to be a better selection than the other two or nearly anyone else that was mocked to the team.
His ceiling is mansion high. Athletes that weigh in at 237, can run in the low 4.4’s and jump 42 inches are rare. You don’t pass on players of that caliber. Never know when you’re going to get your next crack at one.
Those numbers don’t just show up on paper, either. They’re on the tape. He’s explosive, runs to the football, and is apt in coverage. He’s capable to be a three down linebacker. And that’s a critical component. This was a Steelers’ squad that played in nickel or dime 60% of the time in 2013. Troy Polamalu was forced to masquerade as a linebacker. Despite being signed in October, Will Allen played over one-third, 380 to be exact, snaps.
With Shazier, the Steelers’ can play a “true” nickel if they wish. Something they attempted to do with Terence Garvin but fell flat on its face. Having Shazier will give the Steelers’ size and speed up front. It was that abundance of sub package football that hurt the run defense. Hard to stop it when the front “seven” really consists of just five.
As I wrote in my scouting report, Shazier isn’t just fast. He’s smart. Reads the flow of the play and reacts to it. Doesn’t just run around shooting gaps and hoping he gets lucky. He can diagnose a play and react properly. I admire that and it’ll bode well for his transition to the NFL.
There are minor issues in his game, like all prospects, but none really worth focusing on. Areas that can be worked on (being a little too overzealous, getting a little stronger in his upper body).
Keep in mind that Shazier is only a true junior and isn’t even close to his potential. A scary thought considering the way he dominated college football.
That’s what has me really excited. Pair him with a great linebackers coach like Keith Butler and – forgive me for the cliché – the sky is the limit.
Shazier has a great chance to be a Day One starter and never relinquish it.
Round Two: Stephon Tuitt/DE Notre Dame
“Cornerback” was the popular response to the team’s biggest need but defensive end was, and may still be, bigger. Before the draft, the team was left with an uninspiring combination opposite of Cam Heyward: Cam Thomas, a one tech who only played end after getting benched. Brian Arnfelt, a try-hard second year player with a whole two career defensive snaps to his name. Nick Williams, a 7th rounder out of tiny Samford who missed the entire regular season due to a knee injury.
Enter Stephon Tuitt. He already looks the part at 6’5 304 and nearly 35 inch arms. From a scouting standpoint, I truthfully see a lot of Heyward in Tuitt. Strong and can hold the point of attack against the run. Fluid for their size. Quick hands and don’t get stuck to blocks. Impactful pass rushers. Versatile. Everything you’re looking for in the position.
The negatives that caused him stock to fall were partially out of his control. He suffered a hernia that dogged him all season long. His weight ballooned up to at least 322, John Mitchell stated it was near 330 in his press conference. Tuitt played more sluggishly. Still, he was impressive with 7.5 sacks en route to a First Team All-Independent selection.
As Coach Mitchell pointed out, and I agree, had Tuitt been healthy and played to his ceiling, he would have gone much higher than the mid-second round. His 2012 tape is a better indication of the talent he has.
Tuitt won’t turn 21 until training camp and will only continue to grow physically and mentally.
In an ideal world, as it is with all Steelers’ rookies, he won’t have to start from Day One. But there’s little question in my mind he’s the most talented end not named Heyward. If the team decides against bringing back Brett Keisel or another free agent, my guess is Tuitt begins the year starting at right end.
In all, just love the value of this pick. From a need and talent standpoint.
Round Three: Dri Archer/RB Kent St
This is where I begin to feel a little mixed on the selections. I get the positives in his game. He’s explosive, a playmaker, capable of wearing many hats and succeeding in any of them. He, like Tuitt, was hampered by injury in 2013. For Archer, it was an ankle he hurt early in the season and never fully recovered from.
And the team has to have a plan with Archer. You don’t take a player like this without knowing what you want to do with him.
But still, I prefer for selections to have a little bit more definition to them in these early rounds. Is he a return man? A wide receiver? A running back? He’s a little bit of everything but not a lot of one thing.
I’m not in love with his tape, either. He is a player who runs too laterally, has difficulty running through contact, and while he runs fluid routes as a receiver, is a body catcher as a receiver.
History is of course not predictive but there aren’t many backs at 173 pounds that have succeeded in this league. Another worry.
I’d rather take those players in the later rounds. Scat backs like Roy Finch who went undrafted. Grab those types of versatile players in the back end of the draft who can make a roster because of that, their versatility. I’d rather have that guy in Round Six than Round Three.
Round Four: Martavis Bryant/WR Clemson
This one honestly fell into the team’s lap. Few draftniks expected the lanky wide receiver to be available in the middle of the fourth round.
Bryant is dripping with talent. Goes 6’3/6 211 and blazed a 4.42 40 with a 39 inch vertical. Triangle numbers don’t get much more impressive than that. Especially considering the fourth round value.
He was a strict vertical threat with the Tigers, averaging over 22 yards per catch on 61 career grabs. That mark ranks first in school history.
As Steelers’ fans love to ask, he is a red zone threat, too. Four of his seven touchdowns in 2013 came inside the 20.
On tape, he’s a long strider with a plus catch radius and more athleticism than you’d expect from a guy with his build. Shows fluidity in his hips coming out of his breaks.
The problem? He’s difficult to project. So raw he should be a health code violation, Bryant only has 13 starts to his name. In his career, just 61 catches. For perspective, 69 receivers at the FBS level caught more than 61 passes in 2013.
Clemson’s offense often rotated their wide receivers making snaps inconsistent and a fraction of what typical receivers see. The route tree he ran consisted nearly exclusively of deep routes: posts, corners, and fly routes. Bryant is very raw as a route runner and that is likely his biggest adjustment to the game. His lack of elusiveness after the catch will hinder him when he is asked to run short to intermediate routes on Sundays.
I’ve been comparing Bryant to Stephen Hill. Of course, Hill came out of a triple option but the two are still similar. Big bodies with excellent triangle numbers who are very raw route runners. Those players are difficult to project with such limited tape, I had to watch seven games of Bryant before becoming comfortable with my evaluation of him, and why he fell in the draft.
However, the upside is impossible to ignore and the value too great to complain about this selection. Temper expectations early for Bryant outside of some red zone packages, but in two or three years, he could be a terrific starter.
Can’t be any worse than the last receiver Pittsburgh selected in the fourth round. Fred Gibson. Ew.
Round Five: Shaquille Richardson/CB Arizona
In the minds of many, a selection long overdue, Pittsburgh nabs a cornerback with their first of two fifth rounders. I was a little surprised seeing the team wait this long but if you’ve read any of my articles on the topic, you understand I didn’t think or expect to see a cornerback selected within the first two rounds.
Richardson was one of the several Steelers’ selected who the team visited with pre-draft. A long, 6’0/1 body, he’s a plus athlete who made one of college football’s top plays with his tip-in leading interception (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hYksEMmkrA )against Oregon.
Richardson shows glimpses of physicality but is an unfundamental tackler who all too often prefers to cut the runner or lead with his shoulder. Misses too many tackles and Carnell Lake has his work cut out for him in that regard.
As I wrote in my scouting report, there is a tiny glimmer that he can be molded with the proper coaching. With all the contact-shy cornerbacks I watched in this class, the Steelers’ could have done worse. But until that point, Richardson is nothing more than a special teamer whose 4.4 wheels will serve him well running down kicks and being a gunner on punts.
Again, history is not predictive but the Steelers’ haven’t fared well drafting Day Three cornerbacks in recent years, either.
Round Five: Wesley Johnson/OG Vanderbilt
Listing Johnson as a guard even though he spent most of his time at tackle in the SEC. As impressive as it is to start nearly 40 games on the blindside in college football’s toughest conference, his home isn’t at tackle in the NFL. Johnson lacks the lateral agility to stay at left tackle and he has trouble maintaining his base when asked to mirror. Compensates by opening the gate (his hips) too early and can get beat back into the inside
What he does offer is someone who is a great technician who stays on his feet and shows some nasty to his game. Does offer something the Steelers’ put a high priority on; versatility. Starting experience at every position except right guard and you can bet he’ll learn that under Mike Munchak.
And that’s where I see his ceiling lies. Johnson is a player with limited physical traits and has the technical side down pat. He’s started 51 games across four seasons. What you see is what you get with him and there isn’t much room for growth.
He’s a capable swingman and serviceable spot starter. For a team that seems to lose a lineman a game to injury, that’s valuable. But don’t anticipate Johnson ever becoming a full-time starter. And that’s why I have to grade him relatively harshly.
As I wrote, he’s a rich man’s Doug Legursky. A little bigger, tough, versatile, and technically sound but limited physical ability and will get exposed after long stretches.
Round Six: Jordan Zumwalt/ILB UCLA
Zumwalt is a throwback kid. In a “six degrees of separation” sense but instead of six, it’s four hundred steps, Zumwalt is a tad bit similar to Jack Lambert. He doesn’t look intimidating getting off the bus at a lanky 6’4 235, but he’s an intense, aggressive linebacker that can knock your head off. He knocked Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas out cold in the Sun Bowl (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHPmRnhCpVA).
Unfortunately, Zumwalt is slow. Shows a good first step and some short-area quickness but he’s a major liability in the open field and running sideline-to-sideline. A lot of deficiencies can be masked. Speed is not one of them.
That limits his potential. For that reason, I don’t see him becoming a starter. While he played some edge rusher at UCLA, he is far from that in the NFL. His home is at inside linebacker.
He lacked splash plays in school. Only 22.5 career TFL. Ryan Shazier had 24 in 2013 alone.
Zumwalt’s physical, throw your weight around, nature will be an asset on special teams but that’s as optimistic as I can be for him. Don’t see starting material and he isn’t even certain to make the team. If Sean Spence earns a spot, Zumwalt will be sitting squarely on the bubble.
Round Six: Daniel McCullers/NT Tennessee
Oh, the nicknames we’ll come up with for him. He’s as big as a house and in fact, I’d wager there’s some Manhattan studios that are smaller than him.
McCullers goes 6’6/7 352 with 36 5/8 arms and 10 5/8 hands. They don’t get much bigger than that. And the former Volunteer is country strong and bullied tiny SEC lineman.
But it’s that size that may be his downfall. Being nearly 6’7 isn’t actually kind to a nose tackle. Position tends to prefer shorter, fireplug types like Vince Wilfork (6’2) or Casey Hampton (6’1). At 6’7, he’s prone to getting outleveraged and run out. His leverage wasn’t terrible at Tennessee but I can see it being an issue in the pros.
He’s also got a slow first step. Even for a nose tackle, a burst off the ball is important. To avoid getting washed and blown off the ball. It shows up on tape and in his workout numbers (20’5 vertical).
With any player of that weight, keeping that down is paramount. And I’m mixed on if he’ll be able to do so. On the plus side, after failing to qualify academically out of high school, McCullers attended Georgia Military School for two seasons. It was a rigid program that had a set schedule from 5:45 in the morning to 10:45 at night. If that didn’t instill discipline in him, I don’t think even John Mitchell can fix that. And to his credit, his weight has come down over time.
Still, 352 is not an ideal weight even at 6’7. At one point in high school, he was a massive 420 pounds. Before his junior year at Tennessee, he tipped the scales at 377.
The answer comes down to work ethic and desire, something I can’t comment on, but is critical to his success.
Having said that, I don’t know where he fits. Called him a tweener in the scouting report I wrote in early February. Will get outleveraged at nose, too stiff and slow at defensive end.
Taking a player with those measurable in the sixth round isn’t a horrible idea. And there could be a home for him with the lack of depth along the defensive line. I just don’t know what to do with him.
Round Seven: Rob Blanchflower/TE Massachusetts
Enough with the negativity. Blanchflower is a player I can definitely get on board with. He’s a sneaky athlete that won’t wow anybody but isn’t completely lacking there either. There is a consistency issue with his hands but on the whole, he’s a natural catcher with a large catch radius.
He’s a big body at 256 and knows what to do with it. Tough to bring down and makes defenders earn their tackles.
He’s a willing run blocker with some strength. While Blanchflower needs some technique work, he puts forth good effort and plays to the whistle. It was required on a losing team like UMass, winning just twice in his final two seasons.
And I can’t state enough how bad this UMass team was. The quarterback play was atrocious. Watching some of their throws sail far away from their intended target made me cringe.
To compare him to this year’s class, he’s a poor man’s Jace Amaro. Little slower. And I see some Heath Miller in Blanchflower, too.
If he’s healthy, a groin tear severely limited him in 2013, he has more than enough talent to push David Paulson off the roster. Matt Spaeth is entering the final year of his contract. Blanchflower could make a push to becoming the #2 TE in 2015. Real excited about this one.
The final tally looks as follows: 2 ILBs, 1 DE, 1 RB, 1 WR, 1 CB, 1 OG/C, 1 NT, 1 TE.
Three of the nine picks were underclassmen. Six were brought in for pre-draft visits.
The later round grades may seem a little harsh but there’s a cold reality to the draft. Statistically, late round picks have a small chance to stick. Even prospects that are supposed to be “developed” have limited time to do so.
From the 2013 class, Terry Hawthorne never cracked the team. Justin Brown is an afterthought after the team signed two veteran receivers and drafted Bryant. You’d be hard pressed to find one person that thinks Landry Jones will ever make a meaningful contribution to the team.
Go back one year farther. Alameda Ta’amu is in Arizona. Chris Rainey ran himself out of the league. Toney Clemons never stuck and is with the Panthers. David Paulson is already being projected to get pushed off the roster by Blanchflower. Who remembers Terrence Frederick?
Right there, that’s eight of thirteen Day Three selections who barely contributed and rarely inspired any confidence in.
Most of these picks will flop. You hope one or two pan out the way Kelvin Beachum has. But all these late round guys can’t be all “A’s” and “B’s.” If that’s how you grade them, you’re going to be quite disappointed.
Just the honest truth to it. Those who read me will know I don’t sugarcoat things.
It’s the first few picks that really matter. And the Steelers’ nailed them. Shazier and Tuitt have great chances of being long-term starters. Bryant is a risk but has a huge payoff. Who knows where Dri Archer’s career path will end up but you can bet there will be at least some splash plays along the way.
If one of those late round guys can pan out, it’ll be a good draft.
Overall Grade: B