Teams have savored the tender morsels of free agency and are now in the process of preparing their big boards for that favorite April three-day selection extravaganza: the NFL Draft.
Every team has specific players that they are targeting with their picks and each will keep their fingers crossed that no other team will beat them to the punch.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL Draft is a crucial time, more so than free agency. The Steelers routinely reload and rebuild through the selection of young players and have several needs that must be addressed for the team to return to the Super Bowl in 2010.
Here are five players that the Steelers could be and should be targeting with their first selection (18th overall).
Height/Weight: 6'5"/331 lbs
Position(s): Offensive Guard, Offensive Tackle
Iupati is a guard by trade but he has the athleticism to play tackle as well. He's big, but for his size is surprisingly mobile. He's the 17th rated prospect in the draft and the top offensive guard.
For the Steelers, Iupati represents the type of lineman they've liked historically: large, physical, and athletic. His versatility probably raises his stock some as well.
If drafted, I would expect Iupati to slot into the lineup immediately in place of Darnell Stapleton/Trai Essex (RG). He would be in line to take over either of the tackle spots as well if Willie Colon or Max Starks struggles.
Eventually, I see him as a left tackle for the Steelers, protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side. His speed (for a big guy) and athleticism would be very valuable in an offense that values making a play over being quick.
Height/Weight: 5'10"/208 lbs
Position(s): Safety, Cornerback
Thomas is a safety by nature, but he projects well as a corner in the NFL. He's gifted with good speed (4.43 in the 40 yard dash) and hands. He's the second rated cornerback (behind Joe Haden) and the 19th best prospect overall.
For the Steelers, Thomas fills a need. He would be a corner in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers have solidified their safety positions and depth concerns with free agent addition Will Allen and recently resigned Ryan Clark.
The Steelers lack a fast corner with sure hands, both aspects of Thomas' game. If selected, there is every reason to believe he would start immediately and replace William Gay opposite Ike Taylor.
Ideally, Thomas would develop into the corner the Steelers have not had since Rod Woodson's departure. He has the tools to be a star in the NFL, but the Steelers have to consider that he would be switching positions.
Height/Weight: 5'10"/194 lbs
Ranked right behind Thomas among corners, Wilson's 40 time is actually slightly better (4.42). The two players are quite similar, although Wilson is a natural corner.
For the Steelers, Wilson might be a bit of a reach at 18. He's the 26th best prospect in the draft pool, so it would make sense to accumulate picks and trade into one of the spots between 23 and 26. They could take him at 18 to prevent him from falling into someone else's hands, however.
Like Thomas, Wilson would likely immediately replace William Gay. Either player has to be considered an immediate upgrade. Wilson's speed and athleticism are both important aspects.
He doesn't have as good of hands as Thomas, but his potential as a natural corner may push him to the top of the board for Pittsburgh. The Steelers need at least two corners in this draft, so it makes sense that one will come early.
Height/Weight: 6'4"/258 lbs
Position(s): Inside Linebacker
McClain is a top prospect and could very well be off the board before the 18th pick. He is coveted by several teams short of a linebacker thanks to his versatility, excellent instincts, and coverage skill.
For the Steelers, McClain is their type of linebacker. He blitzes well and has great ball instincts. He's rarely out of place and is adept at making plays.
The Steelers, regardless of adding Larry Foote to the mix this week, are looking for a long term replacement for the aging James Farrior, who regressed slightly last season. McClain represents just that kind of player.
The Steelers do not routinely trade up in the draft, but could make an exception if they feel they can address their more pressing needs in later rounds. If McClain is on the board when they select 18th, they will likely select him as the best player available.
Height/Weight: 5'11"/193 lbs
Haden was rated as the best corner available and was routinely selected in the top 12 of mock drafts until his NFL Combine performance raised concerns. Haden ran only a 4.57 in the 40 yard dash, way below other prospects at his position and far below both expectations and average performance numbers.
For the Steelers, Haden would still likely have to fall pretty far before they could nab him at 18, but he is another corner they likely are considering. Judging by his current numbers, he would not be someone the team would trade up to select, but like McClain, if he fell, he'd be the best player available.
The Steelers need a corner (two would be better) and Haden certainly has the skills to fit that position. He's got excellent awareness, isn't a liability in coverage, and has good hands. Regardless of scouting reports, I'd rank him behind Thomas, however, based solely on what I've seen of both players.
With the 18th Pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select:
Kyle Wilson, CB, Boise State
The Steelers aren't likely to undertake a position switch unless they have to. Thomas' stock is also rising, so he may be gone by the 18th pick. Wilson represents the exact type of corner the Steelers want, so he should be the player they select.
But What About?
Iupati is good, but offensive linemen in the middle of the first round are more of a risk. Wilson is the third best of a very good group of corners. Iupati is the best of a relatively weak group of guards.
Thomas might be gone, but his position as safety could push him behind Wilson on the Steelers' board. McClain will likely be gone and so will Haden, so the Steelers probably won't have them to choose from.