Okay, it is time to stop worrying about how free agency or the NFL labor strife will affect the Steelers in the draft. Pittsburgh, like every other team in the league, will not have those answers before the draft, and must address immediate and potential needs more so than usual due to the uncertainty of free agency.
Topping that list is cornerback for both the short-term and long-term. It would be disastrous for the Steelers’ 2011 playoff hopes if veteran Ike Taylor departs via free agency, assuming there actually is free agency before a 2011 season.
Even if Taylor – who will turn 31 next month – re-signs, corner remains an immediate and future need as Bryant McFadden and William Gay are both below-average No. 2 and No. 3 NFL corners. Plus, Keenan Lewis, a 2010 third-round pick, has yet to prove he deserves playing time, although I am still optimistic that one of last year’s fifth-round selection, Crezdon Butler, can develop into a quality nickleback.
Another side effect of the lockout: the uncertainty along the offensive line. The Steelers may actually have their deepest line ever in 2011, but that will not be the case for 2012, and teams must draft offensive linemen to meet future needs at least two years early.
Right guard has been a weakness for the better part of the past decade. The team had three different right guards start in the Super Bowl over the past six seasons (Kendall Simmons, Darnell Stapleton, Ramon Foster) and three different players started multiple games at right guard for last year’s Super Bowl team (Trai Essex, Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster). From both groups, though, Foster at the end of the 2010 season may have been better than all others. Then again, none of those six were even average NFL starters for those Pittsburgh teams, but the Steelers still made the Super Bowl.
Mike Pouncey is the only potential draftee who would appear a strong bet to come in and start at right guard as a rookie, immediately upgrading the position. Unfortunately, his stock has risen so much over the last few months – in part due to his twin brother, Maurkice’s, success with the Steelers in 2010 and less because of Mike’s subpar 2010 season as a center at Florida – that it is unlikely he will be available when the Steelers pick at No. 31 in the first round.
If Pouncey is still on the board at No. 24, the Steelers may consider trading their 1st, 3rd and 5th-round picks to New Orleans to move up and take Pouncey. But that is a steep price for an interior lineman who is not as good as his brother. It would also force the Steelers to take the best available corner in the second round and limit their options later in the draft.
Tackle is a much greater need for 2012 and beyond, although the Steelers may have the deepest set of starting tackles in the league in 2011. Veteran Max Starks returns at left tackle after missing more than half of last season with a neck injury, but he is the only Steelers’ tackle signed beyond 2011.
The July signing of veteran Flozell Adams saved the Steelers’ season in 2010. Adams, a five-time Pro Bowl selection at left tackle, was good (and at times very good) at right tackle for Pittsburgh. However, the 36-year old Adams is contemplating retirement and has not decided if he wants to play again in 2011. The Steelers’ front office and coaching staff have both made it clear that they want Adams back (he is signed for 2011 for $5 million, none guaranteed) and that he would be the starting right tackle if he returns.
What that means for veteran Willie Colon is unclear. Colon was the Steelers’ best offensive lineman in 2009 and one of the better right tackles in the NFL. However, he missed last season with a ruptured Achilles, which is a tough injury to immediately return from, especially for an undersized tackle who relies on his quick feet in pass pro.
If there is unrestricted free agency for 4th- and 5th-year players, then Colon could leave the Steelers via free agency. Pittsburgh has made no serious effort to sign him to a long-term deal and the Steelers’ front office does not value him nearly as much as the team’s coaching staff or Colon’s agent, who seemingly views his client as a young Orlando Pace.
But there is a decent chance any 2011 season is played under 2010 rules if the owners’ lockout is lifted under the court system but no new CBA is reached before the season — or a CBA is reached by late summer and the two sides agree to either have no free agency before the 2011 season or only free agency for veterans, excluding most 4th- and 5th-year players.
Due to these two possibilities, the Steelers already issued a 1-year tender to retain Colon in 2011, although that would be nullified if an agreement is reached opening up free agency again for 4th- and 5th-year players.
If Colon does return to Pittsburgh this fall, he could start at right tackle if Adams retires. If not, many Pittsburgh fans may finally get their wish of seeing the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Colon play right guard this fall even though Colon has spent his entire NFL career at tackle.
Jourenyman Jonathan Scott did a solid job when forced into a starter’s role last season after Pittsburgh lost both of its starting tackles to injury. Scott, like Taylor, is slated to be a veteran unrestricted free agent. He is a valuable and versatile reserve, who the Steelers would love to re-sign.
Doing so would give Pittsburgh another option at tackle for 2012 when Adams is expected to retire and Colon might be in another uniform. But Scott’s market value will go up if players like Colon cannot become free agents before the fall.
The bottome line: the Steelers need a tackle in this draft. What may be best is a RT/OG prospect. Pittsburgh has long liked drafting short, run-blocking right tackles, who could always move to guard if they cannot play on the outside. Fortunately, this draft is loaded with such prospects in Rounds 2-4; so expect the Steelers to take a cornerback in the first two rounds and an offensive lienman probably in the first three rounds.
STEELERS’ MOCK DRAFT VERSION 5
1 (31): CB Aaron Williams, 6-0, 205, Texas – I am not a big fan of Williams. He is a boom/bust pick, the type the Steelers rarely take in the first round. Willams has the size and athleticism to be a solid No. 1 NFL cornerback, but simply did not play well last season. Then again, almost no one on a 5-7 Texas team excelled in 2010 and Williams was solid in 2009 against pass-happy Big 12 offenses. The primary concern is that he is another big cornerback who struggles to turn his hips while covering quick receivers in man and may be better at safety. The Steelers already have corners fitting this description, but Taylor is their only corner who can actually match up with top receivers in man coverage. Williams, though, has the size and toughness that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau loves and his upside is much greater than that of Miami’s Brandon Harris.
2. OT/G Ben Ijalana, 6-3, 315, Villanova – Ijalana was being discussed as a possible first-round pick for the Steelers two months ago, but his stock has fallen due to an injury that kept him out of postseason all-star games and the combine, and many teams viewing him exclusively as a guard prospect. Ijalana was an outstanding left tackle but has never proven himself against elite competition. As such, he may slip to the Steelers at end of the second round and would be a perfect selection at that time. The Steelers can afford to essentially redshirt him as a rookie. Afterward, he could compete with Scott for the RT spot in 2011 or move inside to guard, where he has more upside. If Ijalana is off the board, then Steelers should pluck Alabama’s James Carpenter, whose stock is rising because of his impressive body of work as a four-year starter at left tacke in the SEC. Carpenter, though, is short (6-4), does not have long arms and is seen by some teams as only a guard. But if you can start every game at LT in the SEC for four years and excel, you can start at RT for the Steelers. He is a probably a better tackle prospect than Ijalana, but not a better offensive line prospect.
3. TE/HB D.J. Williams, 6-2, 245, Arkansas – I would prefer tabbing a player from a loaded defensive line class in this spot, but the Steelers appear to be very interested in adding a TE/HB/FB-type player, such as Wisconsin’s Lance Kendricks or Williams. Matt Spaeth may depart if there is free agency for 4th- and 5th-year players this offseason. If not, Williams could replace D.J. Johnson on the roster, adding a much better receiving threat to the Steelers’ versatile offense. Regardless of system or team, Williams will catch a lot of balls, something no other current Pittsburgh tight end besides Heath Miller ever does.
4. NT Ian Williams, 6-1, 320, Notre Dame – A solid, unathletic, tough, high-character, run-stopping 3-4 nose tackle, Williams could either be the Steelers’ No. 7 defensive lineman as a rookie or replace 35-year-old free agent Chris Hoke as Casey Hampton’s top backup in 2011. Regardless, Williams would be No. 2 in 2011 and the possible heir apparent to Hampton.
5. DE Cedric Thornton. 6-3, 310, Southern Arkansas – This is a loaded draft for 3-4 ends, so the Steelers may address this spot earlier before the depth becomes thin. However, the team has no immediate need at that spot with Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith and Ziggy Hood slated to return for 2011, and can afford to take a small-school project with nice upside in Thornton. Playing against top competition, Thornton held his own in Senior Bowl workouts, although he is a work in progress.
6. OLB/ILB Scott Lutrus, 6-2, 245, Connecticut – Lutrus would be a good fit for the Steelers’ vacant No. 8 linebacker spot, assuming the Steelers let veteran reserve Keyaron Fox depart via free agency. Lutrus started at OLB for the Huskies, but may fit better as a weakside inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He is highly-productive, versatile and would be valuable addition on special teams. His upside is not great as he is a mediocre athlete and has a history of neck stingers. But he can contribute to an NFL team in multiple ways.
7. RB Mario Fannin, 5-11, 230, Auburn – Fannin will be an NFL third-down back, who also contributes as a coverage player on special teams. He is nowhere near as well-rounded as Steelers’ free agent Mewelde Moore, but is faster (he shocked everyone by running a 4.38 in the 40 at the combine), bigger and has great hands. However, he cannot play TB or FB on a regular basis, but could fill in at either spot in a game-day emergency.
Steelers Lounge Steelers Mock Draft, Version 1
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