Although they are certainly not unique in this department, the Pittsburgh Steelers often seem to be an organization that prefers to draft underclassmen when possible, knowing that these are often players that would develop into talent drafted in higher rounds had they remained in school, instead letting them mature on their own roster.
The Steelers have often favored this in the first two rounds under Mike Tomlin, with examples including Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt in 2014, Le’Veon Bell in 2013, and all the way back to his first two first-round draft picks, Lawrence Timmons in 2007 and Rashard Mendenhall in 2008.
The Steelers’ 2015 NFL Draft class included three underclassmen amongst its group of eight, or to be more precise, three players who declared for the draft with eligibility remaining. Each of them, drafted in the third round or later, offer significant upside.
Wide receiver Sammie Coates, drafted in the third round, declared for the draft after his redshirt junior season in 2014, after missing all of his natural freshman year due to a foot injury that caused him to miss the entire season.
Penn State tight end Jesse James was drafted by the Steelers in the fifth round, and many draft analysts questioned why he declared for the draft after his junior season, believing that he could be a high-round pick if he stayed in school for another year.
General manager Kevin Colbert noted that the 20-year-old is not where he needs to be yet due to that, but that the Steelers viewed him as one of the few in-line blocking tight ends in the draft class who they could line up across from a defensive end.
Finally, seventh-round draft pick Gerod Holliman, the Jim Thorpe Award-winning safety out of Louisville, declared for the draft after intercepting an NCAA record-tying 14 passes during his redshirt sophomore season, foregoing two further seasons of eligibility. He just turned 21 years old yesterday.
While all three of these players—selected with the 87th overall selection or later—most certainly have elements of their game to work on, each of the, no doubt, could have improved their draft stock by staying in school and working on their deficiencies.
The Steelers were able to acquire their talents now, at reasonable value, and will get the opportunity themselves to work on their deficiencies, which is what they have done with underclassmen for many years, this year being no different.
Many have said that Coates is a wide receiver with first-round talent and mid-round hands. If he so chose, he could have stayed in school and worked on his hands, and perhaps have come out as a senior with a first-round grade.
James is already a physical specimen, but he is a player that still needs a deal of fine tuning, both as a pass catcher and a blocker. With another season, he could have perhaps been a day two tight end.
Holliman has a lot of work to do technically as a tackler. With his exceptional ability to read quarterbacks and pick off their passes, his stock even this year was hard to pinpoint. He started out being mocked in the first round to the Steelers and ended up being taken by the Steelers in the seventh. If he, like the others, played another season, even two, and shown that he is a complete player, he unquestionably could have driven his stock up substantially.
Instead, the Steelers have acquired all of this raw clay that they have at least a year or two to mold into what they want them to be before they need them to be significant contributors anyway.