The 2010 season was an interesting one for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, particularly at wide receiver and along the offensive line.
Pittsburgh had breakout performers at wide receiver, where first-year starter Mike Wallace exploded into his starting role, averaging 21 yards per reception and had 10 touchdowns.
But everyone saw Wallace’s potential in his first year, so his season was not much of a surprise. The surprise was that the Steelers seemed to have struck gold two years in a row, only this time with two rookie receivers.
Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were only expected to make a minimal impact last season. Instead, each receiver made big plays down the stretch of the season and in the playoffs and displayed the potential to serve in much bigger roles this upcoming season.
The emergence of the two rookies was huge for a Pittsburgh team that has turned into a passing offense and needed more athleticism on the outside.
On the interior of the offense the Steelers also got a good view at their depth. Their offensive line lost starting tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks to season-ending injuries, which was a sign of things to come for the rest of the season.
Pittsburgh depended on free agents Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott to play the outside while they had to shuffle between Trai Essex, Doug Legurksy and Ramon Foster on the inside at right guard.
Not all was bad, though, as the Steelers finally found a gem to center their offensive line with first-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey.
Pouncey was a Pro Bowl center as a rookie and proved to be the building block for the line and that is where the Steelers will need to continue to build with the 2011 draft.
With approximately a month to go until the draft, this is the first of a two-part draft 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.
Following what may have been his best season as a professional, Ben Roethlisberger will be poised to get even better after losing in the Super Bowl.
Never before has Roethlisberger been more focused on improving his game and a full offseason with his teammates, and if a CBA is reached, it could mean even better things for the Steelers quarterback.
Behind Roethlisberger, the Steelers have two veteran options with Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, as well as the young and potentially exciting Dennis Dixon.
Each quarterback got a chance to prepare as a starter last training camp and preseason when Roethlisberger was sitting on the bench serving his suspension. That puts the Steelers is a good situation at backup.
Granted a lot will have to work out with free agency, Pittsburgh’s situation at quarterback is stable and there are much bigger needs elsewhere on the team.
DRAFT NEED: 2
Pittsburgh struck gold in selecting Maurkice Pouncey in the first round of last year’s draft. The expectations were high for Pouncey, but he went above and beyond these making the Pro Bowl.
Pouncey’s season came to a disappointing end after suffering an ankle injury which kept him out of the Super Bowl. But prior to that he displayed athleticism not seen on the Steelers offensive line for years and looks as though he could develop into the best center in the league.
Behind Pouncey, Doug Legursky is a stout center who played well at both center and guard when given the opportunity.
Legurksy had a solid showing against B.J. Raji in the Super Bowl, proving that he is more than capable of starting even on the NFL’s biggest stage.
With a Pro Bowl starter in place and a good backup, the Steelers are set at center.
DRAFT NEED: 1
The addition of Pouncey resulted in improved guard play, but it is still the weakest position along the offensive line for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has gotten by with below-average play, making two Super Bowl appearances in the last three years, but the position could still be upgraded.
Chris Kemoeatu is an average left guard, and his play is consistently inconsistent. He makes too many mental mistakes and lacks the athleticism to pull. His size should creative mismatch problems for the defensive line, but rarely exploits this matchup advantage.
At right guard the Steelers had a revolving door this past season, and this position is in a desperate need of an upgrade. Trai Essex was unable to hold down the position and as well as Legursky could play at center, he struggled against bigger linemen while playing guard.
This left Ramon Foster to start at right guard, and his development seemed stunted after having a decent showing as a rookie in 2009.
Pittsburgh would love to improve at guard, particularly with Mike Pouncey. He would impress the Steelers and possesses many of the same qualities that made Maurkice such a great player.
Considering Pouncey will likely be drafted ahead of the Steelers slot, Danny Watkins, Marcus Cannon or Clint Boling are other early options.
DRAFT NEED: 8
While guard is the weaker position, the Steelers are in need of an upgrade at tackle with Max Starks coming off of a neck injury and Willie Colon as a free agent who is coming off an Achilles tendon injury.
If Colon is re-signed, there has been talk that he could move to right guard with Flozell Adams once again starting at right tackle. That would provide the Steelers with a one-year stopgap in grooming a right tackle.
Pittsburgh currently does not have a young, developmental tackle on the roster with Tony Hills once again not showing enough to warrant a starting role.
This could finally be the year that Pittsburgh takes a tackle in the first round. A number of good prospects, such as Gabe Carimi, Derek Sherrod, Nate Solder or Ben Ijalana should all be available near the bottom of the first round.
Pittsburgh may need to trade up or down, though, to find the best value at this position.
DRAFT NEED: 9
While he did not have his best statistical season, Heath Miller is still one of the premier tight ends in the league and is a multidimensional weapon for the Steelers offense. Behind Miller, however, there is not much.
Matt Spaeth was ineffective in the starting role as he was one of the contributing factors to the loss to the New York Jets.
Spaeth has not been able to use his height to create mismatches in the receiving game, particularly in the red zone, and his blocking can be atrocious at times. Without a true strength, Spaeth may not have a role on the team for this upcoming season.
David Johnson continued to make strides in his second year, entrenching himself as the team’s H-back, spending much of his time on the field as the lead blocker for Rashard Mendenhall.
Even with his blocking ability, Johnson does not offer much in the passing game, thus limiting his role with the team.
Pittsburgh could use a well-rounded tight end who is not a liability on the field, whether it is as a blocker or as a receiver. It would be worthwhile for the Steelers to try to upgrade their depth at tight end some time after the third round.
DRAFT NEED: 6
Pittsburgh has a great mix of veterans, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El, and youth, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, at wide receiver.
Selecting two receivers in the 2010 draft paid off, and now Pittsburgh is deep at the position with savvy veterans and speedy young players.
Throw in the wild card, Limas Sweed, who will have one last chance to prove himself, and the Steelers could possibly have size at the position as well.
Despite the depth, Pittsburgh does have to keep an eye towards the future.
Ward will not play forever and Randle-El did not show much at the position last season, and if there is a potential steal early in the draft, the Steelers may find themselves drafting yet another receiver.
In today’s pass-happy NFL, it is essential to have three good receivers and enough to spread the field with four or five wide outs.
It should not be expected that they take one early unless players fall to them, but a third-round receiver for a third-straight year should not be a surprise, though unlikely. A late-rounder, like Brown last season, is the more likely option, particularly a prospect with size.
DRAFT NEED: 4
Rashard Mendenhall has continued to grow into a starting role and should be even better next year, but if Mike Tomlin keeps running him hard, the Steelers will need to improve their depth.
Behind Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore is a free agent, and there are questions whether or not he will be re-signed.
First, Moore has simply slowed down. He is not the same player that he was when first signing with the Steelers, and he can at times be a hindrance.
More importantly, the presence of Moore meant that the more talented Isaac Redman lost out on touches.
Redman, who flashed his potential in his rookie training camp, came into his own last season averaging 4.8 yards per carry and had a spectacular touchdown reception to beat the Ravens in Baltimore.
The all-around game of Redman has improved as he has shown that he can run with power, has decent hands and most importantly, has improved his blocking enough to increase his role as a third down back.
Even with Redman, that only leaves two running backs on the roster with significant NFL carries.
The X-factor could be Jonathan Dwyer, who many though would be the steal of the draft last year.
Instead, Dwyer had a quiet camp and preseason and will really need to turn on his game this year to earn a roster spot.
The Steelers will need another running back and since free agency does not look like it will happen prior to the draft, it is an area that they must address via the draft, but in the later rounds.
DRAFT NEED: 7
Pittsburgh released long-time kicker Jeff Reed during the season last year and signed journeyman Shaun Suisham.
Suisham played well in the regular season, connecting on 14-of-15 field goal attempts, but only made three of five in the postseason.
It would not be a surprise if the Steelers kept him for one more season or brought in another veteran kicker to compete. In fact, this is the more likely scenario.
Rookie kickers are tough to predict, though the popular name will be Alex Henery, who has a big leg, and can both kick and punt.
One thing is for certain, do not expect the Steelers to draft a kicker early or trade up for one as they did for punter Daniel Sepulveda.
DRAFT NEED: 5
What are your thoughts on the Steelers' offensive needs? What offensive position is the biggest need and what players do you want to see in a Steelers uniform? Should the Steelers make the necessary moves to draft Mike Pouncey? Post your comments below.
Look for Part II of the Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Preview next week when I break down the defense position-by-position.
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