Tonight's first round of the NFL draft could shape the Steelers' defense for years.
It's going to be difficult to erase the memory of Ike Taylor chasing after Demaryius Thomas in Denver this past January, but tonight could be a start.
The Steelers are hoping to add youth to their defense, especially after the offseason releases of veterans Aaron Smith and James Farrior. They also need to find a successor for nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is on his last legs and has no proven backup.
The Steelers could solve one of their defensive dilemmas with the 24th pick of the draft, and the two players who pop up the most in mock drafts are Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower and Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe.
The Hightower pick appears to be a classic Steelers selection. He played against top-notch competition in college - Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's first-round picks have come from Florida State, Illinois, Missouri, Florida and Ohio State - and he's labeled a physical run stuffer.
Hightower could be the eventual replacement for Farrior, and the Steelers could add youth to their linebacking group after addressing the defensive line the last three years with the picks of Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward.
The following is a draft scenario that would help the Steelers address their needs:
1. (24) Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama
2. (56) Alameda Ta'amu, NT, Washington
3. (86) Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati
4. (119) Senio Kelemete, OG, Washington
5. (159) Kyle Wilber, OLB, Wake Forest
6. (193) DeQuan Menzie, S, Alabama
7. (231) Chaz Powell, CB, Penn State
7. (240) Matt McCants, OT, Ala.-Birmingham
7. (246) Greg Childs, WR, Arkansas
7. (248) David Paulson, TE, Oregon
The Poe pick would go against the Steelers' usual draft philosophy because he didn't produce on the field as much as he wowed everyone at the NFL Combine. But Poe's chances of being available at pick 24 are slim because not many nose tackles are highly rated in this draft.
If the Steelers do get Poe, he could play behind Hampton this season and be ready to anchor the line in their 3-4 defense starting in 2013.
If the Steelers don't get Poe, they're going to need to take a good nose tackle prospect in the second, third or fourth round or they could be facing the decline of their 3-4 defense, which needs a good nose tackle.
The Steelers, though, have players now who could make a transition to a 4-3 defense more so than five years ago. It's quite possible the Steelers have been planning to make this transition with the recent picks of Hood and Heyward, who both could play tackle in a 4-3.
In any case, the Steelers need their top pick to make an immediate impact on the team. If Poe and Hightower are both gone, they may be forced to take an offensive lineman, another area that needs an upgrade. The players who might be available in the first round are Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler and Ohio State tackle Mike Adams.
The Steelers could then take care of the defensive needs on Friday when rounds two and three are held. The other positions the team needs to address are running back, safety, tight end, wide receiver and cornerback.
They have 10 overall picks, so they have a chance at producing a successful draft. The team has more openings on its roster than in years past, so eight or nine of the draft picks could actually make the team.
Many variables exist in a draft, which makes trying to forecast a team picking 24th extremely difficult. The biggest variable is what the other 31 teams are planning - a team may trade up ahead of the Steelers to take a guy it knows the Steelers are coveting.
That's why the Steelers have always adopted the philosophy that they'll take the best player available when it's their turn to pick rather than make picks based on need. That was a good philosophy that's worked wonders through the years in Pittsburgh.
But, on the other side, the Steelers didn't have as many needs over the past several years like the ones they have this year.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.