The Steelers’ 2010 draft class has already paid huge dividends and appears to be one of Pittsburgh’s best and deepest draft hauls in recent years. Eight of the 10 draft picks are still on the 53-man roster and five are making key contributions for the 11-4 Steelers, including rookie Pro-Bowl selection Maurkice Pouncey.
However, the one head-scratcher from that draft was tabbing OLB prospect Jason Worilds in the second round, since that was earlier than most had Worilds projected and he will likely not start in Pittsburgh for several years – if ever. Instead, as J.J. can affirm that I begged for at the time, that second-round pick should have been Jared Veldheer. The Steelers would be better off now and have a much brighter future at offensive tackle if they had picked Veldheer last year.
Veldheer is now the starting left tackle for the Raiders. The 6-foot-8, 315-pounder actually began the season as the team’s starting center, but has been protecting the blindside for the last eight games for an Oakland squad that is second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (152.3) despite having no quality receivers or a decent quarterback.
Now, truth be told, I always call out at least two possible names as desired picks after the first round and the other name I yelled last year before the Steelers’ second-round selection was Golden Tate, the Notre Dame receiver. Tate, though, is nowhere near as good as Steelers’ third-round pick Emmanuel Sanders, and having Tate instead of Sanders would make a slow Pittsburgh receiving corps even slower.
Moreover, I did not expect Veldheer to come in from Hillsdale College and be a starting left tackle in the NFL as a rookie. No one did. In fact, I figured Veldheer would be a reserve as a rookie whose only chance of starting for any team would be at right guard, figured that he might be able to start at right tackle by year No. 2 and could theoretically be a starting left tackle down the road.
Still, tackle is such a huge need for the Steelers in the future that Veldheer was worthy of the Steelers’ second-round pick last year, particularly since many experts had him going off the board earlier even though he ultimately lasted until the fifth pick of the third round.
Now, no one could project that Pittsburgh would lose both of its starting OTs (Willie Colon and Max Starks) to season-ending injuries in 2010. The signing of veteran Flozell Adams to replace Colon saved the Steelers’ season and joureyman Jonathan Scott has been serviceable at times in replacing Starks at left tackle.
However, tackle was a major need for the Steelers in the 2010 NFL Draft, since Colon is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after 2010 (assuming a CBA is reached) and the team had virtually no depth behind Colon and Starks on the outside.
But yet the Steelers finished off their 10th consecutive draft without taking an offensive tackle prospect in the first two rounds, the only team in the NFL to not do so in the past decade.
Roger Goodell’s recent comments about the league’s labor strife makes it now seem more likely that a labor accord will be reached that allows Colon to become an UFA, meaning there is a good chance he will leave the Steelers, since the front office has never put a premium on retaining Colon, who will also be coming back from an Achilles tear. That means Adams will probably again be the team’s right tackle in 2011 when he is 36.
That also means that tackle is a major need for the Steelers in the 2011 draft, although the veteran Steelers again will have more immediate needs (RG, CB), where upgrades could give them a better chance of winning another Super Bowl.
However, it is inconceivable to project Adams to still play in 2012, meaning that the Steelers will have to draft his likely replacement this April in a down year for tackle prospects or expect a late, first-round pick in 2012 to start at tackle as a rookie. It sure would have been nice to have Veldheer inked in as a future, long-term starter at one tackle spot.
Now, that does not mean that Worilds is a bad player. He was just a luxury pick by a franchise with an aging roster that could not afford to do so in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Pro Football Weekly wrongly dubbed Worilds as one of the five biggest reaches in the entire 2011 NFL Draft. But that was absurd, since he was projected as a 2nd-4th-round pick by almost every draft service.
Worilds, however, may have been available with the Steelers’ third-round pick, as tweener DE/OLB Jermaine Cunningham was the only player listed by anyone as an OLB prospect that was selected after the Worilds pick before the Steelers took Thad Gibson in the fourth round, only to release him early in the season because they were too deep at linebacker.
Worilds has also been a special-teams stud for the Steelers this fall and showcased raw speed as a pass rusher in helping the Steelers preserve a 23-22 win at Miami this year after starter LaMarr Woodley left the game due to injury.
But Worilds is actually the team’s No. 4 OLB, since ILB Lawrence Timmons moves to the outside if either of the Steelers’ superstar starting OLBs in James Harrison and Woodley goes down.
Woodley is likely to be signed to a long-term deal as soon as possible and will be franchised (the tag will likely be restored if/when a new CBA is reached) to keep him in Pittsburgh if a deal cannot be worked out quickly.
Harrison, meanwhile, has shown no signs of slowing down in the second year of a six-year contract, which likely means he has another two — and probably three — years as a starter. That means Worilds could be an unrestricted free agent before he ever becomes a regular starter in Pittsburgh; and teams should never take someone with their second-round pick to be a backup for four years while ignoring positions of major need.
And do not buy the BS motto that the Steelers or any other team that claims to take the best player available (BPA). Wrong. The Steelers come into drafts with positions of need and look to fill those positions in various rounds, taking into account their overall draft board.
The Steelers did not need a starting RB when it selected Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, but they did need a No. 2 RB and knew that Willie Parker would not be an NFL starter for much longer. With the exception of Mendenhall and QB Ben Roethlisberger (2004), all other Steeler first-round picks in the past decade filled immediate needs.
Moreover, the only times Pittsburgh drafts the BPA on its board in the first four rounds without taking into account its needs has been for OLBs in the mostly successful Kevin Colbert era, with the one exception of taking TE Matt Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
At that time the Steelers had its young, starting tight end Heath Miller secured to a long-term deal and also had a quality No. 2 tight end in Jermane Tuman, who had just completed the first season of a three-year deal. However, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians argued for drafting Spaeth that year, because of his value as a red-zone target and as a receiver.
Spaeth was a poor blocker for his first 2.5 years before improving in that respect in the second half of the 2009 season and that has continued this fall. Unfortunately, his increased bulk has negated any separation speed he once possessed, and his 36 career receptions to go with six career drops does not equate to a good pick when the Steelers passed up Marshal Yanda at that spot despite everyone projecting Pittsburgh to take at least one offensive linemen with its first three picks that year. Yanda has started all 15 games for the Ravens this fall.
However, at least Spaeth was drafted in the round where most expected him to go. All other head-scratchers in the Colbert era were outside linebacker picks. Taking Bruce Davis in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft was absurd since Pittsburgh’s need for linebacker depth was much less then than it was in 2010 and Davis was projected as a 4th-6th-rounder. He was a bust. My preferred pick in that spot was Oniel Cousins and yes, I would much rather have the Ravens’ offensive line than our current group.
And of course the stupidest pick of all was taking Alonzo Jackson in the second round in 2003 when no one else thought the 266-pound Jackson could convert to a 3-4 OLB, nor did anyone project him to go in the second round after an unimpressive postseason.
In other words, the Steelers generally do not take BPA or reach for players at non-need areas unless they are outside linebackers, and that philosophy is why Pittsburgh has the best starting four and deepest group of linebackers in the NFL to go with lousy No. 2-3 corners, a poor offensive line, and an aging defensive line.
Colbert and the entire Steelers’ front office should be commended for a superb 2010 NFL Draft and running an exemplary organization. But the Steelers’ proclivity for ignoring offensive tackle while falling in love with too many outside linebackers in the draft is why the team’s future at tackle looks so bleak.