So what if Zeke is a rookie? And they didn't draft him #4 overall, given that he's a prototype 3-down back, to have him in a timeshare with Morris or McFadden. Behind that line, coupled with his skills as a runner, receiver, and pass blocker, there's no way he should fall past the first round.
QB Bruce Gradkowski, TE Matt Spaeth, OT Guy Whimper, CB William Gay.
Early Draft Picks:
DE/OLB Jarvis Jones, RB Le'Veon Bell, WR Markus Wheaton, S Shamarko Thomas, QB Landry Jones, CB Terry Hawthorne. Steelers Rookie Forecast Offseason Losses:
RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Mike Wallace, OT Max Starks, G Willie Colon, NT Casey Hampton, DE/OLB James Harrison, CB Keenan Lewis, S Will Allen, S Ryan Mundy.
2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Offense:
The 2012 season was an unusual year for the Steelers. It was the first time that the team ranked in the bottom 10 of giveaways since 2006. Pittsburgh turned the ball over more than all but six other NFL squads. The organization tried to do some things this offseason to correct that problem.
For instance, the Steelers spent a second-round pick on running back Le'Veon Bell. Pittsburgh lost a game to the Browns in which every single running back on the team fumbled. Someone like Bell was needed to bring some stability to the backfield. It may seem strange to count on a rookie runner, especially one who's perceived to be another Big Ten plodder, but Bell is known for taking care of the football - unlike current Cardinal Rashard Mendenhall, who fumbled thrice last season despite carrying the ball just 51 times. Bell is also useful on third downs because he can catch well and block effectively.
Pittsburgh also managed to help itself by letting Mike Wallace walk to Miami. The public may not view that as a good move because Wallace has been a big fantasy producer, but he's a horribly inefficient receiver who dropped passes, caught a low percentage of balls thrown his way and was a problem in the locker room. His departure is addition by subtraction, though the other wideouts around Antonio Brown do have to step up. Emmanuel Sanders will have an expanded role and will have to take advantage of it. Meanwhile, third-round rookie Markus Wheaton will have to parlay his strong pre-draft workouts into actual production on the field.
It'll be crucial for the young receivers to step up because of Heath Miller's uncertainty. Miller tore his ACL late in the year and may not be ready for the season opener. Ben Roethlisberger loves throwing the ball to Miller - the stud tight end caught 71 balls, including eight touchdowns, in 2012 - so not having him around will hurt. Former Bear Matt Spaeth will be relied upon if Miller can't make it back in time.
Speaking of Big Ben, the large quarterback was one of the few offensive members who wasn't responsible for lots of giveaways; he threw just eight picks and lost three fumbles compared to 26 touchdown passes in 13 games. Roethlisberger did have a brutal outing in the most important game of the season - 14-of-28 for 220 yards, one touchdown, two picks in a loss to the Bengals - so he's not completely absolved from Pittsburgh's disappointing 2012 campaign. Still though, he carried the team most weeks, so the coaching staff needs to make sure he's protected.
Unfortunately for Roethlisberger, there are some issues with the offensive line. Left tackle Mike Adams, who surrendered more sacks (7) than games started (6) during his rookie campaign last year, was stabbed during a robbery that took place on St. Stalin's Day. Adams will be out for six weeks, putting him behind in the competition for the starting blind-side protector job. With Max Starks gone, the only contender for that gig is Marcus Gilbert, who played in just five games this past season because of an ankle injury. The best Pittsburgh could do for depth behind the two tackles was bring in Guy Whimper, who is an abomination. If either Adams or Gilbert goes down, Roethlisberger will be in huge trouble.
It does get better inside, though once again, there is absolutely no depth. The Steelers lost Willie Colon this spring to the Jets. That's not the end of the world because 2012 first-rounder David DeCastro had to be promoted to the starting lineup eventually, but now an injury to either DeCastro or Ramon Foster could prove to be disastrous. That goes for the center position as well, where the only player behind the impressive Maurkice Pouncey is undrafted rookie Joe Madsen.
2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Defense:
The Steelers have always been known for an incredibly intense defense that generated tons of pressure on the quarterback, but this unit hasn't done that the past two seasons. They accumulated 37 sacks in 2012, which put them right in the middle of the pack. Changes had to be made, which is why the front office allowed the severely declining James Harrison to walk. Once that happened, it was obvious that they were going to target Georgia's Jarvis Jones in the 2013 NFL Draft. Jones managed to fall to them, and just like that, Pittsburgh was able to obtain the top pass-rusher in the class because of dumb groupthink.
Jones has spinal stenosis issues, but that did not affect his performance in college. He dominated the SEC, registering a whopping 14.5 sacks in 2012. He and LaMarr Woodley figure to be a terrific pass-rushing tandem. Woodley had just four sacks last year, but he was always hobbling on and off the field because he admittedly was out of shape for some reason. Woodley has been working out extra hard to make amends, and it will likely pay off.
The Steelers don't exactly need Jones and Woodley to play well because of their stable secondary situation, but an increased pass rush will only help. Starting cornerback Keenan Lewis is gone, but Pittsburgh allowed him to walk because it had Cortez Allen waiting in the wings. A 2011 fourth-rounder, Allen was terrific as both as slot corner and a three-game starter at the end of the season. He'll be in the lineup across from Ike Taylor, who had a solid 2012 campaign. Taylor just turned 33, but he should be fine for at least one more year.
Pittsburgh also has a pair of aging defensive backs at the safety position. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark can still get the job done when healthy, but the former hasn't been able to stay on the field in recent years, missing 22 contests in the past four seasons. Polamalu is reportedly in terrific shape this spring, so it'll be interesting to see if that pays off. If not, the Steelers spent a fourth-round pick on Syracuse's Shamarko Thomas.
Speaking of aging veterans, the team still has Larry Foote listed as one of the starting inside linebackers. Foote is an asset because he's a smart leader on the field, but his skills have eroded. He ranked near the top among linebackers in terms of missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. The Steelers will be hoping that one of their three young inside linebackers - Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Stevenson Sylvester - will show enough to take over Foote's job next to the exceptional Lawrence Timmons.
With all of that in mind, there doesn't appear to be a major area of concern in the back eight. The defensive line is, unfortunately. Pittsburgh used two first-round picks on Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, but neither has come even close to living up to his billing. Only one has to start because Brett Keisel is still there, but it won't be long before Keisel stops being effective; he turns 35 in September. Keisel and Hood/Heyward will sandwich nose tackle Steve McLendon, who will take over for long-time Steeler Casey Hampton. The massive nose tackle is no longer with the team for the first time since 2001, but McClendon did a good job when taking his spot on the field.
2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule and Intangibles:
Excluding New England, no one in the AFC has a better road record than Pittsburgh since 1996; the Steelers are 74-63 as visitors in that time frame. They're not bad at home either (99-40-1).
Shaun Suisham had an exceptional 2012 campaign, hitting 28-of-31 attempts, though he was just 1-of-3 from 50-plus. Suisham is just 3-of-10 from that range dating back to 2008.
Drew Butler did not do a good job as the team's punter. He was just 25th in net average and ranked in the middle of the pack in attempts placed inside the 20.
The Steelers struggled on special teams. They failed to score while allowing a touchdown on a punt return.
Pittsburgh has a pretty balanced schedule. On one hand, it has seven battles against teams that made the playoffs in 2012 (Ravens twice, Bengals twice, Packers, Vikings, Patriots). On the other hand, the Steelers get to beat up on cupcakes like the Titans, Bills, Jets, Raiders, Lions and Browns (twice).
2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies:
Go here for the Steelers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Analysis: The Steelers will likely bounce back this season. They got rid of some offensive slackers, added a devastating pass-rusher and saw some of their key defenders train incredibly hard this spring. The Pittsburgh veterans have to be mad about not making the playoffs last year, so they'll be out to prove themselves in 2013.
Please note that the overall grade is not an average of all the individual grades. Other things are taken into account like team needs and goals.
Goals Entering the 2013 NFL Draft: The Steelers lost a number of key veterans this offseason like James Harrison, Keenan Lewis, Willie Colon, Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace. They need to replace those departed players. Of course, they won't reach to fill these holes; Pittsburgh, as it always does, will take advantage of the dumb teams drafting in front of them and catch falling prospects.
2013 NFL Draft Accomplishments: Sure enough, Pittsburgh's front office laughed as the top pass-rusher in this class, Jarvis Jones, fell right into its lap at No. 17. It's amazing that despite being designed to help the lesser teams, all the NFL Draft does is strengthen the superior ones.
The Steelers had a number of outstanding selections. Markus Wheaton, considered a second-round prospect, could be a worthy replacement for Mike Wallace despite being chosen at No. 79. The next pick (No. 111), Shamarko Thomas, was also snagged off the board a round later than projected. Thomas won't start right away, but will eventually be pushed into the starting lineup once Pittsburgh's aging safeties move on or get injured.
Pittsburgh addressed some needs late with some sound selections, but two picks weigh this class down. I'm not a fan of Le'Veon Bell as a second-rounder because he's yet another slow back out of the Big Ten. The Landry Jones choice was even worse. There were undrafted free agent quarterbacks who are better than him - Matt Scott and Tyler Bray, for example.
Despite these two picks, the Steelers still deserve a high grade for yet another successful draft class.
2013 NFL Draft Individual Grades:
17. Jarvis Jones, DE/OLB, Georgia: A+ Grade
This is why the same group of teams make the playoffs every year and why another group of teams always draft in the top 10. One selection after the Bills chose the No. 4 quarterback in this class, the Steelers nabbed arguably the top pass-rusher. As mentioned in my mock draft, dumb groupthink would cause Jones to fall. Pittsburgh landed a steal.
48. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: C Grade
The Steelers needed a running back, so they're filling a need. But Le'Veon Bell over Eddie Lacy? That's a very questionable decision, especially considering the poor success of Big Ten backs over the years. Bell is more than a Big Ten plodder because he can block and catch the ball out of the backfield, but I wouldn't have taken him this early.
79. Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State: A- Grade
Surprise, surprise, another steal for Pittsburgh. Markus Wheaton was a consensus second-round prospect who shouldn't have fallen to the middle of the third frame. He'll fill a big need as a downfield receiver in the wake of Mike Wallace's departure.
111. Shamarko Thomas, S, Syracuse: A Grade
I'm pretty sure I mocked Shamarko Thomas to the Steelers in the third round, so I obviously like his value. Thomas is small, but he's a good player and should be able to start down the road once Pittsburgh's aging safeties move on.
115. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma: C- Grade
I usually like Steelers picks, so it feels weird to give them a bad grade. They needed a backup quarterback, but Landry Jones is barely functional. Many people I trust believe that Jones should have gone undrafted. After all, he wasn't even used in the red zone at Oklahoma.
150. Terry Hawthorne, CB, Illinois: B+ Grade
The Steelers lost Keenan Lewis in free agency to the Saints, so it's no surprise that they used a mid-round pick on the cornerback position. Terry Hawthorne definitely fits the range.
186. Justin Brown, WR, Oklahoma: C Grade
I'm not sure I would have considered Justin Brown draftable if the draft were 10 rounds, so this is a reach. However, it's the middle of the sixth round, so that's not a huge deal at this juncture.
206. Vince Williams, ILB, Florida State: A Grade
Leave it to the Steelers to find a steal with the final pick in the sixth round. Vince Williams is pretty talented, and it wouldn't shock me at all if he eventually emerged as a starter.
223. Nick Williams, DE/DT, Samford: A- Grade
I thought Nick Williams would go a round or two earlier, so it's no surprise that Pittsburgh landed another value selection. There are some disappointing defensive ends on Pittsburgh's roster, so it wouldn't surprise me if Williams eventually was considered to be a starter.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have been known to thrive in the clutch and pull games out late in regulation, but that was not the case in 2012. In fact, the complete opposite occurred. Roethlisberger was either throwing costly picks, or the running backs were fumbling balls at a ridiculous rate, or the receivers were dropping key passes. Something always seemed to go wrong. Unlike the current Cowboys and Lions' regimes, Pittsburgh has won before, so it has a good chance of turning things around.
Bills sign G Doug Legursky
Chargers sign OT Max Starks
Steelers sign OT Guy Whimper
Bengals sign OLB James Harrison
Steelers re-sign NT Steve McClendon
Steelers match offer for WR Emmanuel Sanders
Patriots sign WR Emmanuel Sanders to offer sheet; Steelers have 5 days to match
Steelers re-sign ILB Stevenson Sylvester
Cowboys sign S Will Allen
Steelers sign TE Matt Spaeth
Jets sign G/OT Willie Colon
Saints sign CB Keenan Lewis
Giants sign S Ryan Mundy
Steelers re-sign WR Plaxico Burress
Cardinals sign RB Rashard Mendenhall
Steelers sign QB Bruce Gradkowski
Steelers re-sign FB David Johnson
Dolphins sign WR Mike Wallace
Steelers re-sign ILB Larry Foote
Steelers cut G Willie Colon
Steelers re-sign RB Jonathan Dwyer
Steelers re-sign G Ramon Foster
Steelers cut DE/OLB James Harrison
Steelers tender RB Isaac Redman
Steelers tender WR Emmanuel Sanders
Steelers sign CB William Gay
Steelers claim QB John Parker Wilson
Rush Linebacker: The Steelers tied for just 15th in sacks in 2012. That would help explain why their defense couldn't force any turnovers. James Harrison was cut. Luckily, there will be plenty of pass-rushers available at No. 17 in the 2013 NFL Draft. Drafted Jarvis Jones
Wide Receiver: Mike Wallace cost his team with so many drops this past season. He's a free agent, so he'll likely move on to another venue. Retained Emmanuel Sanders; re-signed Plaxico Burress
Strong Safety: How many more years can Pittsburgh keep relying on Troy Polamalu? He's always hurt. The front office needs to start thinking about bringing in a successor. Drafted Shamarko Thomas
Offensive Tackle: Second-round rookie Mike Adams struggled in his first NFL campaign, but maybe he'll improve. The Steelers should bring in veteran competition just in case he doesn't. Signed Guy Whimper
Defensive End: Pittsburgh got absolutely no pass rush out of its young defensive ends, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. Hood was especially terrible.
Running Back: Rashard Mendenhall is a free agent. He probably won't be back. Some competition will have to be added for the mediocre Jonathan Dwyer. Re-signed Jonathan Dwyer; tendered Isaac Redman; drafted Le'Veon Bell
Inside Linebacker: Larry Foote is coming off an abysmal season, but Pittsburgh may opt to bring him back just in case Sean Spence isn't ready to start. Re-signed Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester
Cornerback: The Steelers will need some cornerback help if Keenan Lewis leaves via free agency. Signed William Gay; drafted Terry Hawthorne
Tight End: Heath Miller suffered a brutal knee injury in late December, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL. A mid- or late-round pick could be used on a tight end. Signed Matt Spaeth
Interior Offensive Linemen: With Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky heading for free agency, Pittsburgh will have to replenish depth. Re-signed Ramon Foster
Quarterback: Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich are both free agents, so the Steelers will have to find a backup quarterback. Signed Bruce Gradkowski; drafted Landry Jones; claimed John Parker Wilson
Punter: Drew Butler ranked 25th in net punting average.
2013 NFL Free Agent Signings:
William Gay, CB, Cardinals. Age: 28. Signed with Steelers
William Gay played well in 2011, but was torched consistently this past season. Gay (not that there's anything wrong with that) is just 28, so he could turn his career around. The Cardinals had no choice but to cut him, however, given that he was due $3.2 million in 2013.
Matt Spaeth, TE, Bears. Age: 29. Signed with Steelers
Matt Spaeth is an awesome blocker, but doesn't offer much as a receiver.
Guy Whimper, OT, Jaguars. Age: 30. -- Signed with Steelers
Plaxico Burress, WR, Steelers. Age: 36. -- Re-signed with Steelers
Bruce Gradkowski, QB, Bengals. Age: 30. -- Signed with Steelers (3 years)
John Parker Wilson, QB, Jaguars. Age: 27. -- Claimed by Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Keenan Lewis, CB, Steelers. Age: 27. Signed with Saints (5 years, $26 million; $11 million guaranteed)
Keenan Lewis played very well in his first season as a starter in 2012, surrendering a solid 52.7 completion percentage and just three touchdowns.
Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers. Age: 27. Signed with Dolphins (5 years)
Mike Wallace is overrated. He has blazing speed, but he's a horribly inefficient receiver. He dropped tons of passes and ranked near the bottom of the NFL in terms of catch percentage among starting wideouts.
Willie Colon, G/OT, Steelers. Age: 30. Signed with Jets (1 year, $1.2 million)
Willie Colon can play both guard positions as well as right tackle. He's a very powerful blocker, and he would be rated much higher if he didn't have a troublesome knee that has forced him out of multiple games over the past several seasons.
James Harrison, DE/OLB, Steelers. Age: 35. Signed with Bengals (2 years)
James Harrison can still put good pressure on the quarterback, but given that he turns 35 in May, it's fair to wonder how long that'll last. He's also injury-prone, so that doesn't help his cause.
David Johnson, FB, Steelers. Age: 26. Re-signed with Steelers (1 year)
David Johnson is a solid, run-blocking fullback, but is coming off a torn ACL that he suffered in August.
Jonathan Dwyer (RFA), RB, Steelers. Age: 24. Re-signed with Steelers (1 year, $1.3 million)
Jonathan Dwyer has some nice running ability - he averaged four yards per carry behind a beat-up offensive line - but he'll have the occasional mental lapse, whether it's a fumble or a dropped pass.
Ramon Foster, G, Steelers. Age: 27. Re-signed with Steelers (3 years)
Ramon Foster is a quality starter. He pass protects well, but struggles in terms of run blocking.
Steve McLendon (RFA), NT, Steelers. Age: 27. Re-signed with Steelers (3 years)
Steve McClendon looks like a solid replacement for Casey Hampton. He performed well in the playoffs against the Broncos in January 2012, and that carried over into this season when he saw the field briefly.
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers. Age: 26. Signed with Cardinals (1 year)
An injury-prone Big Ten plodder with some talent, but not enough to make him very appealing.
Emmanuel Sanders caught 44 balls for 626 yards and a touchdown in his third season. He could be thrust into the starting lineup if Mike Wallace leaves.
Casey Hampton, NT, Steelers. Age: 35.
Casey Hampton is still a quality run-stuffer despite his age (36 on Sept. 3).
Isaac Redman, RB, Steelers. Age: 28. Tendered by Steelers (original)
Isaac Redman is solid in goal-line and third-down situations, but he should not be carrying the ball on normal downs.
Larry Foote, ILB, Steelers. Age: 33.
Larry Foote is an asset because he's a smart leader on the field, but his skills have eroded. He was ranked near the top among linebackers in terms of missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. He said he's considering retirement.
Will Allen, S, Steelers. Age: 31. -- Signed with Cowboys
Max Starks, OT, Steelers. Age: 31. -- Signed with Chargers
Doug Legursky, G, Steelers. Age: 27. -- Signed with Bills
Ryan Mundy, S, Steelers. Age: 28. -- Signed with Giants