Howard Jones flashed.
It's that magical millisecond when a player sees what's happening in front of him before it actually happens. On defense, it appears as a gliding player who seems to skip frames of film as he hunts down the ball carrier.
Jones flashed and found himself with the ball in his hands in a preseason game against the Giants in August. He rumbled down to the 1-yard line, nearly scoring on his second fumble recovery of the game.
It may have only been the preseason, but considering the Division II product had spent a good chunk of his competitive career playing wide receiver, fans could easily be teased into thinking Jones' star was rising on the only team that produced a defensive player of the year who wasn't drafted.
The odds of Jones making even the shallow outside linebacker depth chart of the Steelers in 2014 were longer than probably any other player on the team. He wouldn't play anywhere in 2014, and would continue to work in the anonymity of the practice squad.
Alongside Jones were two well-touted defensive linemen, Josh Mauro, a 2014 undrafted free agent, and Nick Williams, an injured 2013 seventh-round draft pick. Mauro proved himself to be a polished technician in training camp, needing only to hone his game a bit more for an active roster spot. Williams, a football neophyte, played one year of high school football before attending Samford, where his supreme athleticism caught the attention of Steelers' defensive line coach John Mitchell.
The trio represented something of an exciting future for the Steelers, so fans were stung when all three were released - along with Vic So'oto and Loni Fangupo. The hurt was still there from the Alameda Ta'amu disaster (Ta'amu, the Steelers' fourth round pick in 2012 ended up arrested, suspended and released, only to reach some of the potential with the Cardinals many felt he had as a rookie).
The combination of two great athletes like Jones and Williams, along with the advanced technical skill set of Mauro, looked like a headline in the making: " Steelers: How the late and undrafted defensive players brought Pittsburgh back to glory."
Jones would be the next great pass rushing phenom in Pittsburgh. Mauro would be the tactician, maintaining that Aaron Smith role of garnering success above praise. Williams would be the Brett Keisel, a seventh-round athlete who was forged into a high-level football player.
The Steelers became victims of their own success. Other teams saw them wreak havoc over enough offenses in the 2000s to learn how to weave an effective front seven together using every angle of roster development: the draft, unrestricted and undrafted free agency.
The Chiefs may have felt the Steelers were onto something with Williams. They plucked him from the Steelers' practice squad, meaning they had to give him an active roster spot in 2014. Mauro was spotted by the Arizona Cardinals, who added him along with Ta'amu and ex-Steelers linebacker Larry Foote to the desert team many call "Steelers West."
Jones went unclaimed and survived the year in Pittsburgh, and heads into a wide-open competition this offseason for the team's starting outside linebacker position, opposite former first-round pick Jarvis Jones.
The Steelers may address the position in the draft. They may find a way to sign a few veterans, including Jason Worilds and Arthur Moats. They may find another project whose flashing athleticism puts him in position to capitalize on fumbles and gets the Steeler Nation up out of their seats.
The Steelers have holes at defensive end as well. Second-round pick Stephon Tuitt showed promise, but with both Keisel and Cam Thomas both facing long odds of returning, the Steelers could have used either Mauro or Williams, if they had been ready to get on the field.
Logic suggests a team as thin as the Steelers are at defensive end and outside linebacker would have kept capable players at both positions. They rolled the dice, and started the season with only three outside linebackers, It came up snake eyes, when just 10 quarters into the season Jones went down with an injury, and they had to lure James Harrison out of retirement.
They signed Clifton Geathers off the street during the season, and Dan McCullers played defensive end and nose tackle. McCullers had less than 100 snaps, and Geathers didn't have any.
The Steelers may not have the same kind of hope for Howard Jones's future as fans do, and they may not see the lack of depth along their defensive line as the pressing need that analysts do. But Howard Jones's progression into a quality starter, or even a role player, would help return depth to a position that's been undermanned for the last three seasons.
Realistically, outside of the draft, the Steelers don't have many options other than Jones. They have shown no interest in re-signing James Harrison, who was their top-rated pass rusher, but will be 37 in May. or Arthur Moats, who played at the NFL minimum, is an unrestricted free agent, and can likely be signed at a bargain price. And, of course, there is the elephant in the room, Jason Worilds, also an unrestricted free agent, who was, per play, one of the most expensive players in the NFL.
Even though the Steelers missed out on the athleticism and cap-saving contracts of Mauro and Williams, discovering that Jones is more diamond than rough could fill an increasingly large gap between available talent and cap space.