There is no question that the Pittsburgh Steelers need to get younger on defense. Last season they had seven starters over 30 years old and it is time that the team begins to find some replacements for its aging veterans.
There may be a couple of in-house candidates to step into starting roles this season with Steve McLendon potentially taking over for Casey Hampton at nose tackle and Jason Worilds to take over at right outside linebacker if the Steelers decide to release James Harrison.
Larry Foote is another veteran with an uncertain future. He is still a serviceable starter and the Steelers may need him if Sean Spence is not ready to take on an increased role.
Then of course there is Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, the starting safeties who are both over 30 who are susceptible to injury with their physical style of play.
Not counting nose tackle where McLendon looks to be a good fit to be a successful starter, the Steelers could use young talent at outside linebacker, inside linebacker and safety.
That is a lot to ask for in one draft and no one can expect the Steelers to find three or four impact defenders this year. In fact, considering that there are capable players to step in on the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers may decide to avoid selecting a defender in the first round.
It wouldn’t be particularly unusual for the Steelers to avoid drafting a defender with their first pick.
Since 2001, the Steelers have selected a defender only five times in the first round (Casey Hampton in 2001, Troy Polamalu in 2003, Lawrence Timmons in 2007, Ziggy Hood in 2009 and Cameron Heyward in 2011).
Out of this group, only Hampton started as a rookie.
The only other rookie defender to earn a starting job was Kendrell Bell. He was drafted in the second round of 2001 draft.
Beyond these two players, no rookie defender earned a starting job in their first year and do not expect that to change any time soon.
Dick LeBeau runs a complex defense and the defensive coaching staff relies on the veterans to step in. That is why players like Polamalu, Timmons and LaMarr Woodley took a year or two to earn a starting role.
It’s even harder for young defensive linemen under the tutelage of defensive line coach John Mitchell since he breaks a rookie’s technique down and builds him back up in the Steelers’ way.
That is why Hood and Heyward have been slowly groomed into their positions and also what made Hampton such a special rookie.
What position is the biggest need on defense?
Examining potential rookies that the Steelers could take in the first round, there are not too many who could make a significant contribution in year one.
All of the elite prospects will be gone by the 17th choice and the Steelers have too many holes on the roster to use their draft picks to trade up.
But say the Steelers did stand pat and select a defender, there are few potential draft picks would start as a rookie. At best they would be limited to situational play—specifically to passing downs.
Manti Te’o, who Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller believes will go somewhere in the 15 to 30 range, Arthur Brown or Alec Olgetree are two players who could step in and start next to Lawrence Timmons on the inside.
While these players are talented, the Steelers could find quality linebackers later in the draft. Players such as Kevin Minter, Khaseem Greene, Nico Johnson, Gerald Hodges or Sean Porter are all potential picks who at least could compete for a starting job as a rookie.
The same cannot be said for any outside linebacker or safety that the Steelers may look at.
For years the Steelers have been developing their outside linebackers and it takes them two to three years before they make an impact.
Most recently, Woodley flashed a ton of potential as a rookie and earned a starting job by his second year. But it isn’t always that easy. Alonzo Jackson, Bruce Davis and Jason Worilds have all been early draft picks that have not panned out.
While Jackson and Davis were busts, Worilds still has a chance to make an impact and this year is important for him. But even while he hasn’t proven himself, Worilds would still get preference over a rookie.
Top prospects Jarvis Jones, Damontre Moore and Bjoern Werner all figure to be top 10 selections leaving a second group of linebackers for the Steelers to choose from.
Dion Jordan, Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are all intriguing options in the first as is Ezekiel Ansah, who Matt Miller believes can be “coached into a great player.”
The key there, however, is being coached and that takes time.
It may be risky to wait until the second round for a pass rusher, but considering they will have time to develop, the Steelers could potentially grab an Alex Okafor in the second or an under-the-radar option even later.
The same can be said about the safety position, where any rookie would be at minimum one year from starting, possibly even two years away. Besides this, capable starters at safety are easier to find than several other positions.
Not that he was an excellent option, but Will Allen was able to step in this season and perform well enough for the Steelers. By no means was he the best safety, but he did his job well for the most part.
Pittsburgh could try to find an impact safety in the first and put them on a slow developmental track. There are a couple of good options with Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro, but talented players such as Matt Elam or Bacarri Rambo are a couple of talented options who could be available in the second or later.
By waiting until at least the second round to grab a defender, the Steelers could look to add a much needed impact player to the offense.
Which side of the ball should the Steelers use their first-round pick on?
That could come in the way of a left tackle or guard to solidify the offensive line. If a player such as Eric Fisher or Lane Johnson is available, the Steelers could finally pick up the franchise left tackle that they have been missing.
If they would go guard, a player such as Chance Warmack would give the Steelers a powerful force who could be that final piece needed to re-establish the running game.
Without any elite running back prospects, the Steelers could look to add a receiving option instead. It is a position that general manager Kevin Colbert has not shied away from, drafting six in the first three rounds since joining the Steelers in 2000.
Keenan Allen would be the only prospect worthwhile taking in the first, but the Steelers could make a bold move and add an elite tight end by selecting Tyler Eifert.
Beyond adding a player who could contribute quickly, the Steelers are in need of adding talent on offense as they could potentially lose Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks and Ramon Foster. On top of this, Heath Miller will be recovering from a torn ACL.
This is not to say that the Steelers should not take a defender in the first round. If a defender is the highest-rated player on their draft board when their turn is up, you better believe they will take a defender.
However, the defensive scheme run by LeBeau is so good that the Steelers can plug in almost anyone and still be successful. They may not have an elite defense, but it will still be a good one.
So despite the age issues on defense, the Steelers do not need to draft defense in the first round. It would help them get younger, but they would almost certainly be at least a year away from starting.
For a team that needs help now, it may be worth it for the Steelers to wait until the second to address the defensive side of the ball and find some help for the offense in the first.