Pittsburgh Steelers Pre-Draft Preview: Grading Strength of Every Positional Unit
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a playoff contender as things stand right now. It's hard to dispute that, since the team has been in the playoffs all but once under Mike Tomlin. The question is are they a Super Bowl contender?
As of right now, I'd say not quite. There are some serious holes at key spots that need to be fixed. The news isn't all bad, but it isn't all happiness and roses either.
Here's a look at each position and how it grades out as we head into April.
The Steelers currently have Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Smith on their quarterback depth chart (at least when you consider players with any professional experience).
Smith is a marginal backup at best and doesn’t possess the skill set to be successful in this offense because his accuracy numbers are quite low for an offense predicated on the ability to throw the football regularly.
Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon and Byron Leftwich are free agents. One of them (most likely Batch or Leftwich) will probably return and strengthen this unit, but they need some young blood. I don’t see Smith sticking even as the third guy.
Running Backs: B-
Isaac Redman will be the team’s starter next season while Rashard Mendenhall recovers from an ACL injury in last year’s regular season finale. Redman is a capable back and might actually be a better starter than Mendenhall has been because he will push through blocks and tacklers more forcefully.
Behind Redman, there is a lot of talent, but also a lot of questions. If I was grading on talent alone, this would be a solid A. But there’s no proven backs here. Mewelde Moore is a free agent. Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch are coming off injuries.
John Clay looked okay in small spots last year, but that doesn’t make a whole career. The Steelers need to add through free agency or the draft. I would recommend LaMichael James if they can get him in the third or fourth round.
Wide Receivers: A-
While I’d like to see a possession guy here, I’m very comfortable with the Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders trio. The Steelers will likely continue to employ three receiver sets and there is no team in the NFL that can field a trio that potent and talented.
To bump this up to an A+, the Steelers need to either bring back Jerricho Cotchery, which they are working on, or sign a comparable player in free agency. They could also opt to take a possession-type guy in the later rounds of the draft now that they have three compensatory selections.
Regardless of what they do here, this will be a unit of strength for this season.
Tight Ends: B+
The Steelers will return their unit intact next season. Heath Miller is among the best in football and is a versatile blocker and receiver. He hasn’t been able to go out for passes as often in recent years because of the questionable play at tackle, but he does have the skills to be a Pro Bowl tight end.
Behind him are Weslye Saunders and David Johnson, who also doubles as the team’s fullback. Saunders will sit out four games because of a suspension, but that shouldn’t take too much of the tarnish off of his talent and ability. As long as he can learn his lesson, he could be a solid number two guy this year.
Johnson is versatile and provides some great plays every year. He’s underrated at his position and is one of the more valuable complementary pieces on offense.
Offensive Guard: C
The only reason this grade is so low is because there is absolutely no depth at the position. The only reason it’s still that high is because I believe the starters are solid enough to at least be NFL backups.
This is a no-brainer area for the team to address in the draft. Right now it’s Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster. Both have shown flashes. Legursky started in the Super Bowl in 2010 (albeit at center). They have a future.
The question is whether or not the team can either give them competition or find people to demote them in favor of slotting in. That’s the issue here. Add in a Cordy Glenn and you bump this up to a B-.
Offensive Tackle: C-
The starters are okay. Marcus Gilbert has a lot of proving to do on the left side. Anyone not named Max Starks who’s played over there in recent years has frightened everyone. Starks may or may return as a backup, but the team could use his depth.
Willie Colon is also a question. He’s missed virtually all of the last two seasons with major injuries. That doesn’t inspire confidence.
Then you look behind him and see Jonathan Scott, the team’s worst tackle. He’s the primary backup and here’s where we really have a problem. If he’s the top backup when the season opens, that means that the team failed. They have to acquire a better swing tackle.
Maurkice Pouncey is one of the upper-tier guys in the NFL. The problem is that he is showing a bit of a propensity for injuries that nag. Still, I’ll bet on the bright side and say he’s going to be healthy and full functional through 2012. He gets an A by himself.
Backup is murky. If Doug Legursky starts at a guard spot, there is not clear backup plan for Pouncey going down. Trai Essex might be brought back, but the team has already given up on him too many times.
It doesn’t make sense to use a first rounder on Peter Konz unless you want him to start at guard. This is going to be interesting. The best solution might just be to bump Legursky somehow.
Defensive Ends: B+
The starters are solid. Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood have become solid players in the NFL. No Steelers defensive end will probably qualify for a Pro Bowl (even though they all should) because of the style of defense the team employs, but don’t let that confuse the issue. These guys are elite.
Behind them is second year man Cameron Heyward. He’s solid as well and I’m quite impressed with his rookie campaign. He could start this season, but he’s blocked. That’s comforting since the team may always need an injury replacement.
They need another guy to slot in, but it’s not a major need since Heyward can play on either side with equal ability.
Defensive Tackles: C+
This grade reflects a few things. I’m not betting on Casey Hampton to be 100% by the time the season starts. That’s hard for anyone off an ACL injury that happened in January, but it’s not going to be easy at all for a guy in the wrong age bracket and with a heavy body on top of the knees.
He’s also lost a step. That’s not a good mix. The team would do well to get a guy early that can play this season if needed. Mike Martin comes to mind as a second round possibility.
Steve McLendon is the backup and spot starter, but he has been unspectacular so far. He could be a big factor in the run defense this season if Hampton doesn’t get to play regularly and with full power.
This spot needs more work than the rest of the defense really.
Outside Linebackers: A
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who will hopefully be fully healthy going into the 2012 season, are one of the top pass rushing tandems in the NFL. They are feared and they are excellent. Both are Pro Bowl caliber guys.
Behind them is Jason Worilds, who looked solid as a replacement starter when Harrison or Woodley was out. Worilds could likely start for about half the teams in the league right now and figures to get better as he gets more looks.
Chris Carter also saw some time as a rookie and was solid, although he’s still pretty raw. He does give the team a second capable backup at this spot, which means they not only have great starters but great depth behind them. This is a position of great strength.
Inside Linebackers: B-
James Farrior’s tenure is over. Stevenson Sylvester steps in for him. That’s a big question mark. Depending on which fans you ask, they either like Sylvester and think he’s a brilliant star in the making or they think the Steelers need to draft someone in the first round to play immediately.
Lawrence Timmons is solid opposite him. No worries there. Larry Foote is the primary backup again and his age and lack of explosiveness are worrisome if he’s needed to step in for a longer stretch. Beyond that, Chris Carter would be the next guy in right now.
There needs to be some draft attention paid here, but I’m not sure this is the first priority. It should be in the top three.
Ike Taylor is solid. He had his best season as a pro in 2011 and, besides that awful playoff performance, was one of the best corners in the NFL all season. He’s a rarity: the player who signs the extension and has their career season afterwards.
Behind him we have issues.
Keenan Lewis or Cortez Allen figures to be the other starter with the loser of that battle going to the nickel spot. I’m not sure either is ready to start, but Lewis has been around long enough to be ready. His play last year was a step in the right direction, so he probably has the inside track at this moment.
Curtis Brown rounds out the main depth. He was okay as a rookie but he needs work too. The team might want to get into this spot in the mid or late-rounds of the draft with a couple of picks. They have 10 this year, so you can figure one or two can be corners.
You know the starters. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are elite. There’s no real dispute there. They’ll be on the field unless they’re hurt.
The issue we have is that they are both prone to injury thanks to playing style. Clark has rarely missed time, but Polamalu has started to have some recurring issues on that front. Clark is a vicious hitter, so someday that will catch up too.
The depth is questionable right now. This is a position probably best addressed in free agency, but could be a sixth or seventh round fix from the draft as well. The need to develop someone isn’t as big, so the team could find a guy who isn’t exactly perfect or NFL ready right now.
Jeremy Kapinos appears to be taking over full-time as the team’s punter and that’s good news. Kapinos, like his predecessor Dan Sepulveda, has great leg strength and can pin opponents deep with good directional skills. Unlike the guy he’s replacing, he also seems to be able to stay healthy for a full season.
I may be a bit harsh on Shaun Suisham, but the guy just doesn’t impress me. The Steelers, who struggled last season with scoring touchdowns (as evidenced by finishing 21st in the league), need a solid kicker who can make virtually any kick in a home stadium that is beyond unkind. Suisham just doesn’t have the strength in that leg that I’d like and his accuracy over his career has been mediocre at best despite a decent 2010 and 2011.