Will Steelers Continue Trend of Drafting Young, Underclassmen in 2011 NFL Draft?

Several things stuck out to me while I listened to Jim Wexell share his thoughts about his weekend at the 2011 Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The first was how he felt like there were numerous talented cornerbacks to be had in the second, third and fourth rounds, yet nobody really that stood out as a worthwhile investment in the first round considering where the Steelers are picking (31st). The second was something Wexell stated about Kevin Colbert's recent propensity to draft young, underclassmen in the first round. Wexell was accurate in his statement that the Steelers have used their first round pick on a 21-year old junior in three of the past four drafts. The trend actually goes back further than that though.

As a quick refresher, the Steelers first round picks this past decade.

  • 2010 - Maurkice Pouncey (Jr.)
  • 2009 - Evander 'Ziggy' Hood (Sr.)
  • 2008 - Rashard Mendenhall (Jr.)
  • 2007 - Lawrence Timmons (Jr.)
  • 2006 - Santonio Holmes (Jr.)
  • 2005 - Heath Miller (Jr.)
  • 2004 - Ben Roethlisberger (Jr.)
  • 2003 - Troy Polamalu (Sr.)
  • 2002 - Kendall Simmons (Sr.)
  • 2001 - Casey Hampton (Sr.)
  • 2000 - Plaxico Burress (Jr.)

So, since Colbert took over as Director of Football Operations in 2000, seven of his 11 first round selections have been juniors who declared early. And since 2004 when Big Ben was selected, all but one of the Steelers top draft picks have been juniors. Timmons, Mendenhall and Pouncey were 21 when they joined the Steelers. As for the other juniors selected last decade? I'll take a pass on looking up which were 21 years of age rather than 22 when they suited up as rookies in the NFL, but if any of you are so inclined, by all means share.

Moving on to 2011. There are 56 underclassmen who have declared for the 2011 NFL Draft, which is a new record. So much for talented fringe juniors opting to return for their senior year because of the ongoing labor situation. 

Here's the list, followed by some analysis about which underclassmen might make for a good fit in Pittsburgh in 2011 and beyond.

Player

Pos.

College

Adams, Darvin

WR

Auburn

Austin, Marvin

DT

North Carolina

Ayers, Akeem

LB

UCLA

Baldwin, Jon

WR

Pittsburgh

Bowers, Da'Quan

DE

Clemson

Brown, DeAndre

WR

Southern Mississippi

Burton, Brandon

DB

Utah

Casey, Jurrell

DT

Southern California

Clay, John

RB

Wisconsin

Claytor, Nick

T

Georgia Tech

Cobb, Randall

WR

Kentucky

Dareus, Marcell

DE

Alabama

Doss, Tandon

WR

Indiana

Evans, Darren

RB

Virginia Tech

Fairley, Nick

DT

Auburn

Gabbert, Blaine

QB

Missouri

Green, A.J.

WR

Georgia

Gurley, Tori

WR

South Carolina

Guy, Lawrence

DT

Arizona State

Hamler, Jamel

WR

Fresno State

Harper, Jamie

RB

Clemson

Harris, Brandon

DB

Miami

Hill, Will

DB

Florida

Houston, Justin

LB

Georgia

Hynoski, Henry

RB

Pittsburgh

Ingram, Mark

RB

Alabama

Jones, Julio

WR

Álabama

Keiser, Thomas

LB

Stanford

Leshoure, Mikel

RB

Illinois

Lewis, Dion

RB

Pittsburgh

Lewis, Javes

DB

Oregon

Little, Greg

WR

North Carolina

Liuget, Corey

DT

Illinois

Mallett, Ryan

QB

Arkansas

Moore, Rahim

DB

UCLA

Newton, Cam

QB

Auburn

Parr, Zane

DE

Virginia

Peterson, Patrick

DB

Louisiana State

Quinn, Robert

DE

North Carolina

Ridley, Stevan

RB

Louisiana State

Rodgers, Jacquizz

RB

Oregon State

Rudolph, Kyle

TE

Notre Dame

Sands, Robert

DB

West Virginia

Sash, Tyler

DB

Iowa

Siliga, Sealver

DT

Utah

Smith, Aldon

DE

Missouri

Smith, Torrey

WR

Maryland

Smith, Tyron

T

Southern California

Tarrant, Jerrard

DB

Georgia Tech

Todman, Jordan

RB

Connecticut

Vereen, Shane

RB

California

Watt, J.J.

DE

Wisconsin

Wilkerson, Muhammad

DT

Temple

Williams, Aaron

DB

Texas

Williams, Ryan

RB

Virginia Tech

Wilson, Martez

LB

Illinois

 

Notes:

You'll notice I highlighted various players above in bold. I'm sure there is an omission or two, as well as several guys who aren't quite deserving of being mentioned, but generally speaking, those that I've highlighted are prospects that are considered to be first or second round talents. All could potentially be eyed by the Steelers. Note though that I did not include guys that are widely considered as locks to be selected in the top-ten. Nor did I include running backs or quarterbacks for what I consider to be obvious reasons.

There's been speculation galore about the Steelers fixating exclusively on CB and OL in this years Draft, but I continue to contend that the organization might not believe that the OL is nearly the same mess that most fans do. Yes, it's still a work in progress, and yes there must be new bodies added this offseason in order to offset the likely departure of at least several free agents. But as is the case every year it seems like under Kevin Colbert, the Steelers aren't going to bypass upper echelon talent at other positions just to reach for a fringe OL prospect on day one or two of the draft. After listening to Wexell, I think the same might be said about CB this year. We'll see.

Here's a few guys I highlighted in the list above that I believe are worth keeping a close eye on and learning more about this next month or so. By all means, share whatever you may know about any and all of the underclassmen that declared for the '11 Draft, as well as your thoughts on who I've identified as my intriguing, young, early-round prospects.


Keep an Eye On:

  • Brandon Burton, CB, Utah: As Jim Wexell mentioned on Monday morning, Burton has two future meetings scheduled with the Steelers. That just about says it all in terms of why we should be keeping an eye on Burton. 
  • Corey Liuget, DE/DT, Illinois: Color me extremely intrigued by Liuget as a potential first-round pick for the Steelers. He'll probably be off the board  by the time the Steelers were to select at 31, but I could envision a scenario where the Steelers traded up to the early 20s were he still available. He didn't exactly turn heads at the Combine either, so perhaps his rising stock has flat-lined a little bit.  I'll be writing more about this youngster soon.

  • Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: I know it may sound blasphemous to think that the Steelers might consider drafting a WR in the first round, but really the situation at the position isn't quite as rosy as some might want to believe. Hines Ward is obviously finishing up his career here in the next several seasons, and beyond that, the Steelers have three guys that are all under 6 feet tall. Mike Wallace is a stud, no doubt. But even though I love Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown as complimentary weapons, I'm not one to believe that they're No. 2 type options. Baldwin would give the Steelers the tall presence at WR they've been sorely missing since Plaxico Burress' departure. Baldwin was a top performer in the bench press, the broad jump, and he posted the highest vertical jump at 42.0 in.
  • Rahim Moore, S, UCLA: Despite Wexell being less than impressed by his interviewing skills, Moore can't be ignored as an intriguing DB prospect because of his versatility to play both S and CB. I actually think S might be a position the Steelers target early on in this year's draft, but I've not yet done the legwork research-wise to give you much of an informed opinion just yet. But Moore could very well wind up in Pittsburgh if he's on the board at 31. 
  • Martez Wilson, LB, Illinois: You can't have enough speed in today's NFL, especially over the middle of the field. Mike Tomlin knows this, that's for sure. And Wilson just showcased his ridiculous speed at the Combine, posting a 4.49 40. For a 250+ pound guy, that's just ridiculous.  Wilson's stellar Combine almost guarantees he'll be the first middle/inside LB taken this year.
  • Will Hill, CB, Florida: I don't think the Steelers would select Hill with the 31st overall pick, but he's an intriguing prospect if you ask me. He's got solid size and speed, experience making plays on special teams, might be able to play some safety in a pinch, and could contribute as a nickel corner as early as next season.  
  • J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: This young man looks like he could be a perfect fit for the Steelers. My initial take on him is he could be a hybrid of Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. More Keisel in my preliminary estimation, as he's apparently got great closing speed and solid anticipation when batting down passes -- both Keisel traits.  Watt tore it up this past weekend. He was a top performer in almost every workout at the Combine: the bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drills, and 20-yard shuttle. I would be thrilled if the Steelers traded up in the first round to land Watt 
  • Tyron Smith, T, USC: Don't necessarily put me in the camp of those who thinks that Smith is a likely candidate to end up in Pittsburgh, but he'd certainly be hard to pass up if he were still available late in the first round. Smith needs to put on some size, and he apparently lacks a solid football IQ at this point in his career. But give him some time in an NFL strength and conditioning program and the size issues will all but certainly be addressed. And get him with the right coaches and I think Smith might make significant strides with his understanding of what goes into playing OT at a high level.
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