Four potential roster spots on the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers were recently claimed. First, the April 20th deadline passed with no other franchise making an offer to restricted free agent Mike Wallace, which essentially guarantees Wallace will be back with Pittsburgh for at least one more season, with both sides hoping to reach a long-term agreement.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh brass astutely re-signed free agent receiver Jerricho Cotchery and versatile offensive lineman Trai Essex, while adding veteran tight end Leonard Pope, who played under new Steelers’ offensive coordinator Todd Haley in 2011 with the Chiefs.
Wallace’s return, coupled with the three minor free-agent signings, helps shore up the Steelers’ depth chart for a trio of their thinnest position areas. Nevertheless, entering this week’s NFL draft, there are more potential spots for rookies to make Pittsburgh’s 53-man roster than in any season recent memory.
The Steelers will likely re-sign or add an inexpensive veteran free agent or two before August, with a healthy offensive tackle Max Starks and veteran quarterback Byron Leftwich likely their top targets.
But right now Pittsburgh seemingly has several opening-day roster spots clearly available, including (2) offensive linemen, inside linebacker, receiver, and cornerback. Depending on when they are drafted, there are also strong to realistic possibilities for draftees to make the roster at other positions, such as running back, defensive line, and one player who could line up at any combination of fullback, H-back, or tight end. Finally, it is not difficult to map out scenarios where a second drafted receiver, second drafted defensive lineman, an outside linebacker, quarterback, safety, kicker, or punter could all make the squad as rookies.
In other words, the Steelers will not be drafting a Drew Caylor for the practice squad this week. Thankfully, there does not appear to be any position where Pittsburgh must find an immediate starter and offensive guard is probably the only spot where a potential first-round pick would be favored to start for most of his rookie season barring injuries to others.
Nevertheless, this is a very important draft to add an influx of immediate depth and to help fill many long-term needs on what is still a relatively old roster despite the off-season releases of Pittsburgh icons Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, and James Farrior, followed by the eventual retirements of Ward and Smith.
Hightower a Solid Pick, But Should Pittsburgh Take an ILB in the First Round?
The Steelers do need a future starter at inside linebacker to replace Farrior, which is why many draft prognosticators have Pittsburgh tabbing Alabama defensive captain Dont’a Hightower with the 24th overall pick.
Although his first step is slow and it is hard to gauge how he will perform when not surrounded by one of the most talented defenses in college football history, the 6-foot-2, 265-pound Hightower should be a solid pro and seemingly would be a perfect compliment next to the faster, smaller Lawrence Timmons on the Steelers’ interior.
However, should Pittsburgh use its first-round pick on what could be a 1- or 2-down linebacker? Good passing teams regularly spread out defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defense, forcing the Steelers to put five or six defensive backs on the field, the latter of which forces at least one inside linebacker off the field. Now, Hightower is a versatile player who often lined up at defensive end on passing downs for Alabama’s pro-style defense last season, and he would certainly be a better outside linebacker than Timmons was when forced to play that spot last year. But he is not fast enough to do so regularly in the NFL, especially in the Steelers’ scheme.
Moreover, although he needs to take a paycut from his base $3 million salary for 2012, which could be in conjunction with a reasonable long-term extension if the Steelers do not draft Hightower, cerebral, 31-year-old veteran Larry Foote is a solid thumper who could man the mike position for at least two more years in Pittsburgh.
Due to their strong preference for playing veterans, my guess is LeBeau and linebackers coach and future Steelers’ defensive coordinator Keith Butler would not be comfortable starting Hightower over Foote for at least the first-half if not the entire 2012 season.
However, Hightower would still be a solid pick. He is rising on draft boards. Inside linebackers should always be taken much lower than their overall ranking, but using the 24th overall pick to grab a player ranked as the 13th best prospect in the draft by ESPN would represent good value at any position. But I would prefer the Steelers expend a second-round pick on Cal’s Mychal Kendricks or are fortunate to land Nevada’s James-Michael Johnson in the fourth round, either of which would be viewed as their mike linebacker of the future.
Steelers Do Not Fall in Love With Workout Warriors in the First Round
I doubt 2012 NFL scouting combine legend Dontari Poe will be available at pick No. 24, although his stock is falling as more teams evaluate his decent but unspectacular game film while playing for a horrendous Memphis squad that posted a 5-31 over his career.
The 6-foot-4, 350-pound Poe, however, looked like a more athletic version of Haloti Ngata at the combine, where he ranked first among all prospects by doing 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and was timed at an amazing 4.96 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Even more impressive and also a sign that concerns about Hightower’s explosiveness are justified is that Poe recorded a faster shuttle time than the Alabama star.
While there are many physical similarities, the differences between the resumes of Poe and Ngata are pronounced. Ngata was the No. 2 overall recruit in the country coming out of high school, and then a dominant first-team All-American at Oregon, where he frequently wreaked havoc on the pass-happy offenses of what at that time was the Pac Ten conference.
In contrast, Poe was a second-team all-Conference USA selection last season, the most prestigious honor of his football career. It is hard to see how Poe could be a complete bust. The primary job a 3-4 nose tackle is to occupy space, and Poe should be able to fulfill that role without much improvement.
Poe’s potential is unlimited, but he would be a risky first-round pick. For that reason, Poe is unlikely to be the Steelers’ selection even if he unexpectedly fell to No. 24. Kevin Colbert’s brilliant track record of successful first-round picks is largely due to his stated philosophy of preferring proven college players from big-time programs with that initial choice. A Poe selection would deviate from that strategy in multiple ways.
Moreover, the Steelers have 34-year old nose tackle Casey Hampton locked up on a reduced contract for 2012. Assuming he successfully returns from a torn ACL, stays healthy, and maintains a desire to play and keep his weight in check, there is no reason why Hampton cannot be a serviceable, reasonably-priced starting nose tackle for 2013 and maybe even 2014.
Plus, why should the Steelers expend a first-round pick on a risk like Poe when they could likely use their second-round pick or possibly even an earlier third-round pick via a trade to take 6-foot-3, 350-pound Washington standout Alamedia Ta’amu to be their space-eating nose tackle of the future; or better yet be able to steal Alabama’s Josh Chapman in the third round, primarily because Chapman is recuperating from ACL surgery, and the 6-1, 315-pound Chapman is not nearly as imposing as Poe or Ta’amu.
Just Say No to an Outside Linebacker in the First Round
Colbert should not even think about taking USC’s one-year wonder Nick Perry or Boise State’s Shea McCellin in the first round, with the hope of moving either college defensive end to outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Both are too similar to Woodley (although Perry lacks his football instincts and McCellin is nowhere near as stout as Woodley against the run), and Pittsburgh still has James Harrison back for at least one more season and 2010 second-round pick Jason Worilds for at least two more years at outside linebacker.
While Colbert falls in love with outside linebackers too frequently and it is the only position where he often drafts players too high compared to their overall value on the board, the Steelers have not selected a first-round outside linebacker since Huey Richardson was the biggest bust of the entire 1991 NFL Draft. This is a poor draft for 3-4 outside linebacker prospects and it is not a position of immediate need, so it would be imprudent for Pittsburgh to address outside linebacker before the middle rounds at the earliest.
Offensive Line Needs Rationalized
Therefore, the Steelers’ first-round pick should address their weakest position group in the short-term and biggest need area for the long-term: offensive line.
Ben Roethlisberger is presently the Steelers’ most important player, and will remain so for the next five years. Pittsburgh will usually be a playoff contender (and thus a Super Bowl contender) so long as he is healthy and mobile. However, neither was true in the second half of the 2011 season, and Roethlisberger went from being one of the most innovative and best quarterbacks in the NFL to a mediocre starter with limited mobility. That was directly due to his taking too many shots from a porous offensive line.
Center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Marcus Gilbert are the only two players Pittsburgh can count on as solid starters for the 2012 offensive line or even the distant future. Not surprisingly, Pouncey, the team’s first-round choice in 2010, and 2011 second-round pick Gilbert are the only two offensive linemen drafted by the Steelers in the first two rounds since 2002.
While the Steelers could go with players from any number of different positions with their first couple of picks, offensive guard is undoubtedly the team’s biggest need area both in the short-term and long-term.
Pittsburgh has no offensive guards under contract beyond 2012. The team’s projected starters at guard, Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster, were both restricted free agents this offseason. Both were originally undrafted rookie free agents. Even though Legursky and Foster were the only two guards under contract before the re-signing of Essex, the Steelers elected to tender contracts to both at the lowest level, meaning that any team was free to sign either player to a contract that the salary-cap strapped Steelers would have been forced to match or lose that player with no compensation owed from the offering team.
But yet no franchise showed any interest in either player. Foster started for the Steelers in the Super Bowl two years ago at right guard, but the Steelers seemingly spent the entire offseason before last fall, all of training camp, and the early part of the 2011 season trying to find any replacement for him before re-inserting Foster into the starting lineup for good in week No. 4.
Like the 2010 season, the 2011 Steelers had a better offensive line with Foster starting than not. In his three NFL seasons, Foster has seen action in 41 regular-season games, starting 26 of them. Foster has good size (6-foot-6, 325 pounds), intelligence, and unlike former Pittsburgh guard Chris Kemoteau (thankfully released this offseason), Foster rarely whiffs on opposing pass rushers on the interior, which is why he was a starter at left tackle in the Southeastern Conference at Tennessee.
However, by NFL standards, Foster has poor athleticism, evident by his 5.61-second time in the 40-yard dash ranking as the slowest of any prospect who worked out at the 2009 NFL scouting combine. The Steelers’ have desperately tried to replace him at right guard, and this offseason showed that no other franchise in the NFL considers him a starting-caliber offensive lineman.
It was a little more surprising that Legursky generated no interest from other squads. Obviously he is also not the type of athlete that any teams look for in a starter. But since he can easily play all three interior positions, Legursky is a quality gameday reserve on the dress roster. However, like Foster, evidently no other team in the NFL wants Legursky as a starter or even thought highly enough of him as a reserve to make a modest contract offer.
The Uncertain Future of Willie Colon
There has been much more media speculation and hints from the Steelers’ organization that right tackle Willie Colon could be tried this fall at guard, which appears to be a much more natural position for his 6-3, 315-pound frame. Of course, those indications could be a ruse to provide the perception that the Steelers are more interested in drafting a tackle than guard this week.
Colon, however, cannot be depended on for much at this juncture. He has played in just one game since the 2009 season. After a strong campaign in 2009, he missed all of 2010 due to a ruptured Achilles, which more than a third of NFL players never return from and the vast majority of those who do come back never again play as well as they did before that injury.
Therefore, it was both risky and surprising that Pittsburgh re-signed Colon before the 2011 season to a 5-year, $29 million contract, although just $7.5 million of that was guaranteed. Colon was again lost for another season after tearing his triceps in a season-opening, 35-7, debacle of a loss at Baltimore. While missing an entire season made Colon more susceptible to any potential injury, this was completely unrelated to his previous surgery.
Theoretically, it should be much easier to return from a torn triceps and that injury essentially provided Colon two years to rehabilitate his Achilles. Still, the list of established NFL players who ever returned to be quality players after essentially missing nearly all of two consecutive years due to two different, major injuries is very short.
Steelers’ legends Rocky Bleier and Greg Lloyd each missed two seasons early in their careers (Bleier played one season before deploying to Vietnam, where he was shot in the leg; Lloyd was on injured reserve for most of his first two seasons). However, both were young and inexperienced.
While you cannot call the re-signing of Colon before 2011 unwise even if he does not return to pre-injury form, the decision to restructure his contract without a paycut was easily the Steelers’ only real questionable move this offseason, and one that should be condemned as unwise unless Colon returns to be a solid starter who stays healthy.
Steelers’ salary-cap guru Omar Khan is rightfully recognized as a genius. But any armchair quarterback with a rudimentary comprehension of consumer math could do what Khan did this offseason in Pittsburgh’s desperate attempt to be in compliance with a lower-than-expected 2012 salary cap. Khan essentially took the Steelers’ bad salary-cap situation for 2012, and made it worse for 2013 and 2014 by restructuring contracts of several key players that converted much of their 2012 base salaries into guaranteed signing bonuses spread out over the remainder of their contracts. In other words, he essentially pushed back cap charges to future years, which is something Pittsburgh used to avoid doing on a large scale.
However, that tactic made sense for players like Roethlisberger, Wodley, Timmons, and cornerback Ike Taylor, all of whom rarely miss action due to injury, with the first three likely to remain stars for several more years and the 32-year-old Taylor probably having two more solid seasons as a starter due to his top-flight conditioning.
Colon reportedly refused to consider any type of paycut when restructuring his contract even if that coincided with more guaranteed upfront money. Now, the Steelers could not afford the 2012 salary-cap hit of cutting Colon before June 1st or the 2013 hit if he was cut after June 1st. Plus, if he returns to pre-injury form, Colon would immediately upgrade Pittsburgh’s weakest position group, so cutting him would have been unwise at this point regardless of cap problems.
But the Steelers should have immediately turned to other players, such as safety Troy Polamalu, for restructuring contracts to clear up cap space rather than essentially banking part of their future on an undersized offensive tackle who has missed two consecutive seasons. If he does not return to pre-injury form, then this particular restructure was just dumb.
More Quality Options on Current Pittsburgh Roster at OT than at OG
Ironically, the Steelers have more serviceable options at tackle entering 2012 than at guard. Gilbert was thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie after the Colon injury and performed better than expected. There is a good chance he will move over to left tackle this fall if Colon returns healthy and reclaims the starting right tackle spot.
The Steelers also have veteran Jonathan Scott under contract for one more season, although Pittsburgh cannot afford to pay him his current $2.2 million base salary for 2012 if he is not a starter. Scott is quality and versatile gameday reserve, who was also serviceable as a starting right tackle when Gilbert was sidelined. But Colbert should have been prosecuted for relying on Scott to protect Roethlisberger’s blindside before the 2011 season.
That ridiculous strategy backfired, but fortunately the Steelers were able to re-sign Starks four games into the season because he was recuperating from a potential career-ending neck injury. Starks immediately provided a significant upgrade at left tackle, literally saving the Steelers’ season and keeping Roethlisberger off the injured-reserve list. However, Roethlisberger’s immobility due to an ankle injury and subsequent marginal performances late in the season were likely related to taking too many shots during the season.
Unfortunately, Starks’ play waned some as the season progressed, and the Steelers’ Super Bowl aspirations essentially ended after he tore his ACL early in the playoff loss at Denver regardless if Pittsburgh had won that game. Starks plans to return to the NFL, but likely will not be ready to even work out for teams until late in the summer. That ALC tear, coupled with his previous neck injury, inability to dominate in the run game, and occasional problems in pass protection against small, speed rushers, all mean that Starks will likely receive little interest on the free-agent market.
In other words, the Steelers could get Starks back cheap, which would allow them to cut Scott, or at least force Scott to take a major paycut for 2012 (possibly along with signing a multi-year extension) to stay on the roster. Whereas Starks could be the third tackle in that scenario, it would also allow the Steelers to at least try to move Colon to guard to get their five best offensive linemen on the field. Of course if Colon goes down again or struggles in training camp to return to top form, re-signing Starks becomes more of a necessity.
Regardless, the Steelers need to draft two offensive linemen this week, including one in the first two rounds. Fortunately, it is a solid draft for guards in the first two rounds, with some intriguing tackle prospects that will likely still be available in the late first through the middle of the second round.
Here Are Some Possible Pittsburgh Offensive Line Draft Targets:
OG David DeCastro, 6-5, 315, Stanford: DeCastro is the best guard prospect to enter the league in recent memory and is a strong bet to be a multi-year Pro Bowl player in the mold of Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson, future Hall of Famers and the two best guards of the 21st Century. He is probably the most surefire solid player in the 2012 NFL draft.
There is no chance he falls to pick No. 24. I believe DeCastro will be taken within the first 15 picks. However, guards tend to fall on draft day, which is what Pittsburgh fans should hope for. Even though the Steelers need multiple players in this draft and must hit on most of their early-round picks, they should quickly offer their third-round pick and the first of their quartet of seventh-round picks to any team to move up for DeCastro if he is on the board from the Jets’ No. 16th pick and down.
Based on the trade-value chart, the Steelers fall just short of reaching the 18th pick by offering their third- and a seventh-round pick. But trade-value charts are not adhered to as often in the first-round. If few teams are trying to trade up, you may able to offer much less than the trade-value chart to pick higher, which is how the Steelers’ landed Polamalu with the 16th pick in the 2003 NFL draft.
DeCastro is unlikely to last past the Bengals’ pick at No. 17, and would almost certainly be taken by the Bengals at No. 21, so Pittsburgh fans should not get their hopes high for DeCastro.
OG Kevin Zeitler, 6-4, 315, Wisconsin: Zeitler would be a nice consolation prize if the Steelers cannot grab DeCastro. A couple of months ago, Pittsburgh’s brass might have hoped Zeitler would fall to them in round No. 2, because he is an okay athlete who does not wow in workouts.
However, his film does not lie. This guy was dominant for a potent offense in the Big Ten, and is a solid in all facets of the game. He is ascending up draft boards and might be the Steelers’ pick at No. 24, although ideally the Steelers could trade down instead of taking Zeitler that early. However, Baltimore at No. 29 and especially San Francisco at No. 30 both need interior offensive linemen, so Pittsburgh could not safely trade down more than four spots if Zeitler is the No. 1 target.
OG/RT Cordy Glenn, 6-6, 345, Georgia: Glenn looked like a probable top 15 pick after running a sub 5.0-second 40-yard dash at the combine. But he may fall, because he did not dominate in college. He was a solid player at Georgia who started all four years at three different positions.
As a UGA alumnus, I have watched every game of Glenn’s career, some multiple times. Therefore, I can only laugh when some draft pundits contend Glenn could play left tackle in the NFL due to his athleticism. Uh…no chance.
This guy only played left tackle as a senior, because Georgia did not have a true tackle on its roster ready to play in the SEC. He was abused by Boise State, throughout the second half against LSU, and could not protect Aaron Murray’s blindside against the elite pass rushers of South Carolina. Yes, he played well for the most part, but current Pittsburgh guards Foster and Chris Scott were actually better SEC left tackles at Tennessee. They just do not possess Glenn’s athleticism.
Glenn too often goes through the motions and does not play with a mean streak. If that inner-fire could not be turned on as an unpaid amateur in the ultra-competitive SEC, then no one should expect him to do so in the NFL after signing a large contract.
Nevertheless, Glenn has Pro Bowl potential at guard and could be a serviceable starting right tackle. For that reason, he will have to be considered by the Steelers’ front office if he lasts to pick No. 24.
OT Jonathan Martin, 6-6, 315: While the Steelers’ bigger need is at guard, they almost never get a chance to draft a first-round offensive tackle who would actually represent solid value on the draft board. But if Martin was still on the board at No. 24 (and there is probably a 35-40% chance he lasts that long), Pittsburgh may need to grab him, in part because it is always easier to move a tackle to guard than vice versa, or to find a serviceable guard in later rounds of the draft.
Martin does not overly impressive physically and has limited upside. He will likely struggle against elite speed rushers at left tackle and will not overpower run defenders at right tackle. However, the intelligent Martin could be a serviceable starting left tackle within two years and an above-average starting right tackle by midway through his rookie season. That type of versatility at both tackle spots would be tough for Pittsburgh to pass up if given the chance, because offensive tackles with first-round grades are almost never still available when Pittsburgh’s first-round pick is on the clock. By selecting Martin in the first round a year after taking Gilbert in the second round, Pittsburgh would be set at offensive tackle for several years.
Early Offensive-line Prospects to Stay Away From:
A trio of other offensive-line prospects should be selected before the middle of the second round, but none should be on the Steelers’ radar even if they trade out of first round or try to move up in the second round.
OT Mike Adams, 6-7, 325, Ohio State: Adams is very talented, and similar to a younger Starks in many ways. He is mammoth and has good feet. However, he rarely dominates in the run game, does not regularly give great effort, often gets out of shape, and struggles with speed rushers at left tackle. Unlike the upstanding Starks, though, Adams is considered a character risk due to his multiple problems at Ohio State, and his failing a urine test at the NFL scouting combine even though all he had to do was stay clean for a couple of weeks before his biggest career job interview.
If he somehow was still on the board come the Steelers’ second-round pick and Pittsburgh did not address the offensive line in the first round, Adams should be considered, especially since he has starting potential at both tackle spots. However, my guess is he off the Steelers’ board entirely.
OT Bobby Massie, 6-6, 315, Ole Miss: Massie is a very talented right tackle prospect who was at his worst against top competition while playing for a horrendous Ole Miss squad last season. He has upside, but will likely be over-drafted in the late first- or early second round due to his potential, and not due to his productivity.
OG Amini Silatolu, 6-4, 315, Midwestern State: A dominant small-school player who could be a Pro Bowl mauler at guard, Silatolu is a boom-bust prospect who exhibits bad temperament on the field, and seemingly is not the sharpest fish in the sea based on his academic ineligibility and other measures. Unfortunately that scouting report is too eerily similar to Kemoteau for the Steelers to consider Silatolu this year, especially since he will likely be off the board before their second-round selection.
Other Possible Prospects on the Offensive Line:
If the Steelers do not draft an offensive lineman in the first round, Iowa State G/RT Kelechi Osemele may be the best realistic choice for the Steelers in the second round on the offensive line, followed by Cal RT/G Mitchell Schwartz, and Illinois guard Jeff Allen. Pittsburgh should stay away from Miami (FLa.) guard Brandon Washington or Miami of Ohio guard Brandon Brooks, both of whom have high bust potential.
Pittsburgh should also take a second offensive lineman somewhere between rounds 4-6, a range of the draft where the likes of several solid college standouts could still be on the board, such as Wake Forest G Joe Looney (round 4 or 5 would be great value), BYU RT/G Matt Reynolds (round 4 or 5 would be great value), Pitt G Lucas Nix (a solid pick in round No. 5), Boise State T Nate Potter (a potential reserve swing tackle who may be available in round No. 5), and UAB LT Matt McCants (could be a steal in the sixth round).
Check back on Wednesday for three different 7-round mock drafts for the Steelers, including one with a trade-up in the first round, another where the Steelers trade down, and a third with Pittsburgh staying put with pick No. 24 in the first round.