In a draft whose purportedly historic depth was propped up by a record number of underclassmen declaring, the Pittsburgh Steelers were among the teams who chose to plunder the junior talent pool with premium draft picks.
Of their first four draft picks in 2014, three of the Steelers’ newest players come to the team as juniors, two of them as true juniors.
Their first-round draft selection, Ryan Shazier, started three games at linebacker as a true freshman for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2011.
He became a full-time starter as a sophomore in 2012, starting a total of 26 games for the Buckeyes in his final two seasons. He made 259 tackles over that span, as well as 11 sacks. He will turn 22 in September.
The Steelers went right back to the junior pool in the second round when they selected Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt to help bolster the defense.
Like Shazier, he too started three games as a true freshman in 2011 before entering the starting lineup on a full-time basis in his sophomore season. He registered 19.5 sacks over his last two seasons, and will only turn 21 a little over a week from now.
Fourth-round wide receiver Martavis Bryant also entered the draft as a junior with eligibility remaining, but he isn’t necessarily a ‘true’ junior. Between high school and college, he spent a year attending the Hargrave Military Academy, a necessary course of action in order to become academically eligible by NCAA standards.
He retook a math course in order to improve his grade to meet the eligibility stands to attend Clemson University, where he’d dreamed of playing since entering high school.
In reality, his chance to play meaningful minutes would be delayed another two years, as he had to wait his turn behind DeAndre Hopkins, a first-round draft pick last year, and partnered with Sammy Watkins in 2013, who was drafted fourth overall.
Despite being the eldest of the three junior draftees, Bryant has certainly raised the greatest concerns regarding his maturity level, which was an expressed concern for Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert while entering this process.
While Shazier and Tuitt both displayed leadership qualities at their universities, however, Bryant’s trust was gained during a pre-draft visit at the South Side facilities, where he and wide receivers coach Richard Mann seem to have established a rapport. Bryant told his mother after the visit that he hoped he would be a Steeler, and the team felt the same way.
Although nearly a third of the underclassmen who gave up their final year of eligibility to declare for the draft went undrafted, there’s no question that the steep influx of juniors into the 2014 draft class significantly enriched the talent pool. With three of their four top draft picks coming from that underclassman pool, the Steelers as much as any team saw their potential, and used them as a premium resource for replenishing their roster.