The 2014 offseason has been unusually active for Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. Rather than sit back and wait for the dust to settle, he took an aggressive approach and signed nine free agents from outside of the organization.
It is clear that Colbert is not satisfied with two consecutive missed playoff appearances and is making the moves necessary to get the team back on the winning track. But despite signing so many free agents, only Mike Mitchell figures to be a factor in the starting lineup.
That leaves the draft for the Steelers to make any further significant upgrades to their roster prior to the start of training camp. They still have a starting job open at defensive end opposite of Cameron Heyward and could use upgrades at cornerback and wide receiver, as well as along the defensive front seven.
Pittsburgh will have plenty to work with on draft day. With nine picks in hand, Colbert will need to take advantage of what he called the deepest draft in 30 years and find several impact players if he wants to “win” the draft.
Despite the depth, Colbert told Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated that the Steelers must exercise caution because some of the juniors who entered the draft early may not be ready.
“A lot of young players aren’t ready for this,” Colbert said. “I don’t think they understand until they are on the field. It’s easier to go from senior year [in college] to the pros than as juniors.”
As intriguing as a junior player may be, Colbert will play it smart when it comes to finding the right player. Whether it is evaluations from the scouts or personal interviews with a player, he will trust the team’s assessment of each prospect when deciding whether or not to make the pick.
One of the top positional options will be wide receiver. According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there is a strong possibility that a tall wide receiver will be in play in the first or second round.
Antonio Brown provides the Steelers with one of the top receivers in the NFL, and they expect significant improvement from Markus Wheaton, according to Dulac. Lance Moore was signed to provide depth, as was Darrius Heyward-Bey. But they could still use a dynamic playmaker who can help elevate the offense from mediocre to one of the better units in the league.
An ideal candidate in the first would be Mike Evans, who at 6’5” would provide the size that the Steelers have been missing since Plaxico Burress was in his prime. However, he may be gone, which would make speed receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks more realistic options.
They have top speed, are very versatile route-runners and are under 6’0” tall. Either would provide an instant upgrade to the offense, as they would be an additional big-play threat and take attention off Brown.
But with the depth at receiver and two free-agent signings, it would be wise for Colbert to wait until the second or third round, where he could find a quality option in Allen Robinson, Donte Moncrief, Martavis Bryant or Jarvis Landry.
No matter where a receiver is selected, he will not be asked to step into the starting lineup immediately, but rather contribute as a role player in what will likely be the No. 4 spot on the depth chart. As the season progresses, he will have the potential to move up depending on his understanding of the offense and production on the field.
With an offensive line on the rise as well as talented weapons surrounding Ben Roethlisberger, another young, dynamic weapon on the offensive side could help put this unit over the top. The offense may need to carry the defense as it transitions from a veteran group to one that is youthful and lacks starting experience.
The decline on defense has been steep, as evidenced by the Steelers’ drastic fall in defensive rankings over just a two-year period. In 2011, the Steelers were the top-rated defense in total yards and points allowed. Last season, they fell to 13th and 14th, respectively.
|Pittsburgh Steelers' Defensive Rankings from 2010-13|
|Year||Total Yards Allowed||Points Allowed|
A primary reason for the decline has been the failure to replace aging veterans adequately. They have not had a dangerous pass-rusher at outside linebacker since James Harrison was in his prime, and the secondary was loaded with starters over the age of 30 years old.
The addition of Mitchell was a help in replacing Ryan Clark, but the Steelers still are in dire need of a young playmaker at cornerback. While Cortez Allen figures to be a longtime starter at one spot, the Steelers need to find a replacement for Ike Taylor, and the draft will provide them with the perfect opportunity to do so.
Darqueze Dennard is one of the most physical cornerbacks in the draft and would fit in well with Dick LeBeau’s defense. He is a very good tackler and is arguably the best cover corner in the draft. However, at 5’11”, he is smaller compared to some of the other top options and does not possess elite speed.
Instead, the Steelers may want to go with a bigger, more athletic option such as Justin Gilbert. He is the top-ranked cornerback in the draft and combines good size (6’0”, 202 lbs) with outstanding speed (4.37 40-yard dash). He does not play the same physical game that Dennard does but offers more as a playmaker with seven interceptions last season. By comparison, Pittsburgh’s entire roster combined for 10 last season.
Two other possible options include Kyle Fuller and Bradly Roby. Fuller is an aggressive cornerback who can play the pass and run, while Roby has elite athletic abilities, but his production was underwhelming last season.
Besides cornerback, the Steelers could use a top prospect at defensive end. With Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and Brett Keisel no longer on the roster, the depth chart at defensive end is barren. Like many of the other positions, this draft is deep at defensive end.
Ideally, Ra’Shede Hageman or Stephon Tuitt would fall to the Steelers in the second round. Already with NFL frames, both Hageman and Tuitt would provide them with a powerful force on the defensive line to play against the run or rush the quarterback.
With LeBeau running out of nickel and dime packages more than his base defense, finding another disruptive force besides Heyward along the defensive line is essential. No longer are the defensive ends simply being asked to occupy blockers, but rather penetrate into the backfield and get to the quarterback.
Of course, the Steelers could also use an upgrade at inside linebacker next to Lawrence Timmons. They have been using Larry Foote in this role, but following a season-ending injury, they had to rely on rookie Vince Williams. Though he had a solid rookie year for a late-round pick, he is limited as a two-down player and isn’t particularly dominant against the run.
Colbert could look to add the top inside linebacker in the draft, C.J. Mosley, in the first round. He has the ability to run sideline to sideline when defending the run and can drop into coverage. However, he will have to prove that he can fight through blocks and stay healthy once in the NFL.
The Steelers could wait until the second or third round, where they can find a high-motor player such as Chris Borland. He may only be 5’11” and lack top speed, but he is a hard-nosed player who has done nothing but produce while at Wisconsin with over 100 tackles for three consecutive years.
Shayne Skov is another run-stuffer who could excel as a two-down player in Pittsburgh’s system while only costing a third- or fourth-round selection.
With so many needs on the defensive side of the ball, do not be surprised to see Colbert use three of the top four selections on defenders. But a defensive-heavy draft does not necessarily mean a good draft.
To truly make the most of his nine selections, Colbert must select the best players available, whether they play offense or defense. The Steelers aren’t missing the playoffs solely because of the defense but because they lack elite talent across the board.
The need for talented football players should take priority for Colbert if he wants to win the draft. It will be the only way that the Steelers can reconstruct their roster back into one that will be a playoff contender.
All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com, draft rankings are courtesy of CBS Sports, and all predraft visit information is courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required). All combine results courtesy of NFL.com’s results tracker.