As the Pittsburgh Steelers toe the line between mediocrity and the dumps in 2013, it appears more and more likely that the team is headed for its first top ten pick since 2000, when they selected Plaxico Burress out of Michigan State.
The prevailing opinion out of Pittsburgh seems to be to fix the offensive line in the 2014 draft. That line of thinking is completely understandable, as the Steelers have one of the worst O-lines in football.
Without question, the Steelers need to find a way to upgrade the big guys up front. But based on recent history, the draft may not be the best place to do it.
There were five tackles selected in the first round of the 2013 draft, including three of the first four picks.
For the most part, those picks haven’t paid any dividends for those teams. According to Pro Football Focus, No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher is rated 71st of 73 offensive tackles who have played at least 25% of his team’s snaps.
Second pick Luke Joeckel is rated 59th, fourth pick Lane Johnson is 67th, 11th pick D.J. Fluker is 31st and 19th pick Justin Pugh is 55th. Aside from Fluker, none of those guys would be much of an upgrade to Pittsburgh’s offensive line.
The Steelers made a meager attempt to shore up the left tackle position with Levi Brown this season, but he hurt his triceps before ever playing a snap.
Brown wasn’t likely to solve any problems, but general manager Kevin Colbert had the right idea. A veteran presence on the line will make a much bigger impact than a rookie or second-year player at this point.
If the Steelers do decide to dip back into the draft for a new offensive tackle, these are the guys who they should go after.
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
Matthews is largely considered the top offensive line prospect in his class and the best bet to make an impact early in his career.
He has an NFL pedigree and experience blocking for Johnny Manziel at College Station.
Matthews is as technically sound as they come and has made the switch from right tackle to left with ease this season.
Playing in the SEC, Matthews has had no shortage of opportunities to prove himself. He played well in the Aggies’ loss to Alabama, going up against a front seven full of future draft picks.
In this video, you can see that Matthews, No. 75, rarely gets beat in his matchups. He shows the ability to take proper angles, hold blocks and pull.
The holding blocks part is especially important for players like Manziel and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger because of their knack for extending the play.
Matthews would make a terrific addition to the Steelers O-line.
Taylor Lewan, Michigan
Like Matthews, Lewan returned for his senior season despite first-round projections.
Dan Kadar of SB Nation isn’t too high on Lewan’s decision to come back for his senior season, but he does see him as one of the top tackle prospects again in 2014.
The best part of Lewan’s game is his run blocking, as described by Kadar:
He's a natural knee bender and maintains a good power base. He specializes in driving defenders into the ground and routinely finishes plays off. Lewan seems to knows how to use his size to his advantage. He can engulf defenders at the line of scrimmage and take them completely out of the play with his strength.
The Steelers have the 30th-ranked run game in the league, and Lewan is the best run blocker in the 2014 class.
Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
On the other hand, if the Steelers want a draft prospect who is most dominant in pass protection, Kouandjio is their man.
He’s even come up with a new move that he calls “The Slap,” as reported by Chase Goodbread of NFL.com. Kouandjio shows off the slap in the GIF below.
I’m not sure how original “The Slap” actually is, but it seems to be working well.
Alabama has been a factory for NFL players under Nick Saban, and Kouandjio is just the latest of the O-line bunch.
Kouandjio isn’t likely to go in the top-ten range, giving the Steelers the opportunity to trade down and still get him later in the first round.
Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
Richardson has struggled against the SEC’s best defenses in 2013, most notably South Carolina and Jadeveon Clowney.
In 2012 Richardson actually did a great job in his matchup with Clowney, but the tables turned this season.
Fortunately for Richardson, his draft stock didn't take much of a hit.
Richardson has the perfect frame for an NFL tackle (6’6”, 330 lbs) and above average quickness.
Rotoworld.com reports that Scout Inc.’s Todd McShay even has Richardson above Michigan’s Lewan on his 2014 draft prospects.
Richardson is effective as both a pass and run blocker and displays good footwork for a relatively inexperienced player.
Like Kouandjio, Richardson could slide to late in the first or even the second round, so the Steelers might not have to invest a top-ten pick should they decide to select Richardson.
James Hurst, North Carolina
Hurst is a guy that Pittsburgh might be interested in if it doesn’t want to burn a top pick on the offensive line.
It wouldn’t exactly be an aggressive way to address the O-line problems, but the Steelers could get lucky if Hurst pans out in the NFL.
The Steelers seem to like guys who are versatile enough to play multiple positions, and Hurst fits that mold. He has started at left tackle since his freshman year at North Carolina, but it’s easy to see him at right tackle or at guard in the NFL.
The book on Hurst, according to Peter Smith of WiththeFirstPick.com, is that he isn’t overly athletic or quick but manages to get the job done by simply getting in between the defender and the ball-carrier.
That isn’t exactly something for Steelers fans to get excited about, but Pittsburgh has managed without premier linemen before.
The upside on Hurst is that he isn’t far from being an elite blocker, but a few tweaks with his technique could make him one.
If he’s still there in the fourth or fifth round, Pittsburgh should take a chance on Hurst.