With the 2011 NFL Draft coming up this Thursday, I figured it was a good time to review the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie class of 2010. Last year's draft, after all, produced a bumper crop of contributors. Let's dive in.
Maurkice Pouncey, C (first round, No. 18 overall). There is little that can be said at this point about Pouncey's play that hasn't been said many times by other analysts who can barely suppress their drool. The very fact that Pouncey opened the 2010 season as the Steelers' starting center was enough to turn the heads of the Pittsburgh faithful, who are now well aware of Mike Tomlin's tendency to bring young players up slowly. When given the opportunity, Pouncey played more like a seasoned veteran than a rookie. Take a close look at Rashard Mendenhall's big runs this year. Nearly all of them happened in part because of a big-time block by Pouncey. It's not just his brute strength that makes him great. Pouncey is amazingly agile for his size, so he does a fantastic job of setting a block, then moving to the next level of defenders to work towards an even bigger play. Just take a look at how quickly Pouncey gets into the linebacking corps of the Atlanta Falcons during Mendenhall's game-winning run in Week 1.
The Steelers have been spoiled by great centers, like Dermontti Dawson and Mike Webster, for years. Read my electronic lips: Pouncey is no different. We will watch with glee as he handles giant nose tackles and obliterates defensive backs for at least a decade. Enjoy.
Jason Worilds, OLB (second round, No. 52 overall). It's tough to evaluate this pick because Worilds has seen so little playing time thus far. No matter how small the sample, though, it is clear that Worilds made the most of the playing time he did get. For starters, he was one of Pittsburgh's best special teams players in 2010. Worilds also notched two sacks during his rookie campaign, and while neither were eye-popping, both plays showcased the young linebacker's explosiveness. The first, which Worilds registered during a Week 3 drubbing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, involved beating seasoned tackle Jeremy Trueblood. The second sack came during garbage time against the Oakland Raiders, as Worilds simply blew by fellow rookie Jared Veldheer. In each case, Worilds' burst off of the line was on full display, and that is what has the Steelers so excited.
Worilds ran ridiculous times during his pro day at Virginia Tech, but what is more important for a pass rushing linebacker in a 3-4 defense is that player's initial acceleration. Put simply, Worilds' ability to get to top speed within a short distance makes him a bit of a freak. Even though he weighed in at 254 pounds, Worilds bested every other pass rusher at the 2010 NFL Combine with a 1.56-second 10-yard split in the 40.
Of course, the fact that we are still talking about this guy's combine results after the completion of his rookie season is a pretty good indicator that we need to see more from him on the field. There were definitely times last season when Worilds seemed to play too high, getting stood up and contained at the line of scrimmage. In addition, it also seemed clear in 2010 that the former Hokie needs to add to his pass-rushing repertoire, as sheer speed and strength will not be enough to consistently best NFL competition. Nevertheless, the Steelers knew that they were taking a player who needed some time to develop and they have a recent history of success in that area.
It will be interesting to see how Worilds's role changes in 2011. With big money soon due to LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers may be counting on Worilds to replace James Harrison sometime in the near future.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR (third round, No. 82 overall). Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert can't help himself sometimes. This guy loves to draft WRs. Thankfully, he hit the mark with this pick. In fact, Pouncey aside, this may be my favorite pick in the draft. Sanders was obscenely productive in college, and when you watch the tape of his rookie season it's easy to see why. For a young wideout selected on the second day of the draft, his routes look surprisingly polished. Sanders' speed and his ability to make plays in space are the kinds of things that every team in the NFL covets. The icing on the cake is that Sanders has also proven that he is willing to get his jersey dirty, suggesting to me that he might follow our great tradition of hardworking wide receivers like Hines Ward, albeit in smaller, nimbler form.
As long as his surgically repaired foot recovers fully, Sanders is a lock to substantially improve upon 2010's respectable production (376 yards, two touchdowns) next year.
Thaddeus Gibson, OLB (fourth round, No. 116 overall). I will be honest, but this one made me pretty livid. Unlike some Steeler fans, I never tire of athletic linebackers, and Gibson seemed very promising to me in training camp. Unfortunately, the Steelers made the decision to cut this fine young prospect rather than put Aaron Smith on the injured reserve. Gibson was promptly signed by the San Francisco 49ers, who were no doubt elated about the Steelers' decision to basically flush a fourth-round pick down the toilet.
Chris Scott, OT (fifth round, No. 151 overall). Chris Scott was MIA for all of 2010 because of a broken foot that required surgery. Even though we know next to nothing about Scott, I'm not ready to call this pick a bust. After all, the Steelers have a slew of potential free agents along the offensive line - Trai Essex, Jonathan Scott, and Tony Hills - and a healthy Chris Scott could become a cheap replacement for one of them.
Crezdon Butler, CB (fifth round, No. 164 overall). Butler did not see much action in 2010. He recorded his first (and only) career tackle against the New England Patriots last November, but he really hasn't shown Steeler Nation what he can do yet. Much like Chris Scott, Butler may be asked to do significantly more in 2011 because of possible departures (of Ike Taylor, William Gay, and Anthony Madison, in this case). At 6-foot-1 and 191 lbs, Butler has the size (and the speed) that the Steelers love in their cornerbacks. He has also shown some flashes of good play in camp and during the preseason (take a look at this clip of Butler reading Tim Tebow like the Bible), but he will have to continue to build on that foundation to help the Steelers in 2011. Since the Steelers are bound to select at least one corner in the first three rounds of the impending draft, Butler will have to work hard to separate himself from the pack.
Stevenson Sylvester, ILB (fifth round, No. 166 overall). The Steelers selected Sylvester, their third linebacker of the 2010 draft, to the disapproval of many fans. Some scouts thought he played too tall to penetrate on the blitz, but the Steelers thought they had found a potential replacement to the aging James Farrior in round five. Much like Jason Worilds, Sylvester proved to be a valuable contributor on special teams. Also like Worilds, Sylvester simply hasn't seen enough of the field for us to be sure what he can offer. With that said, he certainly had some pretty impressive moments in the preseason. If this guy even sniffs the starting lineup in his career, you can chalk this one up as a huge victory for Mike Tomlin and company.
Jonathan Dwyer, RB (sixth round, No. 188 overall). This pick was hailed as a steal by many a draft nerd, and do you know what? They might be right. Dwyer's talent and collegiate production are immense, but a slow start in camp and a logjam at running back landed him a spot on the practice squad for most of 2010. Dwyer's numbers during the regular season (nine carries for 28 yards) aren't exactly awe-inspiring, but his production in Week 3 of the 2010 preseason provided a tantalizing taste of what he could do for the Steelers in the future. Though Dwyer's role was limited last year, that could change in 2011 with Mewelde Moore possibly departing in free agency. Dwyer could yet become an effective complement to Rashard Mendenhall. Watch him closely, Steeler fans.
Antonio Brown, WR (sixth round, No. 195 overall). It would be impossible to ask for more production from a sixth-rounder than the Steelers got from Antonio Brown. From the moment he first touched the ball in Week 1, it was clear that Pittsburgh had snagged something special. Brown finished with a modest 167 yards receiving, but that number does not adequately quantify his value. Time after time it seemed like Brown showed off his big-play ability in crucial situations.
It is true that Brown made plenty of mistakes in his rookie season, but it is also true that he has shown tremendous promise. Brown will likely push Antwaan Randle El for the fourth receiver spot, for return duties, and perhaps even for Randle El's spot on the roster altogether. For a sixth-round pick, what's not to like?
Doug Worthington, DL (seventh round, No. 242 overall). Like most seventh-rounders, Worthington was a bit of a project and was expected to move to the Steelers' practice squad. Worthington never played a down for the Steelers, as he was cut for former Saints draftee Al Woods. Tampa Bay snapped Worthington up and placed him on their practice squad. Ironically, Woods, too, was signed by the Buccaneers. With a roster as loaded with talent as Pittsburgh's, it is inevitable that some draft picks will fail to make an impact.
Look for the Steelers to address their lack of youth and depth at the DL position in this year's draft.
The Steelers are one of the NFL's model organizations. Every year they seem to load more talent onto their roster, and I certainly hope that they continue that trend in Thursday's draft. Whatever happens in a few days, one thing is clear: Steeler Nation should hope for a haul of prospects that is even half as good as the one it got in 2010.