The Pittsburgh Steelers have navigated through a difficult free agency period and have managed to fill some of their many needs. They’ve set themselves up for a strong rebound season in 2013 if they can manage to develop a deep and successful draft class.
Here’s one more look at how Pittsburgh’s draft should proceed later this week.
Wide receiver is one of the big needs remaining for Pittsburgh. Running back is the biggest, but that should easily be addressed in the second or third round.
Linebacker is another need, but Jarvis Jones, the best fit for Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense, will probably be off the board before Pittsburgh makes its selection.
That leaves receiver.
Pittsburgh needs a fast receiver who complements Antonio Brown—unimpressive in 2012—and who gives the Steelers a player who can take the top off the defense and stretch the field.
Cordarrelle Patterson is one of two such receivers in the draft. Tavon Austin is the other and better prospect, but he will be off the board before this pick as well. Patterson is bigger without the same speed as Austin, but he makes Pittsburgh a more dangerous team on paper.
The biggest need for Pittsburgh is at running back. The Steelers have Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Baron Batch returning. They flirted with Ahmad Bradshaw and Beanie Wells in free agency, but chose not to offer them contracts.
None of the current roster options are enticing as far as starting jobs go. All can be effective in specific supporting roles. Dwyer is a pounder who will do well at the goal line. Redman is a good third-down receiver. Batch is a nice backup and change of pace guy.
But Pittsburgh has been trying to achieve balance on offense. A starter is required.
Montee Ball is one of the most versatile running backs in this year’s class. He’s absolutely perfect for Pittsburgh because of his cutback ability, aggressiveness and speed. He’s not a burner, but he will get yards on every carry.
If Ball still is available in the middle of the round, he should be taken without reservation. The only other running back who should rank ahead of him on Pittsburgh’s draft board is Eddie Lacy, who will go at the end of the first round.
Defensively, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to shore up their linebacker position. James Harrison was released and signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. Larry Foote is winding down his career.
Jason Worilds is projected to replace Harrison on the outside, and there will be plenty of competition with Foote on the inside. However, there are no clear-cut young replacements waiting beyond Sean Spence, who is a question mark because of health concerns.
Sio Moore is an under-the-radar prospect who should go in the second or third round. Pittsburgh could use a versatile player such as that. He can play any linebacker spot in the 3-4 alignment and has experience working as a corner in certain packages.
That kind of athleticism is hard to find in any draft.
Moore projects best as an outside linebacker and could become a starter. Pittsburgh has had success with prospects from non-traditional football programs. This could be another of those.
One of the secondary needs for Pittsburgh is at the safety position. The Steelers have starters Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark for the near future. Both are on the wrong side of 30 and play too physically to have longer careers.
The backup jobs are up for grabs. The main internal candidate is second-year man Robert Golden. Golden has plenty of potential but no results thus far. This will be a big camp for him. He could blossom or fizzle.
There are several safety prospects in this draft and Pittsburgh won’t have the luxury of addressing the position until the fourth round unless a can’t-miss player such as Kenny Vaccaro of Texas drops to 17th overall.
Shawn Williams is a great pick for Pittsburgh.
He’s a physical player with good range for the position, and he can make splash plays when needed. He’s a good deep coverage player, something Pittsburgh lacks.
He needs development on reading an offense and not getting caught peeking at the quarterback, but those are correctable issues. Eventually, he could replace Polamalu or Clark in the back of the Pittsburgh defense.
One linebacker, no matter how versatile, will solve the issues at the position. The re-signing of Stevenson Sylvester is a red flag that team depth is minimal and that Pittsburgh is concerned about Sean Spence’s ability to recover from a knee injury.
Because Sio Moore projects as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment and because his pass-rush skills are too good a fit for James Harrison’s old spot, it makes sense to make another pick at linebacker.
Nico Johnson is a good fit.
He projects as an inside linebacker with aggressive tendencies that will make him invaluable next to Lawrence Timmons in the middle of the defense.
Johnson needs to get more explosive, but Keith Butler has done a nice job of coaching that into his linebackers. His technique is good, and he handles blockers and penetrates well.
With Larry Foote still on board, he wouldn’t be needed immediately and could use 2013 as a developmental year (as most Pittsburgh rookie defenders do) before sliding up to a starting job in 2014.
Signing Bruce Gradkowski to back up Ben Roethlisberger went a long way to allaying concerns about how Pittsburgh would weather an injury at the quarterback position in the future.
Last year hinged on that question and Pittsburgh’s answer was the wrong one.
Ben Roethlisberger is bound to miss games. Only twice (2008 and 2010) has he started every game he was eligible to play in (he was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season but didn’t miss another start that year). A backup who can operate Todd Haley’s offense is essential.
A long-term prospect who can develop behind Roethlisberger and his understudy would be a good way to spend a late draft choice. That player can learn from one of the best and perhaps will eventually be ready to replace him.
Zac Dysert is one of the most-intriguing prospects in this year’s much-maligned quarterback class. His draft stock is uncertain because he operated a pass-heavy college offense and because he doesn’t have the classic makeup of an NFL passer.
He is similar to Roethlisberger (who went to the same school and whose records Dysert broke) and has a lot of promise if he’s given time to develop correctly. Pittsburgh could afford just that opportunity.
The departure of Keenan Lewis, at first glance, seemed to cause turmoil for a Pittsburgh team that has always had questions about the cornerbacks playing opposite Ike Taylor.
The team, however, is high on Cortez Allen. Allen had a strong 2012 season as the nickel corner and has all the tools necessary to be a solid starter on the outside. He’ll get the first crack at Lewis’ old job.
William Gay was brought back after a year in Arizona with the Cardinals. He’s a decent nickel corner that can make plays on a limited basis. He should replace Allen but will get a challenge from Curtis Brown, who is trying to carve out his own roster stability after disappointing the last two years.
A draft pick would be helpful here.
Taylor cannot play forever and there are no sure things beyond him. Will Davis is a small-school prospect (the kind Pittsburgh usually enjoys plucking in these spots) that could be good in the right system.
The chief concern with Davis is that he is not physical enough, but his other skills as a coverage man and big-play guy are there and need just a little honing. If Carnell Lake can coach Davis up the same way he has with Lewis and Allen, Pittsburgh could find a real gem.
The three-year deal inked last week by Steve McLendon places him firmly in possession of the starting job at nose tackle for 2013. McLendon has earned at least that much with his play in relief and the preseason. His star is rising and he could have a big, positive impact in 2013.
The depth behind him is concerning.
Casey Hampton will not be back after a long and successful career in the middle of the Pittsburgh defensive line. Alameda Ta’amu’s character questions and lack of productivity when given opportunities last year make him a huge question mark.
Pittsburgh has found productive defensive linemen here before. Brett Keisel, a linchpin in the defense for several years now, was a seventh-round pick in the early 2000s.
Mike Purcell could be another final-round diamond in the rough. He’s from a non-traditional football program and his size is in between McLendon and Hampton. He could certainly fit well in this alignment.
With the earlier rounds addressing every other need, this pick is a bit of a luxury item. It does, however, tackle a depth concern that could become a problem if left alone.