After all the pre-draft hype and smokescreens, what a team does on Draft Day(s) exposes what they are really thinking. The Steelers are no exception, investing their top two picks on the defensive front seven but ignoring supposed needs such as cornerback and wide receiver until later rounds. Combining these draft picks with previous free-agent signings, here is what we have learned:
- Expectations are high for WR Markus Wheaton. Although the team signed Lance Moore in free agency and drafted Montavis Bryant in the fourth round, neither is likely to challenge Wheaton as the #2 receiver in 2014. In fact, despite Bryant's impressive physical abilities, the best case for this raw receiver is to be the #4 WR this season (particularly in red-zone packages) and the #3 WR in 2015. Thus, the team is counting on Wheaton, with only 6 career receptions, to deliver at least 100 catches over the next two seasons and take some heat off Antonio Brown.
- Expectations are not high for linebackers Vince Williams and Terence Garvin. After these two rookies were forced to split time at ILB for the Steelers in 2013, head coach Mike Tomlin made positive comments about their contributions. But neither the sixth-rounder Williams nor the UFDA Garvin made much impact on the field, and the team wasted no time making Ryan Shazier their first pick in the draft and an instant starter at ILB. The coaches have also made positive comments about LB Sean Spence, who is returning from injury after missing two seasons, but Spence was never expected to be a three-down player at ILB, so additional help was needed.
- It appears the Steelers plan to sign a contract extension with CB Cortez Allen. Colbert passed on Darqueze Dennard, Pierre Desir, and other coveted CBs in the draft, waiting until the fifth round to pick a cornerback named Shaquille. But our new Shaq instantly becomes one of the team's top two cornerbacks under contract for 2015, given that Allen and Ike Taylor are in the last year of their current deals. As much as the front office might love Shaq, extending Allen's contract would bring some stability to the cornerback position beyond 2014. (Secondary coach Carnell Lake's positive comments about free agents Antwon Blake and Brice McCain fall under the same category as Tomlin's comments about Vince Williams.) Even so, the team may need to sign a high-end free-agent CB in the next offseason.
- Likewise, the Steelers must expect to close a long-term deal with OLB Jason Worilds. Top OLB Anthony Barr was not available at 1-15, and Colbert instead chose Shazier to fortify the inside linebacker position. Sixth-round LB Jordan Zumwaldt is hardly expected to take over Worilds starting job in 2015, so the team must be confident that it can sign Worilds to a multiyear contract, replacing the one-year transition-tag deal he is currently working under.
- DE Brett Keisel is unlikely to return to the Steelers. Many fans had hoped the Steelers would bring back The Beard for one more season, rotating at DE with free-agent pickup Cam Thomas. But second-round pick Stephen Tuitt should adequately fill that role, even in Week One.
- Markice Pouncey will start at center for the Steelers in 2014. Although Neal and I had suggested that the Steelers could trade Pouncey for a draft pick, the right time to do so would have been before the draft. Since no such trade occurred, expect Pouncey to once again lead the Steelers offensive line. The question remains whether this will be his last hurrah with with the team, as he is entering the final year of his contract. If Pouncey is not re-signed before the season starts, don't expect him to return in 2015.
Thus, the key remaining tasks for Colbert this offseason are to nail down long-term contracts with Allen, Worilds, and possibly Pouncey. Starting jobs for the 2014 season will be determined in training camp, but Colbert is already working to ensure competition is in place for starting jobs in 2015.