Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Steelers NFL Draft Preview

 Another day, another dollar for the Steelers in the 2010 draft.

The Steelers will enter the 2011 Draft in the same position they often find themselves: towards the end of the first round, without any immediate needs, but tons of areas that could use upgrades in the near future.  They have shown a commitment to taking the best player available and have done so with unprecedented success in the first round.  They are able to pursue this strategy because of their tremendous record picking stars early and finding contributors in the middle rounds, especially in the last few drafts.

Everyone knows that they had the fortune of landing Pro-Bowler, LaMarr Woodley in the 2nd round in 2007, but there are other, slightly less celebrated draft value triumphs for Kevin Colbert.  Most notably, they have managed to reinvent their receiving corps after the first round, assembling the Young Money Trio of Mike Wallace (3rd round, 2009), Emmanuel Sanders (3rd round, 2010) and Antonio Brown (6th round, 2010) in the last two drafts.  That said, despite their strengths all over the field, they are not without weakness in the secondary and along the offensive line.  They also face real concerns about aging stars, particularly on the defensive line and at linebacker.

Draft Needs

Linebacker: Rarely a draft need for the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers managed to make it to the Super Bowl despite a relatively weak secondary and a scheme that serves to illuminate that weakness, especially against teams with accurate passers that get rid of the ball quickly.  We saw this in the Super Bowl against Aaron Rodgers and before that with Tom Brady and the Pats in their regular season matchup.  They are strong at safety, with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark starting and an intriguing "prospect in Ryan Mundy (6th round, 2008), but could certainly stand to add depth here given the age of their starters.

Despite the relative strength of Polamalu and Clark, the unit as a whole is in dire need of new blood, and it has to be considered their biggest need.  Such a need, in fact, that the excellent Steelers reporter Dale Lolley had a theory that Dick LeBeau was forced to keep Polamalu deep in the Super Bowl because he worried about his corners getting beaten over the top.  When you feel the need to keep your future Hall of Fame safety from making plays, you should probably look to reinforce that unit.  Ike Taylor can be a free agent whenever the lockout ends and Bryant McFadden is nowhere near a long-term solution at the position for a perennial championship contender, in a league where many of the best teams have near-unstoppable passing attacks.  While some, including Ed Bouchette, expect Taylor to be back, the Steelers need to start prioritizing the position in the high rounds in the draft if they want to get serious about a glaring hole in their defense.

They have taken corners in the last few drafts -- Crezdon Butler (5th round, 2010), Keenan Lewis (3rd round, 2009) and Joe Burnett (5th round, 2009) -- and while they still have hope that one or more of them could develop into at least a nickel corner, it's become clear that they may have to invest a 1st- or 2nd-rounder to get a top-flight starter.  Fortunately, there appear to be a few options that could be around when they pick 31st this year. 

Defensive Line 
Ziggy Hood is waiting with open arms for the Steelers' newest D-line beast

The state of this unit provides perhaps the most appropriate example of the Steelers draft challenges.  Along with the linebackers (and Polamalu, and Dick LeBeau and all the other guys who have contributed to the effort), this group is responsible for what has been either the league's best defense or among the top few for the last decade.  But, aside from 2009 first-rounder, Ziggy Hood, they are not young.

They have a monster, potential Hall of Fame nose tackle in Casey Hampton, who inked a three-year deal last offseason for $21 million.  He will be 34 next season.  They have one defensive end in Brett Keisel (7th round, 2002) who is signed through 2013, when he will be 35, another in Aaron Smith who will be 35 this coming season and has played only 11 games the past two years.  Only Hood is on the right side of his prime playing years, and while no Steeler fan has any reason to worry about him, they can't be excited about the prospect of watching the other three decline without any elite prospects ready to step in.

I have a feeling this is the area the Steelers will choose to upgrade with their first-rounder, if they choose to stay put and pick 31st.  Between Smith and Keisel, you can hope to have good production (and health) across from Hood, but if Hampton were to miss any significant time, the options are limited.  In a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is pivotal in stopping the run, and especially so with the Steelers' struggles in the secondary.

Offensive Line 

This is the most maligned unit on the team.  Nevermind that that Steelers have seen their quarterback throw for 4,000 yards, their running back run for over 1,200 yards and multiple receivers gain over 1,000 yards receiving over the last few years, the group responsible for facilitating said output had left plenty to be desired.  But that isn't to say they are desperate here.  They have a "franchise center" (if that is something people talk about having) in Pro Bowler, Maurkice Pouncey.  They have the man who filled in for Pouncey in the Super Bowl, Doug Legursky, and did so in fine fashion, to no surprise for Steelers fans who had been waiting for him to get his shot.  Aside from those two, though, there are capable fill-ins (Max Starks, Flozell Adams, Willie Colon) and less capable ones (Chris Kemoeatu) that should probably be upgraded if the Steelers want to protect their quarterback and invest in their running attack. 

Draft Targets

 Mike Tomlin chillin' at Robert Quinn's pro day at North Carolina.  Unfortunately Quinn has no chance of lasting until pick 31.  NFL sponsored gear is for the birds, Lovie.

While no one (except for Bouchette the past few years with Hood and Pouncey) can accurately predict who the Steelers will pick 31st, or if they will even remain in that spot, we can use what we know to get an idea of the kinds of players they might consider.  After we assess the team needs, we first look to who the team had to Pittsburgh for visits.  A couple of those guys are first-rounders (Cameron Heyward and Phil Taylor), but only Taylor is likely to be around when the Steelers pick.  Trading up for someone like Heyward would make sense if he fell far enough, but more on that in a bit.  Here are a few guys with a chance to be around when the Steelers pick that have successfully piqued my interest as Thursday nears (with help from Football Outsiders and Shutdown Corner's Doug Farrar, who gives some excellent Steelers draft thoughts here):

Brandon Harris, CB, Miami --  Unless someone like Heyward, Gabe Carimi, Anthony Costanzo, J.J. Watt or Jimmy Smith falls, I have begun to get behind the idea of Harris wearing the black and gold next season.  The positives on this guy are overwhelming: He is instinctive, a willing tackler, good in space and fits the Steelers mold in that he is coachable.  Also, he's from the U. The cons are essentially limited to his size (5'11"), but after watching the Steelers corners the last few years, I can't say a few inches -- or even some bulk, considering the exceptional speed and motor of the rest of the defense to provide tackling help -- bothers me.  Take a look at what Farrar wrote about him and tell me this doesn't sound like exactly what the Steelers need:
Closes exceptionally well on screens and swing passes. He'll lose one-on-one jumping battles because of his height, but he has a great sense of timing to leap as the receiver starts to descend. Excellent sense of play direction; you don't see him getting fooled out of a potential play by receiver moves or quarterback fakes. Seems to have an innate sense of when to be aggressive and jump a route, and when to hang back and tackle. Clearly responds to coaching and learns from his mistakes in coverage.
Decent form tackler in run support for his size (5-foot-11, 195 pounds), though bigger players will drag him and he'll have to wait for help at times. Doesn't shy away from lining up to set the edge. Quick enough to avoid getting beaten by jukes in space, and he doesn't hesitate to being a knock once he zeroes in.
Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State -- From all indications, he doesn't fit the Steelers mold of offensive lineman, in that he is more of a pass protector and lacks lower body strength.  Those things can change, however, and what he does do well from a technique perspective make him a possible steal if he falls to the 31st pick.  History has shown that it is very difficult to find starter-quality offensive linemen past the first round, and Sherrod certainly seems to fit that bill.  With Max Starks and Flozell Adams tentatively slated to be that starting tackles, it's obvious the Steelers are in need of an upgrade, and Sherrod could provide some value immediately with a chance to develop into a real gem if he can add strength to his frame.  From Farrar:
Does all the little things well in pass protection -- rises up off the snap quickly, keeps a wide base to his kick step, exhibits startling quickness outside, and blocks out edge rushers especially well on the back half of the rush...
Technique makes him look stronger in the lower body than he actually is -- Sherrod could fill out in the lower body a bit and it would help with his base and strength at the NFL level...
Of all the tackles in the 2011 draft class, Sherrod may be the most consistent on a play-to-play basis -- a trait reflected in his excellent Senior Bowl week, when he transitioned from left to right tackle in practice week without skipping a beat and looked absolutely dominant in the game. 
Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor --  Taylor strays from the Steelers mold in both style (he relies more on athleticism than power as a DT) and potentially demeanor (he was suspended from Penn State for an off-field fight and lacks consistency on the field), but his physical package warrants consideration at the end of the first.  With only Hood entrenched as a D-lineman of the future, it seems likely that LeBeau and Tomlin could find a way to incorporate Taylor's abilities in some creative formations soon and, ideally, some more regular packages as he gains strength down the road.  From Farrar:

Incredibly agile for his size (6-foot-4, 337 pounds), Taylor's faster in a five-yard radius than anyone this big should be. Very quick off the snap, and it doesn't take him long to get his weight redistributed if he needs to get off a pass rush and back off to cover or help stop a running play. Locks on well and can fool blockers with a quick spin move. Will split double-teams with speed more than power... 
For a one-gap tackle, Taylor is disturbingly easy to push sideways and out of the play - if he doesn't get the first burst, he doesn't always win the power battle. Hasn't run a lot of loops and twists and doesn't seem particularly effective when doing so; the Baylor defense seemed more straight-ahead with its defensive linemen, so this may be a matter of technique over time. Transferred to Baylor after two years at Penn State; was suspended and then kicked off the Nittany Lions' roster after his alleged role in a fight at a student union function and sat out the 2008 season as a result. Occasional lapses in play; he'll need to find more consistency at the next level.
Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State -- The man broke the combine record with 49 reps on the bench press.  He measures in at 6'1", 295 lbs. and, again, plays a position of real need.  That position, however, is not necessarily defined as a traditional 3-4 DT, although I do not view that as a problem.  With Hood the only D-lineman likely to be around in a few years and Tomlin's roots in the 4-3, plus the frequency with which teams -- the Steelers included -- employ hybrid packages, Paea, like Taylor, could become a dangerous weapon.  From Farrar:
Paea blasts off the snap with aggresive and natural run-pursuit ability, and though he isn't a particularly quick runner, he pursues from side-to-side with surprising agility...
He's much more explosive inside than outside; Paea doesn't possess an outside pass rushing move, though he could be taught to be scary in various stunts and loops in the right defense... 
At 6-foot-1 and 295 pounds, Paea doesn't project naturally as an inside tackle, but the Cowboys have benefitted greatly by thinking outside the box with Jay Ratliff, and I think Paea could have a similar impact with another hybrid defense. 
Aaron Williams, CB (future safety), Texas -- I don't want him, and I can't imagine the steelers will either at 31.  Farrar ranks him as the 43rd best player on his board and many feel he is destined to move to safety.  Also, he had 4 interceptions in three seasons at Texas.  4 picks in 3 years.  As a corner.  While that would certainly help him fit in with the current crop of Pittsburgh corners, we are looking to actually improve this area.  And as Steelers Today notes in it's commentary of him, it's not like teams didn't throw at him -- they did frequently.  

Two more intriguing prospects that happen to go in the last two picks of Shutdown Corner's first round mock could also be of interest to the Steelers (and the RFH Collective in general).  Both play D-line (which I have a feeling is what the Steelers will end up picking unless someone unexpectedly falls or they trade back.  Two things to keep in mind: I don't know anything compared to Farrar, but I can't imagine he is correct about his assessment that the Steelers are "still waiting for Ziggy Hood to bloom."  Also, the RFH LOVES Wilkerson, and if he falls this far, I have to assume the Steelers would give him strong consideration because if he is such a good fit for Dom Capers' defense, he'd probably be the same for the Stillers.

Some see Liuget as an ideal three-tech in a four-man front, but game tape may have other s questioning his ability to split gaps and be violent at the line from a pressure perspective. Where his size and skills might optimally fit is as a five-tech in a 3-4 defense, and the Steelers have had some issues in that department in recent years — they're still waiting for Ziggy Hood(notes) to bloom, and replacing the great Aaron Smith(notes) down the road is something nobody in that front office wants to contemplate.
Going back to the great Ron Wolf in the early 1990s, the Packers' draft philosophy has stayed very consistent — look for players with great-to-outlier size and speed, and retrofit them to your scheme. Wilkerson would be an amazing fit in Dom Capers' defense, because he has the potential to play anything from three-tech to five-tech, can stand up to disrupt in an "amoeba" defense, and closes quickly against the pass and the run.

As for the second round, the Steelers actually hosted a bunch of players for visits who would be nice additions if available in the second round or in a trade back scenario.  Among them are: James Carpenter (OT/OG, Alabama), Kenrick Ellis (DT, Hampton), Marcus Cannon (OT/OG, TCU), Marcus Gilbert (OT, Florida), Ras-I Dowling (CB, Virginia) and Scott Simon favorite, possible "Hines Ward clone," Randall Cobb (WR, North Carolina).  Most of them profile as late early second round picks, but if the Steelers find themselves without desirable options at 31, I am in the camp that would be in full support of picking up extra picks in the second and third rounds with the intention of capitalizing on the strong crop of linemen (both offensive and defensive) and corners.  

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