What constitutes a successful draft for an NFL team?
Is it statistical production by one or two draft picks in their first years or careers? Or, is it the roster worthiness of the entire class collectively. If it is the latter, the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers draft class could have been one of the best ever.
Granted, it didn't necessarily feel like a pony show as it transpired; but with each passing day, optimism over the newest selections grows exponentially. On paper, every single pick has a legitimate shot at making the team in some capacity.
Jarvis Jones cannot escape the label of James Harrison's replacement after being taking in the first round, even though the coaching staff has been anxiously awaiting Jason Worilds promotion. Worilds may play himself out of a job by the end of the season, creating the opportunity for Jones; but it remains highly unlikely Jones will grasp the professional game enough to actually compete with the veteran Worilds. However, Jones should have zero fear about not making the team.
Le'Veon Bell has already found himself on the top of the team's running back depth chart everywhere but on the team's official pecking order. He has the potential to be a great back, even if he has to start his rookie season behind the likes of Jonathan Dwyer and/or Isaac Redman.
Markus Wheaton has the biggest disadvantage of his rookie peers, because of the rules which have prohibited his participation in team activities so far. However, he has more than adequate speed and reportedly excellent route accuracy and hands, traits Mike Wallace failed to develop during his stay in the steel city. Wheaton could very well become Emmanuel Sanders replacement should the team not offer him an extension after raising his salary to keep him from playing for the New England Patriots this season.
In the fourth round, the Steelers nabbed safety Shamarko Thomas, who has become one of the most talked about rookies this summer. With Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu still around to mentor him, Thomas could become the next in the lineage of great Steelers safeties. There is little chance of Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith forcing Thomas or fellow safety Robert Golden out of a job.
Fellow fourth-rounder Landry Jones remains one of the few question marks, as he continues to make the transition to professional quarterbacking; however, he was still viewed by the team as the best player available at the time, and is just as viable of a candidate as Brian Hoyer and Jerrod Johnson were last season. The team's draft investment in Jones will most likely secure his spot as the third QB behind Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski; despite the presence of John Parker Wilson.
In the fifth round, secondary coach Carnell Lake believes the Steelers found the next Ike Taylor in Terry Hawthorne. Hawthorne has been limited after undergoing a minor surgical procedure on the day he signed his rookie contract, but he is expected to be healthy and ready to roll by training camp. His inexperience may prevent him from leap-frogging Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian and DeMarcus Van Dyke; but the organization seems to feel he has the highest ceiling of the group, which could persuade them to keep Hawthorne over one of the aforementioned veterans.
Once James Farrior's release was finalized, the Steelers 3-4 defense found themselves with plenty of Mack linebackers, but no true Bucks. Lawrence Timmons slid over to Farrior's spot, allowing Larry Foote to take over as the Mack, which he played to Farrior's buck when Timmons was still playing football for Florida State University. Now, Pittsburgh may have found their new Farrior at Timmons alma mater, in sixth-rounder Vince Williams. According to Ike Taylor, he has been working with Williams on his pass coverage skills. No one is concerned with Williams ability to play the run, but his coverage skills will keep him from being a three-down player. However, playing the run well is a good way to earn a roster spot in Pittsburgh, leaving him plenty of time to develop his new skills as a member of the team.
Fellow sixth-rounder Justin Brown joins Landry Jones as the only other serious question mark on the roster, mainly due to the depth at his position. Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress may be slower versions of their former selves, but their veteran experience should keep the rookies at bay. Unfortunately, the team has other receivers who will be fighting for spots as well. Reggie Dunn will be trying to earn a returner's job, and David Gilreath will be trying to survive after playing well in spurts both as a receiver, and as a returner himself. Brown may not make the final 53-man roster, but his size and athleticism should earn some practice squad consideration. The team will most likely allow Cotchery and Burress to walk next off-season. Developing Brown from a PS spot in 2013 could prepare him to make an immediate impact in 2014.
The last classmate Nicholas Williams hasn't been guaranteed anything yet, but the team has given him every opportunity to prove himself at left defensive end behind Ziggy Hood. So much so, they moved Al Woods to nose tackle for a better part of OTAs, creating snaps for Williams while developing a contingency plan behind new starting NT Steve McLendon. If Williams can exhibit a mental maturity to match his reported physical maturity, the team may choose to stick with Williams and Woods, rather than Woods and Ta'amu or Fangupo.
Outside of Brown possibly landing on the practice squad, there exists a real chance for every pick to make the team on merit -- something the Steelers have not been able to boast about most of their draft classes. Granted, since 2010, the Steelers have hit more than missed; but prior years saw more picks cut than kept. And, even many who survived cuts, did not survive for long.
The 2013 class isn't carrying any Ricardo Colcloughs or Crezdon Butlers. Wheaton and Brown are a far cry from Fred Gibson and Limas Sweed. Landry Jones may be struggling, but is showing more promise than Brian St. Pierre or Omar Jacobs. Rian Wallace wishes he was Vince Williams. Nobody raved about Joe Burnett or Terrence Frederick, like Hawthorne.
Nicholas Williams could turn out to be the new Doug Worthington or Shaun Nua, or Vince Williams could be the next Nathanial Adibi, Bruce Davis or Mike Humpal; but they will have to prove they don't belong before the coaching staff or front office will start second guessing their choices. They took who they took for a reason, and not just because they needed a positional player.
This year's rookies have a lot to prove if they want to compete with all-time classes like Chuck Noll's choices as he built his powerhouse Steel Curtain through the early '70s,. but this class easily stands above most from the past two decades on roster worthiness alone.