Evidently, the Pittsburgh Steelers make up their minds on retaining their own draft picks by Season 3.
Recently departed Mike Wallace had posted three respectable seasons before becoming a restricted free-agent in his fourth - 2012. Wallace expected the team to offer him a long-term contract worthy of his services, based on his production so far. Whether or not the team actually offered him such a deal regardless of size has never been confirmed.
In the end, he was offered an RFA tender compliant with the terms of the CBA, which would require a first-round draft pick as compensation should another team attempt to sign Wallace away. The tender was worth $2.742 million for one season. His 2013 base salary is significantly less, although technically his new deal matched early projections.
Judging by the fact no confirmed offers were made by Pittsburgh once Wallace became a unrestricted free-agent, the team had already made up its mind before 2012 ever happened.
Keenan Lewis also recently signed with a new team after becoming a starter in his fourth and final season in Pittsburgh. If reports of the situation are accurate, the Steelers made no attempt to re-sign the cornerback, even after the Saints placed their winning bid. Perhaps the team made up its mind on Lewis in his third season, where he was inconsistent at times as a nickelback.
Even though Lewis was a starter in his fourth season, the team had already decided they needed to keep looking in Lewis' third year, when they drafted both Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. When Ike Taylor broke his ankle late in 2012, Allen was promoted from his nickel duties to interim starter opposite of Lewis. The team created more takeaways with Allen in the lineup than they had all year without. This is how the team expects their players to earn their place.
Lewis did not make such an impact in his third year, but he did play well enough to at least have a chance to start in year-four. However, when second-year player Allen out-performed fourth-year Lewis, the team had no reason to prolong the Lewis experiment.
With Allen entering his third-year as a starter, he will be playing to retain his new role while establishing his next contract's value. His fellow draftee cornerback Brown is playing for much, much more.
Brown, because of Lewis' departure, would have become the team's nickel back by default. Unfortunately, he had the same opportunity to prove himself as Allen over the past two years, since the pair was drafted in 2011 - especially over the course of the end of last season. While Allen's performance left the team feeling comfortable in parting ways with Lewis, all Brown's performance inspired was the signing of William Gay.
In only his third year, Brown will have to not only beat out his teammates Josh Victorian and DeMarcus Van Dyke for regular defensive snaps, but also a season veteran in Gay, who spent the past two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals after beginning his career in Pittsburgh. Because of his experience with the team, Gay won't still be learning the system like Brown.
If Brown can continue to learn and perform at the same time, he can earn the right to be the team's primary nickel back. If he can lock down the nickel job, he can get sufficient snaps to prove to the organization he is capable of taking over for Taylor when his contract expires.
If Brown disappoints in his third-year exam, he will most likely remain a special team-er until his contract expires following the 2014 season; when he will probably be searching for a new team as an unrestricted free-agent.