As Kevin Colbert and the Pittsburgh Steelers front office and coaches put together their final draft board, they will have to consider whether to improve the offense or re-tool the traditionally strong defense.
Pittsburgh's offense, as it seems every year, needs help on the offensive line, but could also use depth at the skill positions. Defensively, there are actually a couple of holes in the lineup that may call for new starters.
The release of James Farrior leaves Larry Foote as the starter at inside linebacker and Stevenson Sylvester as the primary backup, while Casey Hampton's ACL injury may hamper him this season.
The Steelers' defensive backfield took a hit when William Gay signed with the Arizona Cardinals. That leaves cornerback and inside linebacker without a starter, although both Gay and Farrior were in a need of upgrading anyway.
There are a number of highly rated defensive prospects who will fit in the Steelers' scheme, the question now is which one ranks as the greatest need.
William Gay is gone, leaving the Steelers to lean on three young cornerbacks to replace him, and that may be a very good thing.
Keenan Lewis was solid last season and began to show that he can be a capable, but unspectacular starter.
The greater sense of excitement comes from two second-year players: Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.
Allen played so well last season that he joined the defensive back rotation and found a role with the defense on passing downs. He has unbelievable athletic ability and that translated to the field last year.
Brown played well on special teams and that helped catch the coaches' eyes. He, along with Allen, will compete with Lewis for a starting role.
With so many young players (and two draft picks invested in the position last season), the Steelers are not set, but are fairly comfortable at cornerback.
However, if a player such as Dre Kirkpatrick or Stephon Gilmore fall to the 24th pick, they could be a "surprise" first-round selection. A team can never have enough good corners.
Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark form one of the best safety tandems in the league, but they are both over 30 years old and Pittsburgh may look to find a future replacement for one or both players.
While both players figure to play at a high level for a few more seasons, it could not hurt to add a talented backup to play in case of injury or on passing downs.
The Steelers should feel comfortable even if they do not add a player, with Ryan Mundy and Will Allen as the reserves.
Mundy is a fair stand in for either player and while you don't want him starting every week, he does his job well when given the opportunity.
As with cornerback, the Steelers may find it tough to pass on a talented player early, specifically Mark Barron if he is the best available player in the first.
Beyond Barron, the safety position is lacking this draft and the Steelers will survive whether or not they draft one.
Pittsburgh has invested a lot at defensive end, drafting Ziggy Hood (2009) and Cameron Heyward (2011) in the first round.
Hood figures to start opposite of Brett Keisel, and with Aaron Smith retiring, Heyward should see a significant amount of playing time this season.
Keisel should be the Steelers top defensive lineman next season as a good run defender and pass rusher, but he should be spelled by Heyward.
Heyward flashed a lot of potential as a rookie and should be more prepared than Hood was in his second season for an expanded role.
Behind these players, the Steelers lack any depth and they could use a developmental player who can sit and learn this season, playing only in an emergency situation.
Derek Wolfe would be an excellent mid-round prospect to draft and develop, but the Steelers are set with their top three.
As we saw last year, the Steelers defense struggled to pressure the quarterback when LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were unhealthy.
Pittsburgh cannot afford to go without a pass rushing threat if either player is unable to play this season, and they may consider adding more depth to the position.
The Steelers can no longer afford to shift Lawrence Timmons to the outside with James Farrior being released (not to mention he is completely ineffective on the outside).
Jason Worilds showed very little in his playing time and has to show a tremendous amount of growth if he is to one day replace Harrison.
Chris Carter has some pass rushing potential, but was hampered by injuries.
There are a number of good outside linebacker prospects early in the draft and while they would not start for a year or two, Pittsburgh's defense thrives on pass rushing outside linebackers and they need to upgrade behind the starters.
Courtney Upshaw or Nick Perry could be options in the first round if Pittsburgh wants to move in this direction.
The release of James Farrior left Pittsburgh without a starting inside linebacker and leader of the defense.
Larry Foote knows the scheme very well, but is limited athletically—he has trouble against speed backs like Ray Rice and is unable to run with tight ends downfield.
While this is the knock on Dont'a Hightower, he should still be a consideration early. He runs better than Foote, has a vast knowledge of the 3-4 defense and has the ability to line up as a rush end on passing downs.
But should the Steelers take a linebacker in the first round? If Luke Keuchly is available, there should be no question, but if only Hightower is on the board, the Steelers will have to check out all of their options.
The team already has a lot of money invested in Woodley, Harrison and Timmons and spending on a first-round pick would focus a high percentage of their cap into the linebacker position. However, that is what makes the defense thrive.
There will be good value in the middle of the draft at linebacker as well, and inside linebacker is a position that is much easier to fill than some of the other draft needs.
Pittsburgh also has Stevenson Sylvester, who will compete with Foote for the starting job.
Regardless of where they take an inside linebacker, it should be high on the priority list unless you feel comfortable with Foote and Sylvester moving forward.
I think they can do better.
The linebackers may get the glory, but it is the nose tackle that makes Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense run, and the Steelers have had a great nose tackle with Casey Hampton.
However, age and an ACL injury makes one question how he will perform this season, likely his last with the team.
Steve McLendon played well last season as a backup, but that appears to be his upside, and Pittsburgh needs to find a future prospect for the position.
Dontari Poe, one of the highest rated nose tackles in the draft, is one option in the first round; however, his stock is dropping.
“He needs to get into a good locker room, with a mentor in that defensive line group who can show this kid how to play football,” NFL Network's Mike Mayock said (via Pro Football Talk).
There is not a better team than the Steelers to meet this criteria.
As far as Poe's stock dropping, some analysts shot Poe up the draft board into the top 10 after the combine. Ridiculous.
Poe's stock just came back to where it started, as a first-round pick in the 20-32 range or an early second-rounder.
Everyone already knew that Poe was not dominant at Memphis, and playing this year is not an issue. Even if he was dominant, Pittsburgh's defensive line coach John Mitchell strips players down of everything they know and builds them up to fit what the Steelers want their defensive linemen to do.
There are other good options as well.
Alameda Ta'amu, Mike Martin and Josh Chapman are possibilities in the second or third round while Nick Jean-Baptiste and Hebron Fangupo could be had later.
Pittsburgh needs a player who they can develop to be the center of their defense for the foreseeable future and it has to come from this draft. Nose tackle means too much to their defense to ignore it.
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