The Steelers have four realistic options for their first-round draft pick in 2011, each of which would fill a major need. They could draft an offensive guard (Mike Pouncey) who would almost certainly start as a rookie and provide a major upgrade on the offense line like his brother, Maurkice, did for Pittsburgh at center this fall.
They could also draft one of the many outstanding, big cornerback prospects who may still be available at the end of the first round. However, could that prospect start as a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s scheme over veterans Bryant McFadden and/or William Gay? Based on talent and coverage skills that answer is likely yes.
Steelers Lounge Steelers Mock Draft, Version 1
Steelers Lounge Steelers Mock Draft, Version 2
However, corners, in general, struggle as rookies in the NFL and LeBeau does not like to rely on rookies at any spot. Moreover, the Steelers can still probably get a quality, early contributor at corner in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
The other option is to draft for more vital long-term needs, specifically at offensive tackle or defensive end, with tackle possibly needing a new starter by 2012.
I discussed the reasons the Steelers are unlikely to take a tackle in the first round of the 2011 yesterday, even more so because any tackles with first-round grades will likely be off the board by the time the Steelers select.
The Steelers will certainly consider a defensive end in the first round, particularly if fast-rising J.J. Watt of Wisconsin or the falling Allen Bailey of Miami remains on the board.
No defensive player has seen his draft stock soar higher this fall than Watt, a fourth-year junior now expected to enter the draft and likely go in the first round. At 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, he has the frame to add another 15 pounds. He will then offer a perfect combo of size and athleticism for a 3-4 end who plays better than he looks.
In terms of appearances, no one looks better than Bailey, who most projected as a top-20 pick before the season. He looks like a combo of Joe Greene and Reggie White against lesser competition, flashing tremendous power and quickness. But after watching Bailey get dominated by big-time opponents like Ohio State and FSU this fall, he may be worthy of the “Looks Like Tarzan, Plays Like Jane” stigma for big games and the Steelers rarely draft players in the first round who do not consistently dominate at the college-level.
However, neither of those players would start at defensive end in 2011 or 2012 even if Aaron Smith retires after the 2010 season. Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Casey Hampton are all under contract and slated to be a solid starting defensive line for the next couple of years, which would only be better if Smith tries to play another year or two.
An influx of younger players to develop and add depth is clearly needed on the defensive line, but it is not an area that should be addressed at the top of the 2011 NFL Draft.
So here goes our latest 2011 mock draft for the Steelers. Please note that this mock assumes that no CBA is reached before the draft in 2011, making it likely that the Steelers will maintain the rights to OLB LaMarr Woodley, OT Willie Colon, TE Matt Spaeth and CB William Gay by merely issuing 1-year tenders to each of them. If a CBA is reached before the draft, the Steelers will lose some of those players, and their needs and these projections will change.
Moreover, this mock assumes the Steelers re-sign CB Ike Taylor to a lucrative, multi-year contract, and that Pittsburgh (either before or after the draft) brings back several of its less-coveted, unrestricted free agents to short-term deals to add depth. Upcoming unrestricted free agents who could be resigned include DE Nick Eason (1-2 years), NT Chris Hoke (1 final year), OT Jonathan Scott or OL Trai Essex (2-3 years), RB Mewelde Moore (1-2 years), ILB Keyaron Fox (1-2 years) and CB/ST Anthony Madison (1 year). In addition, when a CBA is reached, it is expected to increase each team’s roster limit from 53 to probably 56, which would increase game-day rosters from 45 to 48 (excluding No. 3 QB).
Finally, this mock assumes that Aaron Smith and third-team QB Charlie Batch both retire after a highly successful 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers’ season culminates in an AFC championship loss at Foxboro to the top-seeded Patriots. Both players will long be remembered and forever loved by the Steelers Nation.
Please also recognize that any picks projected after the first round in December could see their draft standings climb or fall significantly after post-season, all-star games, and the combine and individual workouts. However, multiple services have all these players available at the spots where I project them, while every player is also ranked higher or lower than these spots by some services.
1. (30) MIKE POUNCEY, OG, 6-5, 310, Florida: Pouncey fills an immediate need at right guard, which has been the worst of the Steelers’ 22 starting positions over the last two years. Pouncey is a great run blocker, who would have instant symmetry with his twin brother Maurkice, the Steelers’ stud, starting rookie center. Pouncey is rated anywhere from the No. 20 overall player in the draft by ESPN to a mid- to late-second-round prospect by multiple services. There is a pretty good chance he would be available for the Steelers toward the end of the first round, but they would risk losing him if they tried to trade down into the second round if the Steelers are picking No. 30 as I project. Mike is not as good a prospect as his brother, who is faster and more athletic. Mike is versatile and tried to improve his draft stock by playing center this fall for the Gators after receiving a 3rd-4th-round grade from the NFL Advisory Committee after his junior campaign before electing to stay in school for another year. But that position move did not work out as planned. First, he had trouble snapping, which is the most important attribute of a center. Second, he is taller and stiffer than his brother, and thus has trouble drive-blocking, big 3-4 NTs like those he will see regularly in the NFL. Thus, RG is Mike’s best spot and no team needs a new RG more than the Steelers.
2. RASHARD CARMICHAEL, CB, 5-10, 185, Virginia Tech: Everyone knows that the Steelers like big, physical, zone coverage corners who are great tacklers. The problem is that outside of No. 1 corner Ike Taylor, the Steelers do not have a corner on their roster who can actually cover NFL receives downfield and they certainly do not have a nickleback quick enough to cover players in the slot. Enter the undersized Charmichael, who could immediately provide Pittsburgh with an upgrade over William Gay at nickleback and could eventually be an undersized but quality, full-time corner similar to Deshea Townsend, who was a underrated Steelers corner for a long time. It is a deep draft for corners, which, along with his battling injuries this fall, is a reason a playmaker with speed like Carmichael may be available late in round 2. Most of the big corners who fit the Steelers’ scheme will likely be off the board by this point in the draft and the ones who could be left, like Ras-I Dowling of Virginia whose stock has fallen precipitously, have many of the same coverage weaknesses of McFadden. Thus, Pittsburgh does not need another big corner who struggles in man-to-man coverage, but instead need a smaller, coverage corner like Charmichael, Utah’s Brandon Burton, Texas’ Curtis Brown or Georgia’s Brandon Boykin, all of whom could potentially be on the board at this point of the draft. Drafting Pouncey and Charmichael would immediately upgrade the Steelers’ two weakest areas over the last two seasons.
3. CHRISTIAN BALLARD, DE, 6-4, 295, Iowa: Ballard is a classic tweener who some teams are now viewing exclusively as a 3-4 DE prospect. He lacks the upper body strength and bulk to play 4-3 DT, or the quickness and range to play outside in a 4-3. However, he is a solid, athletic player who could be a starter and will at the minimum become a contributor in a 3-4 scheme. He has been overshadowed on the Iowa defensive line by Adrian Clayborn and Ballard has seemingly been nearly invisible on the field for entire games. But his upside is strong and he has been well-coached at Iowa. Ideally, he could be the Steelers’ No. 4 end as a rookie, No. 3 end as a second-year pro and then replace Keisel in the starting lineup in 2013.
4. IAN WILLIAMS, NT, 6-1, 305, Notre Dame: While his defensive teammates were struggling, Williams was having a strong senior season before suffering a mid-season MCL tear, which has since dropped his stock slightly. However, he is expected to play in the Sun Bowl and post-season all-star games. The Steelers will likely resign valuable reserve Chris Hoke for a final season in 2011 and starting nose tackle Casey Hampton is signed through 2012. But Hoke is 34 and Hampton is 33, so the Steelers have to start thinking about drafting and grooming a young nose tackle after ignoring the spot with all 10 of their draft picks in a 2010 NFL Draft that was loaded with 3-4 NT prospects. This year’s draft is not as deep at that spot, but Williams is a solid, hard-worker and good run-stuffer who could easily become a quality No. 2 nose tackle and may develop into a potential starter.
5. OWEN MARECIC, FB, 6-0, 245, Stanford: The Steelers would be fortunate if Marecic falls this far. Yes, I know that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians likes to infuriate fans by proclaiming his offense does not use a fullback. However, the Steelers used a fullback more than any time during the Arians’ era early in the season and had great success running the ball despite having virtually no passing threat with Ben Roethlisberger suspended, and their best run-blocking offensive lineman, Willie Colon, out with an injury. Imagine how good the ground attack would be if both of those guys returned and the Steelers actually used a real, lead-blocking fullback. Marecic, a FB/LB who is the only two-way starter in major college football, is having a strong year for a top-5 Stanford team. He would also aid multiple special-teams units and is the type of winner teams want on their rosters. Speaking of rosters, with the limit stretched to 56, Arians will no longer have an argument against keeping a pure fullback on the roster, especially one as versatile as Marecic, who is actually an average blocker for the position but still much better than the TEs and HBs the Steelers currently use as lead blockers in the I-formation.
6. JOSH BYNES, ILB, 6-2, 235, Auburn: Some Steelers fans want the organization to draft Greg Lloyd, Jr. But they must not follow college football real close, because the younger Lloyd lost his starting job at UCONN and is not worthy of being drafted. Bynes, however, is enjoying an outstanding senior season as Auburn’s defensive leader and top tackler for a second consecutive year. Bynes is physically limited, though. He lacks the size to play MLB in a 4-3 scheme or the athleticism to play WLB on the inside in a 3-4. However, he could be a Larry Foote-type, two-down player for the Steelers down the road. And this pick would be for the long-term. Keyaron Fox may be allowed to leave via free agency or the Steelers will likely not draft an ILB. James Farrior, however, is 35 and Foote is 30, so the Steelers need to add another young ILB to go along with Lawrence Timmons and 2010 rookie, 5th-round pick Stevenson Sylvester.
7. BRUCE MILLER, OLB, 6-2, 250, UCF: Miller is a highly-productive, collegiate defensive end who will be a 3-4 OLB in the NFL. He is the active leader in career quarterback sacks in major college football. With the in-season release of 2010 fourth-round pick Thad Gibson, the Steelers have a need for a fourth OLB on their 2011 roster. Now, Kevin Colbert may decide to fill that need earlier than this, because drafting OLBs early for depth over other positions of need is his annual wont, frustrating me to no end. More than likely, though, he will try to find OLB depth late in the draft this time, and Milller’s production, tenacity, and pass-rushing instincts will all look very good on film. One negative of this pick and mock draft is that while both linebackers were highly-productive college players, neither Miller or Bynes offer tremendous upside and both are too athletically limited to be special-teams standouts.