The Steelers desperately need upgrades at No. 2 and No. 3 cornerback even if veteran free agent Ike Taylor is re-signed. As usual, however, the Steelers made the correct call in selecting Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward with the 31st pick, easily the best player left in the draft, instead of reaching for Texas CB Aaron Williams or undersized Miami CB Brandon Harris.
Among the four Steelers’ 7-round mock drafts I posted Thursday, Heyward was my first-round pick in the version that called for the Steelers to take the best player available (BPA). Here was my reasoning and I think the Steelers’ front office agreed:
1. DE Cameron Heyward, 6-5, 295, Ohio State: The Steelers appear to be in good shape at defensive end for 2011. Brett Keisel is coming off his first Pro Bowl selection, Ziggy Hood is maturing into a fine NFL player after he started the second-half of the season in his second year, and veteran standout Aaron Smith is saying he would like to play two more seasons. However, five of the Steelers’ six defensive linemen from last season are at least 30, and two could be free agents this offseason (Chris Hoke and Nick Eason). In addition, Smith has missed significant portions of three of the last four seasons with injuries, and this draft is absolutely loaded with quality defensive ends in the first round. Heyward would be a top-15 selection in most years and is clearly a better prospect than any cornerback or offensive tackle who may be available to the Steelers at this spot.
Hypothetically, let’s say a top-25 cornerback prospect was on the board when the Steelers picked in the first round. Then, I think you bypass the BPA philosophy and address your major need. But as noted above, this draft may have had the best first round ever for defensive ends, both 4-3 and 3-4. Heyward would have been a top-15 pick in almost any other year. He is proven college player from a big-time program, with upside off the charts. Moreover, he is a perfect for the Steelers’ scheme.
In contrast, Williams and Harris are not top-40 picks in some years, when there is better depth at cornerback. You just cannot reach that far for need in the first round, and that is why the Steelers have not had a pure first-round bust (although Kendall Simmons came close due to injuries) since reaching for Troy Edwards with the 13th overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
As loaded as this draft is at defensive end, the depth at that spot will dwindle considerably among 3-4 ends by the time the Steelers pick in the second round this evening. Pittsburgh should still be able to get a decent cornerback prospect in round No. 2, however. Ideally that choice will be Texas cornerback Curtis Brown, who right now is a better coverage corner than his college teammate, Aaron Williams, although Williams is bigger and faster.
However, the Steelers absolutely now must address cornerback in round No. 2. Then they can return to the BPA philosophy while also factoring in remaining positional and future needs. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock has repeatedly said that quality depth in this draft is lacking at cornerback and will fall off badly in the third round.
That means that even if Pittsburgh has a player it likes more at another spot Friday, the front office should select a cornerback unless the difference on their board is pronounced (e.g., a top 35 player at another position but no corneracks left among the team’s top 70 overall prospects). Sadly, that could actually turn out to be the case if there is a run on cornerbacks in round 2 before the Steelers select.
The Steelers have no other major immediate needs, including on the offensive line, where the Steelers are deep for 2011 but may need a right tackle for 2012. Thus, the team should consider trading its third-round pick to move up to the middle of the second round if Harris is still on the board.
Harris is probably the third best coverage corner in this draft behind Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara, who I would have tried to trade up for (offering first, second and fourth round picks this year) after he fell to No. 19 overall in this draft. Maybe the Steelers did, though, and simply did not have enough ammunition to move up.
Regardless, as is usually the case, Kevin Colbert made an astute and safe pick in the first round and got a great player with All-Pro upside in Heyward. Looking ahead, in addition to taking Brown or a trade-up for Harris or Williams, other second-round cornerback possibilities include Virginia’s Ras-I Dowling (who would also likely require a trade-up), Clemson’s Marcus Gilchrist, Louisville’s Johnny Patrick and New Mexico State’s Davon House.
Regardless, the Steelers should now focus on re-signing Ike Taylor as their top priority. Add Brown or Harris and ink Taylor, and the Steelers are a strong Super Bowl contender next fall.