The Pittsburgh Steelers, after losing to the Denver Broncos in the first round of the 2011 AFC playoffs, must start looking ahead to how they can retool an aging roster so that they can return to the Super Bowl in 2012 and hopefully win that elusive seventh title.
The NFL draft is one of the first major opportunities to improve with youth. The Steelers have been one of the better-drafting teams in the NFL over the past several years, so this is their time to shine. Here's a look at how things might unfold in April.
Did anyone catch the number of the semi that ran over the Pittsburgh secondary against the Denver Broncos? I think it was 15. Or was it 88? Either way, the Pittsburgh secondary had its worst game of an otherwise excellent season.
The Steelers aren't exactly flexible at the position and there are a lot of questions behind starter Ike Taylor. William Gay has fooled us before. Maybe he's a late bloomer, but he's also a free agent off a big year. Keenan Lewis has shown flashes. Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown excelled as rookies, but neither got a ton of defensive time. The Steelers could still use someone besides Troy Polamalu who can make splash plays.
He's not a perfect player, but who is coming out of college? Corner is a tough NFL position.
Dennard is fast. He can stay with guys like Torrey Smith and A.J. Green, who both got behind the current secondary for big gains this year. He also can get up in press coverage and move receivers off their routes. That's an immense talent that the current crop seems to lack.
He'd instantly be among the best athletes on the defensive side of the ball and could infuse the secondary with speed and splash play ability, something they lacked in 2011.
The guard spots were pretty much a revolving door this year thanks to injuries. If the team had its way, it would have been Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster. Legursky couldn't get and stay healthy, something that hurt the line.
The Steelers have a lot of decisions looming on the line. They have to figure out what to do with Willie Colon and Max Starks. They also have to decide how to handle two guard positions and are likely to let Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex, key backups, go.
He's been part of a line that's good at run blocking, an area where Pittsburgh has had issues the past couple of seasons. He's also not a bad pass blocker, and he knows how to get leverage and hold his blocks, something that's important with Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball.
He's also pretty solid, something that can't be said of the current guards, and fills a major need for the Steelers, who've drafted a new center and new tackle in the last two years and now need to address the other interior line positions.
Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood are the future on the outside of the defensive line. The inside is more unsettled. Casey Hampton is the stalwart veteran, but he's getting older fast, and he's having more and more health issues and playing fewer and fewer downs each year. The time has come to get someone to groom behind him.
The team also will likely have to replace some depth. Aaron Smith doesn't figure to be back and Chris Hoke is probably also a goner. A new guy makes sense as the Steelers absolutely must get younger on defense in this offseason.
He's a hybrid end and tackle, which doesn't mean he can play Hampton's nose spot permanently. He could develop into that, but he doesn't have the size right now to make sense at tackle. But I do think that Cameron Heyward could be the answer there. He's bigger and more solid. A guy like Randall can be outside.
The Steelers could use Randall as good depth and a player who can sub in anywhere. He's also one of those versatile players that the Steelers covet for their defensive front.
Could the Steelers get rid of James Farrior? It's certainly possible. They almost definitely won't bring back Larry Foote at his current price tag. That leaves the backup spot to Stevenson Sylvester and whoever else the team can find.
A young player makes sense. The team still appears high on Sylvester, but he hasn't proven a lock as the future starter opposite Lawrence Timmons. The team will need someone there unless they move to a 4-3 scheme, which doesn't seem to be in the cards the way they've drafted recently.
He's athletic and has excellent range. The Steelers need a guy like that to fit their aggressive blitz schemes. They haven't been as explosive up the middle because of Farrior's decline. It's shown up in the past year on the statistics.
He's also aggressive himself, and he plays fast. He's a great tackler too, something the Steelers couldn't do a lot in run coverage, which hurt their performances and ability to stall drives. He could be a good project guy that could start in a year or two.
Max Starks is having surgery to repair damage to his ACL. That could sideline him into early next year if not longer. Willie Colon is no lock to be effective or healthy if he's brought back, a big if considering the team's salary cap issues and Colon's price.
That leaves Marcus Gilbert. The team would be foolish to bring back Jonathan Scott even as a backup. They need someone else new who can be a future piece or at least a sturdy backup given the fact that their line is almost always beset by injuries.
He's a powerful blocker who has good technique. I don't see him as a left tackle in the NFL, but he could be a good bet on the right side. He has a mean streak, something to be wary of, but he's a smart player who plays within himself.
He needs some coaching (who doesn't in the mid- to late rounds) and some development time, but there's a chance he could be good. He doesn't get moved off blocks very easily, which is something that is essential for Pittsburgh tackles in pass blocking mode.
Probably the best road to go with the quarterback position given the cap issues and personnel is to let Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon walk away, keep Charlie Batch for another year at his usual inexpensive rate and draft someone that Batch can train up as a future backup.
The Steelers showed this year how important a trusted backup is to success. Without someone they completely trusted to win games, they struggled with protecting Ben Roethlisberger after he hurt his ankle and ended up bowing out of the playoffs quickly because he couldn't be effective.
The resume is well known. He's got a good arm and he's accurate. He's a smart and savvy player who doesn't make a lot of mental mistakes. There are a lot of questions about whether he can translate to a pro-style offensive scheme after playing a pass-first, quick strike system at Boise State.
Moore projects as a good backup if not a future starter after some work. He'd be a great pick to sit behind Ben Roethlisberger because he's athletic and mobile. He's an upgraded and more talented Dennis Dixon. That's something the Steelers could covet.
Shaun Suisham was an okay kicker for the Steelers this year, but he doesn't have the leg strength or consistent accuracy that Pittsburgh needs in its stadium. He's also not someone who projects as a long term answer.
We also have to look at money. Getting someone even with Suisham's talent level with less money committed gives the Steelers more breathing room when it comes to the cap.
He's the best kicker on the board and there are no guarantees that he'll be around this late, but Walsh is a good bet as an NFL kicker. He's strong and accurate, and he's consistent. He has better measurables than Suisham at this point and seems like someone who could be a kicker for the Steelers over a long period.
He's also someone who doesn't experience health issues very often. The Steelers need that after suffering through numerous issues with their punter in the past few years. A healthy kicker is essential, especially for a team that struggles so often in the red zone.