It’s often said that it’s not your rookie class that will make the difference in your season, it’s the second- and third-year players who will shape the direction of your team. We also often hear that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ system takes a couple of seasons to learn, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
With that in mind, I couldn’t help but notice recently while reviewing the roster just how significantly the team’s 2013 draft class could shape the Steelers’ fate in 2015, where anywhere from two to five players could be starting.
That draft class, of course, already includes an All-Pro player in running back Le’Veon Bell, and we saw what kind of impact losing him for the playoff game had in the Steelers’ ability to execute their offensive strategy.
Bell accounted for more yards from scrimmage in a single season than any other player had in the history of the franchise, so there really doesn’t need to be much added on to that statement. Suffice it to say that he is a critical piece of their success.
Pittsburgh wishes that they could say the same for their first pick in that class, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who has three sacks thus far in his career. Admittedly, two of them came in the first three games of his second season before he was injured, and that injury completely derailed his season.
But at this point, the Steelers are unable to even guarantee him a starting spot in the lineup because they’re not convinced that he can be that player. Whatever he develops into will say a lot in determining what the defense is capable of being in the near future.
Wide receiver Markus Wheaton became a starter in his second season and had a solid year with over 50 receptions, nearly 650 yards, and two touchdowns, but he may be destined for the slot, with little he can do about it.
Right now, it appears that only Martavis Bryant could hold himself back from entering the starting lineup, if he proves slow to develop a more complete game. Of course, Bryant had over 500 years himself in 10 regular season games, so even if Wheaton does get pushed into the slot, he’ll still have plenty of opportunities to help decide the team’s fate on offense.
Perhaps the biggest question mark in this class, and on this roster, has to be the prospects of safety Shamarko Thomas entering the starting lineup, because we’ve seen so little of him at the safety position in his first two seasons. While he’s flashed during the preseason, we need to see it in meaningful games, and we just haven’t seen that yet. Injuries have played their part in that, but that is a concern all on its own.
Then there’s inside linebacker Vince Williams, who has played more than he was expected to in each of the past two seasons, where the Steelers believed they had their starter in place. Sort of like the Ramon Foster of the defense, he keeps finding himself on the field. He will get his chance to compete for a starting spot, but even if he doesn’t, he will still get his playing time, I suspect, and his impact as a special teams player shouldn’t be ignored either.