Steelers hope for fast learners from draft class

By Alan Robinson
Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013

Former Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell figures to get plenty of carries during his rookie season with the Steelers.

The Steelers will bring in their newly assembled rookie class for an orientation session this weekend, and it might be the only time some of them feel like brand-new NFL players.

The Class of '13 likely will be asked to do more, and do it earlier, than any other class in Mike Tomlin's reign as coach. And maybe back into Bill Cowher's tenure, too.

The Steelers are a team in need, and it is already being reflected in their depth chart.

Though he won't be listed as such on the official team-issued depth chart, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, the first-round pick, likely will go into training camp in late July as a starter in waiting. His camp will determine how long that wait is. The same goes for running back Le'Veon Bell, the second-rounder, who will go up against a lot of bodies in camp but is already a strong candidate to start.

Shamarko Thomas, the Syracuse safety the Steelers traded up to get in the fourth round? He'll go into camp No. 2 behind Troy Polamalu. Markus Wheaton, the burst-of-speed wide receiver taken on the third round? He's probably a solid No. 2 on the depth chart, too, without yet stepping foot in Pittsburgh.

“We like these picks,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We just hope they're the right ones that help us win games.”

This draft was an important one for Colbert, whose picks since 2000 have helped the Steelers rank No. 2 in draft class production, trailing only the Packers. But the Class of 2008 five years ago was an effective washout, with no players remaining, and it is that failed class that, in part, created the urgency for this class to produce right away. With so many needs, the Steelers drafted experienced, proven players from big schools — Michigan State, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida State, Oregon State — before making their one reach pick in seventh-rounder Nick Williams, a 320-pound defensive end from Samford. Only Williams and quarterback Landry Jones won't be expected to contribute this year.

Almost as soon as the Steelers made Jones the No. 17 pick — at one point during the offseason the former Georgia star was No. 1 overall on ESPN analyst Mel Kiper's board — linebackers coach Keith Butler issued the prerequisite caution that it's very difficult for a rookie linebacker to start in the Steelers' defense.

“Jarvis Jones has a wealth of talent, and I'm very fortunate to have him,” Butler said. “But he's not going to be given the position.”

But with James Harrison in Cincinnati, and Jason Worilds precariously penciled in as the starter after being a career backup, the Steelers almost certainly aren't bringing in Jones to sit. And they almost certainly aren't bringing in the most heavily used running back in major college football last season to stand idly one year after the Steelers ran for fewer yards than in all but one season since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule.

Tomlin emphasized Jones and Bell must win their jobs, even on a team that could go into the season considered only the third best of the AFC North's four teams.

“I think it's a daunting task for rookies to start in any system and play and perform well,” Tomlin said. “(But) we're not going to close the door on anyone on earning an opportunity.”