- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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How well did the Pittsburgh Steelers draft last April? Ask me in three years.
I think it takes at least three years before you can accurately -- and fairly -- judge a draft class. That said, 12 games have provided enough of a sample size to assess how the Steelers’ rookies have fared in their first NFL season.
Here is a look at where the players in the Steelers’ most recent draft picks stand three-quarters of the way into the 2013 season.
1. Jarvis Jones, OLB: Jones has not made much of an impact as a pass-rusher, and the Steelers took the former Georgia star 17th overall to get after the quarterback. But it takes time for outside linebackers in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense to develop, so it’s way too early to read much into the fact that Jones has just one sack and 30 tackles. Just as paramount as the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder improving his grasp of the defense in the offseason is Jones adding bulk.
2. Le'Veon Bell, RB: The early returns are good on this pick as Bell is almost a lock to win the Joe Greene Award, which is given to the team’s top rookie. The former Michigan State star is already a focal point of the offense, and he is the kind of all-around back around which the Steelers can build. Bell is nearing 1,000 yards of total offense -- he has 847 -- and he is only going to get better as a runner.
3. Markus Wheaton, WR: The Steelers have gotten minimal production from Wheaton, which has been surprising considering the praise he received from some of the veteran players before the start of the season. Wheaton, who has six catches for 64 yards, hasn’t gotten on the field much as a No. 4 wide receiver, and he missed four games after needing surgery to fix a broken right pinkie. His development is crucial, especially if Emmanuel Sanders signs elsewhere after the season as an unrestricted free agent.
4a. Shamarko Thomas, S: The former Syracuse star has played well enough to get on the field extensively as a third safety in the Steelers’ quarter package, though he missed two games recently with a high-ankle sprain. Thomas, who has 29 tackles, has to be a big part of the future with Ryan Clark unlikely to return after the season and Troy Polamalu also anything but guaranteed to be back in 2014 since he is set to make just over $8 million in the final year of his contract.
4b. Landry Jones, QB: Jones has not been on the active roster for any game this season. That is actually a good thing as it means Ben Roethlisberger has stayed healthy, and indeed the 10th-year veteran has avoided the kind of injuries that have sidelined him in past seasons. It’s too early to call this a wasted pick but it certainly looks like the Steelers could have gone in another direction with the second of their two fourth-round selections, especially since they had signed a proven backup in Bruce Gradkowski before they drafted Jones.
5. Terry Hawthorne, CB: The Illinois product did not show enough during offseason practices or training camp for the Steelers to even keep him on the practice squad after cutting Hawthorne at the end of August. Hawthorne couldn’t overcome offseason knee surgery, and he is currently a free agent.
6a. Justin Brown, WR: He lost the the battle for the final wide receiver spot on the 53-man roster to former Penn State teammate Derek Moye. Brown has been on the practice squad all season, and he will be given a chance to make the team next season. He also has potential as a punt returner.
6b. Vince Williams, LB: The former Florida State star has been thrust into the starting lineup due to a season-ending bicep injury sustained by Larry Foote. Williams has probably played as well as can be expected but it’s too early to tell whether he has a future with the Steelers as a starter or is more suited for a backup role. Williams has 40 tackles, but he has played sparingly in recent week as he comes off the field in the quarter package and has also lost some snaps to undrafted rookie Terence Garvin.
7. Nick Williams, DE: Another small-school project for Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell. The Steelers saw enough from Williams to place him on injured reserve instead of waiving him with an injury settlement in late August. Williams is working his way back from a knee injury, and the offseason will be a critical one for the Samford product.
Overall: Could have been better but could have been worse, too. And that assessment comes with the caveat that it’s way too early to label any of the rookies, which include Garvin, guard Chris Hubbard (practice squad), defensive end Brian Arnfelt (practice squad) and Devin Smith (practice squad) as anything but works in progress.