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Starkey: The real key for Steelers

Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones stands with Art Rooney II as he is introducted to the media Friday, April 26, 2013, at Steelers headquarters on the South Side. Jones, a Georgia linebacker, was taken with the 17th pick in 2013.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
 

It's a wonderful day across the NFL — and not just because Mel Kiper Jr. can finally take a nap.

This is the only Sunday of the year when every team feels like a winner.

All 32 of them, Steelers included, are positively giddy over their draft classes. Delirious fans and sleep-deprived analysts are talking about Manti Te'o being the next Junior Seau and Markus Wheaton being the next Mike Wallace.

We'll see.

The only safe prediction is that harsh reality will set in soon enough on several fronts. Flash back to the first round in 2011 and consider that people still are waiting on the likes of Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Jonathan Baldwin, Mark Ingram, Gabe Carimi, Nick Fairley and, yes, Cam Heyward.

The truth, as ESPN's Bill Polian put it, is this: “Nobody knows how any of these players will turn out.”

It sure looks like the Steelers had a solid draft. I like the concept of it, anyway, except for taking a backup quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger needs weapons, not backups.

The Steelers appeared to address some serious needs. But who didn't?

I mean, I like new safety Shamarko Thomas as much as the next guy, but I also remember calling then-Syracuse coach Greg Robinson the last time the Steelers took a Syracuse safety, and he compared Anthony Smith to Ronnie Lott.

Somebody asked coach Mike Tomlin if his rookie defenders will get this defense back to its turnover-causing ways.

“It's more than just those guys,” he said.

More than just those guys? I sure hope so. There are players making tens of millions of dollars on that defense, and besides, how many rookies step in as impact players in Dick LeBeau's system?

For this team, the upcoming season — on offense and defense — will be more about big-money stars returning to form and the previous three drafts producing ripened fruit than about this year's class.

If first-round pick Jarvis Jones is going to attack quarterbacks like Von Miller, these are among the developments that could help his cause:

• Coverage in the secondary must improve. Ike Taylor and his $9.5 million cap hit must rebound from injury, and Cortez Allen — a fourth-round pick from 2011 — must emerge as a legit cover man (and run supporter) on the other side. See, whether it's Jarvis Jones or Lawrence Taylor in his prime, nobody's going to tackle the quarterback if the quarterback — a la Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer against the Steelers last season — takes three-step drops and continually beats soft coverage with quick throws.

• Heyward and Hood need to show their first-round pedigree up front and help put teams in obvious passing situations.

• The $98 million duo of LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu needs to be on the field making plays.

Meanwhile, it would help to have the offense staking the club to a decent lead now and then. That is when LeBeau can break out his exotic blitzes.

About that offense: If you see second-round pick Le'Veon Bell becoming the next Jerome Bettis, you better hope the recent focus on linemen pays off.

If David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert pan out, a lot of people could pile up yards behind them — including Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer.

If they don't, then no running back would succeed.

You want Wheaton to flash that 4.3 speed and run under deep passes the way Wallace did? OK, then Gilbert or Adams better hold the edge — one of them at left tackle (“Hello, Max? This is Kevin Colbert.”).

The team's $42 million receiver, Antonio Brown, needs to prove himself as a legit No. 1. Emmanuel Sanders must establish himself as a No. 2. And the $102 million quarterback needs to throw to his team, not the other one, late in big games.

So we could sit here and dissect this draft until Lennay Kekua comes to life, but how about we save ourselves the time? The coming season depends way more on stars rebounding and recent picks ripening.

If that happens, the Steelers should be fine.

If not, a bunch of rookies aren't going to save them.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com

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