The 2012 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers showed promise after a 6-3 start. But a Ben Roethlisberger injury catalyzed a collapse which found its cacophonous voice in a pitiful loss to the Browns in Cleveland and culminated in a disappointing 8-8 finish.
While the Steelers aren't at the rebuilding stage, general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin need a bit of introspection to figure out what went wrong this year and how to answer some pressing concerns for the future.
Colbert promised changes to the Steelers roster. Those changes will mainly center around reducing the Steelers' bloated payroll by cutting ties with underperforming players, overvalued free agents and aging stars.
The purge will lead to holes that need to be filled through the draft. Here's how the Steelers will begin to fill those holes.
The team is getting long in the tooth at safety.
Due to injuries, Steelers fans saw more of Troy Polamalu in shampoo commercials than on the football field. He'll be 32 next season.
Furthermore, he has a history of concussions, putting him at the precipice of future long-term health issues.
Their starting free safety, Ryan Clark, will be 34 in October. Reserves Ryan Mundy and Will Allen are not long-term solutions.
Enter Matt Elam. He has a low center of gravity and is extremely physical. He played at a high level against intense competition in arguably the best conference in college football (SEC).
He reminds me of a heavier version of former Steelers safety Thomas Everett—a hard hitter who plays the run well.
Elam will have the opportunity to smooth out his rough edges under the tutelage of Polamalu and Clark as well as defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.
With the inevitable exit of Casey Hampton, the Steelers will be left with Steve McClendon as the only viable option at nose tackle.
Brandon Williams has the beef (340 lbs) to play the position.
Hailing from Division II Missouri Southern, Williams was voted MIAA Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
Make no mistake, drafting Williams comes with some risk. Playing against Division II competition, Williams ran roughshod, particularly during his senior year, recording 16.5 of his school-record 27 sacks.
The question will be whether or not he can step it up against NFL-caliber competition. But his athleticism and college productivity make drafting him this high worth the risk.
If anything, Williams will provide the depth the Steelers desperately need at nose tackle.
The Steelers are dangerously thin at inside linebacker. Veteran Larry Foote may come back, which leaves Stevenson Sylvester as the default starter if Sean Spence can't return to compete after a nightmarish knee injury.
Here is where I think outside the box.
John Simon is an intriguing prospect. Simon played defensive end for the Buckeyes and is projected as an outside linebacker in the NFL.
Two things come into play here as to why I see him as an inside linebacker.
Simon struggled a bit in the Senior Bowl at the outside position—mainly in pass coverage—and may have seen his stock drop there.
However, Simon played some defensive tackle at OSU and is a tenacious ball hawk. Furthermore, he has the size (6'3", 255 lbs) to be a good run-stopper inside and has shown an ability to rush the passer.
And he may give the Steelers extra flexibility on the outside if coached up.
Steelers fans only have to look at Lawrence Timmons and former Steeler Chad Brown to see examples of how the team took outside guys and moved them inside.
At the beginning of last year, the running back position looked to be a strength. Now, the Steelers are looking mighty spare at the position.
Mercurial unrestricted free agent Rashard Mendenhall has likely seen his days as a Steeler end, especially since the team owner and president Art Rooney II found his performance lacking
Restricted free agents Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman ran too inconsistently last year to garner strong interest from any other team, so both of them will probably be back.
And troubled Chris Rainey, well, is no longer a Steeler.
Kenjon Barner could fill the spot that Rainey was supposed to hold. Barner has that stop-on-a-dime ability to go along with an explosive burst.
Extremely productive his senior year (1,767 yards rushing, 23 TD), Barner has the tools to be an excellent third-down back, adding a pony to a stable full of mules.
Yes, Nick Kasa is raw and will need coaching. But keep in mind that he is built like an undersized redwood tree (6'6", 271 lbs).
Playing for the inept Buffaloes, Kasa was a defensive end that moved to tight end.
With his size and athleticism, he has the making of a poor man's Rob Gronkowski. Even if he doesn't become the next Gronk, his potential makes him a possible steal here.
Ever since Plaxico Burress left after the '04 season, Ben Roethlisberger has been clamoring for a big wide receiver.
Although Burress returned to the Steelers last year, he was considerably aged if not worse for wear.
Aaron Mellette is tall (6'3") and a former basketball player. He has the height and athleticism to outjump a defender for the ball.
Mellette is by no means a starter, but he can add depth and possibly be a red-zone threat.
Perhaps it's time the Steelers try a different approach with their backup quarterbacks than what they have done in the past. Usually, the Steelers find some veteran castoff in the Land of Misfit Starting Quarterbacks.
It has worked in the past, but the formula is looking somewhat flawed now. Charlie Batch wore a leather helmet his rookie year and is only a few years shy of social security.
Byron Leftwich has done as good job the last couple of years impersonating "Mr. Glass" from the movie Unbreakable.
So—why not a quarterback in the irrelevant round?
Seth Doege doesn't even look old enough to shave. He was a highly touted high school prospect until injuries made him undesirable.
However, he was extremely productive at Texas Tech, throwing 28 touchdown passes and averaging over 330 yards per game.
He could become a Doug Flutie type, coming into games to rally the team after one of Roethlisberger's inevitable injuries.