2014 is a big year for the 2011 draft class

Ray Fittipaldo 4 years ago

When the NFL and NFLPA agreed to the collective bargaining agreement in 2011 one of the important provisions for owners was a rookie wage scale, which lessened the impact financially if a draft pick did not live up to his billing. The tradeoff for players was getting to free agency sooner.

Under the new CBA, players are free agents after four seasons in the league. The only exception is first-round picks, which have cub options for a fifth season.

That means all but one of the Steelers’ 2011 draft picks are entering contract seasons. The Steelers have a club option on first-round pick Cam Heyward and are almost certain to exercise that option, keeping him under his rookie contract through 2015.

All others are up for new contracts after next season, making 2014 make or break years for a couple of Steelers.

After Heyward, three draft choices from 2011 remain on the roster – second-round offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert, fourth-round cornerback Cortez Allen and fifth-round linebacker Chris Carter.

The Steelers released third-round pick Curtis Brown earlier this year. Brown, a corner, is coming off major ACL surgery and has not signed with another team. He had been a major disappointment before he sustained his knee injury in a game at Cleveland in November and was well behind Allen, who was taken a round after him.

Two others from that draft class are also out of the league – sixth-rounder Keith Williams and seventh-rounder Baron Batch.

Williams failed to make the Steelers roster in ’11. He was picked up by the Bills and started five games his rookie season. He also played in Buffalo in 2012 but was out of football last season.

Batch injured his knee in his rookie camp and did not play in 2011. He made the team in 2012, but he was released before last season. He did not play last season.

The 2014 season not only is important for Gilbert and Allen and their long-term futures in the league. But it’s equally important for the Steelers, who cannot afford to have more draft picks fail and not make it to second contracts with the team.

The failures of the 2008 and 2009 draft classes continue to have an impact on the makeup of the team. It’s one reason the team has been more active in free agency this year. The players they ticketed for long-term development five and six years ago have failed or have moved on with other teams.

That’s left the Steelers to filling in the gaps with other team’s free agents. Seven players from other teams have signed so far. The Steelers would like to avoid that kind of activity in future seasons. Some of that will depend upon the development of Gilbert and Allen.

Gilbert – He was handed a starting job as a rookie at right tackle and has been a starter his first three seasons in the league. He started 13 of the 14 games he played in as a rookie, five as a second-year player before he sustained a season-ending foot injury and all 16 games last season. Despite his starting track record he is not viewed as entrenched and could face some competition from Mike Adams for the starting position in training camp this summer.

Gilbert has struggled with consistency throughout his career. His 2013 campaign resembled the Dow Jones, up one week down the next. He was rated No. 44 out of 77 tackles in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus. Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round pick in 2012, was ranked higher, tied for 41st.

Beachum assumed the left tackle position after Gilbert and Adams failed to take hold of the job. Gilbert was tried at left tackle in training camp, but was moved to right in favor of Adams, who had to be replaced by Beachum four games into the season for poor performance.

Adams performed relatively well at right tackle as a rookie when he filled in for an injured Gilbert. One way or the other, the Steelers have to find out about both players this season. Gilbert, who has struggled with fundamentals under former line coaches Sean Kugler and Jack Bicknell, has a chance to develop under new coach Mike Munchak. But it will be up to Gilbert to take advantage of the opportunity.

Allen – He has 10 starts in 44 career games, including seven last season. He began 2013 as a starter opposite Ike Taylor, but an ankle injury forced him out of the lineup early. When he did come back he did not regain his starting job until late in the season because William Gay was playing so well in his place.

Allen has size (6-1, 200) and ability. His issue has been for him as been injuries. When he was healthy last season he performed well. He was the 37th-ranked cornerback out of 110, according to Pro Football Focus in 2013.

If he can stay healthy he can help the Steelers in their efforts in rebuild their secondary. Taylor is back for one more season, and the front office almost certainly will take a corner in the first two rounds to groom as his replacement.

If Allen can step up in 2014 it will be important for the team as it moves forward. You don’t draft cornerbacks consecutively in the third and fourth rounds without believing one of them will develop into a starting-caliber player.

Brown was a bust, but the Steelers remain high on Allen. And from Allen’s perspective, if he can have a strong fourth season he will set himself up for a nice payday next winter.

Carter – He has four starts in his first three seasons in the league, including three at right outside linebacker in 2012 when James Harrison was recovering from an injury. But he has since been bypassed by Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, last year’s first-round draft choice.

It is clear the Steelers do no envision Carter as a starter and the fact that the front office is considering bringing back Harrison for one more year to boost the depth at outside linebacker gives you more of an idea on how they feel about Carter.

Oh, he might make the team again and play on special teams, but it’s clear they have been and continue to seek an upgrade.