Free agency is upon us and as with most years, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be bystanders until the dust settles. They value building through the draft more so than free agency and are actively putting their draft board together as they continue to scout players at their pro days.
At this point of the offseason, Pittsburgh's draft board is more or less in place and the evaluations that the team is now making are confirming what they had learned throughout the college football season and during offseason bowl games and the combine.
The Steelers are also able to interview players which will provide further insight that cannot be seen on the field.
Pittsburgh will use a combination of all of this information and combine it with the future potential of each player and see how they each fit within the team's needs.
As the Steelers put together their final draft board, there are several positions that can be eliminated from first-round consideration.
Pittsburgh is set a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger and at tight end with Heath Miller. Neither position should be considered in the first. After spending first round selections on defensive end in 2009 and 2011, it is unlikely they take a third in four years.
Wide receiver is a fluid situation depending on what happens with Mike Wallace. If Wallace is signed, that means the Steelers would have their top three receivers returning next year and not have a need at the position. If he isn't, all of a sudden receiver becomes one of their top needs.
The rest of the positions are fair game whether it is a need for a starter or for upgraded depth. That leaves the Steelers with plenty of options for the 24th overall selection in the draft.
Before we get to who may top the Steelers wish list, let’s look at who has been eliminated from the draft board.
The top quarterbacks will not be under consideration. That means no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, who figure to be gone with the first two picks, as well as Ryan Tannehill.
Though there is no true first-round prospect at tight end, the top player at the position, Coby Fleener, will not be an option for the Steelers in the first.
Things get interesting with defensive end as there are quality prospects at the position that the Steelers could consider, but they would have to be of unbelievable value to invest yet another first-round selection on one.
What this means is that the Steelers will only take a player such as Michael Brockers, Devon Still or Fletcher Cox if they are the best available player–which may be the case depending on how the dominoes fall. All could be good players, but they should not be rated higher than players at other positions.
With the assumption that Wallace signs, the chances for drafting Justin Blackmon (who should be long gone by 24), Michael Floyd, Alshon Jeffery or Kendall Wright can all be taken off the board.
Stanford guard David DeCastro would be an ideal fit for Pittsburgh, but figures to drafted before the Steelers select.
Who else can be eliminated? Not that the Steelers would not immediately jump on any of these players, but there are a number of prospects who will be drafted in the top part of the draft and won't be available for Pittsburgh.
On offense, players such as tackles Matt Kalil and Riley Reiff, guard David DeCastro and running back Trent Richardson all figure to be well out of the Steelers' reach as early first-rounders.
The same can be said about several defensive players such as cornerback Morris Claiborne and pass rushers Quinton Coples and Melvin Ingram.
Janoris Jenkins, cornerback from North Alabama, will likely be available, but character concerns will drop him from the Steelers draft board.
Who does that leave? Plenty of options for the Steelers.
Boston College's Luke Kuechly could replace James Farrior at inside linebacker.
The top needs are nose tackle, inside linebacker, guard and tackle. These players will sit at the top of the draft board.
Dontari Poe is the top 3-4 nose tackle available, but with a good showing at the combine and a high ceiling, he may be out of the Steelers range. Pittsburgh's other option is Alameda Ta'amu, who is more of a second round pick, but the Steelers may have to reach if they want to ensure themselves a starting quality nose tackle.
There are two options at inside linebacker with Luke Kuechly, rated as the top player at his position, and Dont'a Hightower, who may only be a two-down player because of concerns about his coverage skills.
With DeCastro likely gone, that leaves Cordy Glenn as the top available guard. He also has the versatility to play tackle, which should catch the eye of the Steelers coaches. Kelechi Osemele is another lineman who can play multiple positions, but is a better fit at guard in the NFL. If the Steelers want to reach, they may look at Kevin Zeitler. Pittsburgh could also look at center Peter Konz and then move him to guard.
Pittsburgh will not shy away if a good tackle falls to them, particularly with Willie Colon's injury concerns. Jonathan Martin is unlikely to fall to the Steelers' selection, but he and Mike Adams will be within their range. Martin can play left tackle while Adams would play on the right side.
Could Alabama's Mark Barron be the replacement for Ryan Clark or Troy Polamalu?
The Steelers have a number of secondary needs that could take a priority if the right players fall. The injury to Rashard Mendenhall means that the Steelers may look for a future starting running back. Pittsburgh could find a developmental option at safety as well, as both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are over 30 years old.
Though Richardson may be gone, quality running backs Lamar Miller and Chris Polk could be available late in the first. Either player could make an immediate impact as they would share the load with Isaac Redman make Mendenhall, a free agent after the 2012 season, expendable.
The only safety prospect worth a look in the first round is Mark Barron. His experience at Alabama has left him very well-prepared to play in the NFL, and he would have time to grow into his role as a backup for a couple of seasons with Pittsburgh.
The Steelers may decide to add more depth at outside linebacker even though they have two young options with Jason Worilds and Chris Carter.
Courtney Upshaw should be a top 15 pick, but I have seen him slipping some as other players have been rising. He is an experienced player in the 3-4 and would be a safe pick. Whitney Mercilus and Nick Perry are two other options who should be drafted after Upshaw.
After examining how the Steelers’ needs and how the draft may fall, here is a look at how the top 20 players on the Steelers’ draft board may look, keeping in mind that they are players who will be in range when the Steelers select in the draft.
20. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers – Sanu would bring size and physical play to the Steelers’ receiver corps. He is a solid route runner which makes up for his lack of elite speed.
19. Keleche Osemele, OG, Iowa State – Can play tackle or guard. Would help run blocking and would be able to immediately compete for a starting role.
18. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami – Dual threat running back and a true playmaker. Could immediately step in and share the load with Isaac Redman this year and would be the long-term replacement for Rashard Mendenhall.
17. Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin – Would have to move to guard. Strength is one of the knocks on him, but he was successful on one of the best lines in college football. Very good run blocker.
16. Devon Still, DE, Penn State – Not a need, but would give the Steelers a third young and very good defensive end, which could allow Ziggy Hood to play some nose tackle. Good size and strength and should be a productive NFL player.
15. Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Illinois – Exploded onto the scene last year, but there are those who question if he is a one-year wonder. Has excellent pass rushing skills and can play the run.
14. Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin – A sound run blocker, Zeitler was well-prepared in college for the NFL. Will be a solid performer for years on the line, but looks more like a second-round pick.
13. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina – Good size and speed. Is a willing run defender and sure tackler, but needs to develop consistency in coverage.
12. Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State – A better run blocker has some trouble with speed rushers which will keep him on the right side. May not start year in his first year, but would help build a better line. A risky choice, but has loads of talent.
11. Alameda Ta’amu, NT, Washington – Fits the Steelers’ biggest need. He had a good performance a the Senior Bowl, but is a better option in the second-round as he does not have the upside as many of the first-round options.
10. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama - He is a big, physical corner and has experience in a pro-style defense. Kirkpatrick can play the run and the pass, but is not elite. He should develop into a solid starter.
9. Mark Barron, S, Alabama – Not an immediate need, but figures to be a very good NFL player. Has excellent size and can play the run and the pass. He would have time to develop behind veteran safeties.
8. Fletcher Cox, DL, Mississippi State – Has the ability to get to the quarterback, but limited moves. Needs to develop against the run.
7. Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia – Glenn saw his draft stock rise with a strong performance at the combine. He is athletic for his massive size and could start immediately at left guard for Pittsburgh. He ranks below Hightower because the Steelers are returning both starting guards.
6. Nick Perry, OLB, USC – Similar size to LaMarr Woodley, Perry is an accomplished pass rusher who needs to develop as a complete outside linebacker, particularly against the run. Has good upside and is a nice fit for the Steelers’ defense. Would have a year or two to develop as the replacement for James Harrison.
5. Dont’a Hightower, ILB, Alabama – A very smart linebacker has experience in the 3-4, but there are concerns over his speed. Would be a solid option next to Timmons and would be able to make a major impact as a rookie.
4. Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College – The release of James Farrior means that the Steelers need an immediate upgrade at inside linebacker. Kuechly is one of the most NFL ready prospects in the draft and could have a quick apprenticeship behind Larry Foote before taking over as the starter.
3. Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama – James Harrison will not be able to play forever and Upshaw could be an ideal replacement and would be a steal at this point of the draft. Good against the run and rushing the passer, Upshaw would continue the lineage of great outside linebackers.
2. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford – A projected left tackle, Martin could challenge to start as a rookie which means Willie Colon could potentially move to guard. An accomplished pass protector and excellent run blocker, even if Martin can't play this year, he would eventually pair with Gilbert to give the Steelers bookend tackles for the next decade.
1. Dontari Poe, NT, Memphis – The Steelers need a rock in the center of their defense and Poe has the potential to eat up blockers and free up space for the linebackers for years to come. It may be the most important position in the 3-4 defense.
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