When the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin on Jan. 22, 2007, skeptics figured it had more to do with team president Dan Rooney, the man who brought the Rooney Rule to the NFL, practicing what he preached than a young, black coach getting hired on merits alone.
Six years later, the Steelers have won 12 games on three occasions, made the playoffs four times, and appeared in two Super Bowls (winning one after the '08 season). The two seasons Pittsburgh won fewer than 10 games under Tomlin -- 9-7 in '09 and 8-8 in '12 -- they also missed the playoffs. But unlike previous teams that returned veteran leaders to an already-deep roster, the 2013 version of Steelers could be the most vulnerable in Tomlin's tenure.
Pittsburgh didn't become a perennial playoff team by overpaying for big names in the offseason. Instead, it opted to restock the depth chart through the draft, find free-agent bargains and re-sign homegrown players. For general manager Kevin Colbert, one of the unintended consequences of being a good talent evaluator is that it's expensive to keep said talent around after those rookie deals expire.
As it stands, six players have a salary-cap figure of at least $5.8 million -- Lawrence Timmons, Heath Miller, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger -- and two are in excess of $10 million (Roethlisberger and Polamalu). Exacerbating the old-age/salary dynamic: Of those six players, four are north of 30 years old.
This spring, the organization's usual steady-as-she-goes approach to free agency included retaining a couple of moderately priced starters and affordable role players while letting young starters Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis walk. But with a bloated salary cap, an aging roster and plenty of holes to fill, the 2013 NFL Draft becomes critically important.
But before looking ahead, a brief look back at the six Steelers' drafts under Tomlin.
* 2007: Yielded linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in Rounds 1 and 2, as well as two role players -- tight end Matt Spaeth and cornerback William Gay (who returned to the team this offseason after stints in Chicago and Arizona, respectively).
* 2008: When the Cardinals signed running back Rashard Mendenhall last month, it officially closed the books on Pittsburgh's '08 class that included WR Limas Sweed, LB Bruce Davis, T Tony Hills, QB Dennis Dixon, LB Mike Humpal and S Ryan Munday. All were drafted by the organization, and all are now with other teams or out of football altogether as you read this.
* 2009: Defensive end Ziggy Hood and tight end David Johnson remain, but the class also produced guard Kraig Urbik (cut after one year in Pittsburgh, now a starter in Buffalo), Wallace and Lewis. In fact, you could argue that of the first three picks -- Hood, Urbik, Wallace and Lewis -- Hood has been the least productive.
* 2010: Center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker Jason Worilds, wideout Emmanuel Sanders, running back Jonathan Dwyer and wideout Antonio Brown have all played big roles in recent years. With James Harrison not coming back, Worilds, a former second-rounder, will finally get to show if he's a legit threat in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme.
* 2011: Marcus Gilbert was the starting right tackle until an injury landed him on injured reserve last season, and he could be the opening-day left tackle in 2013. Cortez Allen is penciled in to replace Lewis as a starting cornerback, and defensive end Cam Heyward, cornerback Curtis Brown, outside linebacker Chris Carter and running back Baron Batch all saw action last season as backups.
* 2012: Guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams will both be starters in '13, nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu will have a chance to earn playing time in place of free agent Casey Hampton, and two seventh-rounders -- tight end David Paulson and tackle Kelvin Beachum -- were on the field a lot as rookies.
Other than in '08, when a combination of bad luck and sheer misses was an unmitigated disaster, the Steelers have been relatively successful in the draft. Whether they were successful enough is another matter, and one that will be contingent on what they do this April.
But that doesn't mean we can't speculate about what could've been -- partly because it's an interesting exercise, but also to gauge how well the Steelers' front office, coaches and scouts have been at identifying talent. One way to do that: Look at Pittsburgh's current needs before hopping in the Eye on Football way-back machine and seeing which players the team could have had.
With the 2013 draft less than four weeks away, the Steelers have depth concerns at cornerback, running back, wide receiver, inside linebacker, outside linebacker and safety. Pretty much everywhere but offensive line (ironic, we know) and quarterback.
Here's a brief look back in time:
* In '07, safety Dashon Goldson was on the board when the Steelers took punter Daniel Sepulveda with the 112th pick in the fourth round;
* In '08, cornerback Brandon Flowers, wide receivers Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson, and defensive end Calais Campbell were available when Pittsburgh took Mendenhall. And running backs Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles were on the board when Sweed went in Round 2. There's more: tight end Jermichael Finley, defensive end Cliff Avril, linebacker Philip Wheeler, and safeties Thomas DeCoud and Tyvon Branch could've been had in the third round instead of linebacker Bruce Davis.
* In '10, Pittsburgh went with Worilds in Round 2 over linebacker Sean Lee, a move that still elicits groans from fans who saw what Lee did at Penn State and later with the Cowboys. Defensive lineman Geno Atkins could've been had in the fourth round, but the Steelers went with defensive end Thaddeus Gibson, who was released during his rookie season.
* The '11 and '12 drafts appear solid in terms of both starters and depth, although realistically it will take a few years to truly determine how good these classes are.
Still, despite a pretty good track record when it comes to assembling a roster, the occasional misstep can add up. And it can add up in a hurry when you whiff on an entire draft class. Yes, technically, the Steelers could've had Goldson, Flowers, Nelson, Rice, Charles, Lee et al, but there were reasons those players didn't go in the first round -- likely the same reasons 31 other teams passed on them at least once.
And while they'd all be welcome additions to a Pittsburgh depth chart suddenly full of holes, time travel is impossible (as far as we know, anyway). Which means that what the Steelers do on April 25-28 will have a lot to do with their place among the AFC's elite, not just in 2013, but for the foreseeable future.
So what's the draft strategy heading into late April? The short answer: it depends (unoriginal and uninformative, we know, but stick with us). The long answer: lack of depth up and down the roster isn't a bug, it's a feature, at least in the sense that whoever falls to the Steelers with the 18th pick will likely fill an immediate need.
It helps explain why the six NFLDraftScout.com/CBSSports.com mock draft experts have six different players going to the Steelers in Round 1: wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, linebacker Jarvis Jones, cornerback Desmond Trufant, defensive end Bjoern Werner, linebacker Barkevious Mingo and guard Chance Warmack.
But the Steelers have a reputation for nailing first-round picks and there's no reason to expect this year to be different. What has to change, however: the team needs to connect on subsequent picks. This isn't asking the impossible -- it's not like we're talking about the Matt Millen-era Lions and pleading with the front office to not draft a wide receiver -- but there's no margin for error, either.
The good news: This draft is deep at wide receiver, running back, cornerback and safety. So deep, in fact, that it's reasonable to think that the draft could shake out in such a way that the team could come away with five or six players who will contribute in 2013 in some form or another.
The bad news: The process remains more art than science, and that means that even the best draft board can be chock full of misjudgments that ultimately prove to be the difference between annual trips to the postseason and .500 football.
For example, we'd be happy with West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin in the first round, UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin in the second round and USC safety T.J. McDonald in the third round. Seems perfectly sensible given what we've heard, seen and read. But two years from now, it could be '08-Steelers-draft laugh-out-loud ridiculous. That's the nature of the beast.
It also reinforces the razor-thin difference between success and failure in the NFL. The Steelers haven't had a losing season in 10 years. Whether they make it to 11 could depend in large part on what happens in the coming weeks. Tomlin is fond of saying, "The standard is the standard," but the reality is that you're only as good as your players.