Note 1: This is my fifth installment of a series on the Steelers’ possible moves before the 2012 season and the first Steelers Lounge mock draft for 2012. If you have not done so, it is advisable to at least read the fourth installment of that series, where I provided predictions on how the Steelers can proceed in again assembling a championship-caliber roster despite facing serious salary-cap issues that will undoubtedly result in the departures of several key veterans that the front office and coaching staff would prefer to keep if Pittsburgh was not already well over a projected team cap ceiling.
These draft picks were, in part, based on needs created and minimized based on the projected off-season moves in that series of articles. They are also based on the assumption that Pittsburgh will again select near the end of the first round, most likely somewhere between No. 25-30.
Note 2: Now, obviously not all of those projected off-season moves will come to fruition, and some potential Pittsburgh needs for 2012 will greatly increase over the remainder of the 2011 season, while others decrease over the next six months based on personnel moves. Based on my projected, upcoming off-season moves, I would rank the Steelers’ 2012 draft needs in order at this point as:
1. OG – Veteran left guard Chris Kemoatu has a degenerative knee injury, is overpaid, and is a strong bet to be a salary-cap casualty after June 1st, 2012. The two other players who have started multiple games at guard this fall, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky, are both slated to be restricted free agents before 2012 and unrestricted free agents before 2013 if they are not signed to a long-term extension, with neither possessing the athleticism to be a quality long-term starter. Offensive guard is the only position where a first-round pick would have a strong chance of starting the 2012 season opener, and there are 2-3 projected first-round offensive guards in this class.
2. NT – This ranking is based on the assumption that Casey Hampton’s projected $8.057 million cap figure for 2012 will result in the Steelers’ long-term stud nose tackle finishing his career elsewhere. Steve McLendon, who has improved from borderline NFL player to solid contributor over the last two years, will return. Assuming Hampton departs, the Steelers would also like back veteran reserve Chris Hoke, although he will turn 36 before the 2012 season. If Hampton agrees to an extension through 2013 that significantly lowers his 2012 cap figure, then the need at nose tackle minimizes significantly. However, the depth at nose tackle is very poor in the 2012 NFL draft, so the Steelers might take a player early at that spot if Hampton does depart and could reach to do so, although that is not their style.
3. FS – If the Steelers are desperate to cut payroll, starting free safety Ryan Clark could theoretically be released after June 1st, although a restructure is still far more plausible in that scenario. Regardless, the Steelers need to draft and develop Cark’s long-term replacement in this coming draft, because the earliest a free safety can be asked to start in the Steelers’ complex defensive scheme is his second year. The upcoming draft has several interesting prospects at free safety who should go between rounds 2-4, although the rankings of those players vary widely on draft sites. Overall, though, this looks like a fairly deep class of free safety prospects in a year when the Steelers are ready to draft a player at that spot. If they risk waiting until the third round, the Steelers could get a steal, but would likely have choices among multiple great prospects in the second round.
4. ILB – James Farrior and Larry Foote are both possible cap casualties, although at least one is likely to return on a lower 2012 cap figure. I am projecting the 36-year-old Farrior to retire after this season and Foote to sign an extension before the draft. If that happens, the Steelers would likely draft a classic run-stuffer type in the mid-rounds to groom as Foote’s eventual replacement, because the athletic Lawrence Timmons is already locked-up long-term. At the top of the draft board, this looks to be the strongest inside linebacker class in many years, with three inside linebackers in the top 15 of Mel Kiper’s current Big Board. Although unlikely to happen, if any of those three dropped to the Steelers’ spot in the first round, it would be difficult to pass up that type of value. If still on the board, Alabama’s hulking Don’t’a Hightower will also merit first-round consideration by the Steelers. However, since Foote – who has played extremely well over the last two weeks as a starter – still has several serviceable years, Pittsburgh can address this position in the middle rounds, assuming Foote’s contract is restructured and extended.
5. WR – The Steelers have a great young corps of receivers and will hopefully sign upcoming restricted free agent Mike Wallace to a long-term extension before the draft. If they cannot extend Wallace or lose him as a restricted free agent, then wide receiver becomes a more important position in the 2012 draft for the Steelers. There are also the possibilities that Hines Ward could retire after 2011 or is released before 2012, and Jerricho Cotchery is an unrestricted free agent, so adding size and physicality at receiver could be a major need. Even if Wallace is secured for the long-term, the Steelers will need to add more depth at this spot, although they will probably wait until the later rounds to do so.
6. OT – I am sure many readers are scratching their heads at how low I have offensive tackle on the Steelers’ needs list. Well, this ranking is based on three optimistic assumptions: (1) Upcoming free agent Max Starks remains healthy for the rest of 2011 and is re-signed to a multi-year extension before the draft; (2) Willie Colon, who has missed all but one game over the last two seasons due to an Achilles tear and torn triceps, projects to make a full recovery and remains in the Steelers’ long-term plans after re-signing on a 5-year deal before 2011; and (3) Current rookie Marcus Gilbert continues to improve at offensive tackle each week while being forced to start much earlier than the Steelers would have preferred. If all that happens, the Steelers will definitely not have an immediate need at this spot, because even if Colon or Gilbert started at guard, either could move back to tackle in the event of injury to one of the starters. Sure the Steelers would love to take a developmental project, but will have far more important holes to fill in the 2012 draft. Of course if Starks leaves and Jonathan Scott is retained on a reduced contract (even if it includes a contract extension), then offensive tackle shoots up these rankings.
7. HB/FB/TE – We know offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is not going to keep a pure fullback on the roster, so long as game-day dress rosters are limited to 46 players. D.J. Johnson is on the team due to his versatility, as he plays fullback in the I-formation, H-back, and occasionally as an in-line blocker at tight end opposite of Heath Miller, although Weslye Saunders usually fills that role, because Johnson is often also in the game at fullback at the same time. However, the only one of those roles where Johnson is a solid contributor is when he lines up as the No. 2 tight end, and he is undersized for that spot. He is not a consistent lead blocker at fullback, is no running threat, and has horrible hands as a fullback or H-back despite being a tight end. The Steelers wanted to replace him last year when the 2011 draft was loaded with undersized tight ends who were tagged as H-back prospects. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft is much weaker in that area and the Steelers now have greater needs at other positions.
8. CB – When is the last time cornerback was this low on the Steelers’ position needs? I think you have to go back to the early 1990s. However, Ike Taylor is a dominant lockdown corner, and youngsters Keenan Lewis, Curtis Borwn and Cortez Allen have all shown considerable upside this fall. All should be better in 2012. This ranking is based on the assumption that Lewis, an upcoming restricted free agent, is in the Steelers’ long-term plans. The team may not draft a corner at all if it can re-sign 2012 unrestricted free agent William Gay to add depth, although he would likely fall out of the playing-time rotation next fall behind Allen and Brown.
9. DE – Veteran Brett Keisel is signed through 2013 and playing the best football of his career. The Steelers are set at the starters for this position for the long-term after investing a pair of first-round picks over the past three years on Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. However, with Aaron Smith’s probable retirement due to injury, the team has little depth behind those three, with rookie undrafted free agent Corbin Bryant, who is currently on the practice squad but is expected to finish the year on the active roster, seemingly the No. 4 defensive end for 2012.
2012 MOCK DRAFT
1. OG Kelechi Osemele, 6-5, 345, Iowa State: Stanford redshirt junior David DeCastro is the player I have long desired for this spot, but he is having a monster season and likely will be well off the board before the Steelers’ selection. Osemele has been more consistent this fall than the other possible first-round guard, Cordy Glenn at Georgia, although Glenn’s greater upside could also have him off the board as well based on many early draft rankings. I am not enamored with this pick, although it is better than reaching for Alabama’s Josh Chapman or Memphis’ Dontari Poe at nose tackle, quality first-round offensive tackles are almost never left on the board when the Steelers’ select, no free-safety prospects are worth a first-round pick, and the top three inside linebacker prospects will all be gone.
2. FS Markelle Martin, 6-1, 205, Oklahoma State: Alabama’s Robert Lester is also a possibility here, but Lester may not even enter the draft and is not as stout yet in run support as Martin, who is a key playmaker for the Cowboys’ vulnerable but optimistic defense. He would be a likely starter in 2013 at free safety and – unlike Lester – could contribute at strong safety as well. The concern is – like the rest of Oklahoma State’s defense – Martin is too prone to mental mistakes, which would be detrimental for a free safety in the Steelers’ defense. However, those miscues are less frequent with Martin than his teammates, and fundamentals can be taught – talent and big-game experience cannot, and Martin has both.
3. NT Kwame Geathers, 6-5, 350, Georgia: A redshirt sophomore who is in his first season of earning significant playing time, Geathers should not enter the NFL Draft this early, particularly since he is still only sharing time with JUCO transfer John Jenkins, another potential draftee best advised to stay in school. Geathers, however, has a lot of NFL bloodlines, and all of the Geathers clan seemingly enter the draft in their first year of eligibility. In a very thin class of nose-tackle prospects, Geathers is a boom-bust type who could develop into an above-average 3-4 nose if he learns to play with more consistency and drop his pad level. His upside is huge (literally) and – due to Hoke’s versatility to also play end – Geathers could make the dress roster next fall to give the Steelers a huge body to clog the middle when struggling to stuff the interior run.
4. ILB James-Michael Johnson, 6-1, 245, Nevada-Reno: An excellent and athletic inside linebacker prospect to replace Foote long-term who may still be available at this spot due to the top talent at his position pushing everyone else down the board. Johnson egan his career as an outside linebacker, but made a natural transition to the inside in 2010. His potential is outstanding.
5. WR Marvin McNutt, 6-2, 215, Iowa: I love this versatile prospect who will end up owning many of Iowa’s all-time receiving marks. He is having a strong senior season and probably should be gone by this point, but received a very low draft-grade from the NFL Advisory Committee last year and lacks the down-field speed scouts desire in receivers. McNutt, though, could develop into a nice NFL possession receiver who adds size and can play outside for the Steelers, while also contributing early on special teams. I still think he ends up being drafted higher due to his size and productivity, but McNutt would be a steal at this spot and many draft sites think he may fall this far despite his strong senior season.
6. CB Micah Pellerin, 6-0, 190, Hampton: A sleeper prospect, who may end up being drafted higher than this if he performs well in the postseason. Needs to add upper-body strength, but that can easily be accomplished in an NFL weight-training program.
7. DE Ethan Johnson, 6-4, 295, Notre Dame: A burly and productive big-school player who will likely battle Bryant for the final roster spot on the defensive line or at least end up on the practice squad with a decent training camp.
A Ridiculously-Early Projected 53-man Roster for the 2012 Steelers
Notes: In addition to the draft above, this roster assumes Pittsburgh’s off-season roster moves transpire as I projected in the last installment of our 2012 salary-cap series. However, I have made three projected changes since that article, which may have provided too optimistic of an assessment on how many of its current players Pittsburgh can retain and on the overall projected league salary-cap ceilings.
First, punter Jeremy Kapinos will be re-signed to a 1-year contract for $540K, but not until the early summer. Daniel Sepulveda, now on the season-ending injured reserve list for the third time in four years, will not be re-signed as an unrestricted free agent.
Second, I am now guessing that Hines Ward will gracefully retire after the 2011 season. While this may be optimistic, I am also projecting the Steelers to re-sign Jerricho Cotchery during the free-agency period to a 3-year contract worth $4.4 million, with a signing bonus of $850K and base contracts of $825K in 2012, $1.025 million in 2013 and $1.7 million in 2014.
Finally, in an effort to create some cap space, the Steelers will give kicker Shaun Suisham a choice: Convert some of the $1.337 million base salary the team imprudently gave you for 2012 this past offseason into not-likely-to-be-earned (NLTBE) bonuses or you will be cut after June 1st. Suisham will likely comply, which would drop his cap figure $637,000.
2012 Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-Man Roster
QB Ben Roethlisberger
QB Byron Leftwich
QB Charlie Batch
RB Reshard Mendenhall
RB Isaac Redman
RB Jonathan Dwyer
RB Baron Batch
TE Heath Miller
TE/FB D.J. Johnson
TE Weslye Saunders
WR Mike Wallace
WR Antonio Brown
WR Emmanuel Sanders
WR Jerricho Cotchery
WR Marvin McNutt
WR Tyler Grisham
LT Max Starks
LG Kelechi Osemele
C Maurkice Pouncey
RG Ramon Foster
RT(G) Willie Colon
T Marcus Gilbert
C/G Doug Legursky
G/T/C Trai Essex
T/G Chris Scott
DE Ziggy Hood
NT Steve McLendon
DE Brett Keisel
DE Cameron Heyward
NT-DE Chris Hoke
DE Corbin Bryant
NT Kwame Geathers
OLB James Harrison
OLB LaMarr Woodley
OLB Jason Worilds
OLB Chris Carter
ILB Lawrence Timmons
ILB Larry Foote
ILB Stevenson Sylvester
ILB James-Michael Johnson
LB Josh Kaddu (Undrafted rookie FA)
SS Troy Polamalu
FS Ryan Clark
S Ryan Mundy
S Markelle Martin
CB Ike Taylor
CB Keenan Lewis
CB Curtis Brown
CB Cortez Allen
CB Micah Pellerin
K Shaun Suisham
P Jeremy Kapinos
SN Greg Warren
- Explaining the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2012 Salary-Cap Quandary (Part 1)
- Projecting Salary Cap Cuts and Moves for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers (Part 4)
- 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers Mock Draft Version 3.0
- 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers Mock Draft, Version 5
- Steelers Face Tough 2012 Offseason Decisions, But Are Not in “Salary Cap Hell” (Part 2)