The returns are early, but through four NFL starts and significant playing time in two other games, rookie fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson showed plenty of reason to believe he will become a full-time, multiyear starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That’s good, because it’s been some time since the Steelers found such a quality player that late in a draft.
An organization that has deserved well-earned plaudits for its drafting abilities over the past decade, the Steelers rarely swing and miss with their selections at the top of drafts. Between 2010-17, five All-Pros were chosen with first- or second-round picks, and all but one of such high choices in that time were significant contributors to winning teams.
But in regards to players taken in the second half of a draft, the results haven’t been as stellar. Obviously, players taken in Rounds 4-7 aren’t expected to produce like the ones taken in Rounds 1 or 2. Some were never even intended to be more than special-teamers or quality backups.
Teams rightly are judged more by their early picks than their late ones — after all, with an early-round haul of the likes of T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner and Cameron Sutton, does anyone care that the Steelers ended the 2017 draft with a trio of duds in Brian Allen, Colin Holba and Keion Adams? Of course not.
But hitting a home run here and there on a late-round pick can go a long way in building championship-caliber teams. And since mining a perennial All-Pro in the sixth round of 2010 — receiver Antonio Brown — the Steelers’ late-round success stories have been few and far between.
Until Dotson, who figures in 2021 to slide in as the Steelers’ left guard for many years to come, the Steelers had gone as many as seven years without drafting a full-time, multiyear starter with a pick after the third round ended.
In Year 8 of what he’ll tell you is his dream job – linebacker for the #Steelers – Vince Williams is making an abundance of plays in the middle of one of the NFL’s best defenses. https://t.co/mcQc41gKOQ
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) October 11, 2020
The final pick of the sixth round in 2013, Vince Williams’ next start will be his 70th at inside linebacker. The previous draft, the sixth-to-last pick of draft was Kelvin Beachum, who served as the Steelers’ starting left tackle for three seasons until a knee injury and departure via free agency. Beachum started 16 games for the Arizona Cardinals this season.
But outside of Williams and Beachum since 2011, the only other player taken in the fourth through seventh rounds by the Steelers who started more than eight games in any season for them is tight end Jesse James. James was the Steelers’ primary tight end in 2016, but in ’17 most of his starts were attributable to the absence of Vance McDonald because of injury.
Still, James certainly has been a good enough player that the Steelers deserve credit for using a fifth-round pick on him. But finding another recent late-round gem by the Steelers is a chore.
There’s cornerback Cortez Allen, a 2011 fourth-rounder who at times showed flashes but lasted only four seasons and played fewer than half of the Steelers’ defensive snaps in that time.
There’s another fourth-rounder, receiver Martavis Bryant (2014), a player whose talent was first-round caliber. It showed at times over four years in Pittsburgh, but more often, inconsistency or off-field issues overshadowed his big plays.
Guard Wesley Johnson (fifth round, 2014) and defensive tackle Nick Williams (seventh round, 2013) each started 15-plus games in a season once in their careers, but not until they were waived by the Steelers.
But putting aside those exceptions, the Steelers’ late-round history over the past decade is littered with too many names like Travis Feeney (sixth round, 2016), Gerod Holliman (seventh round, 2015) Shaquille Richardson (fifth round, 2014) or Terry Hawthorne (fifth round, 2013), none of whom played during a regular-season NFL game.
Again, it needs emphasized that the “hit” rate is not good on fifth-, sixth- and seventh-rounders across the league. But in the salary cap world of a league committed to parity, the cheap labor of late-round picks serving in significant roles can be a boon.
Receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith and guard Kevin Dotson showed enough to indicate they can be above-average NFL starters.https://t.co/ffXTxUNi2j
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) January 15, 2021
The Steelers believe they got one of those in Dotson, who started two games at each guard spot as a rookie and graded as the NFL’s best pass-blocking guard by Pro Football Focus.
A year in, the Steelers’ other 2020 third-day picks are a mixed bag.
• A running back out of Maryland, Anthony McFarland was taken 11 spots before Dotson but never distinguished himself during a rookie season when he was a gameday scratch six times (including the playoff game) and got 39 touches in 89 snaps.
• Former college teammate and sixth-rounder Antoine Brooks Jr. (four games, 29 snaps) has not yet shown he is the in-the-box safety the Steelers hoped he’d develop into.
• Seventh-rounder Carlos Davis at least showed improvement throughout the season and eventually leapfrogged second-year Isaiah Buggs on the D-line depth chart. After not dressing the first seven games, Davis played eight of the final 10, including the wild-card game. He looks like a decent future rotational lineman.
When the Steelers go on the clock during the final Saturday of April, the spotlight won’t be shining while they make their late-round picks. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be taking their best shot at finding another Antonio Brown.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .
Sports | Steelers/NFL