NFL Draft 2012: 7 Areas of Need for the Pittsburgh Steelers
With the NFL Draft just about a month away, It's time to look at some holes in the Steelers lineup.
This year, maybe more than any, is going to be a big draft for an aging Steeler team that wants to stay on top of the AFC. Also, major gaps created by the salary cap purge will need to be addressed.
So, here are the top seven draft needs the Steelers will have to look at come April.
7: Speed at Running Back
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For decades, the Steelers have been a power-running team. But this season, it seems that power is all they'll have.
Rashard Mendenhall won't play until at least week 15 (if at all for the Steelers again), leaving the team with options like Isaac Redman, John Clay, Mewelde Moore, Jonathan Dwyer and Byron Batch.
Redman should get the bulk of the carries, with Dwyer coming in to spell and Clay manning the goal-line duties. But for Pittsburgh, there seems to be a gap a the third-down running back position. Right now, that would go to Mewelde Moore, who missed most of last season and will be 30 by the start of next season.
As the Steelers probably won't be taking a running back in the first two rounds, some mid-round guys stand out to me.
Oregon's LaMichael James is a household name amongst college football fans, but hasn't graded out so well for the NFL. James isn't very big (5'9", 185 lbs), but has excellent speed and major big-play ability. He's got good ball skills and is adept at making plays out of the backfield. James could most likely be had in the Third Round.
The other player is Florida utility man Chris Rainey. Rainey is even smaller than James, but has more experience catching the ball. Rainey can also be snagged around the Fifth or Sixth Round in April's draft.
6: Pass-rushing Outside Linebacker
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Let me just set the record straight. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley may be the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL when they're healthy.
The problem last season, was that they were barely on the field at the same time and it affected the Steelers' ability to bring down the quarterback.
Harrison himself is also going to be 34 years old in May, and his backup Jason Worldis didn't do much to impress (three sacks in 12 games) when Woodley and Harrison were out with various injuries.
Outside linebacker is one of the most important positions in Dick LeBeau's scheme. From Kevin Greene to Jason Gildon to the dynamic duo the Steelers have now, the 'Burgh has always been able to get to the quarterback. But LeBeau's scheme is complex and usually takes players a few seasons to fully grasp it.
The 2012 draft has some good talent at outside linebacker early, but there is a drop off after about the Second Round. Troy's Jonathan Massaquoi and Texas' Keenan Robinson could be good late-round additions for Pittsburgh.
Massaquoi stands at 6'2" with long arms and a good burst off the line. He'll struggle a bit to keep his weight up, but he has a good bull rush move with excellent suddenness and looked pretty good in pass coverage. Massaquoi will probably be off the board sometime in the Fourth Round.
Robinson's disappointing 2011 season pushed his draft stock way down, but he has the build and all the tools to be a solid linebacker in the NFL. He has issues getting off the block, but is still a pretty good pass rusher, especially for a guy the Steelers can probably get in the Fifth Round.
5: Offensive Tackle
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The Steelers line has been absolutely putrid for years now, but they've made some nice additions in the recent past. Maurkice Pouncey was obviously the right choice as he's gone to two straight Pro Bowls, and Marcus Gilbert looked pretty good in his first season in Pittsburgh.
The team also gets a boost at tackle by getting Willie Colon back after missing almost two full seasons with various injuries.
But there is concern.
Colon is still a major injury risk and with Jonathan Scott left as the only reserve, the Steelers will need to add depth behind an oft-injured line. The Steelers should probably look to the mid rounds to add depth behind Colon and Gilbert.
Zebrie Sanders from Florida State may not make it to Pittsburgh's pick in the Third Round (24th pick), but may be worth the reach in Round 2. He's one of the most experienced lineman in the draft, starting 47 games in his four years with the Seminoles. Sanders has room for growth, and could end up being a very good contributor to a team for years.
If they plan to go later, Boise State's Nate Potter will be on the board around Round 4. Potter has a similar frame to that of Nate Solder last year and is a good drive blocker. He'll have to add weight and muscle, but in a few years, he should develop into a starter.
4: Wide Receiver
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Most people think that the Mike Wallace saga has ended and that he'll play with the Steelers during the 2012 season, but I think the drama is just beginning.
With the Denver Broncos signing Peyton Manningand not really having many receiving threats around him (plus a whole lot of cap room to play with), Mike Wallace has to be a prime target for them. And even if Wallace does play with the team next season, the troubles will just continue.
Next season, Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will all be free agents and the best Steelers passing offense Pittsburgh has ever seen may be over before it even really got started.
Unless the Steelers can find a way to keep all three of these guys, they should probably start planning ahead. I'm all in favor of re-signing the very underrated Jerricho Cotchery, but when the draft rolls around, they may find themselves a late-round sleeper.
Iowa's Marvin McNutt would give the Steelers a little something they could use in their offense now: height. He's 6'4", but has the ability to run crisp routes and catch anything thrown at him.
The problem is, he's only an average athlete and he might not get much better than he is right now. McNutt should be available for the Steelers in the Fourth Round, but with a good showing at his pro day, he may jump to the third.
For some deep sleepers, there are a few MAC receivers the Steelers could look at.
Jordan White of Western Michigan and LaVon Brazill of Ohio are two guys that are very similar in style to current Steeler Emmanuel Sanders. Brazill is also a good kick and punt returner. Both guys should start getting looks late, and will be around in the Sixth and Seventh Rounds.
3: Nose Tackle
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It's no secret that Casey Hampton's career is winding down. The soon-to-be 35 year old has anchored the front of some of the NFL's best defenses for the past 11 years, but it's clear that reign is coming to an end.
Hampton started 12 games last season after missing time with an injury and recently had his contract restructured. His longtime backup Chris Hoke recently retired, leaving Steve McLendon as the only other player on the team with nose tackle experience.
The Steelers will have to go with Hampton this season, but need to address the position in the draft. With Dontari Poe's stellar combine, it's unlikely he'll be on the board when Pittsburgh picks at 24, so they'll have to look later in the draft.
Washington's Alameda Ta'amu is absolutely huge. Standing at 6'3" and weighing in at over 330 pounds, Ta'amu possess elite strength and many of the tools the Steelers will look for in their next nose tackle. The biggest knock on the Washington senior is the obvious: his weight. Ta'amu has weighed in at points over 345 pounds and has stamina concerns. But Ta'amu is a legitimate option for the Steelers in Round Two.
If they can't get (or pass on) Ta'amu, they'll have to wait a bit. Alabama's Josh Chapman was the anchor for the number one defense in college football last season. He has a ton of experience at the position and could flourish in the right system. His biggest concern is his pass-rushing ability, which doesn't really affect the Steelers, who pull their nose tackles in passing situations.
2: Inside Linebacker
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Like I said earlier, the Steelers have a very proud lineage of linebackers. The team just let go of James Farrior, and Larry Foote has one foot out the door.
That leaves Stevenson Sylvester. He's very young and lacks experience, but shows a lot of promise. But the Steelers don't really bank on "promise" when it comes to their linebackers.
Pittsburgh is in a great position to take an inside linebacker in the First Round. Alabama's Dont'a Hightower seems to be a perfect fit for Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense. Hightower is big, strong and an excellent pass rusher who will give LeBeau just another toy to play with out on the field.
He also shows some of the best versatility in the draft, having played inside and outside linebacker while also playing with his hand on the ground and rushing off the edge. The best part is, he should be there when the Steelers pick 24th in the First Round.
Audie Cole from N.C. State also could be an option if the Steelers went outside of the First Round to fill their linebacking need. Cole is better than Hightower in coverage, but doesn't have his blitzing skills. Cole is also versatile and will probably be off the board by the end of the Second Round or early Third Round.
1: Offensive Guard
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The photo pretty much sums up the Steelers offensive line. And the weakest link of that line is inside at guard.
Pittsburgh cut former starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu and attempted to replace him with Doug Legursky, who's much better suited as a center.
The draft is very top-heavy at guard and I'm sure the Steelers would like to get their hands on Stanford's David DeCastro, who has drawn comparisons to the great Steve Hutchinson. A trade may be in order to get DeCastro, since the team saw how futile the offense is if Ben Roethlisberger can't stay upright, but remains unlikely.
At pick 24 there are still options, however. Georgia's Cordy Glenn has ability at both tackle and guard and should still be on the board when the Steelers pick. Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler and Iowa State's Kelechi Osemele may be reaches with the 24th pick, but won't be around when Pittsburgh picks in Round 2.
If the Steelers wait until later on draft day, they can still get a quality starter. Some have linked Pittsburgh to Miami (OH) guard Brandon Brooks. Brooks is a mauler at 350 pounds, and should be on the board and ripe for the picking in the mid rounds.
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All three Steeler backups (Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon) are free agents. Leftwich should be re-signed and there is a possibility that Batch returns, but it doesn't look good for Dixon.
Rookie surprise Weslye Saunders is scheduled to miss the first four games next season due to a league suspension. The team inquired about Kellen Davis, who returned to the Bears. Leonard Pope played under offensive coordinator Todd Haley in Arizona and could be an option.
The team spent two high draft picks on ends Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward to pair with Brett Keisel, and although they released former Pro Bowler Aaron Smith, they're pretty stacked at end. Luis Castillo hasn't drawn much interest from the team, but is a solid player. Former Ram Justin Bannan should get a look as well.
The team seems to have no interest in bringing back former starting cornerback William Gay and earlier, released veteran Bryant McFadden. This leaves the team with Ike Taylor and a bunch of young players with talent. The team may look to add some veteran depth at the position. Marcus Trufant may be out of their price range, but former Bengal and Seahawk Kelly Jennings is an option.
Pittsburgh struggled without Ryan Clark in the lineup in Denver and needs to add some coverage help via free agency. Melvin Bullitt was a solid player for the Colts, and bringing back former Steeler safety Chris Hope remains viable.