With the ongoing NFL labor strife and free-agency uncertainty, this may be the toughest draft to forecast ever, particularly since there is no top-tier player at a need position that most Steelers fans hope is available with the No. 31 pick.
Judge Nelson’s lifting of the owners-imposed lockout was the correct judicial decision, a victory for both the players and individual rights, and a setback for the greedy owners and inept commissioner Roger Goodell who brought upon this whole mess by trying to significantly alter what is currently the most profitable sports league in this country’s history, not to mention a collective bargaining agreement that is much more owner-friendly than those existing in Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association.
However, the lifting of the lockout could also hurt the Steelers’ 2011 Super Bowl aspirations. The NFL’s request of a stay of Nelson’s ruling could eventually be granted by the more pro-business, Republican-appointed judges who dominate the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Though most legal experts are predicting that will not happen due to judicial precedent and the strong wording of Nelson’s opinion.
If the Eighth Circuit does not hand a victory to the owners, and a new CBA is not suddenly agreed upon (the latter of which appears even more unlikely), the NFL will begin operating for its 2011 season under 2010 rules. That means that individual teams will retain rights to most of their fourth- and fifth-year players, who would have been unrestricted free agents under 2009 rules.
The Steelers’ astutely issued one-year restricted free-agent tenders to offensive tackle Willie Colon, tight end Matt Spaeth, cornerback William Gay, and also to often-injured punter Daniel Sepulveda, and that may prevent any of those fourth- and fifth-year players from becoming free agents before the 2011 season.
More importantlyy it means that the Steelers’ only quality cornerback, Ike Taylor, will soon become an unrestricted free agent, going from one of the most coveted corners on the market to one of the most coveted players overall in what will be a much smaller, diluted free-agent pool.
Taylor likely would give the Steelers a hometown-discount to remain in Pittsburgh, where he has expressed affinity for head coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and the Rooney family. However, with no salary cap in place for 2011, there is a good chance teams like the Giants, Texans or Redskins will offer much more than the Steelers, and Taylor could (who turns 31 next week) depart for his last big contract.
The Steelers’ greatest need for next season heading into this draft was already cornerback, although offensive tackle was seen as the greatest long-term need. But in light of the possibility that Taylor leaves (pray that does not happen) after Judge Nelson’s initial ruling, the Steelers may feel more compelled to draft a cornerback early in the draft (e.g., Aaron Williams, Brandon Harris) over a player at another position who they have rated higher, such as Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward or Mississippi State offensive tackle Derek Sherrod.
Of course, the labor situation remains in flux. The best guess is that this offseason (whenever it begins) Taylor will be an unrestricted free agent, while most fourth- and fifth-year players will remain property of their current teams. As such, cornerback should now, overwhelming, be the Steelers’ top focus in this draft.