By the time September comes along, it’s very possible that four of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ nine draft picks from the 2014 NFL Draft will already be out of the league, or at least off the team. Those in the anti-Dri Archer camp would gladly argue that that number could be five out of nine.
Already gone are the Steelers’ two fifth-round draft picks, cornerback Shaquille Richardson and offensive lineman Wesley Johnson. Richardson dealt with injuries during training camp and was limited during the preseason, while Johnson played significant time.
Richardson was placed on the practice squad, and later injured reserve, before being released with an injury settlement. Johnson was included on the initial 53-man roster, but was never active for a game before being released in order to make a necessary roster move. He was claimed off waivers before he could be transferred to the practice squad.
Jordan Zumwalt, one of two sixth-round draft picks, spent his rookie season on injured reserve, remains on the offseason roster, but he finds himself in a much tougher battle to make the 53-man roster this season than last year.
He is clearly and squarely the sixth man on the depth chart at inside linebacker. At outside linebacker? Forget it. There are already eight bodies vying for, to be extremely generous, six spots—more likely five, including the practice squad.
Tight end Rob Blanchflower, the team’s seventh-round draft pick from a year ago, spent his rookie season on the practice squad. But the Steelers added another tight end in the fifth round this year while retaining their top two at the position.
But the rest of that draft class? They seem primed to step it up in year two.
The Steelers top two choices from a year ago, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, figure to be in the starting lineup, barring some unforeseen circumstance between now and the start of the regular season. Shazier in particular has competition, but he also has the pedigree, not to mention the speed, and is already working with the first-team defense.
Tuitt, meanwhile, entered the starting lineup during the final stretch of the regular season, starting the last four games and then in the postseason game. He registered his first career sack and forced fumble in that span, and there figures to be much more of where that came from.
On offense, the team’s most successful rookie from a year ago, wide receiver Martavis Bryant, is still growing into his game, and may already be regarded as the front-runner to be the starting receiver opposite their All-Pro, such that it means much in an offense whose base personnel package increasingly features three wide receivers.
Then there’s the big nose tackle, Daniel McCullers, who will be moving up the depth chart this year. He will in all likelihood be the backup nose tackle, but his role figures to be more than that, as he has been talked about as being used in sub-packages after slimming down this spring. He could be the fourth lineman this year, which means a good number of snaps.
Finally, there’s Archer, who has the potential to be a sparkplug in the return game if he ever puts it all together. He only had nine return attempts last year, which is a small sample size, but he wasn’t always aided by his blockers. If he can turn into a contributor in this role, then that will be huge for the overall value of this draft class, and, more importantly, for the team as a whole.