Here We Go Panthers, Broncos! Steelers Nation Championship Sunday Rooting Guide

Here we are. It is Championship Sunday again and unfortunately the Pittsburgh Steelers are not contending for the AFC Championship. Only if….

And on goes the list. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. The Steelers aren’t playing, so what are Steelers fans to do? Who should Steelers Nation root for?

For that, we present the annual Steelers Nation Championship Sunday Rooting Guide.

With the Steelers out of the playoffs, there is one imperative, and it is the same imperative as in years before. Someone needs to be the New England Patriots. Yet this year this rallying cry takes on greater urgency. Last year, thanks to Russell Wilson, the Bill Belichick tied Chuck Noll as the only coach to win four Super Bowls.

  • Bill Belichick must not get one for the thumb.

Yes, Spygate and Deflategate have tarnished the Patriots legacy. Yes, Chuck Noll beat Bill Belichick in his final game before he retired. Yes, Chuck Noll never cheated, Bill Belichick most certainly did cheat.

But still, the numbers will be the numbers. So for the AFC Championship, the Steelers Nation needs to pull for Peyton Manning to pull out one final great game. Last week he didn’t look up to it. Not even close. Can he summon it for one more shot? The Black and Gold must twirl their Terrible Towels hoping he can.

God knows it would be unwise for the Steelers to bet on the Denver Broncos to beat the New England Patriots, but root for the Broncos we must.

Steelers Nation and the NFC Championship

The NFC Championship is more interesting. On the face of things, Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals would seem like the natural choice for Steelers Nation. You have former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Tom Moore and Larry Foote as an assistant coaches, local favorite and member of the Steelers 2009 draft class and later a practice squad player, center A.Q. Shipley and LaMarr Woodley. You also have former Pitt standout Larry Fitzgerald.

  • So Pittsburgh West is a sentimental favorite.

But if they get past the Panthers, can the Cardinals beat the Patriots? That’s a more troubling question. Bruce Arians’ rehabilitation of Carson Palmer is an incredible success story, but he has yet to prove his a big game quarterback. And Bill Belichick won far more outings against Arians offenses than he lost.

  • Therefore Steel Curtain Rising recommends that Steelers Nation roots for the Carolina Panthers.

Panther’s owner Jerry Richardson has been described as “a special friend” by Steelers owner Dan Rooney, although most fans will be unconvinced by that argument. But the Panthers do have Jerricho Cotchery who was a fan favorite while he was with the Steelers. They also have Chris Scott, whom the Steelers drafted in the 5th round of the 2010 NFL Draft (you didn’t know he was still floating around the league, did you? Neither did I.)

  • The Carolina Panthers have been impressive this year, their near-collapse last week not withstanding, and probably have a better shot at beating the Patriots.

Steelers Nation will be forgiven if they pull for Pittsburgh We… ur, um, the Arizona Cardinals, but the smart money on stopping the Patriots should ride on the Carolina Panthers.

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Forget Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey Must Step Up in Playoffs with Antoino Brown Out vs. Broncos

The Pittsburgh Steelers injury report for the Divisional playoff showdown vs. the Denver Broncos is in, and the news is grim for Steelers Nation: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is listed as questionable, Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams are listed as out.

  • Gotta love going up against the NFL’s number 1 defense without at least 2 of your 3 top offensive weapons.

Antonio Brown’s absence is not much of a surprise. While Pittsburgh reports indicated that he was likely to play, several national outlets predicted he would not. Score one for the national media over the Pittsburgh media. However, those are issues for the Watch Tower to sort out.

Now the focus falls on beating the Denver Broncos without the Steelers 2015 team MVP.

Who Steps Up with Antonio Brown Down?

With Antonio Brown out vs. the Broncos, the Steelers need someone to step up. Just how badly will the Steelers miss Antonio Brown? In 2015 Brown:

  • Accounted for 29% of the Steelers offensive yardage
  • Caught 34% of completed passes and 23% of passes thrown
  • Was the target of 32% of all passes thrown
  • Scored 31% of the Steelers offensive touchdowns

Replacing a man who has accounted for about a third of your offense is no simple task. With Brown gone, most people are looking to 4th round draft pick Sammie Coates as “The Next Man Up.”

That’s logical, because with Brown out Coates will not only get a helmet, he get playing time. And the Steelers are going to need him to catch whatever comes his way, regardless of whether that comes from Ben Roethlisberger’s hands, Landry Jones‘ or Michael Vick‘s.

  • But to expect a rookie with one catch to his name to fill the void left by Antonio Brown borders on ridiculous.

The Steelers first line of defense in Brown’s absence are Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Both men have had their ups and downs during the season, but both have shown they’re capable of making plays. But to some degree or another, both men have benefitted from opposing defenses focusing on Brown. It says here that both men will probably rise to the challenge, but saying it and doing it are different things.

There are several reasons for this. First, distribution of targets and catches shows that it is the top three and not top four recievers that are the focus of the Steelers offense. That means Heyward-Bey automatically gets in the game more frequently. Second, with defenses focusing on Wheaton and Byrant, Bey should have more opportunities to get open.

The Steelers signed Darrius Heyward-Bey during the 2014 off season, and projected him as a special teams player. In fact, he only had 5 targets in all of 2014. But since then he’s earned a spot in the offense, and played well while Martavis Bryant served his substance abuse suspension.

  • Heyward-Bey’s role declined with Bryant’s return, but he has seen action, as recently as the Cleveland game.

Heyward-Bey still has the breakaway speed that made him a 7th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Early in the season his hands were solid but, while he made a spectacular 66 yard catch vs. Cleveland, he also dropped a ball that could have been a game changer.

If Heyward-Bey is to be effective, he not only needs to gain separation from receivers, but catch the ball down field. With the Denver Broncos defense free to focus on stopping Wheaton and Bryant, Heyward-Bey must make defenses pay with his hands, and use his speed to open up underneath routes for Heath Miller and Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Other Injured Steelers Not Named Ben, Brown or Williams

In addition to Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers fullback Will Johnson is listed as questionable with a hamstring.

Safeties Will Allen and Robert Golden, linebackers James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, defensive end Cameron Heyward and tight end Matt Spaeth are listed as probable on the Steelers injury report, although Spaeth, Harrison and Allen are listed as not injury related.

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Steelers vs Worst NFL Draft Classes in Last 25 Years

NFL.com’s Jim Reineking has ranked the 4 worst draft classes of the NFL’s last 25 years. If that sounds curious it should. Reineking actually claims to rank the NFL’s five worst draft classes, but he’s already included the 2013 NFL Draft, and 2 years is far too short a time to draw conclusions about any draft class.

  • Beyond that, the simple fact is that at this time of year pro football focused sites, including this one, become desperate for anything that generates them page views.

But let’s assume that Reineking’s methodology is sound and the analysis behind his rankings is solid. The question of interest to Steel Curtain Rising is “How did the Steelers fare vs the worst NFL draft classes in history?”  Click below to check out specific drafts, or just scroll down for the full analysis.

Steelers 1992 NFL Draft Class

For Reineking, the 1992 NFL Draft was the worst of the last 25 years and if he’s right, then this is all the much sweeter for Steelers nation, because the Steelers 1992 draft class was one of the best of the post-Chuck Noll era.

The 1992 NFL Draft was Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s first together, and their first three picks were Leon Searcy, Levon Kirkland, and Joel Steed. None of the three started in Cowher’s 1992 opening day upset of the Houston Oilers. That honor feel to Darren Perry who started all sixteen games and hauled in 6 interceptions.

  • Searcy, Kirkland, and Steed did start on opening day 1993, and were regular starters through Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers also grabbed long snapper Kendall Gammon in the 11th round of the 1992 NFL Draft who served as long snapper for 4 straight years. Searcy left after 1995, but Kirkland, Steed, and Perry all signed multiple contracts from the Steelers. Kirkland and Steed made 3 Pro Bowls between them.

The Steelers 1992 draft class did not produce superstars, but Pittsburgh did find four solid, long-term starters and critical special teams role player. That’s a very good effort for any draft, and all the more so for one that is rated as the worst overall draft in a quarter century.

Steelers 2013 NFL Draft Class

It is way, way too early to evaluate the Steelers 2013 draft class. Going into 2015, Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas represent huge question marks and you don’t want to say that of your first and third round pick two years after the draft. Especially when the success or failure of your defense hinges closely on their development.

Yet, Le’Veon Bell, Vince Williams, and Markus Wheaton have all shown “something” and that bodes well for the overall fate of the 2013 draft class.

Steelers 2009 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 2009 draft class has perhaps been one of the most misunderstood. By definition, it’s a disappointment when no members of your draft class get second contracts. And if Ziggy Hood was a disappointing 1st round pick, he was no bust, and as Steel Curtain Rising demonstrated last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers made good picks in 2009, the problem is that the rest of the NFL benefited from them.

If 2009 was the third worst draft of the last 25 years, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin sent a lot of the right names to the podium, even if it did Pittsburgh little good.

Steelers 1999 NFL Draft Class

The Steelers 1999 draft class was Tom Donahoe’s last, and it was far from his best. The Steelers were picking 13th, and their first two picks were Troy Edwards and Scott Shields, both of whom were busts. 3rd round pick Kris Farris represented another waste of a premium pick.

  • But the 1999 draft was far from a total loss for Pittsburgh.

Round’s 3 and four included men by the names of Joey Porter and Aaron Smith, two men who own three Super Bowl rings between them. Amos Zereoue also arrived in that draft and, while Zereoue never reached his potential he was hardly a bust.

The Steelers laid a couple of eggs in the 1999 NFL Draft, but they also found 2 diamonds in the rough.

Steelers 2002 NFL Draft Class

The 2002 NFL Draft was Kevin Colbert’s third with the team, and it was easily its best in terms of finding overall value. Only one of the 8 players the Steelers drafted in 2002 failed to make the roster.

Injuries ruined Kendall Simmons career, but he stayed healthy enough to start in Super Bowl XL. Most people will never think of Antwaan Randle El as great, but his value to the Steelers offenses went far beyond his stat sheet (just ask Hines Ward). Ditto Larry Foote. The Steelers upgraded when they replaced Chris Hope with Ryan Clark, but Hope was good enough to start during the 2004 15-1 season and the Super Bowl that followed a year later.

Verron Haynes and Lee Mays weren’t household words in Steelers Nation even when they were playing, but Hayes was a serviceable back up, and Lee Mays a decent spot duty role player.

  • The final pick was of course Brett Keisel. What more do we need to say?

Kevin Colbert really did save the best for last here.

Keisel might not be a future Hall of Famer, he might have only earned Pro Bowl honors once, but Brett Keisel blossomed into a great player in every sense of the word.

The Steelers do Well in Picking from Weak NFL Draft Classes

Going into ever NFL draft, fans are wont to hear that “This it’s a great year to for teams that need to draft ______ [insert your position name(s)],” or “Unfortunately, there aren’t any viable franchise quarterbacks coming out this year.”

  • The funny thing is, you rarely hear draft classes collectively panned or praised after the fact.

Credit NFL.Com’s Jim Reineking for trying to change that.

Steel Curtain Rising offers no opinion either way of his choices, but if his rankings are right, then the Steelers have provided a case study proving the old adage that “Good players are available in every round waiting to be found,” it just takes a smart scouting organization to find them.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers Third Round Draft History Under Kevin Colbert

Steel Curtain Rising’s annual installment of the Colbert Record began this morning with our evaluation of Kevin Colbert’s performance in the the Steelers 2010 Draft.

Now that the Steelers have drafted Bud Dupree with their first pick, focus shifts to day two of the 2015 NFL Draft which brings us to the third round. Accordingly, Steel Curtain Rising shines a light on Kevin Colbert’s draft record with third round picks.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Tom Donahoe Leaves Kevin Colbert Tough Third Round Act to Follow

The NFL Draft’s third round is often called “the value round” as that is the spot in the draft where you still have a high probability of finding and impact player, yet the risk associated with missing on a third rounder is lower than the first and second rounds.

  • The NFL Draft’s third round was the Steelers money round during Tom Donahoe’s tenure.

Colbert’s predecessor simply excelled in the third round drafting Joey Porter, Hines Ward, Amos Zereoue, Mike Vrable, Jon Witman, Brenden Stai, Jason Gildon, Bam Morris, Andre Hastings, and Joel Steed.

Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s Steelers did draft a few busts in the third round – Kris Farris, Chris Conrad, Steven Conley and Paul Wiggins all come to mind, but looking look across the 8 Donahoe-Cowher drafts  and you’ll literally cannot find a year in which the third round was a total loss for the Steelers.

How well has Kevin Colbert done by comparison? Time to find out.

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Steelers 2000 3rd Round Draft Picks – Kendrick Clancy and Hank Poeat

Joel Steed remains an overlooked key to the 90’s Blitzburgh defenses, but his abrupt in January 2000 left newly arrived Kevin Colbert with a gaping hole to fill in the Steelers defense. First Colbert’s signed Kimo von Oelhoffen and second he drafted Kendrick Clancy in the third round of the 2000 NFL Draft.

Clancy played in nine games as a rookie. In 2001 he actually kept Casey Hampton on the bench – for three games, before yielding the starting spot. Clancy never started another game in Pittsburgh, but he played in 15 games in 2000 and 17 games in 2002 and 2003. The Steelers cut him in 2004, but brought him back after Hampton torn his ACL. Clancy went on to play – and start, for the Giants, Cardinals, and Saints, playing all the way until 2009.

It’s hard to call a guy a “bust” because he couldn’t beat out Casey Hampton and Kendrick Clancy certainly wasn’t a bad pick. But still you expect more from a third rounder. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Kevin Colbert used his second third round pick in 2000 on Hank Poeat, a cornerback from Pitt. Yet Poeat’s primary contribution in Pittsburgh was as a kick returner, where he excelled as a rookie, returning a punt for a touchdown in the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium.

But Poeat’s fortunes as a return man declined after 2000, and he never made an impact as a corner. The Steelers let him go after 2003, but Poteat played for Tampa Bay, New England, the New York Jets, and the Cleveland Browns until retiring in 2009. Grade: Disappointment

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Steelers 2001 3rd Round Draft Pick – Forfeited

When the Steelers signed Will Wolford to play guard in 1996 his contract contained a stipulating that Wolford got an extra $500,000 if he got switched to tackle. The page of paper that that clause was typed on (yes, typed) got lost, but Dan Rooney remembered it, and the Steelers honored their word to Wolford.

Unfortunately, paying that extra $500,000 resulted in a salary cap violation, which the Steelers turned themselves in for. As a result, they lost their third round pick in 2001.

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Steelers 2002 3rd Round Draft Pick – Chris Hope

The Steelers drafted Chris Hope in 2002 with an eye towards replacing Bret Alexander, who was turning 31. Hope neither started as a rookie nor as a sophomore, but earned a starting slot by his 3rd year, which was 2004 the year the Steelers went 15-1 and had the NFL’s number 1 defense.

Hope returned to start 16 regular season games in 2005 and started throughout the playoffs, playing his last game for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers never really felt that Hope was a long-term answer at safety – and Ryan Clark represented an upgrade there – but he did what a third round pick should do – develop into a reliable starter. Grade: Quality Value Pick

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Steelers 2003 3rd Round Draft Pick – Traded to Kansas City

The Steelers didn’t have a third round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft because Kevin Colbert traded it to Kansas City, as part of moving up to take Troy Polamalu….

…That was perhaps his wisest draft day decision.

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Steelers 2004 3rd Round Draft Pick – Max Starks

Kevin Colbert’s third round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Max Starks, has perhaps the most colorful history of any in the group.

Max Starks gets knocked around a lot. He even had doubters on both Bill Cowher’s final coaching staff in 2006, which carried over to Mike Tomlin’s initial staff in 2007. The Steelers front office disagreed, making Starks their transition player in 2008. The coaching staff was unmoved, starting the season with Starks on the bench in 2008, and even giving Trai Essex the initial nod when Marvel Smith went down in the critical Steelers 2008 road win over Jacksonville.

It says here that Max Starks saved the Steelers season in 2008. Arguably, he did it again in 2011 and one can shudder to think of what would have happened had the Steelers not brought him back in 2012. Max Starks started 2 in Super Bowl XL and again in Super Bowl XLIII. Can you really ask more of a third round pick? Grade: Quality Value Pick

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Steelers 2005 3rd Round Draft Pick – Trai Essex

Kevin Colbert again went the tackle round in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, this time picking Trai Essex.

Essex never developed into a full time starter at tackle, nor could he hold down the starting job at guard. But Trai Essex became a valuable 6th lineman who was able to back up at all five positions on the line. While that’s commendable, you do expect a third round pick to become a starter. Essex never quite fit that bill. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2006 3rd Round Draft Picks — Anthony Smith, Willie Reid

Bill Cowher’s last draft left a lot to be desired particularly in the third round. First the Steelers drafted Anthony Smith. Smith was a hard hitter.

But he was an even bigger prima donna, showboating after a big play in 2006, and then moronically guaranteeing victory prior to the Steelers game vs. New England in 2007, only to have Tom Brady torch him with relish. He also injured a player in during the 2008 training camp, drawing Mike Tomlin’s ire. There’s a word for players like this. Grade: Bust

Willie Reid, the Steelers second 3rd round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, didn’t generate the ink that Anthony Smith did, but he was just as disappointing. He appeared in 1 game as a rookie returning 1 kick and 1 punt in a loss vs. San Diego. He returned six more kicks in 2007 and caught 4 passes in that season then was done. Grade: Bust

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Steelers 2007 3rd Round Draft Pick – Matt Spaeth

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin surprised a lot of people when they picked Matt Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft. And since that time it has become clear that the Steelers picked Matt Spaeth too early. That’s not a knock on Spaeth per se. It’s not his fault he was drafted so early. But he really never delivered value commensurate with his status as a third round pick.

Certainly, the Steelers have a quality second tight end in Matt Spaeth. His blocking has been a critical element to Le’Veon Bell’s success. And he’s far underutilized in the passing game. But third round picks should perform at a higher level. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2008 3rd Round Draft Pick – Bruce Davis

During training camp 2008, Jim Wexell reported in Steelers Digest that Mike Tomlin would pit Tony Hills and Bruce Davis together in one-on-ones while yelling, “I’m going to make a player out of one of you, I just don’t know which one yet.” The infamous Steelers 2008 Draft Class will go down as Colbert’s worst, with perhaps Bruce Davis serving as the poster boy.

  • As it turns out, Tomlin failed to make a player out of either man.

The Steelers drafted Bruce Davis as an outside linebacker, but he only played in 5 games on special teams, and he couldn’t cut it there. The Steelers wasted little time in cutting him in training camp the next summer. Davis resurfaced with the Raiders in 2010 and 2011 were he recorded 4 tackles in 10 games, and then Cincinnati in 2012 although he never played for the Bengals. Grade: Bust

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Steelers 2009 3rd Round Draft Picks – Kraig Urbik, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis

As a rookie Kraig Urbik didn’t play a down, but the Steelers had high hopes for him as they saw great progress in his second summer at St. Vincents. Word was that Urbik, a guard, skills as a back up center were part of what sent Justin Hartwig to the waiver wire. Alas, Byron Leftwich’s preseason injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster, and that meant Urbik had to go.

The Steelers wanted to sneak him onto the practice squad, but the Buffalo Bills had other ideas. Urbik has started 53 of 69 games for them since then…. Grade: Farm Team

The Steelers knew Hines Ward’s time was coming to an end by 2009, and drafted Mike Wallace with the second of their 3 third round picks. While the decision not to offer Mike Wallace a long-term deal was controversial at the time, the Steelers wisdom in choosing Antoinio Brown instead has been vindicated.

But that doesn’t alter the evaluation of Mike Wallace as a draft pick, because he it was an excellent pick. Wallace made an immediate impact as a rookie, posted in inhuman yards-per-catch average in his first season as starter, and was a legit home run threat on every play. The drop off in his play during his second two years does impact his overall grade, but clearly Colbert made the right pick here. Grade: Over Performer

With their final 3rd round pick in 2009 NFL Draft the Steelers picked Keenan Lewis. Lewis was a late bloomer, as injuries ruined and Joe Burnett kept him off the field. 2010 was little better, as Lewis disappointed. Carnell Lake personally oversaw his rehabilitation, and Lewis began to work himself into a quality corner in 2011 and established himself as the starter by 2012.

The Steelers did get some value out of Lewis before he left via free agency, but just a little short of what you’d expect and need as a third round pick. Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, his grade would be higher, but this draft evaluation only covers performance of players as Steelers. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2010 3rd Round Draft Pick – Emmanuel Sanders

The third round pick in 2010 of Emmanuel Sanders got covered in our analysis of the Steelers 2010 NFL Draft. Emmanuel Sanders impressed coaches as a rookie, even keeping Antonio Brown on the bench early in the season, with Mike Tomlin invoking the “Two dogs one bone” metaphor. Sanders got hurt in Super Bowl XLV, and injury that Bruce Arians said hurt the team’s game plan.

Injuries limited Sanders in 2011 and then again in 2012, but he emerged as a full time starter in 2013 and made the most of his opportunity. The Steelers optned not to resign him, but Sanders was still a quality third round pickup. Grade: Quality Value Pick+

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Steelers 2011 3rd Round Draft Pick – Curtis Brown

Super Bowl XLV made it glaringly clear that the Steelers needed to improve at cornerback, and Kevin Colbert addressed the position in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft by picking Curtis Brown….

…And he undoubtedly regrets the pick to this very day.

As a rookie, Brown forced a fumble during an ugly Steelers loss vs. Houston. He apparently played well on special teams, but it was Cortez Allen who saw action at corner. Brown never started a game, but saw a lot of action as a nickel back vs. San Diego in 2012, which was one of the most horrific performances by the Steelers of the Tomlin era. Brown only played in 7 games in 2013 and the Steelers gave up on him after that. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 3rd Round Draft Pick – Sean Spence

The Steelers had already parted ways with James Farrior and were looking to groom a replacement for Larry Foote by the time the 2012 NFL Draft arrived. Kevin Colbert picked Sean Spence out of Miami. Early in preseason, Spence looked like a stud in the making. Then disaster struck, costing Spence not only his rookie year, but also his sophomore year.

Nonetheless, Spence returned for his third season, and started nine games splitting time with Vince Williams after Ryan Shazier’s injury. Spence helped force a fumble in the Steelers 2nd quarter explosion vs. Houston, and recorded a sack vs. Cincinnati. Any formal grade on Spence will need to wait, but he looks like a solid pick up on Colbert’s part. Grade: Too Early To Tell

Steelers 2013 3rd Round Draft Pick – Markus Wheaton

Kevin Colbert drafted Markus Wheaton in the 2013 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Mike Wallace and the soon to depart Emmanuel Sanders. Wheaton did next to nothing as a rookie, but he did earn the starting nod in 2014 and turned in a solid season.

Wheaton might not have gotten the ink that Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant get, but he made a lot of key catches. Again, one season as a starter is NOT enough to evaluate a player, but right now he has the look of a quality value pick, if not more. Grade: Too Early to Tell

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Draft Pick – Dri Archer

The Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get Shamarko Thomas in 2013, but got a compensatory pick for losing Mike Wallace. They used it on Dri Archer, who was the fastest man in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Steelers idea was to use Archer as a kick returner and utility back/wide receiver in the mold of Eric Metcalf (yes, I just dated myself!)….

It’s way, way too early to write off Dri Archer, but his rookie year can only be described as disappointing. Grade: Too Early to Tell

Conclusion – Kevin Colbert’s Checkered Third Round Record

The NFL Draft’s third round has not been as kind to Kevin Colbert as it was Tom Donahoe. Which is OK, as Colbert’s money round has been the first round of the NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin discuss the Steelers Draft

Still, Colbert is charged with making the right pick in each round, and the record shows that he’s done it several times for the Steelers, most notably with Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Hope, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.

However, Colbert has had his share of under performing third round picks, and he’s picked more than one outright bust with both Cowher and Tomlin (see Willie Reid Davis and Curtis Brown.)

While its too early to tell on some of his later picks, the arrow does appear to be trending up for Colbert’s third round record, but for now his grade must reflect a balance between his 3rd round successes and 3rd round failures. Grade: C+

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NY Jets Sign Steelers Wesley Johnson Off of Waivers

Once upon a time the Pittsburgh Steelers rolled the dice by cutting a promising young offensive lineman. A suspension of Ben Roethlisberger and an injury to Byron Leftwich didn’t leave the much choice. The Steelers had planned to cut Charlie Batch, but they needed to keep him.

But this young lineman had made so much progress that he’d outpaced the incumbent starting center, Justin Hartwig, whom Maurkice Pouncey had displaced.

  • That young lineman was Kraig Urbik, who got claimed by Buffalo and went on to make 44 starts for the Bills while the Steelers struggled on offensive line.

The Steelers didn’t get much long term value out of their 2009 Draft. The rest of the NFL did, however, and Urbik started the trend.

Something similar could be afoot with the Steelers 2014 draft. Shamarko Thomas’ hamstring injury forced the Steelers to cut 5th round pick Wesley Johnson to make room for Ross Ventrone. The idea was that the Steelers would resign Johnson to the practice squad.

  • The New York Jets had other ideas, and claimed him off of waivers. 

While Wesley Johnson never played a down for the Steelers, he’d shown a lot of promise, particularly with his ability to play all 5 line positions, and made Guy Whimper expendable. [Knock on wood] the Steelers have had better luck this far with offensive line injuries, but offensive line depth has been an issue throughout the Tomlin era.

That depth just got a little thinner.

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The Colbert Record: 0 for 0 – Steelers 2008 vs. 2009 Draft – Do Numbers Lie?

Numbers never lie. But sometimes they fail to tell the full story.

That bit of dictum has been thrown around a lot here on Steel Curtain Rising. And the conventional wisdom on the Steelers 2008 and 2009 drafts reveals why it is so relevant.  Exhibit A:

John Steigerwald’s logic seems irrefutable. The 2014 Steelers will field exactly ZERO members from either of their 2008 and 2009 drafts, ergo Pittsburgh has done a petty pathetic job of picking players. Steigerwald is known for his bare knuckles, semi-sensationalistic style, but he’s got company.

  • Traditional meat and potatoes beat writer Ed Bouchette, but began a recent column declaring the Steelers had laid two eggs in these drafts.

The ghosts of the 2008 draft and 2009 draft haunted the Steelers during their twin 8-8 seasons and arguably in their ’11 season too. Steelers Nation might hear echoes of those ghosts in 2014 too.

But even if we do, there’s a stark difference in the quality of those two drafts. Mark Kabloy gets it.

@Steigerworld Actually, 2009 draft was great. 7 are still in league; 4 are starters; 2 are making a ton of money … just not with steelers
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) March 13, 2014

An more accurate description of the two drafts might be “The Wash and the One That Got Away.”

’08 Draft Puts Pittsburgh Behind Eight Ball

Little more need be said here about the Steelers 2008 Draft. With Ryan Mundy and Rashard Mendenhall’s departure’s last year, the 2008 draft’s status shifted from disappointing to “Loss.”

Outside of those two, neither the Steelers nor the NFL got anything. Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, and Tony Hills were unmitigated busts.

Steelers 2009 Draft, the One that Got Away

The record reflects that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, despite the handicap of picking last in each round, picked some pretty good players in 2009. The Steelers even got some value out of them. The problem is the rest of the NFL is getting more.

  • It might be unfair, but one player can and sometimes does define a draft. 

Look no further than 2004 when the Steelers got Ben Roethlisberger. That pick alone makes the draft an unqualified success, even if Max Starks was the only other player of consequence taken then.

First round picks don’t necessarily define a draft, 2002 was Kevin Colbert’s best all around but Kendall Simmons was far from the most valuable player taken. So it’s unfair to heap disappointment on Ziggy Hood, but it happens nonetheless. Had Hood grow into the player he teased he might have been in late 2010, perceptions would be different.

  • Alas, Hood’s late 2010 surge was a flash instead of a sustainable stride.

Ziggy Hood wasn’t a bust. He just wasn’t good enough for a first round pick. And in that sense Hood does set the tone for the value the Steelers realized from the 2009 draft – Too little or too late or too little shelf life.

Too Short of a Shelf Life

Mike Wallace falls into the too little shelf life category. For all his faults, Wallace is a legit home run threat, and delivered great value as a third round pick.

  • Mike Wallace was a fantasy owners wet dream. 

But fantasy stats don’t show things like refusing to contest underthrown balls that instead get intercepted.  Knowing that, the Steelers were happy to let Miami overpay. It was a smart move, but it is also requiring them to look to the draft for more receivers.

David Johnson was another with too short a shelf life. A versatile player, he was working himself into a model “late round pick makes good” story until injuries ruined his 2012 and 2013 seasons. Now he’s in San Diego.

A.Q. Shipley falls into this category by default. A Penn State player with local ties, Kevin Colbert justified the pick of someone short on measurable saying you couldn’t measure a man’s heart. He stayed on the Steelers 2009 practice squad, but declined a futures contract when his coach Larry Zierlin left. He’s now starting in Baltimore….

Too Late….

Keenan Lewis’ rookie year was marred by injuries. During his second year he was most notable famous for smashing a sign in Denver. By 2011, according to Rebecca Rollet’s report at Behind the Steel Curtain, the coaches had given up.

  • However, new arrival Carnell Lake wasn’t hearing any of it. 

Took him under his wing. Lewis contributed as a nickel and dime back in 2011 and established himself as a pass defense demon in 2012. Alas, the Steelers were caught short in salary cap space and had to let him walk without an offer. If only the Steelers had gotten something out of him sooner….

Kraig Urbik’s story shifted from “just in time” to “too late” in the matter of 1 game, thanks to Byron Leftwich’s sprained knee. The move forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch, cutting Urbik instead. That was a shame, because Urbik had made the second year leap, having shown something at guard and knocked Justin Hartwig down to third on the depth chart at center.

The Steelers thought they could sneak Urbik on to the practice squad, but Dough Waley knew better and now Urbik is starting for Buffalo.

Too Little…

Frank “The Tank” Summers was the draft pick with the catchy name in 2009. His lone moment as a Steeler was a very poor block in the backfield followed by “back surgery.” He got beaten out in camp in 2010, hung around on practice squads, and now he is the Bills fullback.

Joe Burnett looked good in camp in 2009 and got into the line up late in the year, but was famous more for dropped interception than anything else. Couldn’t make the final roster in 2010 and had no practice squad eligibility.

When the Steelers cut Sunny Harris at the end of camp, and Ed Bouchette compared him Dwaine Board (although he denied it later). Harris got picked up by Carolina, resigned by Pittsburgh, spent time on the Steelers practice squad in 2010, and was cut in 2011 but picked up by Houston. Low expectations await 6th round picks, but Harris ultimately fell short of those.

Steelers Loss is NFL’s Gain

At its core, the story of the Steelers 2009 reveals the complex, non-scientific, nature of personnel decision making in the NFL, and proves that timing and “luck” are often the ultimate trump cards.

  • 7 players still in the NFL, at least 4 starting and two playing on big 2nd contracts say that the Steelers made pretty good picks in 2009.

The problem is the rest of the NFL can attest to the fact from 1st hand experience.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Ziggy Hood Bolts to Jacksonville

And then their were none.

David Johnson was the first Pittsburgh Steeler to defect in free agency. He also happened to be their sixth round pick of the 2009 NFL Draft and the second to last member of that draft class on their roster.

My early story: Steelers lose 2009 first-round draft pick Ziggy Hood to Jaguars http://t.co/TI84Hd1jBb via @pittsburghpg
— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) March 13, 2014

In less than 24 hours Ziggy Hood followed suit, signing on with Jacksonville Jaguars.  Hood, who was the Steelers first round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft leaves that draft class unrepresented on the Steelers.

Hood’s signing, coupled with Al Woods departure for Tennessee, also leaves the Steelers situation at defensive line precariously thin. Brett Keisel’s name has not been heard, either inside or outside Pittsburgh, and Steel Curtain Rising is on record rooting for Keisel’s return.

  • The Steelers have also had Alex Carrington, a defensive lineman from the Bills, visit Pittsburgh and today will reportedly work out Cam Thomas of the San Diego Chargers.

Thomas is listed has having position flexibility, something the Steelers both value and need. Carrington had a strong 2012 for the Bills, but was asked to move out of position when the team switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 alignment. He also injured his quadriceps early in the year, which means his contract will be cap friendly.

Either way the Steelers are not taking their situation at defensive line lightly.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Could 3rd Time be Charm for Steelers, David Johnson?

Success in the NFL requires: 1. Atletic ability. 2. A strong work ethic powered by dedication and determination. If you don’t quite have enough of number 1, you can apply number 2 to give yourself number 3, which is versatility. Even then you need some of number 4 – luck.

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson has some of number 1, plenty of number 2 and number 3. What he hasn’t had is luck.

Capsule Profile of David Johnson with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted David Johnson in the 6th round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Johnson did not make the final cut, but did hang on to the practice squad. By 2010 he was good enough to be the team’s 3rd tight end while lining up in the backfield as a fullback. Johnson wasn’t a world-beater, but he step it up and come down with a key third down catch in the all-important late-season win over Baltimore.

In 2011 many fans will fail to forgive him for dropping a would be third down conversion vs. San Francisco and, while that drop was critical, he showed himself to be a serviceable player.

With Todd Haley’s arrival in 2012, Johnson was asked to formally shift to fullback. He made the move, but Johnson tore his ACL in preseason and was lost for the year.

During the early going in free agency in 2013, the Steelers made Johnson one of their under the radar signings. That move paid dividends as Matt Spaeth injured his lisfranc. Johnson opened the season as the Steelers number 1 tight end. While he may not have excelled in that role, with Heath Miller’s  return, Johnson showed himself to be a capable number 2 tight end, when disaster struck again, as he again tore and ACL and was out for the year.

The Case for Keeping Johnson

David Johnson is never going to be and all world tight end. He’s never going to remind anyone of Tony Gonzalez or Rob Gronkowski. But the Steelers don’t need him to be, the Steelers will be fine even if he matures into a Mike Maularkey type tight end.

Johnson’s odds of making the NFL were long given his draft position. Yet he’s worked to make it happen. He rehabbed tirelessly and was available for the Steelers home opener, and played well. He’s also got position flexibility, something which is vital.

Moreover, no other NFL team is going to target him. The Steelers can get him for the veteran minimum. On those terms, he’s a good pick up.

The Case for Letting Johnson Walk

Johnson’s only 26, but coming off of two consecutive ACL injuries. While David Paulson’s flashed something in 2012, 2013 was a disappointment. If Paulson can perhaps be counted on as a receiver, he’s not the blocker that Johnson. But with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, the Steelers don’t need him to be. Moreover, the Steelers have an entire NFL draft to find a younger, more athletic tight end who can do the same or better job than Johnson, for less money.

Curtain’s Call on David Johnson

 A year ago Steelers Nation responded to the Johnson signing with a might “ho hum.” Johnson however vindicated Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s faith in him, even if injury struck.

The Steelers should resign Johnson, if his rehabilitation is on schedule, because it’s a low-risk high reward move. If Johnson gets beaten out in camp by a rookie, so be it. Little will be lost. But in bringing him back, the Steelers get a full back capable tight end who knows the offense and has a proven work ethic.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Safety Louis Delmas Visits Pittsburgh

NFL Free Agency might start on March 11th, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are not taking a passive wait-and-see approach between now and them. Faced with an aging secondary struggling to create turnovers and the impending departure of 7 year starter Ryan Clark, the Steelers brought Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas to the South Side for a get to know you session.

Ryan Clark knows what’s afoot and is at peace with the situation, if his Tweets are any measure:

Delamas was drafted by Detroit in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. As Detroit was coming off of an 0-16 season, they had the first pick that year making Delmas the first pick in the second round – or the first player picked after the Steelers picked Ziggy Hood at the end of the first round.

Delmas became an immediate starter for the Lions, although he did miss about half of 2012 due to injury. During his time there he’s made 6 interceptions and registered 5 sacks. In the Steelers victory over Detroit in 2013, Delmas did not record any splash plays, but was fourth on the team for tackles, and defensed a Ben Roethlisberger pass.

  • As Delmas has been released by the Lions due to salary cap reasons, he is free to sign at any time.

In addition to Clark, Will Allen is also slated to be a free agent, while Robert Golden and projected starter Shamarko Thomas remain under contract, as does Troy Polamalu. While Polamalu is expected to return to the Steelers in 2014, reports indicate the Steelers will seek a more cap-friendly deal.

Moving Ike Taylor to safety is also a possibility, although like Polamalu, the Steelers also are said to be seeking a more cap friendly deal with Taylor.

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Steelers Draft Samford DT Nicholas Willams in 7th

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2013 NFL Draft the way they started their 2009 and 2011 drafts:  by picking a defensive lineman.

The Steelers used their 7th round and final pick to take Samford defensive tackle Nicholas Williams. Williams is tall, coming in at 6’4” and weighing in at 310 pounds. It is unclear exactly how he fits into the Steelers system, although the site NFL Draft Scout projects him as a defensive end in the pros.

7th round picks face an uphill battle to make it into the NFL, but Williams is fortunate in that the only depth the Steelers have behind Brett Keisel, Steve McLendon, Ziggy Hood, and Cameron Heyward is Al Woods and Alameda Ta’amu.

Like the site NFL Draft Scout, CBS’s pre draft site projected Williams as a 5th round pick. Clearly he fell, in spite of his 8 sacks recorded last year.

It has been the Steelers custom of late to draft defensive lineman late with hopes of developing them, but that has not worked out so well (and as Ziggy Hood’s stunted development shows, drafting them early has not worked out so well either.)

However, Brett Keisel joined the team as a 7th round pick in 2002 and blossomed into a strong starter. Have faith Nicholas Williams, it can be done.

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