In reality, the Steelers could have made questionable picks from rounds 2-7 and most fans would still be giddy about stealing David DeCastro at pick No. 24 in the first round.
DeCastro seemingly has no weaknesses, answers Pittsburgh’s greatest short-term weakness and long-term need, and is likely the best pure guard prospect to enter the NFL since Steve Hutchinson in 2001.
But for Pittsburgh fans who have suffered through mediocre (at best) to horrendous offensive lines over the past seven seasons, the Steelers’ second-round selection of Ohio State tackle Mike Adams was just as exciting.
After the first round, it was clear that the best player available in round No. 2 would likely be on the offensive line, which accounted for seven of ESPN’s top 20 remaining prospects following the first round.
Adams is a first-round talent, who dropped to the second round because of some character concerns, but even more so because of the unusually deep depth for the first three rounds on the offensive line in this draft, which seemingly may have been why so many other teams reached for prospects at positions that were not as deep.
We will discuss the endless (and mostly positive) possible compositions of the Steelers’ offensive line in coming weeks, but an ideal line-up for 2012 would be:
LT Max Starks (re-signs on a 1-year deal, and the Steelers then cut Jonathan Scott, saving money in the process)
LG David DeCastro
C Maurkice Pouncey
RG Willie Colon
RT Marcus Gilbert
Add in solid, experienced depth from C-G Doug Legursky, T Mike Adams, G Ramon Foster and G-T-C Trai Essex, and this has the potential to be the Steelers’ best line since 2004.
In this scenario, Adams could replace Starks in the line-up in 2013, while the rest of the line develops cohesion and chemistry. Gilbert started at right tackle in 2011, so ideally he would stay at that position, rather than move to the left-side in 2012, where Adams appears to be a better long-term fit.
Moreover, DeCastro could start off learning left guard, rather than playing right guard opposite of Legursky in 2012, even though he would be forced to left guard in 2013 if Colon is then moved to right guard.
The long-debated hypothetical move of Colon to right guard now seems like a near lock to be experimented within in the next two years. The Steelers did not draft offensive tackles in the second round each of the last two years with a plan of having one in reserve in 2013.
Colon is the wild-card. He has missed nearly all of the past two seasons with different major injuries, and it is unclear how or at what level he will return.
However, the Steelers obviously believe Colon will return healthy in 2012 and count on him being a key contributor, based on restructuring his contract this offseason, which would make cutting him before 2013 a major salary-cap blow.
At 6-foot-3, Colon is seemingly a much better fit for guard in a league where the average starting tackle is now 6-foot-6. Players regularly move to other positions to prolong their careers (a left tackle to right tackle, tackles to guard, etc.) as they age, so moving Colon (who will turn 29 before the 2012 season, but has a much older body based on injury history) inside seems inevitable over the long-term, assuming he is able to play out the four years remaining on his contract.
Therefore, why not at least try to do so this August? The key for that experiment, however, would be Starks’ returning to health and then agreeing to sign with the Steelers on a reasonable one-year deal even though that would essentially serve as an audition season for him to play for his next contract, which would likely be with another franchise, or to return to Pittsburgh as a reserve tackle in 2013.
But the 30-year-old Starks, whose 2010 campaign ended with a neck injury that was considered career-threatening and then tore his ACL in last season’s playoff loss at Denver, will likely have few suitors on the free-agent market due to health concerns and most teams’ lack of needing a serviceable left tackle.
Pittsburgh probably would not be comfortable starting Adams or Scott in 2012. But re-signing Starks and moving Colon inside would allow the Steelers to put their five best linemen on the field, with four of those likely returning at the same spots for 2013.
Nevertheless, having too many offensive line options is a good problem for a franchise that had unwisely anointed Scott as its undisputed starter at left tackle before 2011.
The Curious Selection of Sean Spence in Round No. 3.
Unlike the first two rounds, where J.J. can verify that I called for both DeCastro and Adams before their selections and then screamed in jubilation afterward, there was not any player the Steelers’ really wanted in round No. 3 after a run on inside linebackers and speed running backs occurred.
The third-round selection of Miami linebacker Sean Spence, however, was a surprise, even more after re-reading all his scouting reports, most of which dub him a 4-3 weakside linebacker prospect who is not a fit for a 3-4 scheme. Essentially, he is a poor man’s Lawrence Timmons, who still would be best in a 4-3 defense as a weakside linebacker.
Spence is 5-foot-11, and his natural playing weight is around 215 pounds. Finally, I am not Hercules and weigh 20 pounds less than Spence, but yet can easily better his 12 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, which were among the weaker linebacker totals at the NFL scouting combine in recent memory.
However, Spence claimed he had a shoulder injury that day, and his awesome highlight film and stats (he had 47 career tackles for loss, which ranked second among all FBS players last season, and is Miami’s all-time leading tackler, and they have had some big-time linebackers at the U) show that he is a player when the clock starts running even if he is a small weakling in the weightroom.
Spence has amazing closeout speed and excels in pursuit in open space. Like Timmons, though, he is easily taken out of plays if a bigger offensive lineman can lock him up and does a poor job of shedding blockers. The Steelers’ seemingly needed a mike/mack type run-stopper to apprentice under Larry Foote for a season or two.
However, the selection of Spence may represent a subtle shift in the Steelers’ defensive philosophy, predicated on evolving NFL offenses that continue to use more spread, and 3-, 4-, and 5- receiver formations, along with greater use of athletic tight ends and situational, pass-receiving running backs.
Run-plugging mack linebackers are generally a liability in pass coverage, although recently released James Farrior excelled in that facet over his marvelous career.
Although Timmons is the bigger and faster player, Spence’s scouting report has two characteristics that are weaknesses for Timmons. First, Spence is far better pass rusher. Timmons was horrible in that regard when forced to play some outside linebacker last year. Second, and more important, Spence is considered a highly-intelligent football player who is like a coach on the field, a leader, and adept at changing defensive calls based on offensive formations and adjustments.
Farrior and Foote are also viewed as cerebral linebackers and defensive leaders. Timmons, in contrast, has never been given the responsibility of calling plays (even when physically he should have been the one Steeler inside linebacker in the game on passing downs), and seemingly lacks football intelligence compared to other Pittsburgh linebackers.
In other words, if Spence develops, the Steelers could have a pair of three-down inside linebackers who excel in pass coverage, with Timmons playing the mack spot, but Spence serving as the defensive captain who is responsible for conveying the initial calls, and then changing alignments and coverage responsibilities.
For that to work, though, Pittsburgh must have a dominant and big 3-man defensive front, or the lack of size and strength of its two inside linebackers could be exploited.
Spence still does not seem like a good fit for the Steelers’ defense and his billing as a special-teams standout is largely irrelevant in an era when most kickoffs are not returned. But he does have long-term potential, and it is a lot easier for players to add functional strength than speed and football instincts, the latter two of which are areas where Spence already excels.
Moreover, the Steelers should be okay with the veteran Foote starting in replace of Farrior for a season or two, and usually it is not that difficult to find a pure mack linebacker in drafts or free agency.
Day 3 Primer
The Steelers still have a huge need at nose tackle, would like to add a big receiver who can help on special teams, and need to add a corerback or cornerback/safety for depth purposes.
There are two quality nose tackles still available entering the fourth round, and hopefully either Washington Alameda Ta’amu or Alabama’s Josh Chapman is left at pick No. 24 of the round. The 350-pound Ta’amu will likely be gone, but Chapman may fall due to his recent knee surgery. Of the two, I believe Chapman will be the better pro over the years.
If both are already drafted, the Steelers may draft the best receiver (although they would still get good value at this spot in the fifth), but would more likely turn to outside linebacker for a prospect like Troy’s Jonathan Massaquoi or Wake Forest’s Kyle Wilber.
Another fourth-round option would be to take a decent prospect from a weak position group and a position of need who has unexpectedly fallen to day three, with Oklahoma State safety Markelle Martin, Coastal Carolina cornerback/free safety Connor Norman, and Georgia tight end/H-back Orson Charles all possibilities in round No. 4, after each were projected to go in round No. 3 by most scouting services.
With a slew of decent, bigger receivers still on the board, Pittsburgh should be able to use its fifth-round pick to fill its No. 5 wideout. Heading my wish list to fall that far are Iowa’s Marvin McNutt, Wisconsin’s Nick Toon, Nevada’s Rishard Matthews, and Jeff Fuller from Texas A&M. Michigan State free safety Trenton Robinson would be another nice pick here.
The sixth round would ideally be a defensive back, such as West Virginia CB/FS Keith Trandy, Robinson if he unexpectedly falls this far due to his lack of size, or Boston College CB Donnie Fletcher.
Pittsburgh could then use its four seventh-round picks to add depth at positions where there may still be potential roster spots open depending on what happens in rounds 3-6. Regardless, the Steelers will not be wasting picks for the practice squad today, since as many as 8-12 rookies could make the final 53-man roster.