As if playing poker with X-ray vision, the Pittsburgh Steelers seemingly had full control of the entire deck, and card after card fell in favor of the Black and Gold.
Unlike classic hold 'em, future NFL players don't always match the their scouting report, so a king is not always a king. Nevertheless, if a few of Pittsburgh's rookies can match their reputation, the 2012 NFL draft will be remembered as aces in the Steel City.
First, the team drafted an absolute ace in Stanford's David DeCastro, the type of player who immediately makes an ailing offensive line better and could justifiably make the Pro Bowl at his position for seasons to come.
Then, the team nabbed Mike Adams, scouted as an exceptional pass blocker that CBS Sportsline's Pete Prisco had off the board at No. 22. The Steelers acquisition of Adams at No. 56 makes the selection a potential perfect "10."
Their third-round selection, Miami linebacker Sean Spence, could become the new "king" of the defense, leading either as a linebacker or, per the speculation of some of our peers (though I have my own doubts), the next hybrid-style, play-making safety. Personally, I believe Spence could develop into a fine inside 'backer, in the style of James Farrior.
Skipping to the fifth round, Chris Rainey has the game-breaking potential to become a "prince" in Pittsburgh, and the team's confidence shows in having already signed the elusive SEC runner to a four-year deal.
And, lastly, hopefully Washington's Alameda Ta'amu will make like the song by the acclaimed band "Queen," keeping offensive linemen, runners and passers "under pressure" from his vital spot as the keystone of the defensive front.
While nobody can be sure until all of the cards are officially on the table, the makings for a royal flush certainly exist within the 2012 draft class. It's up to each of them to decide whether to truly be a diamond amongst their peers or, well... get clubbed!
And, who knows? Maybe a few late-round "jokers" will get the last laugh, proving themselves more valuable than their prospective status.
Either way, optimism is at a high in the Steel City, and team brass deserves a great deal of credit for its patience and process.
Here are five key observations Steelers fans can take from the team's newest draft selections.
After years of abysmal offensive efficiency, particularly in the red zone, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians "retired," only to be replaced by his apparent polar opposite personality with Todd Haley.
Additionally, the team had mentioned a renewed commitment to the run in recent seasons, only to demonstrate the same consistency on the ground that it managed on the 2011 scoreboard.
Lastly, in an offseason that began with more than a few inquisitively raised eyebrows by the fine citizens of Steelers Country, team vice president Art Rooney, Jr. made a public comment about his desire to see franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger "tweak" his game, a sentiment that many wise team followers echoed.
So, a coaching change, failed focus on the run and set of mild demands laid down at the team signal-caller needed only one more thing to be taken seriously: RECIPROCITY.
To take a little, you have to give a little. Talent begets results.
For team management to expect the proper changes to be put in place, albeit to increase winning or prolong talented careers, the brass had to put the money where their mouth was!
And, did they ever!
After months of speculation, the clear, emphatic team focus on draft day was the offensive line, and two potential all-pro talents were brought into the mix. In other words, over 40 percent of the offensive front could be immediately better (if not significantly so), and that's not accounting for the synergistic effect such progress has on the unit as a whole and surrounding players.
To boldly proclaim the need for a quarterback to preserve himself without giving him protection is the equivalent of telling an officer to play it safe amidst gunfire without a Kevlar suit.
To ask an offense to control the clock with a ground attack without the hogs up front to create a path is the same as asking a child to fit the square peg in the round hole.
And, bringing in a new offensive mind to bolster production without paying any attention to the most obvious weakness of the unit would have been the ultimate bridge to nowhere.
Now, Todd Haley can develop an offense with his full imagination, not limited by clear and apparent mediocrity along the offensive front.
In that regard, drafting a stellar guard/tackle combination with the first two picks was an A+ maneuver.
Ideally, the Steelers offensive line, whether at the start of 2012 or shortly thereafter, will consist of the following representatives:
LT: Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams
C: Maurkice Pouney
RG: David DeCastro
RT: Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams
Initially, Willie Colon was a slated starter at tackle for the Steelers. Then, one DeCastro and one Adams later, things changed. April can do that!
The only position not listed above is the starter at left guard, and speculation has been rampant. With so much talent building on the offensive front, the candidates for LG will have to earn it, meet high expectations and maintain a dignified level of play.
If not, provided our two prospective first-round selections (based on talent) match their potential, they'll stick out like a sore thumb, more sooner than later.
For those uncertain that the Steelers offensive line will feature the listed talent due to the youth listed, remember that the team has had no qualms with starting rookies along the front in the past: Alan Faneca, Kendall Simmons, Marvel Smith, Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, anyone?
Last season, Doug Legursky started at RIGHT guard before moving to center last season. While Ramon Foster took over his spot, he has been quite injury-prone.
Ideally, Willie Colon should move to guard, in my opinion.
First of all, the biggest weakness of his game is the footwork needed to contain the fast rush off the end, a concern that is alleviated from the guard position, where his strength and balance would be more properly utilized. Also, he would be sandwiched between two savvy peers who could assist him as the weak link along the line.
Surely there was a nicer way I could have stated that...
It was a talent pool filled with mediocrity. Worse, it was a mediocre pool filled with health issues.
Flexibility was the name of the respirator that kept the offensive line alive, though the quality of the air being channeled into its lungs would certainly not pass most teams' "OSHA" (O-line skill, health and aptitude?) requirements.
Having guards that could play tackle, centers that could play guard and guards that could play center certainly was imperative for the Steelers, and it could continue to be a critical device for the team in upcoming seasons.
Yet, despite being able to interconnect, lock and unlock players up front like a zany Lego project still only left the team with weak plastic pieces. Sometimes, you need building blocks made of steel.
Or, in other words, you need players God-made to play certain positions to the highest degree.
Instead of planning for the need for a backup plan, the Steelers used the 2012 draft to plan on pancaking defensive linemen.
As an example, David DeCastro is a pure guard. His is not a portfolio made for mixing and matching. In his case, the only science project is the specimen itself.
Scouts, Inc. ranked him as the top guard and 16th best member of the entire draft class. He is regarded as an exceptional pass blocker, illustrated by the zero sacks he surrendered during his senior season in Stanford.
The accolades are not foreign to anybody who has paid any attention in recent days, but suffice to say, the Steelers—since the signing of Maurkice Pouncey—have begun the mission to draft for positional excellence along the offensive line opposed to diversity and contingencies.
Hopefully, the retroactive approach will result in a retroactive "Steelers type of O-line," circa the '70s or '90s.
Drafting a play can be great fun, but the execution of the play can only be as certain as the key diagnostics that go into its parts. And, when the diagnostics include a hobbled quarterback, lackluster playcalling and patchwork offensive line, the prognosis for success if poor.
So, how about when those measures change into solid offensive line (let's be optimistic), healthy quarterback (hopefully "tweaking" his game just enough to limit his exposure), revitalized play-calling (maybe we'll even see a traditional screen) and... firecracker running back?
The SEC is a speed conference, and few players represent the electric athlete of the Southeast like Florida's Chris Rainey. Rainey has enormous speed and was a dual-threat with the Gators.He ran for 861 yards and two touchdowns as a senior, also hauling in 31 catches for 381 yards and two more scores. He averaged over six yards per carry.
A further testament to the team's faith came when Rainey inked a four-year deal earlier this week, and it seems apparent he will be in the running rotation for a team that lost Rashard Mendenhall.
With Isaac Redman's combination of brute force with just enough nimbleness, Rainey's speed and dual abilities as a pass-catcher and runner will allow offensive coordinator Todd Haley to be very creative, particularly on third downs.
Common sense would seem to indicate Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace being ready for the regular season, despite all claims to the contrary. With the pressure on third down and moderate distances of containing the threat of Wallace, along with perennial chain-mover Brown and pesky, soft-handed tight end Heath Miller, the opportunity for Rainey to make hay out of the backfield will be abundant.
And, Lord only knows a properly executed screen to Rainey could result in paydirt at any given time. (I hope all of our collective fingers are crossed!)
Do you need a reminder of how damaging a talented, dual-threat running back can be on a decent offense? Ray Rice's domination of Pittsburgh during the first half of an opening day throttling in Baltimore should still sting all who bleed Black and Yellow!
In 2009, the sophomore Rice made his name known quickly, and he publicly humiliated the Steelers. Pittsburgh's defense forced Baltimore into a 4th-and-5 in the waning minutes of a must-win game for both sides. Joe Flacco's pass to Rice seemed way too easy, and the runner scampered for 44 yards to set up the game-tying field goal.
Hopefully, Rainey proves to be Pittsburgh's perfect response to one of their recent banes.
Mike Wallace will return.
Antonio Brown will continue his development.
The offensive line will improve. Really, how can't it? (Don't answer that.)
Todd Haley will develop an offense around the franchise quarterback's strengths.
Big Ben will have the respect for team management to "tweak" his game.
And, more than anything else, the team will continue to reciprocate Ben's loyalty by making the personnel decisions that help him to reach his peak performance.
If the writing was on the wall for some blind optimism a year ago, hopefully a bit more concrete evidence will result in a sounder and much more realized career performance for Big Ben this year.
First, opposed to an offensive coordinator that I always felt had crafted his plays on a "they don't expect that we don't expect that they don't expect that we don't expect that..." basis, Roethlisberger will hopefully find a more thoughtful system engineered around a more talented corps in cooperation with coordinator Todd Haley.
Also, while his numbers have been more gaudy with increased attempts in recent seasons, they certainly have not been as efficient. Even when he was dubbed a mere "game manager" in the past, playing alongside a solid run attack and fine line, his efficiency was often staggering. He made plays on the run as a matter of choice opposed to a predominant matter of necessity.
Like 2004 in Dallas (21-for-25 passing) or opening day against the Texans in 2008 (one incomplete pass), hopefully an improved offensive philosophy and more stable line will amount to a merger of Ben's surgical efficiency and increased passing presence.
Finally, with one leg, nonsensical playcalling by Arians and a patchwork line, Big Ben still managed to lead the team to 12 victories in 2011.
The sky is the limit come September.