As we approach the NFL Draft, which is set to take place on April 25 and 26, every person seems to have a different view of how their favorite team should or will spend their first draft pick.
This is no different for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, fresh off their victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
Some would think that winning a Super Bowl would buy the front office some time to sit back and allow their team to enjoy its success, but that's not how it works in the NFL.
What was once considered the offseason is now just a series of events that link us from one season to the next.
The draft is the pinnacle event of the Steelers' offseason. As they proved this year, they don't like to get wrapped up in bidding for free agents and bringing in high-profile veterans. Instead, they have used free agency as a supplement to the draft, filling holes and depth issues with quality players who have a lot left in the tank.
In fact, the Steelers did not sign one free agent from outside of their own players. They took this time to re-sign their own players, specifically along the offensive line. Some view this unit to be among the team's biggest needs. However, the Steelers have the mindset that giving the same five starters a chance to get more playing time together could be all that is needed.
Whether you agree with this method or not, that looks to be the direction the Steelers want to go. They won't put themselves in a spot where they have to draft an offensive lineman. In fact, for several years, they have aspired to be in a position to use the "draft the best player available" method.
Although it is too soon to tell, this method may have paid dividends for them in the 2008 draft, when they bagged running back Richard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed in the first two rounds. These were both positions that weren't seen as a weakness on the team, but the franchise was able to draft two players that they saw as a great value.
So heading into the 2009 draft, the Steelers will most likely be in the same position. We'll break down some positions that the team could definitely use some depth and youth, but don't be surprised to see them go in a completely different direction.
Need No. 1: Offensive Line
The team will most likely add one if not two players to provide some depth and competition along the offensive line. Several of their returning players will be free agents within the next two years, and they need to find replacements to groom.
The team's philosophy has always been to replace departing starters with players they've groomed to take over. Last year's draft netted Tony Hills, who may or may not be an option in the future.
While their current two-deep along the line isn't necessarily old, not everyone is sold on the overall talent it possesses. Expect to see them grab an interior lineman at some point. This draft is said to be very deep at this position. They'll be focusing on a mauler who can move people around in the run game and bring back a little of the Steelers ground attack.
Need No. 2: Defensive Line
This would be a move strictly for depth and to find a starter for the future. The top five players on the defensive line depth chart are over 30, and that could spell a problem with injuries.
The defensive line is the building block of a 3-4 defense, and is often overlooked because of the lack of big plays. The nose tackle and defensive ends have to eat up blockers and create a push, so the linebackers are free to meet the ball carrier one-on-one.
With more teams switching to the 3-4 alignment, don't expect for the Steelers to find as many gems in the late rounds as they previously did. The five-technique ends and big anchor tackles will be highly sought-after.
While this may not be a first-round priority, they will definitely look to draft one player, if not two, so they can get them ready to replace the aging veterans.
Need No. 3: Defensive Back
With the departure of Bryan McFadden, the Steelers will most likely add a draft pick to challenge William Gay and DeShea Townsend for the starting and nickel roles.
Initial reports are that the coaching staff likes William Gay and that is part of the reason they felt McFadden wasn't worth locking into a big contract. I'd expect to see a healthy competition in training camp to land the starting gig opposite Ike Taylor.
The safety positions aren't a major concern, but the team could look for a player to compete at free safety. Troy Polamalu has secured his spot at strong safety, possibly for life—but Ryan Clark, while showing the willingness to lay down the big hit, hasn't shown the coverage skills and raw speed the team hopes to get from its free safety.
Expect the Steelers to draft someone to bring depth to the secondary on the first day. Reports have this draft class listed as light on corners and with very little depth.
The following list of players represents potential first- and second round targets based off player reports and draft grades. But as last year taught us, the draft never seems to go as "mocked."
Alex Mack, C - California
Mack is probably the top interior lineman in this year's draft. He demonstrates agility, strength, and intelligence. He could come in and compete for a starting job with Sean Mahan right off the bat.
I'd be a little surprised with this pick in the first round, only because there are a lot of prospects that can be had in the later rounds.
Max Unger, C - Oregon
Unger is right up there with Mack, depending on who you ask. While seen as more of a finesse blocker, he may be more of a fit for a zone-blocking scheme.
Other Centers Of Note:
Eric Wood of Louisville and Antione Caldwell from Alabama are seen as two excellent players who may be available around the end of round two.
Also, worth noting, the Steelers brought in A.Q. Shipley from Penn State for a pre-draft visit. While he's seen as a late round pick, he could represent that late draft value teams are looking for.
Also in for a visit was LSU guard Herman Johnson. He's obviously not a center prospect, but would fill the need of an interior lineman.
Phil Loadholt, OT - Oklahoma
Loadholt was also in town to visit with the front office. He's a powerful blocker who is seen as a right tackle in the NFL. He was a little rocky in his performance at the Senior Bowl, but has been said to look good in workout since.
At 6'8" and 332 lbs., he definitely has the frame to play the tackle spot, the only question is his agility.
William Beatty, OT - UConn
Beatty is someone who could be around the end of round one as long as we don't see the same rush on tackles as in last year's draft.
He's seen more as a true left-tackle prospect, with a great first step to cut off the speed rushers. He would look mighty good protecting the backside of Roethlisberger.
Tyson Jackson, DE - LSU
Jackson is probably someone they'd have to reach for in round one. While not the pass-rushing end coveted at the top of the first round, Jackson bring a solid frame and lots of strength. He has the versatility to add some bulk and anchor an end spot in a 3-4.
Fili Moala, DT - USC
Moala, who played tackle in college, could make a smooth transition to 3-4 end. He's a big, long-armed player who can eat up space and hold the point of attack.
Worth noting—he was on the South Side to meet with the Steelers recently.
Jarron Gilbert, DT - San Jose State
Gilbert is rising up draft rankings, and has moved into a spot where he'll probably be a late first- or early second-round pick.
He has been classified as a football player. As simple as that sounds, it might be one of the best complements out there. It certainly is what Steelers fans look for in their players.
He has the intelligence, length, and drive to succeed at any spot on the defensive line. While he's on the smaller side to anchor the 3-4, he could add some size to be the eventual replacement for Hampton, or work on his technique and play on the outside.
Sean Smith, CB - Utah
This is my personal pick for the player to be chosen in round one, if still available. Smith might end up being the best defensive back out of this class.
Scouts seem to be mixed on his value, putting him anywhere from second among defensive back, to being a late second round pick. What I see is the size, speed, and toughness to play corner and the smarts to move to free safety if needed.
A former high-school running back, he passed up several bigger colleges to have the chance to play running back or wide receiver. His desire to get on the field led him to make the move to corner and he's never looked back.
With his experience on the offensive side of the ball, he understands the game, and can make things happen with the ball in his hands.
Darius Butler, CB - UConn
Butler has a good chance to be available at the end of round one. He is a tough corner who loves to play against the run.
He has skills that could be tailored to fit a zone or man scheme—which may make him attractive to the Steelers. Don't forget that Mike Tomlin has a Tampa-2 background, and could start to add some of those looks to the defense.
Also worth noting, with Tomlin's experience as a defensive backs coach, he could look for lateround sleepers who he can mold into a future contributor. The difference he's made in Talyor's, McFadden's, and Gay's abilities is already visible.
One final caveat
Don't be surprised to see the Steelers jump on a wide receiver falling in round one or two. They need to replace some deep speed lost with the departure of Nate Washington, and could really use the help that speed could provide in the return game.
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