The NFL combine is complete, but we still have no resolution on if there will be a lockout and how the labor situation affects potential Steelers’ free agents.
Before discussing the draft, one thing is obvious: The Steelers have a deep and veteran squad poised for another Super Bowl run in 2011, but I doubt Pittsburgh would even be a playoff team in the top-heavy and quarterback-dominant AFC if it allows veteran cornerback Ike Taylor to leave via free agency.
Steelers Lounge Steelers Mock Draft, Version 1
Steelers Lounge Steelers Mock Draft, Version 2
Steelers Lounge Steelers Mock Draft, Version 3
Taylor is that important to the league’s best defense, in large part because a hypothetical starting cornerback combo of the slow-hipped Bryant McFadden and physically limited William Gay (who could be an unrestricted free agent if a CBA is reached soon) might be the worst combo in the NFL, with neither capable of matching up against top-flight receivers in man-coverage.
I understand the logic behind using the franchise tag on outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, a 26-year-old outstanding pass rusher, who also plays well against the run and is serviceable in pass coverage. Woodley’s best football lies ahead, and he would have garnered one of the league’s highest paydays if allowed to test the free-agent waters.
However, if Woodley left, Pittsburgh could replace him by either moving inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons to the outside and start Larry Foote inside as a one- or two-down player, or by starting 2010 second-round pick Jason Worilds at OLB, or using some combination of Timmons and Worilds at that spot like the Steelers did successfully against Miami early this past year when Woodley was sidelined due to injury.
Pittsburgh, unfortunately, has no viable options on its roster to replace Taylor. And he is far more important to the Steelers’ success in 2011 — and probably 2012 — than Woodley, and will be one of the highest-priced free-agent cornerbacks on the market if a CBA is reached that includes free agency for 2011. Despite his love for the Steelers organization, Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau, I do not expect Taylor to stay if another team offers him much more guaranteed money. Of course, if no agreement is reached until late summer or into the fall, I doubt there will be any free agency this offseason and Taylor would then be back for sure.
Regardless if Taylor is in Pittsburgh next year, cornerback is the Steelers’ No. 1 need, both for the short-term and the long-term, particularly since Taylor will turn 31 in May. However, the NFL combine now has me convinced that Pittsburgh should not address its need at corner until the second- or third-round of the 2011 NFL Draft even if Taylor departs via free agency.
That is because the Steelers can get much better value in the second round at cornerback while filling their No. 2 need on the offensive line in round No. 1, or addressing a long-term need on the defensive line by drafting the best player available with their first pick.
The Steelers should pass on the three possible corners that could be on the board when they pick at No. 31 in the first round. Despite lacking some fluidity, Colorado’s Jimmy Smith showed himself as a top-20 talent at the combine by checking in at 6-2, 211 pounds, and running a 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He also bench-pressed 225 pounds 24 times, and managed 36 inches on his vertical leap.
The only reasons Smith might fall to the Steelers are because of his checkered past character concerns. Accordingly, he is probably already off the Steelers’ draft board.
The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said Texas’ Aaron Williams looks more like a zone corner and future free safety to him than a top cover corner. That sounds like McFadden. Pittsburgh, though, needs someone who can cover in man and do so instantly. Miami’s Brandon Harris looked much more fluid in pass-coverage drills, but is shorter than 5-foot-10 and ran a mediocre 4.51 in the 40. He is not worth a first-round pick.
Instead, the Steelers can take a quality coverage player such as Utah’s Brandon Burton, Texas’ Curtis Brown, Louisville’s Johnny Patrick, or Virginia Tech’s Rashad Carmichael – the last two names should be available at the end of the second round.
While I love to read his articles and respect the opinion of Jim Wexell at SteelCitySports.com, I would be enraged if Pittsburgh drafted UCLA safety Rahim Moore in the first round as he desires at this point, even though Moore did look sharp in defensive-back drills at the combine.
Never mind that Ryan Clark is signed for three more years, Moore probably would not have been even considered a top-40 pick in last year’s loaded safety draft, particularly after his poor physicals at the combine, where he ran a 4.62 in the 40, was measured at under 6 feet, and did a measly 11 reps of 225 pounds. I do not want a Steelers’ free safety that I can out bench-press. You need a physical free safety in the AFC North — not someone who must work out with Kevin Durant in the offseason.
Florida guard Mike Pouncey and Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt – two of my long-time favorites as potential Steelers’ first-round picks – had such strong combine performances that they could be off the board before Pittsburgh selects. The Steelers can hold out a little hope, though, because interior offensive linemen tend to fall in drafts and Watt could go much later than expected due to so much depth and talent at defensive end among first-round prospects.
Tackle could be a major strength for the Steelers in 2011 if Max Starks, Willie Colon, Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott are all on the roster, although Colon could depart if there is unrestricted free agency, and the 35-year-old Adams has yet to decide if he will play another season. Either way, tackle is a future need for the Steelers with only Starks signed through 2012 and no one on the current roster inked beyond 2012. Knowing that, the Steelers must get a developmental tackle prospect in this draft, probably one who could compete with Scott for a starting spot at RT in 2012.
I expect the top four offensive tackles in the draft (Nate Solder, Tryon Smith, Gabe Carimi and Anthony Castonzo) to be gone when the Steelers pick at No. 31. However, I would be very happy if Pittsburgh grabbed Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod, who had a decent combine performance, could potentially play either tackle spot, and is a 50-50 to still be on the board at the end of the first round.
As it stands, I have Sherrod No. 2 on my realistic wish list for the first round behind Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, who did not work out at the combine due to an elbow injury. Still, Heyward checked in at 294 pounds and he has shown he could dominate on the biggest stage. Ohio State is still 0h-for-its-existence against the SEC if Heyward does not cause constant chaos in the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas despite injuring his ankle early in the game.
I have been following the draft in-depth for 27 years and this is easily the best set of first-round defensive ends (both 3-4 and 4-3) over that span. Heyward would be a top-15 or top-20 pick in any other year, but because of depth at the position, probably has a 50-50 shot of being available when the Steelers select. If Pittsburgh really does draft the best player available, then the pick should be a defensive end this year.
Heyward would not fill an immediate need. In fact, he would enter next season as the Steelers’ No. 4 defensive end and No. 6 defensive lineman overall. But he could move up in the rotation during the year, since it is reasonable to assume that veterans Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel will remain healthy all season.
Smith, who will turn 35 in April, is a free agent after 2011 and may be best off retiring at that point. The problem in drafting Heyward, though, is that Hood and Keisel are both signed through 2013, and I cannot project Heyward to start over Keisel until the end of 2012 at the earliest. So it may be unwise to draft a defensive lineman as a luxury first-round pick when the Steelers’ lack of talent at corner kept them from winning a Super Bowl last season and a new starter will be needed at offensive tackle before defensive end.
Assuming a stud like Pouncey does not fall to the Steelers and that both Sherrod and Heyward are off the board, I would prefer the Steelers trade down rather than reach for a defensive back in the first round, possibly picking up an extra third-round pick in the process.
For example, Pittsburgh could trade its 31st pick overall to San Diego (which has a boatload of draft picks and historically likes to trade up) for the 50th and 82nd overall.
The Steelers then could draft something like this:
2(50): Curtis Brown, CB, Texas
2(63): Allen Bailey, DE, Miami
3(82): Jason Pinkston, RT/G, Pitt
3(95): Lance Kendricks, TE/FB, Wisconsin