The Pittsburgh Steelers have made a concerted effort in recent years to get younger, holding on to certain veterans only when absolutely necessary, as when they brought back Brett Keisel and James Harrison last season due to a lack of quality alternatives.
Being that Mike Tomlin is entering his ninth season in Pittsburgh, it is only now really that his inaugural draft class is beginning to hit the age of 30, so they are not quite ready just yet to be plucked off like a dead flower and tossed away.
In fact, that 2007 draft class is still poised to make some very key contributions for the Steelers this season, with three players remaining amongst that group.
That trio includes two key defensive starters in inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback William Gay, in addition to valuable second tight end Matt Spaeth, whose contributions to the success of the running game are best felt when he is on the sidelines.
Those three, aged 29, 30, and 31, respectively, were part of what turned out to be quite a nice draft class overall, if you consider that it produced five valuable contributors over the years, two of which only lost their effectiveness due to chronic injuries.
Also part of that draft class were Pro Bowl outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and punter Daniel Sepulveda. If those two players remained the fixtures that the other three remaining members of that class are, then there would be a lot less uncertainty on this current roster.
As of this moment, the Steelers are banking on finding a winner between a pair of inexperienced Australian-born punters, and have been forced to spend two first-round draft picks on outside linebackers in the past three drafts, in addition to pulling Harrison out of retirement and re-signing him once again this offseason.
Sepulveda had to be released after suffering serious injuries one too many times, and since then, the punting position has been a carousel. Woodley’s troubles, meanwhile, began in the middle of the 2011 season, just prior to which he looked like a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Woodley was never the same since, with chronic soft tissue injuries dogging the rest of his career, even while he remained effective on the field. He was a salary cap casualty because of his inability to stay on the field, and to this day accounts for $8.5 million in dead money.
It’s worth pointing out that both Gay and Spaeth had left in free agency—Spaeth a year prior to Gay—but both were released following the 2012 season, and the Steelers were quick to re-sign both of them in 2013, realizing that their roles had never been adequately replaced. It’s hard to imagine where the team might be over the last two seasons, and into this one, without their contributions.
Timmons, meanwhile, has been the only consistent fixture on the defensive side of the ball over the course of the past five seasons, playing at a Pro Bowl level that was finally recognized last year. It’s not too often that you have three contributors from a draft class still playing significant roles nine years on for the same team that drafted them, but that is the story of Tomlin’s first draft class.