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The 2013 draft will be one of the most critical drafts that the Pittsburgh Steelers have had in years. They are at a crossroads between a team that can continue to contend in the AFC or one that will go into rebuilding mode.
One of the reasons that the Steelers missed the playoffs last season was not because of their starting lineup, but rather the lack of depth on the team.
When healthy, the Steelers had one of the better lineups in the league last year that—even with underachieving star players—had them in contention for a top seed throughout the middle of the season.
But as the injuries piled up, so did the losses and the Steelers quickly faded from contention and instead had to win their final game of the year to avoid a losing season.
The lack of depth became very apparent and without young players ready to take over for aging veterans, the Steelers were unable to compete. This problem can be traced back to the draft.
As it stands now, the 2013 Steelers will have 18 players in the starting lineup that they drafted as well as another three undrafted free agents that they signed. The only true free agent that the Steelers have signed in the starting lineup is Ryan Clark—though you could consider Larry Foote as well, but he was drafted by the Steelers.
So with so many players drafted by the Steelers, why are they struggling? It all goes back to the draft.
Quantity does not always mean everything. Even with 18 drafted starters in the lineup, the Steelers have lacked the necessary quality to maintain their status as one of the league’s best.
Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have acquired 12 expected starters for the 2013 season, but many of them have question marks.
Can LaMarr Woodley bounce back from an injury-riddled year and a half of football? Will Ziggy Hood play well enough to earn a second contract?
How will Emmanuel Sanders and Cortez Allen transition from role players to full-time starters?
Can Jonathan Dwyer hold off the competition and establish himself as a running back that can carry the load? Is Jason Worilds capable of becoming a legit pass-rusher at outside linebacker?
Will the trio of Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro and Mike Adams finally upgrade the offensive line?
And these are just a few of the questions associated with the lineup.
The talent is there, but will these players actually develop as anticipated? That is the part of the drafting process that people often times forget.
Drafting and development go hand in hand with each other and the Steelers must maximize their talented draft picks by developing them.
In recent years, the Steelers have been doing a better job at getting these players on the field and in position to succeed.
Over the past three drafts, the Steelers have added nine potential starters as well as potentially nine backups. Only eight players from these three drafts are no longer on the roster.
This is the type of performance that the Steelers need from their 2013 draft. What they absolutely cannot do is have a repeat of their 2008 and 2009 drafts.
The only players remaining from these two drafts are Ziggy Hood and David Johnson, both drafted in 2009.
If you look at some of the team’s biggest holes, they come from failed draft picks over these two seasons.
Right now, the Steelers need starters at running back and receiver which could have been filled in nicely by Mendenhall and Limas Sweed, the top two picks in the 2008 draft.
The Steelers could use depth at quarterback, on the offensive line and at linebacker. These could have been filled by 2008 draft picks Dennis Dixon (QB), Tony Hills (OT), Bruce Davis (OLB) and Mike Humpal (ILB) as well as 2009 draft picks Kraig Urbik (OG) and A.Q. Shipley (C).
Beyond this, the Steelers lost their three best picks from these two years this offseason with the departure of Mendenhall, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.
Combine these losses with the relative ineffectiveness of 2009 first-round pick Ziggy Hood and you can see why the Steelers lack depth at several positions.
But as long as the Steelers continue their recent draft success, they should be able to remain a competitor in the AFC.
The 2013 draft does not have a lot of star talent, but there is a lot of depth and the Steelers should be able to find a number of early contributors throughout the draft.
It will be important that they find an impact player in the first round that can start—or at least contribute early—such as a wide receiver.
They need to do the same in the second and third rounds as well, where the true value of this draft is.
These rounds will be ideal for the Steelers to add a future starter at safety, wide receiver or linebacker depth while they could potentially find a mid-late round running back who could start as soon as this season.
Pittsburgh has found at least two starters in each of the last three drafts and a repeat performance will help push this team back towards a playoff run rather than a rebuilding season.