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Steelers draft primer

April 23, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

After a series of average, bad and just plain horrendous drafts between 2006 and 2009, there are serious rumblings of mediocrity swirling around the Pittsburgh Steelers (from both fans and media analysts) for the first time since the early 1990's. Mike Tomlin gave his best William Wallace speech a few weeks ago about games being played in September, not March, and while we love Tomlin’s swagger, the bottom line is that we wish he had better players to back it up. So with the NFL Draft just a few days away, here’s a position-by-position look at the problems facing Tomlin and Kevin Colbert and the players available who might be able to help:

OFFENSIVE LINE

The skinny: The changing of the guard (get it?) is complete here with Max Starks and Willie Colon exiting stage left and a the spotlight clearly shining on two young tackles, Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert, and last year’s No. 1, guard David DeCastro, who will almost be like a supplemental first-round pick in 2013 after the very limited work he got in 2012 because of a series of injuries.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 4. Depth is the concern now.

Timing: We’d expect to see a guard taken any time and probably a tackle on the second day.

Possible selections: As of this writing, San Diego State’s Nic Embernate, who was not invited to the NFL Combine and would likely be a late-round or free agent candidate, is the only OL the Steelers have had in for a visit. If Pittsburgh shocked the world and went guard again in Round 1, there are several highly graded players, Alabama’s Chance Warmack and Kentucky’s Larry Warford most notably, who fit the Steelers mold.

QUARTERBACK

The skinny: Ben Roethlisberger’s freakish injury ruined the 2012 season for all intents and purposes, but he’ll be back and upright come September, with the questions being (and always): For how long? Hometown boy Bruce Gradkowski was signed to finally put an end to the Byron Leftwich farce and, as of this writing, John Parker Wilson, not Chuck Batch, is the third QB on the Pittsburgh roster, but don’t rule out Batch reclaiming the third spot before opening day.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 1. The only question mark is the No. 3 job.

Timing: If the right guy were there on the second day, we wouldn’t be shocked if they grabbed him, but a free agent signing is much more likely.

Possible selections: Tennessee’s Tyler Bray has emerged as a Steelers’ second-day target. Bray is a polarizing prospect, with a few evaluators raving over his arm strength and upside, but most lamenting his inconsistency, immaturity and mental lapses. Guys like Southern Utah’s Brad Sorensen or Iowa’s James Vandenberg fit the profile of previous Pittsburgh free agent signings.

RUNNING BACK

The skinny: With the departures of Rashard Mendenhall (general indifference) and Chris Rainey (general malfeasance), this has become one of Pittsburgh’s biggest holes. Jonathan Dwyer showed flashes of being a mini-Bus type of player in 2012 but an injury and the Steelers odd substitution patterns kept us from truly knowing what he offers. Isaac Redman (still a free agent) had one monster game against the Giants but was largely terrible otherwise, especially in short yardage situations, which were once thought to be his specialty (although to be fair to Redman, it’s difficult to get a half yard on third down when you’re lined up eight yards deep in the I). Baron Batch is the other running (not blocking) back on the Steelers’ roster with playing experience.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 6, only because the RB position doesn’t carry as much value as it did, even just five years ago.

Timing: With the de-emphasis on the position and the tried-and-true ability of teams to find quality backs as late rounders and free agents, we’d be shocked, shocked we tell you, if the Steelers are dumb enough to use a first-round pick for one when they have so many other glaring needs. That said, they will pick a RB and it could be at any spot on any day.

Possible selections: UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin and Alabama’s Eddie Lacy both visited and both would likely be “trade down late first” or second-round selections. Another visitor, Texas A&M’s Christine Michael, would likely be a third- or fourth-round guy. Of course, the Steelers have gotten a good, long-term look at Pitt’s Ray Graham, as well.

WIDE RECEIVER

The skinny: Even the most ardent of pessimists would have had a hard time predicting the truly terrible season Pittsburgh’s talented, young receiving corps turned in last year with Antonio Brown underperforming after getting a big contract and Mike Wallace half a$$ing things after not getting a big contract. Emmanuel Sanders showed flashes (as he always does) but also suffered through a series of deflating drops and fumbles. Jericho Cotchery made some big catches when he was healthy enough to get on the field, but that wasn’t nearly enough. Of course, the Steelers brought back Plaxico Burress late in the year and was impressive enough to land another one-year deal. As expected, Wallace has departed for greener (get it?) pastures, but Pittsburgh ponied up to hang onto Sanders meaning 80 percent of last year’s crew is back.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): Sanders’ signing drops this from an 8 to a 5.

Timing: There’s still no real indication Brown can be a long-term No. 1 guy so there’s still a big need here, but with Sanders back in the fold (and with so many other competing needs), it’s much more likely now as a second- or third-round option.

Possible selections: If Pittsburgh does go WR in Round 1, it would likely be a trade-down scenario for guys like Cordarelle Patterson, Deandre Hopkins or Keenan Allen. Visitors Josh Boyce of TCU and Tavarres King of Georgia fit the third-round mold. Oklahoma’s Justin Brown, who also visited, might fall a notch further.

TIGHT END

The skinny: For nine game, it looked Heath Miller and Todd Haley were a match made in heaven as the quiet giant of the Steelers offense became the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s passing game. But in the final seven games, Miller got lost in the shuffle again before suffering a serious and season-ending knee injury in Week 15. It’s expected that Miller will be able to return to form in 2013 from the injury, but at age 30 and entering his ninth NFL season, that’s no guarantee. Backup Dave Paulson was serviceable in his rookie year, but showed nothing to indicate Pittsburgh made the right choice in keeping him and waiving Wes Saunders in the preseason. Leonard Pope book ended the season with TD catches, but was largely invisible between.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 5. Timing: This is a situation where the board will dictate if and when Pittsburgh selects a tight end. There’s no need to reach for one, but if a guy they love is sitting there at any point there likely will be discussion about him.

Possible selections: The Steelers did not have a tight end in for a visit so it’s hard to gauge what they might be thinking here. Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert has become a fan favorite pick for Pittsburgh, and if they love him, that’s probably a safer selection that reaching for a WR.

KICKER

The skinny: It still seems somewhat surreal that a journeyman kicker whom the Steelers turned to in desperation after Jeff Reed’s flameout is on the verge of surpassing Gary Anderson in many people’s minds as the best in team history. But that’s Shaun Suisham’s story and it certainly was the best story in black and gold last season. He finished the season making 28 of 31 kicks, but think about the three he missed: two bad decisions by Mike Tomlin to attempt 50+ kicks late in a game and a bad snap by Greg Warren against the Bengals. Suisham was “that close” to being perfect in 2012.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 1. Timing: The Steelers will undoubtedly sign a free agent kicker to compete in camp and take some of the preseason load off Suisham.

Possible selections: None.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The skinny: The Steelers flirted with disaster here, nearly losing their best player here (even if they don’t know it), Steve McLendon, with a lowball tender. But McLendon’s signing last week signals the end of the Casey Hampton era and leaves Pittsburgh looking to solidify play at defensive end, where Brett Kiesel is on the back end of his career and Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward have underachieved on the front end of theirs. We should see more of Alameda Ta’amu and Loni Fangupo, as well.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 4. With all the other glaring needs, it’s likely this is an area that Pittsburgh feels they can wait another year to address.

Timing: The Steelers did not have a D lineman in for a visit and we wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t select one this year.

Possible selections: Although it would be a dramatic trade up scenario, BYU’s Ziggy Ansah would be a great successor to BYU’s Kiesel.

LINEBACKERS

The skinny: James Harrison is gone, but the three other starters return, along with Jason Worilds, who faces a make-or-break season in trying to show he was worth the high selection Pittsburgh used on him. Whether you believe Pittsburgh has a glaring need here depends on whether you believe LaMarr Woodley, who cashed in a big contract last offseason and showed up out of shape last fall before suffering a string of nagging injuries, can return to double-digit sack form. If he can, the Steelers will be fine for 2013, although they still need to find Harrison’s replacement (and Foote’s inside, as well). If Woodley underachieves again, Pittsburgh is in big trouble in 2014 and beyond. As with DeCastro, Sean Spence will be in the mix here for 2013 as a quasi-supplemental pick, but a player who was undersized to begin with is now undersized and coming off a traumatic knee injury so we’d turn the expectation level way down on Spence.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 7.

Timing: Although it’s no sure thing, this is probably the best bet as to where Pittsburgh will go in the first round and don’t rule out as many as three linebackers being selected before all is said and done.

Possible selections: Eight, count ‘em, eight linebackers visited Pittsburgh before the draft. Most notable among them was Jarvis Jones, the ultra productive Georgia Bulldog and the name most often matched by draftniks with Pittsburgh’s 17th selection. For those of you who think too much is made of measurables in the draft process with not enough reliance placed on on-the-field production, Jarvis Jones is your man. Jones is old (24), slow (4.9 40) and injury prone (chronic spine condition). But on the field, he led the SEC in both tackles for loss and sacks last year. Barkevious Mingo, who the Steelers got a good look at during LSU’s pro day, is another pass rusher who figures to go somewhere between #11 and #21 in the first round, putting him on Pittsburgh’s radar. Mingo reminds us a lot of Penn State’s Aaron Maybin in that he’s got all-world pass rushing skills but is frighteningly lean by NFL standards. The other LB visitors to the South Side span the length of the potential draft board and include: Ohio State’s John Simon, Florida State’s Vince Williams, Southern Miss’s Jamie Collins, Rutgers’ Khaseem Greene, Penn State’s Michael Mauti, Clemson’s Malliciah Gooma and UConn’s Sio Moore. You’ll note that every one of these guys hails from a BCS school, a draft trait that’s becoming a calling card under Kevin Colbert. You don’t see the Steelers picking many guys from “double directional” schools anymore.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The skinny: In 2012, the secondary seemed to be the only thing holding the Steelers defense together at times. But three free agent losses and ongoing questions about age and infirmity at safety make this a big question mark entering 2013. Ike Taylor will be locked down at one corner and Cortez Allen, presumably, will get the first change to replace the departed Kennan Lewis at the other. Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu could constitute the best safety combo in the game, but seeing the pair playing together for long stretches is not something Steelers fans have seen much of in the past two years. With Will Allen and Ryan Mundy also signing elsewhere, depth is a huge concern.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 6.

Timing: We’re probably talking multiple picks here, as well, and we’d be shocked if one of them wasn’t in the first or second round.

Possible selections: The Steelers were visited by four safeties, three of whom (Phillip Thomas of Fresno State, Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse and Duke Williams of Nevada) would be mid-round selections. Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro, who did not visit, is a strong safety projected to go between #15 and #25, which puts him on Pittsburgh’s first-round radar. Foremost among the cornerback visits is Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes, projected by many as the second CB to come off the board.

PUNTER

The skinny: Drew Butler’s horrific rookie season had us longing for the good ‘ol days with Daniel “Touchback” Sepulveda. Butler was 26th in average, 25th in net, 18th in punts inside the 20 and 23rd in fewest touchbacks. Obviously, the Steelers are hoping for better things in 2013, but hope isn’t a great strategy in the NFL.

Level of need (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2013): 6.

Timing: Pittsburgh will certainly bring in one or several free agents to compete in 2013.

Possible selections: Pittsburgh has too many competing needs to use a pick here.

 
 

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