The Pittsburgh Steelers had a remarkable run in the 2011 NFL season, facing adversity from the start as their star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the season. Behind a stellar defense and a high octane offense, however, they found themselves playing in the franchise's eighth Super Bowl. Although the Steelers did not win this year, there is renewed faith in the Black and Gold after their Super Bowl run.
There were questions then about age playing a key factor in the Steelers' demise, but 2010 quieted those questions... for now. There were few NFL teams in the league with defensive backs good enough to stop Aaron Rodgers in the Super Bowl this season, but the cornerback position was an issue with the Steelers for the better half of the 2010 season. Ike Taylor is the team's best cornerback and the Steelers are currently in negotiations with Taylor's agent for a return in 2011. The negotiations are obviously slowed by the impending lockout.
Besides Taylor the Steelers have a big drop off in skill. Bryant McFadden had some bright spots early on as the #2 cornerback but fell apart thanks to a hip injury near the end of the season. William Gay had a bounce back year in 2010 after a questionable 2009 season. Gay still took the bulk of the blame for the Steelers' secondary woes, but none the less has a bright future with the Steelers as a Nickel Back.
The Steelers also have question marks all over their offensive line, besides Center. Change the record; the Steelers have had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL for quite a while, but never had a position in the draft worthy of drafting an offensive lineman worth the money, until they drafted Maurkice Pouncey in the past NFL Draft. Although the Steelers' Offensive Line was hampered by a ton of injuries that may have set back an improved offensive line they will still look for a lineman early in this year’s draft.
The oldest defense in the NFL will call Heinz Field their home last year, and although statistically speaking age hasn't caught up with the Steelers yet, they will still have to build for the future. The linebacker position is the most important in Dick Labeau's 3-4 scheme, and after last year’s draft the Steelers are set on their current and future linebackers. An immensely important position, although rarely spoken, about is the defensive line. 2009's first round pick, Ziggy Hood, had a breakout season in 2010 only after Aaron Smith suffered a torn bicep. Routinely the Steelers have fallen apart without Smith at defensive end, but Hood played out of his mind in the playoffs and will make the coaching staff really think about the depth chart next season. Smith and fellow DE Brett Keisel are both over 30, as is Nose Tackle Casey Hampton however. The Steelers will be forced to take a look at defensive ends in the draft.
It is not in the Steelers' history to expect a flashy off-season trade or free agent signing. The Steelers build through the draft year in and year out and to few questions. As one of the powerhouses of the NFL, we can expect the Steelers will stick to what got them there and focus on key role players in this year's draft with the potential to make an immediate impact.
If 2010's early picks in the draft were to build for the future, 2011's early picks will get the team over the hump. Will there be enough value at offensive tackle position for the Steelers' to spend first round money on the position, however? The Steelers will have the 31st overall pick and will likely miss out on the top tier lineman, so you can probably forget about seeing the Pouncey brothers playing together on the same team in the pros. Could they easily draft a tackle in the second round for less money and equal potential? The answer is probably.
Most mock drafts will have you believing the Steelers will take Mississippi State Offensive Tackle Derek Sherrod or Benjamin Ijalana of Villanova, what would be the 4th tackle taken in the first round. I think the Steelers will realize the value of that pick and look to spend first round money on the best available player within a few positions. Look for the Steelers to go after a lineman with the second or even third round where the value is great. The Steelers could even go after the University of Pittsburgh's own Jason Pinkston.
The chances of the Steelers taking a tackle this early in the draft is tied to the future of WIllie Colon. Although the Steelers recently offered Colon a first round tender, a special maneuver tailored to fit the CBA situation, and keep Colon for at least one more season his future in the Burgh is dubious. Colon's agent doesn't think there is much chance of the Steelers and Colon working out any kind of extension.
Where I think the Steelers will strike early in the draft will be at the cornerback position. Head coach Mike Tomlin prides himself in his development of secondary players, even vowing to make Ike Taylor great when he first took the job. The Steelers have tried to strike some mid-round magic with corner backs in their previous drafts under Tomlin. Only William Gay has been able to climb the depth chart as players like Keenan Lewis, Crezdon Butler and Joe Burnett have all but disappeared. The Steelers may finally spend the high pick and money on a cornerback of the future. I would expect the Steelers to go after a cornerback in the second round and look to a player like Ras-I Dowling, if available.
The Steelers have a history of going with the best player available if they don't see value in a certain position, which could lead them to shock everyone and go with a defensive end in the first round. There are a number of immediate impact defensive ends in this year's draft. For the same reason, you can also see the Steelers waiting until about the third round before thinking about drafting a defensive end. Mel Kiper's latest mock draft actually has the Steelers taking Ohio State's Cameron Heyward in round one and could actually end up being Kiper's lone right choice.
Steelers' General Manager Kevin Colbert has already admitted he likes the prospects in this year’s offensive tackle group. Some believe that comment shows the Steelers leaning toward taking a tackle in the first round, I don't subscribe to that reasoning however. That isn't unless a lineman drops to the Steelers worth the value at 31, i.e. a certain Florida center bearing a resemblance to their current center. I fully expect the Steelers to go with the best player available in the first round this year, and I have learned not to question Steelers' draft plans let alone their late first round picks.
Need some proof that this first round should be good to the Steelers? Evander "Ziggy" Hood, 32nd overall; Rashard Mendenhall 28th overall; Santonio Holmes 25th overall; Heath Miller 30th overall.