The Pittsburgh Steelers are at a crossroads. After a run that saw them capture two Super Bowls, win six AFC North titles and qualify for eight playoff appearances in 11 years, Mike Tomlin‘s club has stumbled to back-to-back .500 campaigns, missing out on the postseason in both instances.
In 2014, Pittsburgh will either re-emerge as a contender or fall even further down the pack. Judging by the high bust potential of GM Kevin Colbert‘s recent draft class, the Steelers’ decline could not only be cemented, but drastically steepen this year and the years to follow.
After a less-than-stellar rookie season from the 2013 class, the Steelers needed to hit on May’s crop of college prospects. Colbert swung for the fences. His first four selections are all boom-or-bust talents.
Ohio State‘s Ryan Shazier, who was nabbed at pick No. 15 overall, has jaw-dropping speed, but projects as a liability against the run as an undersized linebacker who didn’t exhibit great instincts in the Big Ten.
Next was Notre Dame‘s Stephon Tuitt, who possesses the physical makeup of a first-round pick, but struggled to maintain ideal playing weight and give full effort on a consistent basis for the Irish.
The third choice, Dri Archer of Kent State, has some versatility and big-play potential, but doesn’t have the size to hold down a full-time starting role at receiver or running back, making him a questionable decision in the third round.
To round out the draft’s first two days, the Steelers snagged Clemson wide receiver Martavis Bryant. With a crazy blend of size and speed, Bryant could be a steal, but just as easily may never sniff the starting lineup. He’s as raw as they come, with questionable hands and route-running prowess.
All four come with a high ceiling, but arguably a more realistic low floor. Two or more living up their upside could be the juice Pittsburgh needs to maintain its status as a contender. But anything less could seal its fate as a declining franchise.
Talent remains on the roster, of course. Ben Roethlisberger is still one of the game’s most productive passers. And when you have a quarterback, you have a chance. By his side is one of the sport’s most explosive young receivers, Antonio Brown, who likely assures that the Steelers will possess a lethal passing game for the foreseeable future.
The Steelers enter 2014 with momentum as well. After eight wins in its final 12 games, Pittsburgh nearly overcame an 0-4 start to make the playoffs.
Still, it’s difficult not to foresee struggles when scanning the Steelers’ personnel. The offensive line enters the year with questions, particularly at tackle. Defensively, there are concerns as well, at all three levels, and what was a leaky run defense in 2013, doesn’t project to be much better in 2014.
Thus, an influx of talent from this year’s draft was a necessity. On paper, at least, the Steelers’ 2014 draft class appears too raw to make an immediate difference. That’s not too uncommon, though. Getting a minimal impact from the group down the road is the concern. And for these rookies, that concern is real.
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter.