Every starter on the Steelers offense is returning for the 2010 season. Not included in this group is star rookie Mike Wallace, who had six touchdowns last season and averaged 19.4 yards per reception. Pittsburgh added more weapons to that group with the addition of wide receivers Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle. Along with Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, the Steelers have one of the deepest receiving corps in the league.
It can be assumed that with the depth at this position that Pittsburgh will have no need to draft a receiver. However, weird things can happen on draft day such as a highly rated prospect falling or a team reaching for a relatively unknown player. The Steelers are not excluded from this group and while on the surface the Steelers may not need a receiver, it does not mean they will not draft one. Conversely, the offensive line has been neglected for years and maybe this is the year Pittsburgh finally invests early draft choices to improve the line. Or maybe not.
The draft is a complex process that will result in a lot of excitement and a lot of head-scratching. Until draft weekend comes, all we can do is speculate and predict. With that said, part of my 2010 NFL Draft coverage will include a two part preview analyzing the Steelers offensive and defensive needs.
Each position on offense and defense will be analyzed and I will rate the draft need on a 1-10 scale with a “1” meaning that there is no need, a “5” meaning more quality depth is needed at the position, and “10” meaning there is an immediate need to upgrade the position. Part one will focus on the offensive needs.
Draft Need: 8
The Steelers biggest need is not necessary the direction that they should go in the first round. Since Jeff Hartings retired following their Super Bowl season in 2006, the Steelers have tried Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig at center. Mahan was a disaster and while Hartwig is a significant improvement over Mahan, it could be argued that he is the weak link on the offensive line.
Hartwig does not have ideal strength to handle the massive defensive tackles in the AFC North, particularly those found on Baltimore’s defensive line. He has been a part of a Steelers offensive line that has been near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed over the past several years. The line has also lacked a push for the ground game, particularly in short yardage situations. Part of this can be attributed to Hartwig.
Doug Legursky, Hartwig’s backup, has flashed some potential in practices and has impressed the coaches. This was evident as he beat out last year’s draft choice A.Q. Shipley. Legurksy also had the opportunity in short yardage situations to get on the field. Despite this, he does not have the look to be a significant upgrade if ever given the opportunity to start.
So should the Steelers draft a center early? Possibly. Selecting 18th in the first round, center would not be a good value selection. If they want the top center prospect, they will need to trade down in the first round. A better option would be to wait until the second or third round where they could still get a top three center. An upgrade at the position would cause a domino effect along the whole offensive line as improved play at center should result in improved guard play as well.
This will help them achieve their goal of improving their running game and reducing the number of sacks allowed. For the Steelers to upgrade this position, they will need to invest in a center prospect in one of the first three rounds.
Draft Need: 6
Guard is not necessarily the most talented position on the line, but it is the deepest. The Steelers have Chris Kemoeautu at left guard and Trai Essex at right guard. Neither player will ever be confused with Alan Faneca, however they both stepped up their games this past season.
Undrafted free agent Ramon Foster surprised many with a good camp and preseason and became one of the top backups along the line. His development resulted in four starts in his rookie season. Overall, he was quite impressive given his pedigree coming into the NFL.
Fellow rookie guard, Kraig Urbik, came in with higher expectations. Unlike Foster, Urbik did not see the field. However, with an emphasis on re-establishing the run, Urbik may become a factor this season. Coming out of Wisconsin, Urbik was known as a strong run blocker. The Steelers will need him to compete for a starting position this season.
Given the youth and depth, it is unlikely that Pittsburgh will select a guard unless they view it as a major upgrade. The only player that fits this mold is Mike Iupati, guard from Idaho. The Steelers would need to spend their first round selection to obtain this high upside player.
Draft Need: 7
The Steelers have a decent set of starting tackles in Max Starks and Willie Colon. Both are relatively young and have plenty of experience. Starks has established himself as a mid-level tackle, finding himself ranked in the middle of the pack in sacks allowed. Colon is highly thought of by the Pittsburgh coaching staff and has improved each season. Neither will ever be elite and that is a problem when blocking for a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger.
Behind the starters the Steelers have no talent. Tony Hills has been invisible during the season and has struggled in training camp and the preseason. He will find himself in a make or break year. The Steelers signed Jonathan Scott, a tackle with starting experience from the Buffalo Bills. Neither offers improvement over what the Steelers currently have starting. Ramon Foster offers another option, but his value appears to be at guard or to be the swing backup.
There is no immediate need to draft a tackle, but with a deep talent pool at this position, the Steelers may be able to find a franchise tackle in the first round or even a quality starter who could eventually be an upgrade over Starks or Colon in the second round.
Draft Need: 2
This past season, Heath Miller established himself as an elite tight end establishing career highs in receptions and yards. While Miller’s role in the offense expanded, Matt Spaeth, backup tight end, saw a reduced amount of playing time. He continued to struggle with blocking and was a non-factor in the passing game.
David Johnson was a pleasant surprise last season. The rookie started three games and established himself as a good blocker, acting as a fullback. If his development in blocking continues, Johnson will see increased playing time. Sean McHugh had previously played this role effectively. He found himself on the injured reserve this past season and will need to have a strong camp to make the roster considering the depth at the position.
This will not be an area the Steelers will look at early or even at all in the draft. If they do take a tight end, it will be in one of the final rounds and it will most likely be a blocking tight end.
Draft Need: 2
After the addition of Randle El and Battle, wide receiver may be the deepest position on the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers. The group is headlined by Super Bowl 40 MVP Hines Ward. The crafty veteran had 95 receptions for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns. His reception total matched the second highest for his career.
Super Bowl 43 MVP Santonio Holmes finally had his breakout season with career highs in receptions, 79, and yards, 1,248. For the first time in his career, Holmes had the look of a number one receiver.
These two were complimented by Mike Wallace. He had an outstanding rookie season with 756 receiving yards and six touchdowns. His tremendous speed contributed to a 19.4 average. The star of the 2009 rookie class should have an increased role in the offense this season.
Pittsburgh’s other highly regarded young receiver, Limas Sweed, once again did not show anything. While possessing the size and physical tools to be an elite receiver, Sweed has not put it together prompting the Steelers to sign Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle for depth. Randle El offers the Steelers an excellent option as a fourth receiver and will likely see plenty of time substituting in for the top three receivers. Battle is extra insurance behind the top four.
It would be surprising to see the Steelers take a receiver at any point of the draft given their new found depth. The only potential spot that a receiver may be taken would be if Golden Tate falls to the Steelers second round pick. Otherwise, do not expect Pittsburgh to take a receiver.
Draft Need: 5
After being placed on injured reserve in his rookie season and being benched in week three of his second season, Rashard Mendenhall was not off to a good start to his career. He could have sulked and continued to sit, but instead responded and ran for 1,108 yards in 12 starts. Mendenhall added 25 receptions and has the look of a dangerous dual threat back, one that could become one of the NFL’s elite.
Willie Parker, who was relegated to the backup role, is a free agent and unless he wants to take less money to keep that role, he will be moving on leaving the Steelers with only one back with NFL experience.
Mewelde Moore is a quality third down back and demonstrated the ability to spot start if needed last year with injuries to Parker and Mendenhall. Even with him in the backfield, the Steelers have little quality depth.
They spent a draft choice on Frank Summers last season. He did not flash much when given the chance in camp or in the preseason leaving question marks whether he can make it or not. Instead, Isaac Redman was the rookie star of last season.
Redman demonstrated the ability to get into the end zone during training camp and had the look of a great short yardage back. However, this did not translate to the regular season where Redman was not given an opportunity.
With both Redman and Summers in their second year, they will be expected to step up to take on the role as the third string running back. I would not expect the Steelers to just sit on these two and hope one stands out. Running back is a position where there are outstanding players available all throughout the draft. Pittsburgh will look for one who fell through the cracks somewhere between rounds four through seven.
Another backfield position of need is fullback. Carey Davis was not re-signed meaning Pittsburgh does not have a true fullback on the roster, though it could be argued Davis was not a true fullback either. To improve the ground game, it is essential that the Steelers have a fullback in the mold of a Dan Kreider, one who excels at run blocking. It would be worthwhile to spend a late round selection on a blocking fullback, but could also probably find one after the draft.
Draft Need: 5
Ben Roethlisberger is a top three quarterback in the league with two Super Bowl Championships. Last season he reached the level of being an elite passer throwing for a career high 4,328 yards while completing nearly 67 percent of his passes. With continued improvement over his career, Roethlisberger should be even better this upcoming season.
There are concerns though. First, since 2006, Roethlisberger has been sacked at least 46 times per season, including 50 times last season. This has resulted in two concussions in the past two years in addition to a multitude of other injuries. Of more concern now are Roethlisberger’s legal problems. With two sexual assault cases, there is potential for a suspension from the league.
If anything does come from this, that would leave the Steelers in the hands of third year quarterback Dennis Dixon.
Dixon handled himself well in his only start of his career last season. He contributed two touchdowns against a good Baltimore defense, one rushing and one passing. Both were when he was allowed to move the pocket, one of his strengths. If the coaching staff continues to use Dixon to his strengths, he will be an excellent backup.
Given that Charlie Batch is a free agent, it is likely that Dixon will be given the backup role. He will benefit from the reps that he will get in practice and this will further his development. But with Dixon moving up the depth chart and Batch possibly moving on, the Steelers will have the need for a third string quarterback.
With needs elsewhere, it is unlikely that Pittsburgh uses a top three selection on a quarterback. Instead, a mid-late round choice would be worthwhile to add another developmental prospect to the mix.
Draft Need: 1
After applying the franchise tag to Jeff Reed, the need for a kicker became non-existent. Reed has established himself as one of the best kickers in the league and is a clutch playoff performer. While his kickoffs leave a lot to be desired, his leg is still adequate if the special teams coverage improves. More importantly, Reed has connected on nearly 89 percent of his field goals since 2007.
If Pittsburgh wants to save a luxury roster spot for a kickoff specialist, the Steelers may select a strong leg kicker late in the draft or find one as a rookie free agent.
Look for Part II of the Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Preview next week when I break down the defense position-by-position.