MIKE TOMLIN (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
by Will Graves
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers understand it’s going to take more than nine college players to address the surging number of needs on a roster in the midst of an unusual amount of transition.
Still, over the course of three days, the Steelers believe they’re off to a solid start.
Pittsburgh bolstered depth concerns on both sides of the ball in the final four rounds of the NFL Draft on Saturday to give an aging roster an influx of much-needed young talent.
“We’ve done it the way we’ve always done it,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “It just so happened that particularly early in draft, the guys in the highest position on our board were in positions where we needed to add.”
The Steelers spread their picks all over the field, taking two linebackers — including first-round pick Jarvis Jones — two defensive backs, two wide receivers, a running back, a quarterback and a defensive tackle. Pittsburgh even traded with rival Cleveland to add an extra selection in the fourth round to grab Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas.
By allowing the Steelers to move up and take Thomas, the Browns will receive Pittsburgh’s third-round pick in 2014. It’s a move general manager Kevin Colbert felt was necessary to land the 5-foot-9 Thomas, who defensive backs coach Carnell Lake compared to 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders.
“I’m not worried about his size at all,” Lake said. “The kid has a 40-inch vertical and that kind of explosiveness gives him great range when it comes to making plays.”
Thomas gives the Steelers a potential impact player to back up veterans Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. The 32-year-old Polamalu and 33-year-old Clark are entering the final stages of their career and key reserves Will Allen and Ryan Mundy signed elsewhere during the offseason.
The aggressive jump to get Thomas gave the Steelers the chance to start planning — perhaps — for life after Ben Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh drafted Oklahoma star Landry Jones in the fourth round, the highest the club has taken a quarterback since using the 11th overall pick on Roethlisberger nine years ago.
“I just think it was time to start grooming a new player, freshen up the room if you will,” quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner said.
Jones smashed every significant passing record during his four years at Oklahoma, throwing for 16,646 yards and 123 touchdowns while starting 50 of 52 games.
Colbert allowed there’s a chance Jones “will never play” for Pittsburgh but didn’t want to let an opportunity to bring one of the most accomplished passers in NCAA history into the fold slip away.
“When you have a franchise QB like we do, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to add a young quarterback into the mix,” Colbert said. “It’s a critical position. You better keep adding young folks to that spot.”
The 24-year-old Jones said he had no contact with the Steelers until his phone rang Saturday afternoon. He considers himself a future NFL starter but has no issues coming in and learning the league behind a two-time Super Bowl winner.
“On every single team there’s going to be a quarterback that has your job,” Jones said. “You’re going to go in there, you’re going to be respectful and do all these things and compete as hard as you can.”
The Steelers have relied heavily on longtime backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch when Roethlisberger has been unavailable. Both are now unlikely to return after Pittsburgh signed Bruce Gradkowski to serve as Roethlisberger’s top sub and drafted Jones with an eye toward one day having a younger guy in place should Roethlisberger get hurt.
Fichtner said it is time for the 31-year-old Roethlisberger to become one of the guys who talks instead of the one who listens.
“There has been a great respect between Byron, Charlie and Ben,” Fichtner said. “I think this gives Ben an opportunity to share his experiences. That is an exciting time.”
Jones is already familiar with the Roethlisberger family. His wife, Whitney Hand, played basketball at Oklahoma with Roethlisberger’s sister, Carlee.
“My wife is pretty pumped about this whole deal,” Jones said with a laugh.
Even if it means Jones will have to wait his turn.
“I get to learn from one of the best quarterbacks to play the game,” Jones said.
Jones will have at least one familiar face in town after Pittsburgh drafted Oklahoma wide receiver Justin Brown in the sixth round. Brown spent the first three seasons of his collegiate career at Penn State before transferring to the Sooners in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The 6-foot-3 Brown gives the Steelers a big target in the red zone. Brown joins third-round pick Markus Wheaton as new blood on a wide receiving corps that is wide open behind starters Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
The Steelers grabbed Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne in the fifth round. Hawthorne, considered more of a cover corner than a physical presence, gives Pittsburgh a dash of speed as a nickelback.
Pittsburgh wrapped up the draft by taking Florida State linebacker Vince Williams in the sixth round and Samford defensive tackle Nick Williams in the seventh.
Both players are considered projects, then again the Steelers figure most rookies need time to adjust to the NFL regardless of where they are selected.
Thomas sounded like the rest of his brethren while talking about a future that will begin next week when the Steelers host a rookie minicamp.
“I will play anywhere they want me,” he said. “I just want to be on the field. I want to help out the Steelers.”
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