At the midpoint of his 20-year career with the Steelers, Kevin Colbert had helped the team construct two Super Bowl winners.
Now, 10 years into his career, Colbert faced a different task. While his drafts from 2000-2004 helped the Steelers acquire key talent that was critical in winning those Super Bowls, and his 2005-2009 drafts helped maintain that high level of play, the task from 2010-2014 became different.
Nobody within the Steelers organization ever said the dreaded R word -- rebuilding -- but that is what the Steelers essentially were doing. From 2010 through 2014, many of the stars of the Super Bowl victories began to retire. And those who hadn't retired carried big salary cap numbers because they were working on their second or even third NFL contracts.
Compounding problems for the Steelers was the fact that the cap actually went down between 2009 and 2011, with 2010 being an uncapped year.
In 2009, the salary cap was $123 million, continuing a trend in which it went up at least $5 million every season in the decade. After the uncapped year of 2010, the owners locked the players out and it led to a new CBA in which the cap actually decreased to $120 million. The cap stayed stagnant in 2012, as well, only raising to $120.6 million and barely going up in 2013 to $123 million.
For a team with so many important veterans, that led to some tough decisions for the Steelers, who allowed some talented younger players to walk -- think Keenan Lewis, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace -- in this period, while also making decisions like releasing James Harrison to sign LaMarr Woodley to a second contract. That move seemed sound at the time, but turned out to be the wrong move.
We've covered those first 10 years in the previous two installments of this series, now we'll look at the next five.
Today, 2010 through 2014, the rebuilding years:
Round 1, Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida; Round 2, Jason Worilds, LB, Virginia Tech; Round 3, Emmanuel Sanders, WR, SMU; Round 4, Thaddeus Gibson, LB, Ohio State; Round 5, Chris Scott, G, Tennessee; Round 5, Crezdon Butler, CB, Clemson; Round 5, Stevenson Sylvester, LB, Utah; Round 6, Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Georgia Tech; Round 6, Antonio Brown, WR, Central Michigan; Round 7, Doug Worthington, DT, Ohio State
Best Pick: Brown -- It's hard to argue with taking a player widely considered the best receiver in the league for the better part of the decade in the sixth round. Yes, things went bad, but Brown provided Steelers fans plenty to cheer about in his nine seasons in Pittsburgh. Pouncey, a seven-time Pro Bowl player, also was a very solid pick. But Brown is the pick for the best, despite how things ended. That's two potential Hall of Fame players -- yes, Pouncey is reaching that status -- in one draft class.
Best Value: Sanders -- If you had a wide receiver corps of Brown and Sanders, you'd be pretty solid there. The Steelers had both of those guys for four years. Sanders has been even better with the Broncos than he was with the Steelers, but he was still a solid third-round pick. And if not for the selection and heights Brown reached, perhaps it would have been Sanders the team had kept.
Worst Pick: Gibson -- The Steelers took Worilds in the second round, then doubled down at outside linebacker with Gibson. It was tough enough for Worilds the first couple of seasons, sitting behind Harrison and Woodley. But he eventually played and became a solid, if unspectacular player. Gibson wasn't even that. A fourth-round draft pick, he appeared in four career games, the fewest of any member of this draft class, bouncing around to five different NFL teams and two in the CFL. But he was done by 2014 after two CFL seasons. Seeing as how the Bengals took DT Geno Atkins four picks later, and safety Kam Chancellor went 13 picks after that, it was a big swing and miss.
Overall Grade: A
Round 1, Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State; Round 2, Marcus Gilbert, OT, Florida; Round 3, Curtis Brown, CB, Texas; Round 4, Cortez Allen, CB, The Citadel; Round 5, Chris Carter, LB, Fresno State; Round 6, Keith Williams, G, Nebraska; Round 7, Baron Batch, RB, Texas Tech
Best Pick: Heyward -- The heart and soul of the current Steelers defense, Heyward was the 31st player selected in 2011, going after such stalwarts as Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Jonathan Baldwin and Danny Watkins, the Steelers did OK getting Heyward that late. He has 45 career sacks in 118 games and is still going strong.
Best Value: Gilbert -- There were some rocky times, but Gilbert turned into an above average starting right tackle until nagging injuries made him expendable this offseason. But getting Gilbert with the 63rd overall pick was a nice pickup in a draft that wasn't necessarily very deep across the board. Though 16 of the draft's first 32 picks have made at least one Pro Bowl, just 15 players taken beyond the first round did so. Gilbert knocked on the door of being a Pro Bowl player for several years.
Worst Pick: Brown -- There were some good -- or bad, depending on your point of view -- candidates to choose from. Allen was really the best player selected after the second round in this draft, but the Steelers took Brown, as well. His claim to fame was that he was always asleep at his locker. Always. Considering the Seahawks took Pro Bowl linebacker K.J. Wright four picks later, the Steelers could have done better. The amazing thing is that Brown lasted three seasons, appearing in 34 games for the Steelers. He made little to no impact.
Overall Grade: C
Round 1, David DeCastro, G, Stanford; Round 2, Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State; Round 3, Sean Spence, LB, Miami (Fla.); Round 4, Alameda Ta'amu, DT, Washington; Round 5, Chris Rainey, RB, Florida; Round 7, Toney Clemons, WR, Colorado; Round 7, David Paulsen, TE, Oregon; Round 7, Terrence Frederick, CB, Texas A&M; Round 7, Kelvin Beachum, OT, SMU
Best Pick: DeCastro -- A perennial All-Pro, DeCastro was the 24th player taken in this draft and is one of just 13 first-round picks from the forgettable 2012 draft to appear in the Pro Bowl. The Browns, for example, took running back Trent Richardson with the third-overall pick and doubled down on the stupidity by taking 28-year-old quarterback Brandon Weedon with the 22nd selection, two picks before DeCastro.
Best Value: Beachum -- The Steelers took some gambles in this draft on Adams, Ta'amu and Rainey, some players with troubled pasts. And none of them worked out. But the squeaky clean Beachum was a steal. The 248th player selected, he wound up being the team's starting left tackle for three seasons before moving on in free agency. And with the compensatory pick the Steelers received for Beachum, the Steelers selected running back James Conner in 2017. Getting two starting offensive linemen -- including an All-Pro -- and the pick that eventually landed Conner saved this draft.
Worst Pick: Ta'amu -- It would have been easy to pick Adams here, but at least he started 20 career games for the Steelers. Ta'amu was injured early in training camp while walking to Kmart at Saint Vincent College, then went on a drunken rampage through the South Side in his car, getting himself released. And the Steelers traded up in the fourth round to get him. Future Steelers Ladarius Green, Coty Sensabaugh and Brandon Boykin all went in the fourth round after Ta'amu was selected, so the team had some other players it liked there, as well. And future Packers All-Pro Mike Daniels went as a compensatory pick at the end of the round.
Overall Grade: C
Round 1, Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia; Round 2, Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State; Round 3, Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State; Round 4, Shamarko Thomas, S, Syracuse; Round 4, Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma; Round 5, Terry Hawthorne, CB, Illinois; Round 6, Justin Brown, WR, Penn State; Round 6, Vince Williams, LB, Florida State; Round 7, Nick Williams, DT, Samford
Best Pick: Bell -- Say what you want about him now, but Bell was a steal for the Steelers in his first four seasons, when he made $3.9 million to be the league's best running back. The second running back taken in the draft behind the Bengals Giovani Bernard, Bell was the right pick. Remember, a lot of Steelers fans wanted Eddie Lacy, who ate his way out of football quickly.
Best Value: Vince Williams -- Williams was the final pick of the sixth round, a compensatory selection who turned into 47 career starts in 93 games. Williams isn't a star, but he's a solid player who won't forget the fact he was the last pick of the sixth round.
Worst Pick: Jones -- Can there be any doubt. Easily the worst pick of the Colbert era, Jones had six career sacks in 50 games, including 35 starts. There are busts and then there are BUSTS. Jones, the 17th pick in the draft, was a major one. Who should the Steelers have taken? Corners Desmond Trufant and Xavier Rhodes went 22nd and 25th to the Falcons and Vikings, respectively. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins went 27th to the Texans. If it had to be an outside linebacker -- and it did at that point because Woodley had succumbed to his hamstring issues -- there wasn't much in this draft in the way of help. But given that Heath Miller was coming off a major knee injury, Tyler Eifert (21st), Zach Ertz (35th), Vance McDonald (55th), Travis Kelce (63rd) or Jordan Reed (85th) would have been good picks, even at 17 instead of Jones. There was great value in this draft at that position.
Overall Grade: B-minus
Round 1, Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State; Round 2, Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame; Round 3, Dri Archer, RB, Kent State; Round 4, Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson; Round 5, Shaq Richardson, CB, Arizona; Round 5, Wesley Johnson, OL, Vanderbilt; Round 6, Jordan Zumwalt, LB, UCLA; Round 6, Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee; Round 7, Rob Blanchflower, TE, UMass
Best Pick: Shazier -- Before his back injury, Shazier was well on his way to becoming a superstar in this league. He could hit. He could cover. He was the Steelers' most explosive defensive playmaker since Troy Polamalu in his prime, a player capable of making plays at all three levels. We'll grade this draft for the Steelers based on what Shazier was before his injury.
Best Value: Tuitt -- Tuitt was a first-round talent who fell to the 46th pick because of injuries in his final season at Notre Dame. The injury issues have dogged him a bit in the NFL, as well, but considering he appeared in 70 games before turning 26, he's been a great value. He's not that any longer in terms of his contract status, so fans -- and the Steelers -- want more. It's coming.
Worst Pick: Archer -- Todd Haley wanted a pass-catching scat back. Turns out, he already had one in Bell, who had dropped his weight to 220 pounds by Year 2 to become one of the best weapons in the league. Archer had 17 career touches for 63 yards as an offensive player, barely making an impact. He did average 25.3 yards per kick return in his second season, but never displayed the speed he had shown at Kent State. Imagine instead if the Steelers had taken Devanta Freeman, who went six picks later to the Falcons, instead. As bad as that pick was, it pales in comparison to what the Browns did that year with two first-round selections. They took corner Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick, making him the lone selection in a 13-player run who did not make the Pro Bowl. The Browns not only passed on Shazier, they also missed on Odell Beckham, Aaron Donald and Zack Martin, as well. They then traded back into the first round to grab QB Johnny Manziel with the 22nd selection. Kansas City took Dee Ford with the next pick.
Overall Grade: B
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