Ron Cook: Rookies key for Steelers, but 2013 class not exempt



Everyone wants to know about the new guys. Will Ryan Shazier provide an inside pass rush and strengthen a weak run defense? Will Stephon Tuitt be the next Aaron Smith or the next Ziggy Hood? Will Dri Archer be able to outrun every defender on the field? Will Martavis Bryant be the tall wide receiver Ben Roethlisberger has coveted for so long?

But there are more significant Steelers questions than those about the 2014 draft class. What about the 2013 class? Will Jarvis Jones turn into a big-time pass-rusher? Will Le'Veon Bell become a franchise running back? Will Markus Wheaton stay healthy enough to be a big contributor at receiver? Will Shamarko Thomas take a sizable step toward becoming a starter in the secondary?

Intriguing queries, not just to those of us on the outside of Steelers headquarters, but also to general manager Kevin Colbert, who, along with coach Mike Tomlin, was largely responsible for bringing the players to Pittsburgh.

"I was asked the question, 'Is this the most important draft class that you're going to be faced with?' " Colbert was saying the other day. "I said, 'No, I think last year's is because you expect a big jump from year one to year two.' ... We expect those kids to ascend and to help us win. We think they can."

Bell, the No. 2 pick, was the best player in the class last season. A dual threat as a runner and pass-catcher, he set the Steelers record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie with 1,259, his 45 catches for 399 yards a big part of that production. He also ran for eight touchdowns. Jerome Bettis always said the team pays a back to score touchdowns. Bell has the look of a future star if he's able to stay healthy.

Jones, the No. 1 pick, has a long way to go to reach star status. He started eight games at outside linebacker, but didn't have much of an impact with just one sack. With LaMarr Woodley gone, the Steelers are counting on Jones to get after opposing quarterbacks a lot more. Their defense is predicated on the outside linebackers -- Jason Worilds is the other -- getting pressure. They had just 34 sacks last season, tied for sixth fewest in the league. It would help Jones and the team if he continues to work hard to get stronger.

Wheaton, the No. 3 pick, missed a month with a finger injury and didn't do much when he played, mostly on special teams. He finished with six catches for 64 yards. With Emmanuel Sanders gone, Wheaton will have a chance to start next season on the outside opposite team MVP Antonio Brown, but he could be pressed for the job by Bryant, this year's No. 4 pick from Clemson.

Thomas, last year's No. 4 selection, played in some of the sub-packages and on special teams. He should get plenty of playing time next season as a backup safety for Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell. The best guess here is this will be Polamalu's final NFL season. The team needs to find out if Thomas will be able to step in.

Vince Williams, the second of two sixth-round picks, started 11 games by default at inside linebacker after Larry Foote was injured in the opening game and Kion Wilson failed at the position. It's probably no coincidence the Steelers ranked a disappointing 21st against the run last season, a big reason they finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. It also was a big reason they chose Shazier from Ohio State in the first round in this spring's draft. Shazier will get every opportunity to be the starter in the opening game against the Cleveland Browns.

"They all did some things last year to get your attention, but we want more," Colbert said of the 2013 draft choices.

"If they do what they did last year, we're going to have a better chance of being 8-8 than we are of being a playoff team."

Colbert and Tomlin have taken much criticism for their recent drafts. That's to be expected after two 8-8 seasons. It has been pointed out many times there are no players left on the Steelers from their 2008 and 2009 drafts. Although they made some nice late selections since then -- especially Brown in the sixth round in 2010 -- they missed on cornerback Curtis Brown at No. 3 in 2011 and might end up getting less than expected from a couple of No. 2s, tackles Marcus Gilbert in 2011 and Mike Adams in 2012.

Those players need to ascend, to use Colbert's word.

The 2013 draft class needs to ascend.

"We need more," Colbert said.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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