One year removed from a Super Bowl championship, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a team with very few immediate needs. As of today, the Steelers have 20 of 22 starters returning and there is a good chance that restricted free agent tackle Willie Colon and unrestricted free agent safety Ryan Clark will return.
Despite this, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers front office are facing their most important draft in the past three seasons.
Steelers President Art Rooney II believes that the Steelers have to take advantage of drafting 18th in the 2010 NFL Draft.
“We have to have a good draft. For us, that’s a key piece to the puzzle. We’ll be drafting a little higher than we have been this year and so we have to do a good job with the draft and have some guys come in who will help in the near future, not right away but in the near future.”
Rooney was particularly concerned about developing young defensive players considering this unit may have as many as seven players 30 or older starting this upcoming season.
“I do think that one of the things we have to do is probably get better at developing our younger players…That’s something we have to think about and make sure we’re doing what we need to do to have guys being able to step in maybe a little earlier. And over the next year or two, there’s no question we have some age on the defense and there’s going to be some turnover.”
The players in question fall on the defensive line, where Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel are all over 30, in the defensive backfield with Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor, and at linebacker, with James Harrison and James Farrior, who will be the oldest starter on the team.
While each player still is effective, there are few young players in position to take over in a year or two.
The defensive line was finally addressed last year with first-round selection Ziggy Hood and sixth-round selection Ra’Shon Harris. Pittsburgh also selected cornerbacks Keenan Lewis in the third and Joe Burnett in the fifth. Beyond these positions, the Steelers lack defensive depth.
The Steelers invested their two selections in linebackers in 2007 when they made Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley their top two choices. Both have become valuable starters, but there are no young linebackers with potential behind these two.
That is in part because of the failure to address linebacker depth in the 2008 draft.
Pittsburgh once again spent two selections on linebackers—Bruce Davis in the third and Mike Humpal in the sixth—however neither player established himself and they are no longer on the roster.
Depth at safety also became an issue when Troy Polamalu went out with an injury. Ryan Clark, a solid safety with Polamalu in the lineup, became exposed in the passing game. Neither Tyrone Carter nor Ryan Mundy had the look of a starting safety. This lack of depth is due to the fact that the Steelers have only selected one safety—Mundy in 2008—since making Polamalu their first round selection in 2003.
The defensive tackle position is in a similar state as the safety position. Casey Hampton is still an effective player and has a quality backup in Chris Hoke. However, by failing to draft a defensive tackle since 2001, Pittsburgh has no player ready to step in once Hampton moves on.
Lack of depth and age finally began to show cracks in the once-vaunted Steelers defense last season. Pittsburgh’s defense went from one of the best in recent memory in 2008 to a defense that uncharacteristically broke down in the fourth quarter, blowing several leads.
So what do the Steelers need to do to re-establish a dominating defense and the status of Super Bowl contender? They need to hit with several draft picks in several key areas.
Farrior became the poster boy for the aging Steelers defense. While still a good player, Farrior lost a step and struggled—particularly in pass coverage—throughout the season. It is imperative that the Steelers draft an inside linebacker who can step in for Farrior either immediately or early on in the season.
If the Steelers elect to trade up, Pittsburgh can add the top inside linebacker in the draft, Rolando McClain. McClain would be the perfect physical compliment to the athletic Timmons in the middle. Realistically, Sean Weatherspoon will be available when the Steelers select at 18.
While not the player that McClain is, Weatherspoon is athletic and has the attitude that would fit in well with the Steelers defense. If they elect to trade down, the Steelers could look at Brandon Spikes, a player who has had plenty of success on the college level.
Safety is the next area of need. An athletic, ball-hawking safety that can focus on coverage would be ideal to line up next to Polamalu. Earl Thomas is possible in the first round or the Steelers could take a chance that Nate Allen or Chad Jones falls to them in the second round.
Finally, it is necessary that the Steelers get a defensive tackle to develop behind Hampton. It will be difficult to pass on a player such as Dan Williams in the first round. Williams would be an ideal fit in the Steelers 3-4 defensive scheme. Terrence Cody would be a dominating force against the run, but he would need to fall to the Steelers in the second.
By drafting impact players at these positions the Steelers will not only have re-tooled their defense, but also re-established themselves as a contender for the Super Bowl.