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
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.