New Steelers Draft Math: Don’t Take a Guard*

I saw this on Rotoworld yesterday: “The Kansas City Star suggests that the Chiefs may be looking to move LT Branden Albert to right tackle or guard.”

JJ and I have talked on the last few podcasts about how, in the weeks and months leading up to the 2008 draft, Albert was the guy we wanted the Steelers to take with the No. 23 pick. Albert had played guard at Virginia (Eugene Monroe was the left tackle), but a lot of people — Mike Mayock included — had him projected to be an NFL tackle. As we moved from the combine to the pro days to the individual workouts, Albert made his way up draft boards and by the time it was said and done, he was the 15th overall pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. My dreams had been crushed.

Albert started as a rookie and three seasons later he has played 44 games at left tackle. And then I saw the Rotoworld note. The guy I thought would solidify a tackle spot for the Steelers for the next decade is about to change positions after three years.

But that’s not a bad thing. If nothing else it made me realize that maybe Pittsburgh shouldn’t be looking at guard at all in the first round. JJ’s also made this point a few times on the podcast: if given the choice, take a tackle over guard. They’re usually more athletic, more versatile — and worst case, if things don’t work out on the outside, kick him inside and make him a guard.

The move changed the careers of Leonard Davis and Robert Gallery. And depending on how things shake out in Kansas City, could do the same for Albert.

The thing is, when you look at the Steelers roster, guard is the glaring weakness on offense. Starks will be back and healthy, Colon could be back if the CBA lunacy drags on long enough, Flozell has a year on his contract, and Maurkice Pouncey is already a Pro Bowler. That leaves Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster. Kemo is adequate and nothing more; Foster is something less than that. Clearly, Pittsburgh couldn’t go wrong with drafting a guard next month. Except that, in the long run, tackle makes more sense.

They provide more position flexibility and, in general, more athleticism. Maybe this isn’t a revelation to you, but my problem during this time of year is that I fall in love with a guy or a position, get tunnel vision, and talk myself into why the square-peg player fits the round-hole Steelers scheme. But not this time … maybe.

I’m hedging for one reason: *Mike Pouncey. If he’s gone before Pittsburgh is on the clock — and long before they might even think about trading up for him — then take the best player available, whether it’s tackle, defensive lineman, cornerback or, hell, tight end.

(Aside: I’m not crazy about Pittsburgh taking a tight end in the first round, but I won’t lose any sleep if it ends up happening. In early 2007, I made the case for the Steelers taking someone like Zach Miller, a big-play tight end from Arizona St., if he happened to be available in the second round. Here’s what I wrote for SteelCityInsider.com back on February 2, 2007:

“Look, I’m not suggesting the Steelers take Miller with the 15th overall pick. And I know, I know, you would like to point out that Pittsburgh already has a do-it-all tight end who goes by the same name. Duly noted.

I also recognize the need for a stud offensive lineman/defensive lineman/linebacker/cornerback. But the draft is a quirky bird; any number of ridiculous scenarios could play themselves out on draft day. I just think Pittsburgh should keep an open mind about the whole thing with two months until the big weekend. Plus, have you looked at the depth chart behind Heath Miller recently? Despite what the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s John Harris writes, the Steelers most definitely aren’t “strong” at tight end. They are a Health Miller injury away from having a glorified guard playing the position.

If you are still unconvinced, consider this: the Cowboys and Patriots use a lot of two-tight end sets and both were better-balanced offensive teams than the Steelers last season. (All three teams were in the top 10 in passing efficiency, but Dallas and New England finished 7th and 8th in rushing efficiency; Pittsburgh was 21st.)

Obviously, this success isn’t solely because Parcells and Belichick threw an extra tight end in the formation, but it is a big part of it — or at least bigger than the average football viewer might expect.”

The Steelers ended up using a third-round pick on Matt Spaeth, to the consternation of many. Spaeth is about as much of an offensive threat as Trai Essex, although to his credit, he’s a much better blocker. The point, however, remains: tight ends are important, and in a lot of offenses undervalued.)

But if we get to the 25th pick of the 2011 draft and Pouncey is still around, the Steelers might consider making a play for him. The Tribune-Review‘s Scott Brown writes that Kevin Colbert isn’t opposed to trading up in the first round. “You go into every draft anticipating you’re going to have seven picks,” Colbert said. “You may come out of it with four (picks), you may come out of it with 10 again by trading down or trading up.”

In general, mock drafts barely resemble reality, so who knows how the first round will play out. Pouncey could go to the Patriots at No. 17 or Giants at No. 19, or the Seahawks at No. 25. New England hasn’t been afraid to trade down in the past so it’s reasonable to think that they won’t be married to one player heading into draft weekend. And New York could be more interested in finding a tackle instead of an interior lineman. The Seahawks, however, seem like the consensus to grab Pouncey — save two mitigating factors.

First: according to DraftInsider.net, Seattle loves Jimmy Smith. ”Last week we posted that sources had told us several teams removed Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith from their draft boards due to character concerns. Over the weekend separate, independent sources again confirmed this. That said we’ve also been alerted that the Seattle Seahawks still highly rate the cornerback and would consider taking him in round one.”

Works for me. There’s also speculation that Seattle could be one of the teams willing to fork over a first-rounder for Kevin Kolb.

While I don’t have the same feeling for Mike Pouncey that I did for Albert, I’m not against the Steelers moving up to, say, 25th (similar to what they did in 2006 to get Santonio) if they think he’s worth it. Given the organization’s track record, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But if Pittsburgh ends up with Derek Sherrod or Brandon Harris or Martez Wilson, you won’t hear me complain (but not Jonathan Baldwin). And maybe somebody can convince Colon that playing right guard is in his best interests even if, you know, it’s not.

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  • Randy Steele

    Using the NFL draft pick value calculator, the Steelers would need to give up a third round pick to move up to 1.24, which is the area of the draft Mike Pouncey would most likely be available.

    YIkes!! That’s waaaay too high a price for a left or right guard, no matter how good he’s likely to be.

    Guards are just not that valuable. If I remember correctly, the Steelers have gone to the Super Bowl manning that position with such luminaries as Ramon Foster and Darnell Stapleton.

    Heck, I’d argue you should never draft an interior lineman in the first round, although in L’il Pounce’s case, I’d make an exception… but only at 1.31.

  • kyle

    I sent an email to JJ a couple months ago about Guards. Basically, I did limited research and found that among last year’s playoff teams and the players in the Pro Bowl a majority of the Guards did not play guard in college. There were a lot of tackles, a couple tight ends, and at least one defensive lineman. Pouncey is the only interior lineman I’d be ok with them taking, for the same reason that so many draftniks had the Steelers taking him – he’d mean more to them than he would to any other team. Drafting a first round talent, who fills a position of need…at a position next to his twin brother is straight up Disney movie. Otherwise I’d like a defensive lineman, this draft is way too deep in them to pass it up.

    • Anonymous

      I agree on all points. When you compiled that list of guards did you happen to note how many of the guards ever started in the NFL as tackle or how many were drafted and projected as tackle? I’m wondering who makes a better guard, a player drafted as a guard or a tackle who couldn’t quite make it as a tackle.

      • kyle

        I did not. I was doing the research on the sly while at work. All I did was look at rosters and then pretty much hit the wikipedia page for each player. I suspected it was mostly converted tackles; the tight ends and defensive lineman were a bit of a surprise.

  • RoB D

    I am a little worried about the Disney factor (great turn of phrase, BTW, Kyle) with Pouncey, Mike. I don’t think he’ll be there for us in any case, but if he DOES drop I hope we don’t pass up a CB or Dline guy just because he has that last name.

    Mayock loves him though..that’s what is really keeping me believing he’s the real deal. It’s just hard for me to accept the idea of taking a guard in the first round, I guess.

    • Randy Steele

      No way it will happen, but if Pouncey did drop to 1.31, you would have to take him. He would be surest bet among the group of guys you’d be considering, even if he’s only a guard.

      Any of the CBs worth considering at this point (Aaron Williams? Brandon Harris?) would be a much riskier bet, and a smart GM tries to minimize his risk as much as possible with his first round pick.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UR6KXGPFIFYZSVJNCXCJNHDQJQ Bob Costas

      “It’s just hard for me to accept the idea of taking a guard in the first round, I guess.”

      Really? Faneca was a guard we drafted in the first round. I’d happily use a first round pick if we got a 20-year old Faneca.