The key to '13 will be the Class of 2012

It's the best draft class in NFL history. Has to be. No other in the 76 years the event has been held ever contained four Hall of Fame players, and so the Steelers' Class of 1974 has to be considered the all-time standard when it comes to picking college football players. Four future Hall of Fame inductees – Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster – plus cornerback Jimmy Allen were selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers with their first five picks of the 1974 NFL Draft.

Care to guess how many games those players started as rookies?

The Steelers played 17 games in 1974 – regular season and postseason – on the way to winning Super Bowl IX, and so with five players in the mix that makes for a potential total of 85 starts.

Twenty-three starts for five players, 17 of them by one guy, and that was only because of unforeseen circumstances.

First-round pick Lynn Swann started two regular season games, but only because veteran Ron Shanklin was injured. Swann returned punts and was good at it, but as a receiver he finished his rookie season with 10 catches for 208 yards.

John Stallworth and Jimmy Allen were the team's two fourth-round picks. Stallworth started two regular season games, but only because veteran Frank Lewis was injured, and he finished his rookie season with 16 catches for 269 yards. Allen made one start when Mel Blount was injured.

Mike Webster, the fifth-round pick, played a lot of special teams and was a backup to Ray Mansfield at center. The one start Webster got as a rookie was at guard when Jim Clack was injured.

Second-round pick Jack Lambert was the only member of this draft class to be a full-time starter as a rookie, and even he went to training camp as a backup outside linebacker. But when veteran Henry Davis, who had started every game at middle linebacker from 1970-73 and had been voted to the Pro Bowl following the 1972 season, never reported to camp that summer and never played again, Lambert became the starting middle linebacker.

With all that in mind, what General Manager Kevin Colbert said on Monday doesn't seem so ridiculous. "Quite honestly, I don't envision anyone coming in and being an impact (player) in year one," said Colbert. "I never do because I think there's always a growing process that has to occur."

Starting tonight and continuing through Saturday, the Steelers will make the eight picks that will comprise their draft class of 2013, and the work they do over that time will turn out to be critical. And in the world of instant gratification in which we all live, the expectation is for it to happen now. Today, not tomorrow. But as excited as you want to get about the 2013 NFL Draft, as hopeful as you want to be about the players the team ends up adding to its roster, all of that should be seasoned with just a pinch of reality. Not too much, though, because reality has a tendency to spoil the fun.

Yes, the Steelers are going to need a significant contribution from a draft class if they are to bounce back from last year's 8-8 and get themselves back into the playoffs. But the class that has to come up big for them is the Class of 2012.

One calendar year ago, David DeCastro and Mike Adams were seen as the kind of physically talented offensive linemen that unit needed; Sean Spence possessed a see-to-do that was going to allow him to become an inside linebacker for every down-and-distance; Alameda Ta'amu was supposed to be 340 pounds of immovable; Chris Rainey was going to be one of the fastest players in the league as soon as he entered it; and the four picks in the seventh round – Toney Clemons, David Paulson, Terrence Frederick, Kelvin Beachum – each had at least one quality endearing enough to have him arrive at training camp as more than just another warm body.

Today, that group of nine players is down to five, plus Spence who may never get back from the severe knee injury he sustained in last year's preseason finale. And one of those five is Ta'amu, who won't be allowed another off-the-field mistake following an October 2012 arrest after a night of drinking on the city's South Side. But the other four who remain – even though their combined contributions as rookies were negligible – are going to end up being four of the keys to the team's 2013 season.

DeCastro and Adams have to be quality starters, they have to give the offensive line the same nastiness and athleticism at guard and tackle that Maurkice Pouncey brings to the center position. From his first day at Saint Vincent College, Paulson showed the NFL stage is not too big for him, and with Heath Miller still rehabilitating a torn ACL, his receiving skills are likely to be the best the team will have at tight end for the balance of the 2013 season. Maybe Beachum can show enough to be the starting left guard, but if he's not that actually can be seen as a good thing overall, because that would mean Ramon Foster is playing well and that Marcus Gilbert is healthy after missing 11 games in 2012 and playing well.

It's time, actually it's past time, for the Steelers offense to become a dominant unit, and there are certainly going to be a bunch of more important causes to that effect than DeCastro, Adams, Paulson, and Beachum. That's a given, and in fact the quarterback playing well is more important than those other four guys combined, because Ben Roethlisberger is that significant a player at the sport's most important position. But those four can be a big help to Roethlisberger, ultimately.

"We go in with the expectations like we do every year that the players that we pick will be good picks and good players," said Colbert, "but (this 2013 draft) is really no more critical than any other year, because as I stated earlier, I don't see any players coming in and being immediate impact players. I think if we lined up today with what we have, we will have a chance. We want to continue to add to that and let these players develop at their own pace. If they exceed that, and they come in and start like Maurkice Pouncey did or Casey Hampton did, great. But we've had great players who have had to sit and learn. Quite honestly, I would expect this (2013) group to be like that. If they exceed that, it's a bonus for us."

Enjoy the 2013 NFL Draft. By all means, follow along as the Steelers pick their way through the weekend, but in the back of the mind understand that the group they really need to come through is the Class of 2012.

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