2012 NFL Draft: 4 Potential 1st-Round Selections for the Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have needs all over the roster, but the biggest three are at guard, nose tackle and inside linebacker.
Pittsburgh has Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster starting at guard, and it has weak links on the offensive line.
Foster has shown some promise, but is limited while Legursky is often overmatched by the large defensive linemen that he has to go against on a weekly basis.
While the problems on the offensive line have been well-documented for years, the issues on the defense have just sprung up.
The defense has aged before our eyes, and now, they are without their leader, James Farrior, which leaves a pretty big hole at inside linebacker.
Pittsburgh will plan to use Larry Foote or Stevenson Sylvester to fill the void, but neither player matches the talent level as the rest of the linebackers.
Meanwhile, Casey Hampton had a down year last season, and it reflected on the rest of the defense. Without Hampton commanding the double teams that he has in the pass, the Steelers defense struggled defending the run and getting to the quarterback.
If all four players were available at the 24th selection, which player should the Steelers select?
Without a top nose tackle, the Steelers defense cannot be at its best.
A secondary need could be a product of the lack of pass-rush as well. When James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were injured, the Steelers pass-rush struggled even more.
Harrison is a year older, and the Steelers could use a developmental prospect behind him, as Jason Worilds has not convinced anyone that he can take over full-time. A first-round pass rusher would also be insurance for any injuries.
So who are the options? Here are four likely candidates for the Steelers in the first round.
Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin
Possibly one of the most solid players in the draft, Zeitler could start at guard from day one and help keep Ben Roethlisberger upright.
Zeitler was well-coached at Wisconsin and would fit nicely next to Maurkice Pouncey in upgrading the pass protection, but more importantly, upgrading the ground game.
The Steelers need to reinvigorate their ground attack, and a strong run blocker like Zeitler would go a long way.
Pittsburgh could find more of a balance on offense, which should help increase their red-zone productivity and maximize the offense's potential.
Zeitler is a strong blocker and has few holes in his game. But while he has sound technique, he also has a limited upside.
Though Zeitler should be a good player early on and a relatively safe draft pick, he also does not have a high ceiling. There is quality depth at the position as well.
Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama
One of the more popular players in mock drafts, Hightower is an intelligent linebacker who could eventually become the captain of the defense.
Hightower has plenty of experience in a 3-4 defense, but is limited athletically. There are concerns about his ability to drop into coverage.
However, Hightower has a ton of intangibles to like and a high football IQ. He also can play end on passing downs to give the Steelers another pass-rushing threat.
By drafting Hightower, the Steelers would have a true thumper next to Timmons and a player who could potentially start from day one. I would not imagine that the combination of Foote and Sylvester would be able to hold him off for very long.
Hightower is in a different mold of the small, quicker linebackers that the Steelers have used with Farrior and Timmons. But he does have a tremendous amount of talent, and the Pittsburgh defense values good linebackers.
Why won't they draft Hightower? He is limited dropping into coverage, and they could find a quality linebacker in the second, third or fourth round.
Dontari Poe, DL, Memphis
In my final mock draft, I had the Steelers selecting defensive tackle Dontari Poe from Memphis. Though he is a controversial prospect given his high ceiling but low college production.
Nose tackle is the most important position in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, and Poe is a player who can not only play the nose, but can shift out to play end as well when Dick LeBeau wants to give opposing offenses different looks.
Poe is a very strong player with a massive body who could command two blockers and be a force against the run. Though he is limited at rushing the passer, that is not much of an issue, as the Steelers do not expect that from their nose tackle.
Pittsburgh needs a player who could occupy linemen up front so the linebackers can roam free to make plays.
Though he would need a year or two to develop, Poe would provide the Steelers with a potentially elite player with his top-15 talent.
I do believe the lack of domination at the college level is a bit overstated as he will get much better coaching in the pros.
Another argument against Poe is that the Steelers could get a player such as Alabama's Josh Chapman later in the draft and he may be the ideal replacement for Hampton.
Nick Perry, OLB, USC
Besides having a dominant nose tackle, the Steelers have to have a a dominating pass-rush from their outside linebackers.
Pittsburgh has two Pro Bowl players at the position now, but Harrison is getting near the end, and Woodley suffered through injuries last season. The lack of depth hurt the team.
Perry is a big linebacker who was productive while at USC.
He has a variety of pass-rushing moves, but also the size to defend the run. I like him better as a 3-4 outside linebacker than a 4-3 defensive end.
Though the Steelers usually wait until the second or third round to find outside linebackers, they may have to take one early if they want one this season given the number of 3-4 teams in the league.
Of the four players, three would fit as filling a need, while Perry would give the Steelers another quality pass-rusher, a position you cannot have enough of.
The only player that the Steelers did not bring in for a pre-draft visit was Zeitler, but that does not mean much.
If the Steelers were to draft on potential, I would rank the players as Poe, Perry, Zeitler and then Hightower.
If they were ranked by highest floor, it would be Zeitler, Hightower, Perry and Poe.
Will one of these players be the Steelers' first-round choice? I would say the chances are pretty good. It will not be long before we find out.
Follow me on Twitter @ChrisG_FC
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