Maybe the Steelers aren't in a rebuilding mode, as General Manager Kevin Colbert has said on several occasions, but the team ended up using the 2012 NFL Draft to add a bunch of pieces to fortify the foundation of its roster.
The offensive and defensive lines.
"We're not at a crossroads," is what Colbert said back in early February, which is the time in the NFL calendar when the men in his end of the football business go about making alterations to rosters. "We're not in the rebuilding stage. The best way to put it is we need to re-tool. We need to keep adding young players into the mix, continue to hope our overall progression out-runs our regression. If we continue to do that, we'll have our chances to be successful."
For the Steelers, roster modification comes through the draft, with the occasional addition of a free agent who longs to be on the right side of the confetti at the conclusion of a Super Bowl. But it's mainly through the draft, and that's why this was a good time to nail one.
It's too early to tell whether the Steelers nailed this one – and the final determination on that won't come for years – but if you're one who believes that winning football begins with the play along the line of scrimmage, the Steelers added four big pieces there.
Big pieces indeed, because David DeCastro is 316 pounds, Mike Adams is 323, Alameda Ta'amu is 348, and Kelvin Beachum checks in at a comparatively svelte 306. DeCastro, Adams and Beachum join a group along the offensive line that has needed to get better now for some seasons, and the unit now includes a pair of No. 1 picks in DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey, and a couple of No. 2 picks in Adams and Marcus Gilbert, And by the way, as a 24-year-old, Gilbert is the greybeard of the quartet.
Ta'amu becomes a part of a defensive line that needed to get younger and has accomplished that goal incrementally but steadily since the drafting of Ziggy Hood on the first round in 2009. Since then, Hood has been joined by Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon and now Ta'amu, and for the first time in a while defensive line coach John Mitchell will be presiding over meetings that contain more twentysomethings than thirtysomethings.
Yes, DeCastro, Adams, Ta'amu and Beachum are big additions, but it has yet to be determined whether they will become important ones.
"The higher you pick the greater the expectation is by everybody, us included," said Colbert. "It was no grand design, that's just how these drafts work. Last year, Cameron Heyward was the best player for us. We don't go into it every year looking for specific sides of the ball or anything like that. When you look at the breakdown of this group, there are two offensive guys, two defensive guys, a special teams guy for sure in Chris Rainey and the other four guys we were just picking and hoping that there is something in them that proves they deserve a roster spot. Really, this year we got three young offensive linemen, so add to that mix and see how it shapes out. You want to get younger and provide competition at every position, but sometimes it breaks where there are more on one side or one position. It really isn't by design."
But if it was happenstance, it was fortuitous. The Steelers came into this draft needing to improve the offensive line, needing to continue the youth movement along the defensive line, needing to inject some competition at inside linebacker. Those were all addressed, and the Steelers also found themselves with enough picks to add some serious speed at running back and wide receiver.
The addition of Florida running back Chris Rainey on the fifth round was labeled a steal by some draft analysts shortly after the pick was made. Playing on the same Lakeland High School team as the Pouncey twins, Rainey scored 90 touchdowns; as a senior, 15 of his 32 rushing touchdowns were scored from 50-plus yards out. Almost immediately after joining the Gators, Rainey established himself as the fastest man on the team, and by the time he left Gainesville he was an All-American in track as part of the school's 4x100-yard relay team, while also having blocked six kicks on special teams.
"Chris Rainey is an exciting player," said Colbert. "He is a small guy but when you watch him run against SEC competition, he was really impressive. He doesn't run people over but week-in-and-week-out the kid showed up in probably one of the toughest conferences in the country as a running back. In addition to that, he can do punt returns and kick returns."
The speed at wide receiver was upgraded with the addition of Toney Clemons, whose time of 4.43 isn't enough to leave Mike Wallace in the dust but when it comes from a guy who stands 6-foot-2 it's good enough to get a cornerback's attention.
"A lot of times you see big guys, you see sometimes they are big, strong guys and they aren't the fastest or most fluid," said Colbert about Clemons. "This kid can make some small-man catches, and some small-man runs after the catches. When he visited us we were all impressed with his upbeat personality, wanting to do anything he could on the football field."
Rainey and Clemons, along with linebacker Sean Spence and tight end David Paulson and cornerback Terrence Frederick all play the sport in open grass to varying degrees, but the impact this draft ultimately has on the Pittsburgh Steelers will be determined by the big guys. They either will solidify the team along the line of scrimmage, or they will leave the team needing to do this all over again real soon.
"We feel very good about the nine guys that we added," said Colbert. "It all unfolded pretty well for us, really the last three days unfolded very well for us. We got a lot of players that we had targeted. Every player we picked, we liked. We didn't think we reached for anybody. Again, we got everybody where we felt very comfortable taking them."