Steelers are improving even before the draft and well after free agency

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

It's just not the usual kind of pick. Linebacker Sean Spence was given a clean bill of health, but the Steelers could be the ones ultimately healing, if Spence is able to return at 100 percent.

In the NBA, teams scour through international prospects in the back end of the league's two-round draft. Many of the top prospects from outside the borders of the United States are under contract with another club, and their contracts include buyout clauses in the likelihood the player is selected by an NBA franchise.

The better teams can take the developing (often teen-aged) talent, keep him with his country's league team for a year, even two, rights protected, as he matures as a player. Eventually, the club negotiates its way to bringing the player over well after he was drafted.

It's sort of a long-awaited return on an investment made in the past.

The NFL has no such structure, but teams can, in some cases, experience the same kind of return on investment a season or two after a pick was made.

The Steelers had something like that in 2013, after seeing 2012 first round pick David DeCastro return to full-time status. He missed all but three games of the 2012 season when he suffered a knee injury in the preseason. The three games he played had mixed results; some good, some bad, but he barely practiced in comparison to his peers and was thrown into an offense that didn't have a strong sense of itself from a production standpoint.

The greatest growth an NFL player will make is from Year 1 to Year 2. DeCastro didn't have the typical Year 1, but he showed plenty of reason in Year 2 to think he grew tremendously.

In 2013, the Steelers traded their third round pick to move into the fourth round, selecting safety Shamarko Thomas with Cleveland's pick (111th overall). Cleveland, in turn, will use (unless they trade it) the 83rd pick in this draft.

Some will say the Steelers used that pick in 2013 on Thomas - meaning they used a fourth and a third round pick to draft the defensive back from Syracuse. It's not a direct connection, but in a way, the Steelers, if all goes according to plan, will have used two picks on Thomas, but may finally get to reap the benefits of seeing 2012 third-round pick Sean Spence on the field.

Like DeCastro, Spence didn't get the benefit of playing a full rookie season. He, too, was significantly injured in the preseason, but he hasn't made it on the field since suffering nerve damage as well as a torn ACL and MCL in his leg. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gave him a "clean bill of health" at a team press conference Monday, suggesting clearly Spence will be given the opportunity to show he's ready to meet the potential many feel he has since the team took him in the third round of 2012.

Minus the injury, he's like the international player in the NBA; the pick was spent long enough ago it isn't as if it's making any kind of impact now, but the team is in a position to receive the return on that investment.

While Cleveland has the Steelers' actual third-round pick in this draft, the Steelers have Thomas with a year of experience under his belt, as well as a healthy Spence - a player coming back right in time to compete in a fairly open inside linebacker depth chart.

Pittsburgh selected Vince Williams in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, and due to injuries, he played considerably more than most defensive rookies will for the Steelers. He showed some promise as a two-down linebacker, but he lacked the exact characteristic that made the Steelers draft Spence; speed.

Defense is about pressure and coverage today. One begets the other. Being able to intelligently patrol a short zone in an effort to stop the redwood-sized tight ends as well as the diminutive but cat-quick slot receivers of today's offenses is a highly desirable skill. It can be argued the Steelers are only a mediocre coverage team in terms of their inside linebackers. They lost some coverage ability when they released outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (an underrated cover man), and the inclusion of Williams on passing downs last season was so unappetizing to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, he moved strong safety Troy Polamalu into a linebacker position for much of the season on passing downs.

Whether Spence can be that bridge isn't clearly known, but he could very well be both Pittsburgh's top draft pick and most important free agent. He could supply the team with the missing ingredient to fix a bland run defense as well as provide the team a heightened state of coverage ability, giving the pass rush an extra quarter of a second to get to the passer. This is a team with below average sack numbers the last three seasons (34 last year, 37 in 2012 and 35 in 2011). The Steelers have also seen teams complete more and more passes during that same time frame - 289 completions in 2011, 299 in 2012 and 329 in 2013.

The hoopla of the draft will eventually fade, and we'll know by Saturday evening if the Steelers have addressed the inside linebacker position. What we know, though, is the Steelers will at least have another third round pick on the field, even if he's a bit older than the player the team will take at 97.

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