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A deep 2014 draft class carries with it risks

The next few weeks of evaluation for Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and his team of scouts must focus on a player's ability on the field, but their level of maturity as adults as well. With a draft pool teeming with underclassmen, their ability to develop mentally may be the most important aspect of their make-up.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The younger they are, the harder they fall.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert sees the reason a record 98 underclassmen declared for the 2014 NFL Draft. But he also sees the gap between likely NFL success and bust widen by a not-so-healthy margin.

Colbert told the media Wednesday the upcoming draft is "as deep across the board" as any other draft in the last 30 years. With that many underclassmen being available - around one-third of all players who will be drafted, both underclassmen and seniors - and less film on which to evaluate them, it becomes a bit more difficult to get the full scope of how a player will develop.

Not that a risk such as this isn't standard for the draft. There's a lot of upside, there's a lot of risk. The Steelers haven't been afraid to draft the really young players in recent years. Lawrence Timmons and Maurkice Pouncey were 20 years old when the Steelers took them in the first round of the 2007 and 2010 drafts, respectively. It can be tough to gauge the career arcs of players that young, even ones as physically talented as Timmons and Pouncey.

The Steelers went with the battle-tested player, Jarvis Jones, last year, largely breaking with the recent tradition of taking young players high in the draft - not to mention never having taken a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the first round.

But if the draft is deep, as Colbert suggests (and to be fair, most general managers make that suggestion this time of the year) the Steelers can employ whatever strategy they choose from an age perspective, and land some outstanding players.

The key is which ones, followed closely by at which positions.

Pouncey and Timmons were, for lack of a better term, freaks. To an extent, neither of them even fully developed in their first two seasons in the league. It's physical development, but perhaps more appropriate, mental development. There's a vast array of lessons to be learned in one's early 20s, and while, from a big picture perspective, even the 23-year-olds have a huge amount of learning to do, they're likely much further along in that development than the 20-year-olds.

This isn't to suggest they cannot play the game of football, it's the risk involved when a huge sum of money is given to an immature kid with a poor support structure in place. Clearly, some can make the adjustment just fine, but oftentimes it takes the right kind of locker room and the right kind of environment.

Colbert no doubt sees those risks, and it's highly likely the Steelers will draft a player in May who will not have reached his peak yet in terms of maturity. His job is partially to weigh the reward of having that player along with the risks all draft picks face of simply not working out.

He's right, though; the level of talent in this draft is tantalizing. The upcoming NFL Combine will be critical, not just simply to confirm whether these players are what they appear to be on film, but to get to know them (as much as is possible given the artificial nature of the event) as people and young adults.