The 2011 NFL Scouting Combine begins Thursday and any mock drafts for the Steelers are useless until we know if a lockout will occur on March 4th, which would alter how Pittsburgh should approach the upcoming April draft.
(Related: If you have to see some 2011 Steelers mock drafts, here are three versions I put together at various points last season.)
However, I do have a few thoughts on the draft (which will be held in April regardless of a potential lockout) and what strategy Pittsburgh should use to (1) draft the best player available (or someone near the top of its list in each round), (2) fill both short-term and long-term needs, and (3) target positions when they offer the best value on the overall draft board.
Led by center Maurkice Pouncey, a Pro-Bowl selection as a rookie, the Steelers’ 2010 draft class was one of their best and deepest in recent years. However, with 10 draft picks, they still did not take advantage of positions of depth and strength. Last year’s draft was loaded with nose tackles and safeties, both of which are long-term needs where Pittsburgh must begin developing future starters. The Steelers ignored both positions. Neither nose tackle or safety is as strong in this draft, but each remains a long-term need for the Steelers, although not at the top of their board.
Assuming they are unable to re-sign Willie Colon to a long-term deal, offensive tackle may be Pittsburgh’s biggest long-term need in this draft.
The problem, in general, is that in this era you have to reach for tackle prospects after the first 10 draft picks, since they are now almost always over-drafted. Pittsburgh does not like to reach and has not selected a tackle in the first two rounds since tabbing Marvel Smith in the second round of the 2000 draft. Not surprisingly, Smith’ lone career Pro-Bowl appearance following the 2004 season is the only such honor earned by a Steelers’ tackle since Tunch Ilkin went to consecutive Pro Bowls following the 1988 and 1989 seasons.
But tackle will probably not be a major need for the 2011 season, especially if no CBA is reached until the late summer or fall, which will likely happen if there is a lockout on March 4th. In that case, the Steelers would bring three proven NFL starting tackles to camp: Max Starks (who also returns from injury), Colon, and Flozell Adams, as well as valuable reserves with starting experience in Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex, both of whom would be unrestricted, veteran free agents if a CBA is reached.
Of course, through that scenario, only Starks would be under contract for the Steelers past 2011 (Starks is signed through 2012), which seemingly makes tackle a priority in the 2011 NFL draft, especially since tackles are rarely ready to start as rookies.
If he were available when the Steelers’ first-round pick comes up at No. 31 overall, Pittsburgh would have to seriously consider Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod, who could play either tackle spot. Sherrod does not appear to be ready to start as a rookie but would not need to with the Steelers.
It is less likely that Wisconsin Gabe Carimi will still be on the board at 31. Taking Villianova’s Benjamin Ijalana at this spot is too risky since the Steelers generally like proven college players from marquee programs in the first round. In addition to facing low-level competition, Ijalana is currently sidelined with a sports hernia and is a near physical clone of Colon, standing just under 6-foot-4. His height means that he is not considered a tackle prospect by some other franchises. However, I am sure the Cardinals’ Russ Grimm will have Ijalana at the top of his board, because he is enamored with vertically-challenged tackle prospects.
After that, the offensive tackle options are much thinner at the end of the second round, with most projecting as right tackles (some of whom may even be better at guard). In fact, I would literally throw up if the Steelers drafted Arkansas right tackle/guard prospect DeMarcus Love, who was thoroughly abused by Cameron Heyward in the Sugar Bowl and fared even worse against Cal’s Cameron Jordan in the Senior Bowl.
The Steelers’ biggest need to contend for a Super Bowl in 2011 — and arguably their greatest long-term need, too — is cornerback. Ike Taylor must be in Pittsburgh next season or the team will not be in the playoffs. He is that important to the league’s top-ranked defense. But even if, as expected, the 30-year-old Taylor returns, the Steelers are still weak at the other corners, with neither Bryant McFadden nor William Gay able to hold up in man-coverage against accurate quarterbacks.
Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers in the AFC, and Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in the NFC are all major roadblocks to the Steelers’ winning more Super Bowl titles, particularly as their defensive front seven ages. Thus, the need for improvement at cornerback. Fortunately, this is a quality cornerback draft for at least the first three rounds, although it could have been better with more early entries.
LSU’s Patrick Peterson, Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara and Colorado’s Jimmy Smith should all be off the board before Pittsburgh selects in the first round, but there is a chance that Texas’ Aaron Williams and/or Miami’s Brandon Harris will be available. Of the two, I like Williams more, but neither would be fit the BPA mold at the end of the first round.
What Pittsburgh really needs is a slot corner with great instincts and man-to-man coverage skills. They have plenty of big corners. But outside of Taylor, none are very good athletes. Texas’ Curtis Brown, Utah’s Brandon Burton and Louisville’s Johnny Patrick would all fill that need, and all are possibilities when the Steelers pick at 62, although Brown appears to be climbing up draft boards. Tabbing any of those players in the second round would bring more value than taking Williams or Harris in the first round based on other positions of need for the Steelers.
It is unlikely Pittsburgh will wait until round three to take a cornerback, but there would still be good value if they did, particularly among slot corners.
Ryan wrote a great commentary on the possibility of the Steelers drafting Florida guard Mike Pouncey if he were still on the board at the end of the first round. Pouncey would represent greater value based off BPA than either of the two cornerbacks mentioned as first-round possibilities, although the Steelers’ short- and long-term needs at right guard are not near as pressing as those at cornerback.
Living in Florida, I actually have seen Mike Pouncey play since he was at Lakeland High and have had conversations about his talents with several Florida Gator fans, most of whom have watched his every college play. Here is what I have gathered: Bigger and much less athletic than Maurkice, Mike projects better at guard in the NFL than at center, where he struggled for parts of the 2010 season.
Mike has never been as highly regarded as Maurkice. A few colleges did not offer Mike scholarships that offered his twin brother, and others were rumored to have offered Mike to get Maurkice. Obviously, though, now those colleges looks foolish because Mike is the best interior offensive-line prospect in the 2011 NFL draft. Still, Maurkice received a draft grade of first- or second-round by the NFL Advisory Committee last year before opting to enter the draft, while Mike was projected to go no earlier than the third round before deciding to stay in school.
Draft experts appear mixed on Mike Pouncey. Some have him in the top 20 overall, while others do not believe he should be selected before the middle of the second round. However, you can bet that Maurkice’s immediate success with the Steelers will help Mike’s draft prospects. From the standpoint of the Steelers, the Pouncey twins would have great symmetry together as mainstays for the interior offensive line for the next decade. Plus, right guard has consistently been the Steelers’ primary weakness on their offensive line for the past decade. Mike Pouncey would probably beat out Ramon Foster to be the 2011 opening-day starter.
But if the Steelers do not take Pouncey in the first round, they really do not need to draft another guard, and it would be unwise to do so in the first three rounds. None would be likely to beat out Foster as a rookie or even make the dress roster over Essex.
Michigan guard Steven Schilling would represent good value in the fourth round. But if there is no free agency before 2011, Pittsburgh is slated to have nine roster-worthy players back on its offensive line: LT Starks, LG Chris Kemoeatu, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG Foster, RT Colon, T Adams, G-T Essex, C-G Doug Legursky, T Jonathon Scott, as well three more players who were on its Super Bowl roster in T/G Chris Scott, T Tony Hills and C/G Dorian Brooks.
The Steelers should only draft Pouncey — or a pure tackle prospect — because depth is not an issue on the offensive line. Having better starters and a developmental prospect who could start at tackle by 2012 or 2013 are what is needed.
It is likely that the Steelers’ first pick will be a cornerback or offensive lineman. However, if Pittsburgh really does take the BPA in the first round, then a defensive end may be the selection. As many as 10 different defensive ends have a shot to be first-round draft picks, with half of those projecting best as 3-4 ends. Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt would be an ideal fit for Dick LeBeau’s 3-4, but he is likely to be off the board before the Steelers’ pick.
One intriguing prospect for the Steelers is Cameron Heyward, particularly since Pittsburgh loves taking defensive players from Ohio State, which runs the college scheme most similar to the Steelers’ defensive philosophy.
Heyward was a consensus top-10 pick before the season, saw his draft stock plummet to the second round on some boards during an inconsistent season, and then saw it rise again after a dominating performance in the Buckeyes’ win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. Mel Kiper currently projects Heyward as the Steelers’ first-round pick.
At 6-foot-5, 288 pounds, Heyward has the frame to add another 15 pounds and be a solid 3-4 end, although many scouts think he would be best off as a strongside end in a 4-3 due to a lean lower body and great range.
However, if the Steelers want to take a future starter at defensive end in this draft, they may need to do so in the first two rounds. After that, all the defensive ends projected to go in the third and fourth rounds are smaller 4-3 rush ends. If he continues to slide down draft boards, Allen Bailey, a physical specimen but big-game underachiever from Miami, might be worth the Steelers’ second-round pick.
A player more likely to be available at that spot is Mississippi State’s Pernell McPhee. However, at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, there are questions about how effective McPhee would be if he bulked up further, so he may not be a good fit for the 3-4.
But Aaron Smith, who is injury-prone at this point in career but still the best 3-4 end in the game when healthy, is saying he would like play two more years. 2009 first-round pick Ziggy Hood emerged as a solid starter at the end of the 2010 season, and veteran Brett Keisel is coming off his best season. In other words, defensive end is not a major need for the next year or two, although Keisel is 32 and Smith 34, with Smith’s current contract running out after 2011.
If the Steelers do take a defensive lineman in the middle rounds, that player probably should be a developmental nose tackle who could theoretically be a deep reserve as a rookie, a second-team player in 2012 after Chris Hoke likely retires, and hopefully replace Casey Hampton in 2013.
It is not a great crop of nose tackles, but Stanford’s Sione Fua and Notre Dame’s Ian Williams are two to watch in the middle rounds, with Fua having great upside. He would be a steal if he lasted until the end of the fourth round.
Draft followers need to quit listing Baylor’s Phil Taylor, Hampton’s Kenrick Ellis, or Ole Miss’ Jerrell Powe as Steelers nose tackle prospects. All three could already be off the Steelers’ big board. Taylor and Ellis both have character concerns, and there is no chance the Steelers would use their 2011 first-round pick on a nose tackle (which would be needed to get Taylor) with Hampton still under contract through 2012. Powe under-achieved badly last season due to a lack of heart and hustle; the complete opposite of Fua or Williams.
The only other spots where the Steelers could theoretically use their first-round pick are at safety and wide receiver, although both are highly unlikely. UCLA’s Rahim Moore is the only free safety worth considering in the first round and that would still be a reach. Plus, Ryan Clark is signed for three more years. Clark was inconsistent last season, but he did play his best game against the Jets in the AFC Championship and – like fellow safety Troy Polamalu – his performance would be greatly aided if the Steelers upgraded their talent at corner.
A better option would be to steal North Carolina’s Deunta Williams if he fell to the end of the third round. Williams, who has first-round athleticism, broke his leg in the Tar Heels’ overtime bowl win over Tennessee and may need to spend his rookie season on injured reserve. That would not be a problem with Pittsburgh, which has serviceable veteran depth at safety in Ryan Mundy and Will Allen. Williams could then compete for playing time in 2012 and replace Clark as starter by 2013 at the latest.
Unless Alabama’s Julio Jones unexpectedly fell to the end of the first round, which would almost assuredly not happen unless something publicly emerges that would also then likely knock him off the Steelers’ board as well, there are no receivers on the board worthy of Pittsburgh’s first-round pick.
In fact, the Steelers should not select a receiver at all in this draft unless they get great value at that spot in the later rounds. Some pundits ridiculously argued that Mike Wallace was not a legitimate No. 1 receiver after he was mostly shut down by the Packers’ excellent secondary, which prudently double-teamed him for most of the Super Bowl. Wallace, however, proved he was a legit No. 1 receiver in 2010, tallying 1,257 yards and 10 TDs in his first regular-season as a starter.
2010 rookie Emmanuel Sanders should emerge as a quality No. 2 receiver next season and the Steelers will have dependable Hines Ward back for at least one more year in the slot. Antonio Brown and Antwaan Randle El are excellent No. 4 and No. 5 receivers, respectively. Although he did not catch a pass in 2010, special-teams ace Arnaz Battle is a capable receiver, with 178 career NFL receptions.
Add Limas Sweed and Tyler Grisham battling for roster spots with Battle and Randle El, and the Steelers do not need a wideout in this draft, especially since none of their top six receivers are slated to become unrestricted free agents until after the 2012 season.
I know I said no mock drafts until after March 4th. However, if no CBA is reached, I would do cartwheels if everything fell into place and possibly a trade or two was made to move up or down, allowing Pittsburgh to draft:
1. Mike Pouncey, G, Florida
2. Brandon Burton, CB, Utah
3. Deunta Williams, FS, North Carolina
4. Sione Fua, NT, Stanford
Pouncey would start at right guard as a rookie with Burton providing an upgrade at the No. 3 corner. Williams and possibly Fua would project as future starters. And the Steelers would have the deepest team in the NFL next year if they are able to return any of their 14 potential free agents they desire. Another Super Bowl run would be in order for 2011 and some future needs would have been addressed.