The Pittsburgh Steelers have always embodied the philosophy that consistent contenders build through the draft and not through free agency. That is never going to be more essential than in 2013, when the team’s lack of cap space will prevent them from having much flexibility on the market.
The team’s best strategy this season would be to trade out of the 17th-overall spot to move back in the first round and accumulate more picks with which to stock the roster.
With that in mind, here’s a look at 10 prospects every fan should know about that should be available late in the first round and beyond this April.
Kevin Minter is among the top-rated inside linebackers heading into this month’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
He does a lot of great things that the Pittsburgh Steelers need on their defense. The most important of those qualities is his aggressiveness. He’s a good open-field tackler who has a nose for the ball and excellent instincts. He’s very difficult to get out of position or to surprise.
He doesn’t have the physical presence or athleticism that many teams look for, but a 3-4 alignment may benefit him by pairing him with the more physical and athletic Lawrence Timmons.
Minter would be a good fit with a late first-round choice and could be a good fit if the team elects to stay with the 17th pick in the round as well. He projects as a steady, reliable starter that won’t make mistakes and will improve the team’s poor tackling in the middle.
With James Harrison a potential casualty of the salary cap this offseason and the jury still out on Jason Worilds, it may make sense to upgrade at outside linebacker in the draft’s early stages.
Alec Ogletree is a name fans should watch. He’s currently among the top outside linebackers available and projects as a late first-round choice. He could go anywhere after the middle of the round depending on how teams view him and who needs his services.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, he fits the style of the team’s current outside linebackers. He’s athletic and has the ability to get around an offensive line quickly to stop a play in the backfield. He’s a hitter as well, something important on a defense that relies some on intimidation.
The one hole in Ogletree’s game is his tackling, which is inconsistent at times. He also needs to do a better job of shedding blocks and getting to the next level.
He has some off-field baggage as well, but the Steelers have shown a tolerance for that as long as players can convince them those issues are behind them.
Keenan Lewis finally burst onto the scene in 2012 for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he is an unrestricted free agent and likely played his way out of Pittsburgh, who cannot afford to give him a rich contract in free agency.
Instead, the team will look to upgrade through the draft and expect Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown to step up correspondingly on the depth chart.
There is a lot of cornerback talent in this draft class, but Pittsburgh would be wise to finally spend an early pick on the position after relegating it to the middle rounds for many years.
Johnthan Banks is the kind of player they need. A ball-hawking corner with excellent coverage skills and athleticism, he can make any play and stay with the speedy receivers in the AFC North that he will be expected to cover.
The question is his speed. That, however, isn’t as big of a deal in Pittsburgh where Dick LeBeau employs a zone system that will allow him to play off and cover rather than play up and be expected to go step-for-step with a receiver.
Another cornerback the Pittsburgh Steelers could consider is Desmond Trufant. Unlike Johnthan Banks, he has the speed to stick to a receiver in man coverage. He has, however, shown some excellent skills in zone as well.
His tackling is something that needs work, but it looked more consistent in 2012. The mechanics are flawed more than the effort. He’s a very high-motor player that simply doesn’t have the best technique.
For Pittsburgh, he would be a great option very late in the first round and could sit and learn for a season or two behind Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown before challenging them for their jobs in 2014 or 2015.
While Banks is a better and more NFL-ready player at this point, Trufant may be the better eventual fit for a team that likes physical players in the secondary and prizes that over the ability to make splash plays.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will soon be confronted with the harsh reality of replacing Troy Polamalu. Their defensive face and best playmaker has seen his skills deteriorate and his injuries mount. It is reasonable to believe he has only a couple of years left.
Matt Elam is a good replacement option in this year’s thin crop of safety talent. He is an athletic safety that plays with an aggressiveness and physicality that are reminiscent of Polamalu’s style. He’s also very intelligent and savvy.
The knock on Elam is that he can be too aggressive (something that has gotten Polamalu a time or two as well) and that he’s not a consistent playmaker. His size is also a concern, but it doesn’t seem like it will be a big issue if he can play bigger with his tough style.
Pittsburgh could land Elam in the late-first or even potentially the second round. That would allow him to spend a year learning behind Polamalu before challenging him or even Ryan Clark for playing time in 2014.
The Pittsburgh Steelers could use a player or two that can take away the football. Their defense has seen turnover production drop considerably in the past couple of seasons. None of their defensive backs, other than Troy Polamalu, are accomplished in this area.
Shawn Williams could improve that markedly. He’s an accomplished safety that is consistent in his play, mechanically sound and very tough and physical.
With the Steelers set to get younger, they’ll need to start training up new leaders as well. Williams has a clean record and a pattern of leadership on the field. He’s an unselfish young man. That bodes well for his future in the NFL.
Williams brings versatility as well. He played inside linebacker for Georgia when injuries piled up on their defense. He could eventually replace Ryan Clark as the defensive enforcer.
It wouldn’t be out of the question to nab both Williams and Matt Elam in this draft. That would give the Steelers a versatile, young secondary that would be hard to defend for years to come.
The brutal truth in Pittsburgh is that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t play every game. He’s one of the gutsiest and toughest quarterbacks in the NFL, but he’s getting older and has his limits. Last season was a disaster after he went out with rib and shoulder injuries.
When he returned, he was obviously not recovered. He’s a leader, however, and that meant he felt he needed to come back to lead the team on the field.
It would be a great move to get a player that can substitute for him at times and give him confidence that he can take time to recover from his injuries.
Landry Jones could be that player. His draft stock has taken a big hit and he is no longer a first-round talent, but he still has the kind of skills any NFL quarterback needs.
He is an accurate and strong quarterback with decent mobility and good intelligence. He has the ability to make smart defensive reads and adjustments. That’s among the hardest things to teach at the NFL level.
He needs to improve his touch and ability to throw short passes and also his deep reads in the NFL. Everything else seems pretty solid. His decision making wasn’t as good in 2012, but he is still an upper-echelon guy.
Pittsburgh could develop him as an eventual replacement for Roethlisberger in the same way the Green Bay Packers did with Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre. It cannot hurt to have a good backup behind a starter that has only once started all 16 games.
Zac Dysert is one of the better prospects in this year’s weak quarterback class, but he gets less press because he plays at a smaller school in a weaker conference and because he doesn’t play in a pro-style offense.
He does, however, have a possible Pittsburgh connection. Ben Roethlisberger went to the same college and he’s done pretty well for himself in the NFL.
The Steelers need a new set of backups. The best way to achieve a balance behind Roethlisberger is to sign a veteran who can step in right away and then get a rookie in the draft that can learn and eventually step up to the second slot.
Dysert could be significantly more than that if he proves he can work out of an NFL offense. He’s great on deep throws and in the shotgun. His biggest issue is that he isn’t accurate on the run. That’s something that coaches can work on, however.
The raw talent is there and he may be the classic late-round pick that blossoms with the right coaching and the right supporting cast.
With only Jonathan Dwyer expected to return in 2013, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have an enormous amount of turnover in the offensive backfield. Even Dwyer isn’t guaranteed a roster spot if someone surpasses him.
Pittsburgh’s rushing attack was again disappointing in 2012, finishing 26th in the league in yardage. The team’s runners seemed to be mostly stuck in reverse and unable to get any kind of consistent attack going from week to week.
With that in mind, the team will bid farewell to starter Rashard Mendenhall and backup Isaac Redman. They have already sent Chris Rainey packing after an off-field incident. Baron Batch could be brought to camp but hasn’t distinguished himself or stayed healthy.
Ray Graham is an interesting late-round candidate to join the team and add some tough inside running to the mix. The team has lacked a true power back since Jerome Bettis hung up his cleats after winning Super Bowl XL.
Graham comes with his own set of durability questions, but he had an excellent senior season and worked well as part of a compliment at Pittsburgh. He could thrive with the city’s professional team as long as he is not expected to tote the full load.
If the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking for a true feature back to put behind Ben Roethlisberger, they would be wise to spend a second or third-round choice on Montee Ball.
The Wisconsin star is a physical runner with a strong frame that also has enough speed and quickness to get around the edge and up the field. He’s not an easy player to tackle and has great skill at shedding blockers.
One of his other excellent attributes is his ability to cut back and change directions. He’s better than Rashard Mendenhall in that respect and he is much more decisive than any back on the Pittsburgh roster was in 2012.
Pittsburgh would have to evaluate his character after some off-field incidents in college, but those seemed to be behind him in his senior season. The one major concern is that he’s already put a lot of carries and punishment on his body.