Steelers approach underclassmen with caution in the draft

At the NFL scouting combine in February, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was one of the most outspoken people in the league on the topic of underclassmen.

Colbert gushed about the depth of the draft and said one of the reasons it was so good was the number of underclassmen (98) who left college early. But Colbert also warned of the risks involved in taking a college sophomore or junior and also said he feared this crop of draft-eligible players also was the “most immature” he had seen. He added that the Steelers “keep their fingers crossed” when they select underclassmen.

If that’s the case, Colbert will be crossing his toes too this season because the Steelers went a bit against their grain last week and selected three underclassmen in the draft. In the previous five drafts, the Steelers drafted a total of eight underclassmen.

Three of the Steelers’ first four picks were underclassmen. First-round selection Ryan Shazier from Ohio State is a 21-year old linebacker. Second-round pick Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame is a 20-year old defensive end and fourth-rounder Martavis Bryant is a 22-year old receiver.

“We buy into the upside of these young men,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Saturday after the draft.

While there are risks involved in drafting underclassmen, the Steelers have an excellent track record of picking the right ones during Colbert’s tenure.

In eight of the past 11 years the Steelers have chosen an underclassman with their first-round pick. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Santonio Holmes were underclassmen. They won Super Bowl XLIII for the Steelers.

Linebacker Lawrence Timmons, running back Rashard Mendenhall, center Maurkice Pouncey, offensive guard David DeCastro and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones also were underclassmen when they entered the draft.

In the past five years the only underclassman who could be considered a bust is former Ohio State linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, a fourth-round pick in 2010. Gibson was cut by the Steelers in training camp of his rookie season. He played four games while working for three teams in his three-year NFL career.

Even with the Gibson miss, the 2010 draft is looking very solid, and it’s because of the underclassmen. The Steelers took four other underclassmen that year, and two have been to multiple Pro Bowls.

Pouncey was an immediate starter and became the first center in NFL history to earn three consecutive Pro Bowl selections to start his career. Wide receiver-returnman Antonio Brown, a steal in the sixth round, earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl last season.

Jason Worilds was taken in the second round. He earned a starting job last season — his fourth in the NFL — and was rewarded with the transition tag that comes with a salary of nearly $10 million.

It’s not as easy as the Steelers made it look. The maturity issues Colbert referenced at the combine have haunted other teams.

• In 2010, the New England Patriots drafted tight end Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round. He is in jail awaiting trial for murder.

• In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers used a first-round pick on linebacker Aldon Smith. He has been productive on the field, but has been troubled off it with multiple arrests for drunken driving and felony charges for illegally possessing assault weapons.

• In 2012, the Jacksonville Jaguars used the No. 5 overall pick on wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who has multiple violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy and likely is on his way out of Jacksonville.

Those are just a few of the most recent underclassmen who have run into trouble after entering the NFL. Identifying which players are character risks and which ones simply have some growing up to do is difficult for NFL teams.

The Steelers are hoping their good fortune continues with their new group of underclassmen.

Tuitt, who will turn 21 later this month, fell to the second round because he was overweight and out of shape last season at Notre Dame after a sports hernia limited his preseason training.

“If this guy had been healthy going into his junior year, he probably would have been in the top 10 guys drafted,” Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said. “We feel like we got a steal.”

Bryant dropped to the fourth round because of the depth of the receiver class and his limited playing time at Clemson, where he was a starter for one season and inconsistent.

“Probably, had he stayed, he would have been a first-rounder [next year], for sure,” Steelers receivers coach Richard Mann said.

The Steelers were not the most aggressive team when it came to drafting underclassmen this year. The New Orleans Saints took four and the Houston Texans five, including their first three picks — defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney, offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo and defensive lineman Louis Nix III.

A record 98 underclassmen left college early to pursue NFL careers; 36 were not drafted. Of the 62 chosen, more than half were chosen in the first two rounds — 16 in the first round, 18 in the second.

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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