PITTSBURGH – The Steelers like to talk about not drafting for need, instead taking the best player available.
In many years that might be the case. After all, when you’re coming off a long postseason run and pretty much know everyone on your two-deep depth chart, you can afford to do that.
But when you haven’t won a playoff game in the past two seasons – at least in Pittsburgh – the old “best athlete available” line goes out the window.
That was apparent for the Steelers in this year’s draft, which wrapped up Saturday. Round after round, the Steelers might have taken the best athlete available, but those athletes just so happened to be at positions where the team had glaring needs.
Release James Harrison in the offseason. Replace him with linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round.
Need a bell cow running back and wide receiver after Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace left in free agency? Take running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Markus Wheaton in rounds 2 and 3.
And so it went for the Steelers.
How need-based was this draft for the Steelers? In the fourth round on Saturday, the team did something it hadn’t done since 1973, dealing a future pick – next season’s third rounder – to division rival Cleveland for a fourth-round pick this year so that it could take the safety it coveted, Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse.
Safety was a position of need after Pittsburgh lost backups Will Allen and Ryan Mundy in free agency.
“It just so happened, particularly early in the draft, that the guys that were highest on our board happened to be at positions of need,” said head coach Mike Tomlin, noting that the Steelers had a number of needs.
“Obviously, when you’re in the state that we’re in, you can take guys at just about every position.”
Whether these players were the best available athletes or just the best available athlete that filled a need is debatable. But there is little doubt that Jones, Bell and Wheaton will have an opportunity to make immediate contributions on this roster beyond just playing special teams.
Only quarterback Landry Jones, taken with a second pick the team traded for in the fourth round, and defensive lineman Nicholas Williams, a seventh-round pick, could be considered luxuries.
And that, more than anything, was what the Steelers needed – especially after a year in which their draft class spent more time in the training room than on the football field.
Sure, Pittsburgh got contributions from guard David DeCastro, offensive tackles Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum and running back Chris Rainey, but all except Rainey missed time with injuries last season, and he’s no longer on the roster. And that doesn’t even bring third-round pick Sean Spence, who was lost to injury in the preseason, into the equation.
In other words, it was largely a lost season for the Steelers’ 2012 draft class.
But with this group added to that one, it’s almost like the Steelers have added a dozen new players who can contribute in 2013.
DeCastro and Adams are penciled in as starters on the offensive line. Jones will, at the very least, battle Jason Worilds for playing time at right outside linebacker. Bell could very well open the season as the team’s starting running back, while Wheaton will almost certainly see playing time in third-down situations.
Even Thomas could see some action as a top backup at safety.
Basically, the Steelers did what they had to do in this draft: restock an aging and free agency-wracked roster with young talent at key positions.
Will it be enough to propel this team into the postseason and beyond? That remains to be seen. Baltimore and Cincinnati have both helped themselves this offseason and also had strong drafts, while Cleveland is, OK, Cleveland.
But in theory, the Steelers stocked themselves with solid talent that can contribute right away.
That’s what the draft is all about.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at email@example.com