Historically, the Pittsburgh Steelers have shown great aplomb in using the NFL Draft to maintain a stellar roster. This pattern of excellence has allowed the franchise to continue an unparalleled tradition of winning that dates back four decades.
Historians and passionate fans remember the Black and Gold's 1974 draft class—arguably the greatest in NFL history. From Mike Webster to Lynn Swann and beyond, a great Pittsburgh team put the finishing touches on a dominant roster, thus ascending from contention into champions and, ultimately, a dynasty.
The game has certainly changed with the advent of free agency, but the college ranks still serve as the most lucrative pool with which to stock a roster with a discerning eye on the long-term future.
Conversely, every NFL team understands the risks involved, even with the new rookie salary scale implemented under the new collective bargaining agreement. Wasting a top tier selection on mediocrity or worse can throttle a squad into the league dregs for years.
So, what areas of improvement should the Steelers focus on in the upcoming draft?
While many of the team's holes will get the bandage of free agency, the draft is the best forum to address a franchise's most glaring needs. It present the long-term opportunity to mold a fine young athlete into the type of player and man that fully embodies the great Black and Gold tradition.
The following are the top 5 positional needs best addressed by the 'Burgh during the NFL Draft on April 26-28, 2012. Additionally, we'll look at two candidates for each position: one for consideration if the Steelers focus on the position in the first round and another more realistic draftee for the order I would recommend.
I can hear you all clamoring, "Safety?! Are you high, man?!"
The Steelers have strong starting play at the position, so the focus on this need must be related to depth, right?
Well, partly, though my opinion that the need for a strong backup safety (and potential starter down the road) is born from a more immediate concern: Physical play is not conducive to long-term health.
Troy Polamalu's brand has sidelined him with relative regularity, unfortunately. While Ryan Clark has had a bit more luck on the health front (outside of the Mile High city), his physicality and willingness to sacrifice his body over the middle of the field also present a high risk.
At any given time, one or both of these defensive quarterbacks, who work so well together (even synergistic), could need replaced for substantial time. And, as proven in the playoffs, the secondary requires the presence of its standout safeties.
As this team need is predicated more on the potential for injury at the important position than the state of the talent on the roster, I'm not even going to offer a first-round consideration. Instead, below is the top target for the Black and Gold for whenever I feel they should target the position—the third or fourth round.
If the team is blessed and he is available, the Steelers should consider drafting Boise State's George Iloka.
While I wouldn't advise the team to expedite their focus on getting a safety for the sake of obtaining Iloka, it would be a possible mistake to overlook him should he fall into the third round or, dare I cross my fingers and say...fourth round?
He has the size and strength to provide some potential playing time at linebacker, especially in coverage.
However, as a straight safety presence, many report a smart, intelligent presence in the backfield of the Boise State Broncos. He is a physical player who doesn't shy away from contact, though he could work on his tackling. He also possesses great speed. The real key is in the term "intelligent presence."
Frankly, the safety is the quarterback of a defense in today's NFL. The position requires a savvy knowledge of the game, which is why it is so surprising to me that Iloka's projected draft status is as low as the third round.
The Steelers would be blessed for him to fall so far.
Outside of an advantageous opportunity like the one above, the Steelers should consider keeping their draft focus on the more pressing needs on this list.
After a devastating loss in Denver, the Steelers secondary took much of the heat for an unexpected and embarrassing performance.
After making great strides all season—the high mark coming in frustrating Tom Brady and the Patriots with a sweltering tight man coverage scheme—the defensive backfield surrendered 31 yards per completion to Tim Tebow. Or, should Steelers fans have to call him "Te-throw?"
Actually, stating that the defensive backfield got torched is an overstatement. In reality, the corners got torched: The safeties were stacked so close to the box that their influence in the secondary was nill.
In other words, against a quarterback struggling to account for safeties and make tight throws, Pittsburgh took away the challenge. In doing so, one would expect pressure in the box, but Tim Tebow had six seconds to throw when converting the Broncos' initial first down on 3rd-and-12.
The truth is that the corners, while not having their best game, did what almost any NFL defensive back would do under the circumstances: very little. No better evidence exists than that of Ike Taylor, who went from a team MVP candidate to the focus of fans' ire after the performance.
Asking any corner to cover a receiver for six seconds is impossible.
With that said, the truth is that the team does need a more capable force opposite Taylor in the secondary, or at least to solidify the backfield's depth in nickel and dime situations.
William Gay, despite a few out of body experiences last season, is not the answer as a consistent starting corner. Still, why draft too high?
The team has more pressing needs.
Focusing on the corner position too early would ultimately prove to be premature. Nevertheless, for those camps that feel strongly in the need to draft a cover corner early, here are the candidates for both scenarios.
Round 1 Candidate
Surprisingly, there is a large contingent of fans who hope the team drafts a cornerback first, which I do not recommend.
Surely, those loyalists would love nothing more on April 26th than to say, "Joshua Hayes, we told you so!"
Drafting at the bottom of the first round, many fans have thrown out the name Janoris Jenkins, but I would be leery. With three arrests during his collegiate play, harboring another "Pacman" is too risky, whether or not Jenkins gets on the straight and narrow path.
While I think the Steelers would be loony to focus on corner atop their draft needs, one option in this circumstance would be South Carolina Gamecock Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has good height, is aggressive at the line of scrimmage, not afraid to get physical with receivers and able to play man and zone coverage with aptitude. He is a fine blitzer and a sound tackler.
Take note of that final description as it fits the Steelers' mentality quite well. In fact, Gilmore was the Cocks' leading tackler two seasons ago.
Some analysts question his raw speed, but his pace is not far off the expected performance of elite NFL corners.
It's always a good play to focus on players moving up the prospective draft rankings than those losing steam. Candidates beyond the first round have been thrown around. In my opinion, drafting Alfonso Dennard would indicate a premature focus on corner. Likewise, Brandon Boykin has a lot of great intangibles, but a weakness in his game is a clear tendency to give up a cushion to avoid double moves.
Didn't Steelers fans scream about this tendency for years prior to 2012?
I think for the later rounds (three or beyond), a hard look should be given to Josh Robinson of Central Florida. He has fine speed, shows great skill in man coverage and scouting reports indicate he has natural instincts for the ball.
He needs work on fundamentals like lowering his tackle and speeding up his backdrop. However, with the discipline provided by professional coaching, he has great intangibles and natural skills, allowing him to focus on eradicating these correctable deficiencies.
In one of his best career performances, he highlighted his team's 2011 bowl performance by shutting down receiver A.J. Green. Duplicating that feat wouldn't be an unwelcome sight in the Steel City.
Having focused on the tackle and center positions in recent drafts, the Steelers would be wise to continue shoring up the offensive line. This year, drafting a capable guard could pay huge dividends in finally producing a line that gels together in the Steel City.
The defensive front is getting older and there are more pressing positional needs on the other side of the ball (later on the list). Likewise, the Steelers have managed to get by in spite of their mediocre, albeit occasionally competent, offensive line.
Still, that can't possibly by considered good enough, even with a franchise quarterback who prides himself on his ability to move in the pocket and make plays outside of the tackle box.
As such, while guard shouldn't be the team's top focus on April 26th, it should certainly be one of their higher-rated needs during the first two days.
The undisciplined Chris Kemoeatu is as good as gone. Meanwhile, while Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster have experience at the position, it's time to give the interior of the offensive line a deserved face lift from competent to fully capable.
After all, NFL defenses are no longer strictly attacking from the outside.
Today's game sees defenses attacking the interior of the line with far more regularity, weaving and stunting their way to the quarterback with hopes of confusing the blocking assignments of the men in the middle.
Round 1 Candidate
Steelers fans who have mentioned David DeCastro are not being realistic, barring the team trading up for his services. The Stanford standout is considered by many the best prospect at guard in the draft since 2001's Steve Hutchinson. He is a top 10 selection on many boards, and few have him slipping beyond the Bengals (at lowest), who draft 17th.
While Keleche Osemele has been dominant on the inside in workouts, he was a tackle at the collegiate level. Frankly, his prospects at guard, where the Steelers predominant would need the services of any linemen they draft, are to be determined.
Sure, the team has drafted hybrid linemen before, allowing flexibility with the patchwork hogs. Yet, for those sick of the tactic who want a B.A. (that does not stand for Bruce Arians, folks!) guard, I advise pulling for the following recruit in the second or third round.
Cordy Glenn, the big SEC lineman out of Georgia, warrants a selection by the Steelers. While his skill set limits him to playing guard, so what? The Steelers need a bulldozer at guard.
Or, excuse me for my pun...a bulldog! A Georgia Bulldog, to be specific.
In college, Glenn played right guard, left tackle and left guard. Playing at left guard since his second season, he had demonstrated great strength off the snap, getting leverage over defensive linemen with regularity and particularly dominating in run blocking.
Doesn't that sound just about exactly the type of strength the Pittsburgh offensive line needs?
Who knows if James Farrior or Larry Foote will ultimately return? Prospects are uncertain, but the career clock for both is ticking either way.
By keeping Keith Butler, the Steelers seem ready to maintain their defensive style after the exit of the great Dick LeBeau. While that's music to the ears of some Steelers fans, keeping the notes of that melody from being sharp requires two things in the 'Burgh:
Possessing two great inside linebackers (opposed to just one in the 4-3 alignment) and a dominant nose tackle (can you guess what position will be ranked atop my list?).
Round 1 Candidate
If the Steelers are going to use their first overall pick on an inside linebacker, I'd put all of the chips at the center of the table, trading up for the absolute ideal candidate. Frankly, if they're not focusing on a nose tackle, it had better be for damn good reason, and obtaining the talents of a certain Crimson Tide player would be a fine reason.
At Alabama, the dominant Dont'a Hightower gained experience in the 3-4 defense, showcasing himself as the prototype for an outstanding inside linebacker prospect in the draft.
He is a strong, fast, decisive player with good instincts. He is a downhill runner and brutal, fundamentally sound tackler.
He is, to be blatant, hell on opposing running games.
Additionally, he has shown the skill set to play intermediate coverage, a critical requirement of a linebacker in the Steelers system in today's NFL, where the Tom Bradys of the world are happy to pick a team apart underneath.
While others have mentioned Vontaze Burfict, his struggles against tight ends and backs in short pass coverage cause great concerns. Additionally, many of my circle of friends happen to be avid fans of the Sun Devils, and they caution me to be aware of Burfict's occasional lapses in judgment, including discipline.
Having already dealt with a personal foul waiting to happen on the other side of the ball with Kemoeatu, taking the chance on another anger management project seems foolish to me. You want your linebackers to be aggressive (see: James Harrison) and that often translates to walking on a fine line.
Can a team that is proving to be a central focus for league discipline, whether consciously by NFL HQ or not, afford becoming more of the example?
Any other season, I'd strongly advise the Black and Gold to consider a play for Hightower. Unfortunately, with a more important need ranking head and shoulders above all others on my priorities list, I believe the team should look more strongly at the available linebackers in the second round.
Emmanuel Acho could be available as late as the third round. With the hopes of OG Cordy Glenn (fingers crossed) being available in the second round, I'd advise the team to draft linebacker in the third round, despite seeing the position as a more pressing long-term need than any on the offensive line.
Again, as would be a huge strength for any potential Steelers linebacker, Acho has shown himself as well-suited for pass defense, playing well in coverage for the Texas Longhorns.
While most scouts feel he will need to focus on strength conditioning and adding muscle, Steelers fans know better than most that tenacious defense often comes from the heart opposed to the pectorals. The kid takes good angles and has good football sense, so that doesn't seem like a bad start.
Just ask a guy named Lambert.
With any luck, the Baltimore Ravens will not be the only AFC North team celebrating a man named "Poe" in the near future.
I've said this from the moment the Steelers left Invesco Field crest-fallen, and I see no need to take a different approach in conveying my point. So, here goes take 50!
The Steelers need a dominant nose tackle, like they gained when they drafted Casey Hampton out of Texas.
There is no need to over-complicate it. It really is just that plain and simple.
With Dick LeBeau returning and Keith Butler committing to the Black and Gold—which shows so much loyalty that one should think integrity alone assures him as LeBeau's successor—the team is clearly comfortable in maintaining its defensive scheme.
The 3-4 is a wonderful defensive strategy. Yet, it requires key parts.
And make no mistake about it that, no part is as important as the nose tackle. None.
Any contrary beliefs are misguided and futile. Just look around the league. Likewise, examine the Steelers defensive production against the career and presence of Hampton.
Unlike the 4-3 alignment, which sees four down linemen and two tackles lined up to either side of center, the 3-4 utilizes a singular tackle at its core. While the strategy allows flexibility with the looks seen upfront, it absolutely requires dominant play from the isolated tackle, or nose tackle.
Plain and simple. It's just that open and closed. Period.
The nose tackle often gets lost in the mass of the trenches, not showing up on the highlight reel with the sacks seen by dominant ends. Yet, in the chaos along the line of scrimmage, the beef in the middle of the 3-4 defense dictates how much liberty and space those defenders working behind the front have to penetrate and/or control the line of scrimmage.
It's not difficult conceptually: One guy with so much responsibility needs to be beefy.
Haloti Ngata, Vince Wolfork, Jay Ratliff and Kris Jenkins.
Need the list continue? Fine, here's another: Casey Hampton, in his prime.
Sadly, Hampton is no longer in that dominant stage of his career. The Steelers allowed opposing runners more yards per attempt and finished with fewer sacks than they had experienced in recent years.
Equally unfortunate, Chris Hoke has retired, and Casey Hampton's ACL injury threatens the Steelers' stability in the middle of the line.
With the future of the defense philosophically established, a young stud tackle is a must.
While McClendon showed flashes of ability, can he dominate?
Round 1 and Recommended Candidate
Expect a tackle to be drafted first, which hopefully means we will all see Memphis's Dontari Poe wearing the famous Black and Gold.
He's described by many of my peers, who have admittedly seen his play more than myself, as possessing a long, powerful body, showing good footwork, the ability to shed blockers and/or take on two offensive linemen, the all-important great burst off the line of scrimmage, acuity in the trenches and a penchant for bringing down runners with one arm, often in the backfield.
Poe, Heyward and Ziggy Hood.
By that token of potential measurement, the defensive front's future seems fairly bright in the Steel City.