As the media will never let us forget, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is getting older. Starters in key positions are on the wrong side of 30, and with the average age of a Steelers defensive starter sitting at 30.5 years old, it might be time to look for replacements.
Ryan Clark is one of these key starters. He is a perfect complement to Troy Polamalu, completing a hard-hitting tandem at safety and providing coverage skills that allow Polamalu to roam a little more freely.
Clark is 32 and by no means slowing down, but it must be recognized that decline will eventually occur. This year draft has a good class at free safety, and with a year to sit and learn behind Clark and Polamalu, a newcomer could be set at the position potentially for the next decade. Its never too early to start preparing for tomorrow and with the NFL becoming an ever more pass-happy league, having good players at the safety position is more crucial than ever.
To be considered, the player had to be a capable run defender without losing anything in pass coverage, while having a good work ethic, good athleticism and as few red flags as possible.
2010 stats: 52 tackles (28 solo), one sack, eight interceptions
Projected Round: 1
Alabama's Robert Lester is one of the top safety prospects in the country, and it’s obvious why. A big-hitting ball hawk who can be dangerous with the ball in hand after picking it off makes for a pretty good free safety.
However, Lester can make mistakes in coverage and end up in the wrong place. Having two experienced safeties and defensive backs' coach Carnell Lake at Pittsburgh would help Lester develop this aspect of his game.
His projection to be off the board in the first round will hurt his chances of joining the Steelers, who usually pick at the back end of the round.
2010 stats: 89 tackles (54 solo), one sack, three interceptions
Projected Round: 1
T. J. McDonald is one of the most complete safeties in this year’s class, capable of playing the run well and delivering crunching hits while still being solid in coverage.
McDonald is also very athletic, with good leaping ability. It’s not all about his athleticism though, as he will also make plays on instinct alone. There is also pedigree there, with his father having played safety in the NFL for 13 seasons. McDonald also has good leadership qualities and is currently a captain at USC.
Despite this, there are some drawbacks. While instinctively sound, McDonald often reads run first and can get caught too close to the line of scrimmage on pass plays. While technically a good tackler, he will also take bad angles, making routine tackles more difficult. His burst and acceleration are good, but he lacks real pursuit speed.
His projection to be drafted in the first round will hurt the Steelers chances, as it will with Lester.
#7 Vaughn Telemaque
2010 stats: 58 tackles (32 solo), one forced fumble, three interceptions
Projected Round: 2
Vaughn Telemaque offers a talented, well-rounded free safety who could be available when the Steelers are on the clock.
Telemaque is good in coverage, makes instinctive plays and hits hard when he comes in to make a tackle while still maintaining good form. Telemaque also has great athleticism, running a 4.48 40-yard dash.
However, Telemaque was also caught up in the booster scandal at the University of Miami, though he has denied all links. This is a potential red flag for the Steelers, who have jettisoned players like Santonio Holmes who had disciplinary issues in the recent past.
Telemaque also forced no turnovers as a freshman, whereas the other players on this list have produced turnovers throughout their college careers.
2010 stats: 76 tackles (51 solo), three forced fumbles, three interceptions
Projected Round: 2-3
The man with the best name in football, Bacarri Rambo has a lot of talent and could be available in the second round. Rambo hits hard and can knock the ball loose from a receivers hands. This hit on Mario Fannin also showed that Rambo is willing to put his body on the line for his team.
Rambo is also good with the ball in his hands, having returned two interceptions for touchdowns. So far in 2011, Rambo has six interceptions in only eight games, showing some credentials as a ball hawk.
Despite his ability at making these crunching hits, Rambo does not usually wrap up when tackling. He is also not the best at playing in zone coverage, a key factor in a quality free safety, though this will improve with time and coaching.
Rambo was also suspended by the Bulldogs against Boise State for unreleased reasons. His ball-hawking is causing a rise in his draft stock, something that could raise him into the middle of the second round and out of the Steelers hands.
2010 stats: 63 tackles (49 solo), one forced fumble, two interceptions
Projected Round: 4-5
George Iloka is my final choice, and a real wild card. Iloka has good size at 6’3” and runs a 4.5 40-yard dash. He could be available in the middle to later rounds, giving Pittsburgh a great opportunity to pick him up.
With over 200 tackles in his college career, he has shown a knack for finding the ball carrier. With seven interceptions so far at Boise State, including four as a freshman, Iloka is also a capable ball hawk.
However, Iloka is a converted wide receiver, and despite his tackle total he still has work to do on his form tackling. In playing his football at Boise State, Iloka is also not playing highly talented players as often as some of the other safeties on this list.
He is also not refined enough in zone coverage to be an immediate starter, which will take work once getting to the NFL level.