The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the best statistical defenses in 2013. However, if you spent any time watching them you know that they have some work to do become a truly elite defense.
Despite ranking as the top defense in total and passing yards allowed as well as second against the run, the defense allowed more points in 2012 (19.6 points per game) than they did in 2011 (14.2 points per game) and once again struggled to get to the quarterback and force turnovers.
There is a clear need to get better in these areas. That may start with allowing Casey Hampton to leave as a free agent as well as possibly releasing the best pass-rushing linebacker James Harrison.
Harrison’s agent, Bill Parise, told John Harris of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Harrison does not need to “take less money.”
How will the potential loss of these two veterans—and possibly others—impact the Steelers' defensive needs in the draft? Let’s take a look.
Lawrence Timmons has developed into a do-it-all linebacker for the Steelers. While he can disappear at times, he has shown the ability to play well in all phases of the game—run defense, pass defense and making splash plays.
However, the Steelers are in need of an upgrade beside him.
Larry Foote is a savvy veteran at linebacker, but he is very limited athletically and is often overmatched by the speed of many of the offensive playmakers that he is matched up against.
Despite being a smart linebacker, Foote can only do so much and as a result, he may not be re-signed. Even if he is, it should only be as a stopgap until another young linebacker is ready to take over.
The x-factor this offseason is the health of Sean Spence.
Last season’s third-round selection was expected to contribute as a rookie, but a severe knee injury suffered in the preseason ended Spence’s season before it even started.
Without being a proven player and coming off of a major injury, the Steelers may choose to find another replacement for Foote via the draft.
There is a lot of depth in the draft with first-round prospects such as Alec Olgetree, Kevin Minter and Manti Te’o. But the Steelers could also find depth later with a player such as Kevin Reddick, Khaseem Greene, Arthur Brown, Gerald Hodges or Michael Mauti.
The Steelers need a strong presence on the defensive line, especially at nose tackle if they want to have an elite defense. However, it is the outside linebackers that make things happen.
Part of the reason they have lacked a pass rush over the past two seasons is because of the ineffectiveness of their outside linebackers.
Both LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison have been banged up, which has severely affected their play.
Woodley was dominant at times early in 2011, but since then has been nearly invisible. This was particularly noticeable this season as Woodley was rarely seen making big plays.
The same could be said about Harrison early in the season as he worked himself into game shape. He did bounce back to have a strong finish to the season, but with the high cap hit and mounting injuries, there are questions about how much more the 34-year-old linebacker can take.
With Jason Worilds and Chris Carter still relative unknowns at outside linebacker, should the Steelers wait and see what these players can do, or should they try to add an elite pass rusher in the first half of the draft?
There are a number of players with tremendous upside including Jarvis Jones, Barkevious Mingo, Dion Jordan, Alex Okafor, Chase Thomas and Sean Porter.
The 33-year-old Ryan Clark and 31-year-old Troy Polamalu only have so much time left on the field and given their physical style of play, could get injured at any point.
As good as these players are while on the field, they cannot help the team while on the bench injured.
That has been a much bigger problem with Polamalu, but either way the Steelers must begin to find and groom safeties for the future.
Without any quality young players behind them, this would be the perfect season to find at least one eventual replacement at safety.
A plus in drafting a safety this season would be that they would have at least one season to sit and learn behind two of the best in the game. Given how often the defense has extra defensive backs on the field, any rookie could see a significant amount of playing time on passing downs.
Putting a value on the safeties in this draft is a bit challenging given the Steelers' draft position.
There may only be one safety truly worth the 17th-overall selection, but chances of any of the other top safeties lasting until the middle of the second round are slim.
That means the Steelers may either have to reach for a safety in the first, trade down or take a risk on one drafted later.
Names on the radar will be Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid, Matt Elam, Bacarri Rambo and Jonathan Cyprien.
One position noticeably absent from this list is nose tackle.
With the possible departure of Casey Hampton, the Steelers will have a big void to fill at the center of their defensive line. Even though there are quality prospects early, such as Johnathan Hankins, Jonathan Jenkins and Jesse Williams, the Steelers have a quality nose tackle already on the roster in Steve McLendon.
Behind McLendon there is Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo. They could even move Ziggy Hood to the position. While a nose tackle cannot be ruled out, there is more depth at the position that there is at the others already mentioned.
As far as the defensive priorities go, inside linebacker ranks third on the list.
Though the position may have the biggest question mark with Spence as a potential starter or bringing back Foote for one more season, it is also one of the easier positions to fill.
Which defensive position should be the Steelers top draft priority?
The presence of Timmons in the middle lessens the need for another top prospect at the position. There is enough depth in this draft that the Steelers can find a quality prospect in the third round or even later.
Ahead of inside linebacker is safety.
Even though both starting safeties are at risk of getting injured any time, when they are healthy and on the field they form one of the best duos in the NFL.
Beyond this, teams can find quality safeties in a number of different ways. Even though he wasn’t the best option, Will Allen played well this year when given the opportunity. The Steelers could find a safety that slips to the second or third round and spend a year or two developing him.
But by far, the top priority is at outside linebacker.
The Steelers need to upgrade their pass rush and even if they bring back Harrison for one more season, they need an elite player at the position who is ready to step in.
Worilds could develop into this guy. But he has yet to show he has the skills to be a dynamic outside linebacker who can not only rush the passer, but play the run and drop into coverage.
Besides finding a future replacement, injuries have hurt the Steelers in recent years and at worst they could use quality depth at the position.
To find elite pass rushers in the NFL, teams need to invest high picks. This may be the year that the Steelers need to spend a first-round selection on a pass-rusher for the future.