Time Machines & Steelers O-Line: What Could Have Been

Prior to this past April, “Please, for the love of god, draft an offensive linemen early” was the Steelers fans’ lament. I was reminded of that after reading Bob Costas’ comments on JJ’s most recent o-line analysis post.

I think most of us would agree with Costas’ take — namely, that the organization, intentionally or otherwise, had neglected to address the offensive line in the early rounds of recent drafts. Kraig Urbik was an exception in 2009, but he’s since been released. Which got me to thinking: what exactly have the Steelers missed out on by using high-round selections on guys who aren’t o-linemen?

Turns out, not much…

To my favorite NFL Draft game: “Time Machine” (patent pending). Below is a chart dating back to 2004 showing the Steelers draft picks in rounds 1-3, as well as the available offensive line talent that they could have had. A couple things: first, only players available after the Steelers original selection are available for consideration in this little make-believe redraft game. For instance, in 2004, Pittsburgh moved up to take Ricardo Colclough at 2.38. To simplify things here, the Steelers could have passed on Colclough and taken Jake Grove (2.45), Justin Smiley (2.46), Jacob Rogers (2.52) or Nick Hardwick (3.66) before drafting Max Starks 3.75.

And that brings me to point No. 2: Pittsburgh actually traded up to get Colclough, in retrospect a huge mistake, but I’m not dealing with draft-day deals here because, frankly, it just complicates things. With that in mind, here ya go (draft stuff all via PFR):

2004
Rd	No	Tm	Name		Pos
1	11	PIT	Big Ben		QB
1	16	PHI	Shn Andrews	G
1	19	MIA	Vernon Carey	T
2	34	NYG	Chris Snee	G

2	38	PIT	R. Colclough	CB
2	45	OAK	Jake Grove	C
2	46	SFO	Justin Smiley	G
2	52	DAL	Jacob Rogers	T
3	66	SDG	Nick Hardwick	C

3	75	PIT	Max Starks	T
3	83	DAL	Steph. Peterman	G
3	84	SEA	Sean Locklear	T
3	94	CAR	Trav. Wharton	T

2005
1	30	PIT	Heath Miller 	TE
1	32	NWE	Logan Mankins	G
2	33	SFO	David Baas	G
2	41	TEN	Michael Roos	T
2	49	MIN	Marcus Johnson	G
2	52	JAX	Khalif Barnes	T

2	62	PIT	B. McFadden	CB
2	64	BAL	Adam Terry	T
3	79	CAR	Evan Mathis	G
3	81	STL	Rich Incognito	G
3	91	TAM	Chris Colmer	T

3	93	PIT	Trai Essex 	T
3	94	SFO	Adam Snyder	T
3	100	NWE	Nick Kaczur	T

2006
1	25	PIT	Santonio Holmes	WR
1	29	NYJ	Nick Mangold	C
2	39	PHI	Winston Justice	T
2	41	ARI	Deuce Lutui	G
2	47	GNB	Daryn Colledge	T
2	50	SDG	Marcus McNeill	T
2	51	MIN	Ryan Cook	C
2	55	CIN	And. Whitworth	T
2	56	BAL	Chris Chester	G
2	59	TAM	Jer. Trueblood	T
3	65	HOU	Charles Spencer	G
3	66	HOU	Eric Winston	T
3	69	OAK	Paul McQuistan	T
3	75	GNB	Jason Spitz	G

3	83	PIT	Anthony Smith 	S
3	89	CAR	Rashad Butler	T
3	95	PIT	Willie Reid 	WR

2007
1	15	PIT	Juan Timmons 	LB
1	28	SFO	Joe Staley	T
1	29	BAL	Ben Grubbs	G
2	35	TAM	Arron Sears	G
2	39	ATL	Justin Blalock	G
2	42	IND	Tony Ugoh	T

2	46	PIT	LaMarr Woodley	LB
2	59	CAR	Ryan Kalil	C
2	60	MIA	Samson Satele	C
3	67	DAL	James Marten	T
3	70	DEN	Ryan Harris	T

3	77	PIT	Matt Spaeth 	TE
3	86	BAL	Marshall Yanda	T
3	88	NOR	Andy Alleman	G

2008
1	23	PIT	R. Mendenhall	RB
1	26	HOU	Duane Brown	T
2	39	SFO	Chilo Rachal	G

2	53	PIT	Limas Sweed	WR
2	59	IND	Mike Pollak	T
3	65	STL	John Greco	T
3	83	TAM	Jeremy Zuttah	G

3	88	PIT	Bruce Davis	LB
3	96	WAS	Chad Rinehart	T
3	99	BAL	Oniel Cousins	G

2009
1	32	PIT	Ziggy Hood	DL
2	39	JAX	Eben Britton	T
2	49	SEA	Max Unger	C
2	51	BUF	Andy Levitre	G
2	54	MIN	Phil Loadholt	T
2	58	NWE	Seb. Vollmer	T
2	60	NYG	William Beatty	T
3	75	DAL	Robert Brewster	T
3	77	HOU	Ant. Caldwell	G
3	78	SDG	Louis Vasquez	G

3	79	PIT	Kraig Urbik 	G
3	84	PIT	Mike Wallace 	WR
3	96	PIT	Keenan Lewis 	WR

Some thoughts:

2004. Passing up Big Ben’s a deal-breaker (public sexing-it-up aside) because that would have pretty much guaranteed that the team would still be stuck on four Super Bowls. Plus, Andrews and Carey have been busts, and while Snee has been good in New York, he ain’t the cornerstone to building a perennial Super Bowl contender.

We all agree that Colclough was a mistake but the Steelers still managed to get the best lineman between picks 2.38 and 3.94: Max Starks. (Edit: I somehow left Nick Hardwick off the chart when I first posted this but he’s in there now. His addition means that the Steelers dumping Colclough for Hardwick is a no-brainer.)

2005. I wouldn’t but I suppose some could argue that the Steelers would have been better served taking Mankins or Roos over Miller, but then we’d be bitching about why Jerame Tuman is still on the team and how he can’t block or catch. And don’t forget: the front five in the ’05 Super Bowl season was Marvel, Faneca, Hartings, Simmons and Starks. Pittsburgh was run-heavy and the o-line wasn’t quite the problem it later became.

As for the second-round options instead of B-Mac … well, again, there’s not much to choose from. And for as much as people love to pile on Essex, he had a solid Week 1 showing without the aid of illegal drugs.

2006. No way the Steelers win Super Bowl 43 without Santonio Holmes, but maybe if they had Nick Mangold or Marcus McNeill or Chris Chester, Big Ben would have suffered fewer sacks during the regular season, had more time to make plays, and Pittsburgh would have found a different route to its sixth championship. Again, even in hindsight, this is a huge tradeoff. Would anybody really rather have Mankins and McNeill (or Mangold — your call) over Heath and Santonio? I would not.

Remarkably, the Steelers didn’t miss out on any o-line help when they drafted Anthony Smith and Willie Reid with third-round picks, although you could make a case for packaging their first, second, and third-rounders for a chance to move up in the first round. But this violates my first rule above so moving on…

2007. I don’t know anyone who didn’t hate the Juan Timmons selection when it happened. Yet here we are four years later and Timmons is on the verge of something special. So are three so-so seasons leading up to 2010 worth passing on guys like Staley, Grubbs, Blalock or Ugoh (pre-injury)? I wouldn’t do it, but I’m an o-line apologist, at least in the sense that, to quote Bill Cowher, “they are what they are.” I don’t know if the guys mentioned above would be better long-term fits than Timmons for the Steelers. If you’re unsure, just keep reminding yourself that this team has won two Super Bowls since 2005, and the ’08 club had one of the worst offensive lines in tackle football history.

Nobody’s giving up Woodley for Kalil et al, but Yanda over Spaeth seems obvious.

2008. I’m typically against taking running backs in Round 1 but Mendenhall fell into Pittsburgh’s lap and they didn’t have a choice. Duane Brown was a stretch at 1.26 and Chilo Rachal has been a disappointment in San Francisco. But how about this: the Titans took Chris Johnson one spot behind Mendenhall. Can you imagine what the Steelers offense would look like with that mad man in the backfield? Does anybody think that Mendenhall’s a better fit in Pittsburgh’s system than Johnson?

Sweed has had an unlucky Steelers existence and Pollak or Zuttah are at least contributing for their respective teams. (They were last season, anyway; no idea if they played in Week 1 — but I know Limas didn’t.) That said, after watching Deebo own Oniel Cousins late last season, I would have been fine with the Steelers just forfeiting the 3.88 pick.

2009. The coaches love Ziggy, although the fans have yet to see much from the ’09 first-rounder. Of course, we were all bitching about the team getting younger on the defensive line, so the pick made sense. There were also nine o-linemen taken between Hood (1.32) and Urbik (3.79). Maybe Unger or Levitre could have helped the Steelers immediately, but again, neither player is Alan Faneca or, well, Maurkice Pouncey.

So, the takeaway to all this? Yeah, sure, things could be better, but not by much. And alternatively, they could be much, much worse.

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  • JB

    I’ll just say that this is precisely the kind of stuff I was hoping to see on SteelersLounge — kudos to Ryan et al. And I think your point is well-taken — tough to see how those of us clamoring for o-linemen would have been handsomely rewarded by a better team. Obvious exception here could have been a trade up for someone like Ryan Clady or Branden Albert (I remember both were coveted by many commenters over at HSS), but obviously we’d have had to give up a lot in that scenario.

    Tangentially, I have to wonder at what point having flame-out 2nd and 3rd round draft picks catches up with the Steelers. Look at ’06 onward and take out the #1′s: Anthony “Dance Down the Sideline” Smith, Willie Reid, Woodley, Spaeth, Sweed, Bruce Davis, Urbik, Wallace, Keenan “15-yard Penalty” Lewis. Of those, only Woodley, Spaeth, and Wallace are meaningful members of the team (Woodley is obviously a star and Wallace may be on the verge). But that’s only 3 out of 9.

    Is this a worse hit rate than in the past? I’d be curious. Obviously names like Max Starks, Joey Porter, Hines Ward, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, and Ike Taylor come to mind as guys picked in rounds 2-6 who contributed. Maybe there’s a survivorship bias in my thinking, but I’m wondering if totally whiffing on 2/3 of our 2nd and 3rd rounders is going to hurt when, say, the defense finally gets old.

    • Cols714

      I think they’ve done well. And for every flameout 3rd rounder, there’s been a find as a UDFA. Take the good with the bad and the overall draft record for the Steelers over the last 10 years has been pretty outstanding.

  • Cols714

    Chris Johnson would be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. I think I’m with you, although I’m not yet sold on Ziggy Hood as a first round pick. But what do I know. A few weeks ago I was bitching about Timmons and he looks fantastic.

    And definitely Miller and Holmes and Ben over whatever OL were available to them. One more thing, I wish Steelers fans would finally admit that Essex has been a pretty valuable guy and worth the pick.

  • Cols714

    Maybe the thought is to only take an OL in the 1st round if you think he’s going to be special. And I wanted Alex Mack, but Pouncey looks much much better than him.

  • Go

    Who is Juan Timmons?

    • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

      Go, In Jim Wexell’s book, Steeler Nation, he spoke with Timmons family and they said Lawrence’s nickname growing up was Juan.

  • Randy Steele

    Nick Mangold wouldn’t have been available to the Steelers in Round 1 of 2006 unless the Steelers moved up to get him, as they did Holmes that year. So, if I understand the rules correctly, Mangold can’t be part of this fantasy draft.

  • Jcm412

    2004
    Could have taken Nick Hardwick over Colclough
    2005
    Mankins and especially Roos would have been better the Heath
    David Stewart and Jason Brown could have been taken over Essex
    2006
    Jabari Evans over A.Smith and Willie Reid
    2007
    J.Bushrod over Speduleda
    2008
    Carl Nicks

    • Canadian Steeler

      If only we had taken Dan Marino back in ’83 too. It’s unrealistic to expect us to hit on every single pick. We could’ve taken Hardwick in 2004, but we did have a Pro-Bowl center in Hartings, so the second round seems a bit early when there doesn’t seem to be a need at all, especially since he wasn’t about to fill in at guard when you’ve got Faneca and Simmons (a recent 1st rounder).

      I could see the argument for Roos over Heath, but not Mankins. You have to remember we had a HOF at LG, and we weren’t about to spend 2 1st round picks in 4 years to fill the RG position. Roos could’ve fit the RT position over Starks, since Smith was a Pro-Bowler in 2004. I don’t understand saying we should’ve picked “better players” over Essex, since what was being argued here is targeting offensive linemen early in drafts. You could make the same argument with Mendenhall over CJ, but Mendenhall could’ve easily been a top-10 pick that draft.

      I don’t think anyone would’ve complained about taking Evans over either of those players, but I see the argument for taking Sepulveda over Bushrod. Say what you will about trading up to get a punter in the 4th round, but I don’t think we win this past sunday without him, and I’m very happy that I’ll never have to see Mitch Berger in the Black and Gold again (God forbid).

      I don’t know if you can criticise the Cowher era too much about taking offensive linemen early. Remember, these are the guys who were going to take a guard over Big Ben, until the Rooneys intervened. Under Tomlin, I think it’s a legitimate gripe, but as this article shows, if you’re drafting for BPA early (which IMO, you should be), it’s hard to fault them given what linemen were taking soon after. You can have concerns about Ziggy Hood, but imagine how much the age of the defensive line would be a concern without him there. He’ll need his time to develop, but it’s much too early to want an Unger or Britton over him. I could be wrong, but I heard we were trying to get back into the second round to take Unger, and only when there were no suitors did we trade back into the 3rd.

      I seriously doubt you can find a Steeler fan who thinks our offensive line is without issue. Even with the aid of complete hindsight, building a stacked offensive line through the draft doesn’t sound too easy.

      • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

        Great points, all of them.

  • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

    Randy,

    Good point. I was working from the assumption that the Steelers were still picking 25th in 2006 even though they actually traded up to get Santonio. Assuming that, Mangold’s available (honestly, I didn’t even think about PIT selecting 1.32 that year — completely slipped my mind).

  • Joe

    Ya i think LT: Roos, LG: J.Evans, C: N.Hardwick, RG: C.Nicks, RT: D.Stewart looks REALLY good to me. And that would only be with the loss of Heath. And given that we could have drafted Jermaine Gresham in 2010 so we would have a TE.

  • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

    Update: I somehow overlooked Nick Hardwick in the chart above. He’s now in there for the 2004 draft (and I added a sentence in the text too). Also: re: Evans, I looked at just the first three round here because that’s historically what we’ve complained about as fans.

  • Joe

    Well considering We picked Ried 3:95 end of the third and Evans was picked 4:108 beginning of the 4th. Evans could fit in this convo.

    • Joe

      Same goes with Stewart and Brown. If we were to pick Evans, Stewart, or Brown it would to have to been with our 3rd round pick not the 4th. The only player that ill give you with the first 3 rounds scenerio would be C.Nicks.

      • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

        No, I understand that and I don’t disagree. My point: I made the cutoff for this post three rounds because, frankly, in the interest of time I didn’t want to spend all day cutting and pasting draft picks and I wanted to publish it. Brown, Evans or Stewart all would have been positive additions to this team. They just weren’t what we used to refer to as first-day picks.

      • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

        No, I understand that and I don’t disagree. My point: I made the cutoff for this post three rounds because, frankly, in the interest of time I didn’t want to spend all day cutting and pasting draft picks and I wanted to publish it. Brown, Evans or Stewart all would have been positive additions to this team. They just weren’t what we used to refer to as first-day picks.

        • Jennifer

          In other word this article is shot to sh*t

  • Anonymous

    Great stuff, Ryan. My takeaway is similar to yours: even with the benefit of hindsight to make the perfect picks and no errors, it would not have been easy to improve the OL without giving up important pieces. Overall, I think Colbert and Co have done a great job and have created a strong roster with good positional depth and a nice mix of rookies, young vets, established players and few guys on their last legs (although, as much as I love him, it may be about time for Potsie to sit on it).

    And, yeah, CJ, he’s not too shabby. He’d be good anywhere.

  • Anonymous

    My favorite part of the Juan story is that it is a shortening of the name his dad wanted to give him: Olajuwon.

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