A long-standing premise in evaluating a team’s NFL draft is that landing two eventual starters and three contributors equates to a successful draft. But the Pittsburgh Steelers likely need a much better haul in both of those categories from this week’s draft to remain among the NFL’s elite in the near future.
Over the past 40 years, the Steelers are the NFL’s winningest franchise in large part due to strong drafting, steady coaching staffs, player development and success at keeping most of their key players before they depart for free agency.
However, the Steelers, who finished a disappointing 8-8 with the third oldest roster in the AFC last season, are in danger of a steady decline. The team is clearly marred by annual salary cap problems that are now growing considerably worse, and will place the team in greater salary-cap dilemmas for 2014 and 2015 due to projected flat caps for those years.
In an effort to try to win another championship with a strong core group of players – the vast majority of whom are now in their 30s, with some no longer with the franchise – the Steelers continually pushed salary payments onto future years.
You cannot blame the front office for that strategy, although some of their specific decisions (e.g., restructuring Willie Colon’s contract with 100 percent guaranteed cash after he missed a second consecutive season in 2011 due to injury) were at best questionable at the time.
Moreover, no team in the NFL restructured more contracts than the Steelers over the last three years, thus pushing more money into future cap years. When you borrow from the future to pay for the present, you eventually pay a price. The Steelers will be feeling that pain the next three seasons.
Pittsburgh is no longer able to retain its top young players before they become free agents, evident by the team’s team top offensive weapon, receiver Mike Wallace, departing via free agency this offseason after the Steelers’ failed to sign him to a long-term deal before the 2012 season. Designating the franchise tag on Wallace was not an option this winter, because the Steelers could not create the needed cap space. Pittsburgh did not even try to retain cornerback Keenan Lewis after his breakout campaign in 2012 due its salary-cap situation.
Compounding problems is that the Steelers have not drafted particularly well in recent years. In fact, no team in the NFL had fewer players drafted in the first three rounds over the past three years (2010-2012) start at least half its game than the Steelers in 2012.
That is not entirely the fault of the front office, because too often a stubborn coaching staff waits too long to play its young players, letting them sit behind less talented veterans (e.g., Keenan Lewis behind William Gay, and even Anthony Madison at one point during his third season with the franchise).
But the Steelers are never horrible and it’s hard to see that fate in the franchise’s future. A 5-11 campaign in 1988 was the only season that they did not win at least six games since Terry Bradshaw’s rookie campaign in 1970.
Do not expect the Steelers to ever become really bad so long as Ben Roethlisberger remains upright. When healthy, Roethlisberger is a true franchise quarterback and among the top 5-6 in the league. His presence gives the Steelers a chance to win almost any game.
Despite numerous team flaws and an aging roster, Pittsburgh was 6-3 last fall and en route to the postseason before Roethlisberger was sidelined with a shoulder injury for three games. He rushed his return and played poorly afterward. That is normal, because he is a below-average, mistake-prone quarterback when playing injured, which is a major concern because the 31-year-old Roethlisberger has taken more hits than any quarterback since his entrance into the NFL in 2004, seemingly suffering an injury to every body part.
The Steelers badly neglected their offensive line for much of Roethlisberger’s career. However, the team has addressed that perpetual problem by taking four offensive linemen in the first two rounds over the last three drafts. If these youngsters mature and stay healthy, the offensive line should finally develop into a team strength in 2013 for the first time since Roethlisberger’s rookie season in 2004.
Unfortunately for Roethlisberger, few NFL starting quarterbacks would trade their skill-position players for those who Roethlisberger is slated to have available for opening day entering this draft. Thus, the Steelers must get immediate upgrades at running back and receiver before the fall to avoid their first losing season in a decade.
Accordingly, here is a snapshot of the Steelers’ offensive draft needs, position analyses, likely draft strategy for each position area and some possible targets for this week’s NFL Draft, which opens with the first round on Thursday evening.
1. RUNNING BACK
Returnees: Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch
Off-season Additions: None thus far
Off-season Departures: Reshard Mendenhall (signed with Arizona via free agency)
Needs: 1-2 players in this draft or via free agency.
Position Analysis: No team in the NFL has a worse core of tailbacks than the Steelers. The Steelers’ front office clearly indicated as much with Kevin Colbert noting several times this offseason that running back is an area desperately in need of an upgrade. Despite a horrifically disappointing 2012 both on the field and in the locker room, Mendenhall was clearly the team’s most talented back, although the franchise’s front office and the majority of its fans agreed that it was time for Mendenhall and his twitter feed to leave. Dwyer continues to exhibit flashes of greatness. He rushed for 623 yards last season, highlighted by consecutive 100-yard games against the Bengals and Redskins mid-season. However, he had less than 60 yards rushing in each of the other 14 games and is constantly plagued by inconsistencies. Moreover, he is the most one-dimensional of all Steelers’ backs. Redman lacks speed and has occasional fumble problems. But he is an excellent short-yardage back and able to contribute in a variety of ways. Both Redman and Dwyer are slated to become unrestricted free agents after 2013. Batch is not worth of being on an NFL roster at this points unless he regains the reported shiftiness and quick burst he displayed as a rookie early in fall camp of 2011, before suffering a devastating knee injury. Ideally, the Steelers could sign proven but injury-prone New York Giants free-agent Ahmad Bradshaw to a reasonable contract, assuming he recovers from a myriad of injuries that currently has him unable to run. But the chance of Bradshaw inking with the Steelers dropped considerably when the Steelers elected to match the contract tender restricted free agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders signed with the Patriots last week.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (2) Eddie Lacy, Alabama; (3-4) Jonathan Franklin, UCLA and Christine Michael, Texas A&M; (4-5) Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State and Stepfan Taylor, Stanford; (5-6) Kenjon Barner, Oregon; (7) Ray Graham, Pittsburgh
Draft Strategy: In the unlikely event that Lacy is available when the Steelers pick in round No. 2, the powerful runner would be hard to pass up. Franklin has emerged as my favorite runner in this draft, though. Michael is a boom-bust pick with as much physical potential as any back in the draft, but he did not start for A&M last year and has a history of disciplinary problems. Particularly if they pick up extra picks at some point due to a trade-down, the Steelers could elect to take two backs this week, with a scatback to replace the recently-released Chris Rainey likely nabbed in a later round based on this scenario.
Stay-away From: Le’veon Bell, Michigan State and Montee Ball, Wisconsin.
Why: Name me all the Big Ten running backs who have been good draft picks over the past 20 years. It is a very short list. For every Eddie George, I will cite at least a half-dozen plodding busts, highlighted by nearly every back from Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin over that period. In fact, you can’t name a good NFL running back produced by Michigan State or Wisconsin over that period, even though Wisconsin regularly has one of the best power rushing attacks in college football. Ron Dayne, Michael Bennett and Anthony Davis of Wisconsin, and Michigan State’s TJ. Duckett, Javon Ringer and Sedrick Irvin all tore up the Big Ten. But yet none were any good in the NFL. Running the football between the tackles effectively against slow Big Ten defenses simply does not equate to success in the speed-based NFL.
Returnees: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress
Off-season Additions: None thus far
Off-season Departures: Mike Wallace
Position Analysis: After turning down several Pittsburgh contract offers prior to the 2012 season, Wallace reported before opening game and then gave a half-hearted effort, often protecting his body and becoming the recipient of Steeler nation vitriol in a failed season by Pittsburgh standards. His disappointing 64 catches for 836 yards did not hurt his free-agent stock, evident by the 5-year, $60 million contract Wallace inked with the Dolphins. But the defensive coordinators of Steelers’ future opponents will rejoice about his departure, since Wallace was arguably the fastest player in the NFL and without question Pittsburgh’s most dangerous offensive weapon. He had 4,042 yards receiving, a 17.2 yard-per-catch average, and 32 receiving TDs over the past 4 years. Moreover, his presence on the field generally created single coverage for all other Steeler receiving threats. Brown was the Steelers’ MVP in 2011, culminated by a Pro Bowl appearance and a long-term contract extension. Brown, too, failed to live up to expectations in 2012, tallying just 787 receiving yards and 5 TDs. Worse, his carelessness and stupidity on the field played were detrimental in losses to the Raiders and Cowboys that ultimately kept the Steelers out of the postseason. Sanders has exhibited potential at times, but has mostly been a mediocre receiver over his 3-year career. Adam already articulated why everyone at this site and most knowledgable Pittsburgh fans thought the Steelers should have gleefully accepted a third-round pick as compensation for his departure via restricted free agency last week after he signed a tender with the Patriots. Instead, the Steelers elected to match the offer, thus keeping Sanders at roughly twice his scheduled base salary for 2013 before he becomes an unrestricted agent after this season. He is a near-lock to leave if he stays healthy through a strong season, because the Steelers simply cannot afford to make a competitive contract offer. Cotchery is a tough, savvy, smart, and high-character possession receiver who lacks speed. The 35-year-old Burress is at best a red-zone target and jump-ball receiver at this stage of his career. Among these four, only Brown is under contract beyond 2013.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (2) Keenan Allen, Cal, DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson, Robert Woods, USC, Justin Hunter, Tennessee and Quinton Patton, La. Tech; (3) Stedman Bailey, West Virginia, Aaron Dobson, Marshall and Ryan Swope, Texas A&M; (4-5) Tavarres King, Georgia and Josh Boyce, TCU; (5-6) Denard Robinson, Michigan; (6-7) Conner Vernon, Duke
Draft Strategy: You are likely looking at the five names I have listed for second-round targets, rolling your eyes, and thinking that none of them will be available when the Steelers pick at No. 48 overall. However, it would be shocking if any of those receivers went before No. 26 overall, particularly with Allen’s stock falling precipitously over the past two months for several reasons. Thus, it is not only conceivable but logical to project at least one of the five fall to the middle of the second round. In fact, several draft analysts have at least one of these players ranked 50th or lower overall. The second-round seems a prime area for the Steelers to address receiver in this draft. They cannot wait until past round No. 3. The team could also elect to tab two wide outs this week, trying to emulate the success of landing Sanders in round No. 3 and Brown in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
Stay-away From: Tavon Austin, West Virigina and Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee (in the first round at No. 17)
Why: Austin’s stock has been rising and it appears increasingly doubtful that he falls below the 16th pick, held by the receiver-starved Rams. But Austin is rated as the No. 13 and No. 14 overall prospect in the draft by CBS and ESPN, respectively. Plus, when can you remember a 5-9, 174-pound receiver going in the first half of the first round? Austin was a tremendously effective four-year player at West Virginia, piling up an amazing 2,917 total yards as a receiver, rusher and kick returner just last season. While Austin is a better deep threat for sure, he is otherwise very similar to the 5-10, 185-pound Brown, who also relies more on quickness, elusiveness and football instincts. Ideally, the Steelers will have a bigger and faster receiver opposite of Brown for the long-term, and there is no better physical specimen at receiver in this draft than the 6-2, 216-pound Patterson. However, while still impressive, Patterson’s 4.42-second 40-yard-dash time at the NFL scouting combine was slower than expected. He is also a boom-bust pick, the type the Steelers stay away from in the first round, where they like proven college players. Patterson only played one season at Tennessee, put up mediocre receiving numbers (46-778, 5 TDs) despite playing in one of the best offenses in program history, regularly dropped passes and exhibited rawness at his position, evident by confusion he had with veteran quarterback Tyler Bray that no other Volunteer receiver experienced. Patterson is more athlete than receiver at this point. Moreover, the Steelers need a smart receiver opposite of Brown, who – despite being initially admitted to a four-year university as a non-scholarship athlete – may have surpassed Brenden Stai and Chris Kemoeatu as the dumbest on the-field-player for the Steelers over the past 30+ years. Just watch his repeated brainfarts last season and you will feel ill. Austin and Patterson reportedly scored a 7 and 11 on the Wonderlic, an intelligence/aptitude test all prospects take at the NFL scouting combine. You do not need a Ph.D. to play in the NFL. As an announcer, ex-Redskins quarterback Joe Theisman once infamously said, “Football is not a sport for geniuses. A guy like Norman Einstein would not have played football.” However, there is a level of intelligence needed to understand NFL defenses and learn a playbook, and neither of these two receiver prospects seemingly posses it. Do you really want either lining up opposite of Brown? I sure do not. Think of all the mental miscues. But of the two, Austin would be the better pick and value in the first round.
3. OFFENSIVE LINE
Returnees: OT Marcus Gilbert, OT Mike Adams, OG David DeCastro, OG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, OT-OG Kevin Beachum, OG-C John Malecki
Off-season Additions: None thus far
Off-season Departures: None thus far, but OT Max Starks and C-OG Doug Legursky remain unrestricted free agents.
Position Analysis: For the first time in recent memory, the offensive line is not a major need entering this Steelers’ draft. In fact, Pittsburgh only needs to draft for depth as their projected top six linemen are all under contract through at least 2014. The Steelers main concerns should be the ability to protect Roethlisberger’s blindside and a lack of depth at tackle behind their last two second-round picks, Gilbert and Adams. Gilbert has been solid in pass protection at right tackle over the past two years, but appears to be a better physical fit at left tackle, where his lack of power will not be as often exploited by the smaller speed rushers he will face. In fact, Gilbert being physically beaten or pushed back forced him to fall into Roethlisberger and Pouncey last fall, resulting in both getting injured on those plays. Adams struggled in pass protection occasionally at right tackle, but showed signs of being a dominant run blocker during his six starts as a rookie last fall. A concern is that Gilbert and Adams have both missed games due to injury in each of their combined three NFL seasons, and that Adams – nor seemingly anyone else on the current roster – could adequately fill in at left tackle if Gilbert gets hurt. Starks had an excellent season at left tackle last fall, leading the Steelers in total plays after finishing the previous two seasons on injured reserve. I understand the Steelers’ desire to start their two young tackles for which they invested premium draft picks. But Roethlisberger’s health is the key to the team’s long-term success, particularly since the front office will be forced to give him a long-term extension to lower his 2014 cap hit of roughly $19 million. Bringing back Starks on a modest deal should still be considered an option, although I doubt Starks will return if he is not given a fair chance at a starting job. The Steelers appear set at guard for the next three years after re-signing free agent Ramon Foster to team with 2012 first-round pick David DeCastro.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (4) OT-G David Quessenberry, San Jose State; (5-6) OT Reid Fragel, Ohio State and Emmett Cleary, Boston College; (6-7) OT Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
Draft Strategy: Currently, the Steelers need to take a development tackle for depth, and could take two offensive linemen if they acquire more picks in the draft and/or do not plan to re-sign Legursky. Regardless, do not expect Pittsburgh to address this area before the fourth round at the earliest.
Stay-away From: OG Chance Warmack, Alabama and Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
Why: The Steelers did not re-sign Foster for $6 million to be a back-up, so forget about the Steelers taking an offensive guard in the first round in this draft. In fact, they could/should bring back Legursky on a veteran’s minimum salary, thus eliminating the need to take an interior lineman at all. Warmack is a strong bet to be off the board before the 17th pick overall and Cooper is probably 60 percent likely to gone before the Steelers select. However, guards tend to fall well below their overall rankings (see DeCastro last year). As J.J. said last week, we do not care if the Steelers’ brass are all convinced either of these two guards will become the next John Hannah. This team simply has too many other short and long-term desperate needs to even considering utilizing a second consecutive first-round pick on an offensive guard, which would also make the Foster re-signing a moronic use of available cap space instead of re-upping a solid, dependable veteran starter at a fair-market price.
4. TIGHT END
Returnees: Heath Miller, David Paulson, TE-FB-H-back D.J. Johnson
Off-season Additions: Matt Spaeth (returned to Pittsburgh on a 2-year contract after spending two seasons with the Bears, who released him in a salary-cap move)
Off-season Departures: None thus far, but free agent Leonard Pope is not expected to return.
Position Analysis: Miller was having the best season of his underrated career and earned his first Pro Bowl invite before suffering a major knee injury (ACL and MCL tear) in a meaningless season finale against the Browns. Miller is not expected to be at full strength before the season opener and may begin 2013 on the PUP list, which would make him eligible to return after six games. Prior to this injury, the now 30-year-old Miller appeared to be in-line for a contract restructure and extension. His current deal runs through 2014, a season where his cap hit will be roughly $8 million. However, unlike some players (e.g., Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons), the Steelers only restructured Miller’s contract one time, meaning that they would incur just $2 million of dead money should he be released before 2014, a figure that also reduces his negotiating leverage for a possible restructure/extension, assuming he returns to full health. Although criticized by many fans, the Steelers made a wise decision in re-signing Spaeth to a relatively inexpensive 2-year deal following his release by the Bears. The Steelers unwisely used a third-round pick to select Spaeth in 2007 despite having Miller and former solid back-up Jerame Tuman locked up on long-term deals at that time. Then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians argued the 6-7 Spaeth would be a great receiving threat. Turned out, he’s not much of a receiver, evident by his paltry 49 career receptions for 353 yards in six NFL seasons. But over his last 1.5 years with the Steelers, Spaeth did emerge as a quality in-line blocker as the team’s No. 2 tight end. That continued in Chicago. In fact, Spaeth was rated as the best blocking tight end in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus. At least until Miller’s return, Spaeth’ blocking prowess should provide a serviceable mix with Paulson, an undersized seventh-round pick in 2012 with sure hands. Paulson also blocked well enough to replace Pope as the Steelers’ No. 2 tight end for the second half of last season.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (1) Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame; (4-6) Nick Kassa, Colorado; (6-7) Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State and Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn
Draft Strategy: While he noted that the Steelers should take Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones if he falls to No. 17, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has the Steelers selecting Eifert at No. 17 in his latest mock draft. Eifert will be a very good pro. Like Miller, he is an all-purpose, three-down tight end with no major flaws, although his athleticism is only average for an NFL starting tight end. However, the Steelers are in desperate need of immediate help at receiver, running back, and boosting its past rush, and would like to land future starters from this draft at safety, and possibly inside linebacker and cornerback as well. Therefore, drafting a player to be a No. 2 tight end in the middle of the first round is a luxury the Steelers cannot afford at this time. Compounded with the Steelers’ salary-cap problems, drafing Eifert at No. 17 would greatly increase the odds Miller is cut before 2014 and would almost end any chance of an extension even though Miller may return to a Pro-Bowl level. Now, if the Steelers traded down 6-15 spots in the first round to pick up extra picks and Eifert was still on the board (a possibility), then he would be a nice addition, particularly since the Steelers could use those extra picks to address their many more obvious needs.
Stay-away From: Any prospects who the Steelers would draft between rounds 2-4.
Why: After Eifert and Stanford’s Zach Ertz (a receiving tight end who is not a good fit for Pittsburgh’s offense), this is a weak draft at tight end. With the signing of Spaeth, the Steelers do not need to take a tight end in this draft and should not consider any before round No. 5 other than Eifert. A later-round pick could add depth, competition for Paulson for playing time while Miller is likely sidelined early in the 2013 season and potentially develop into a solid contributor.
Returnees: Ben Roethlisberger
Off-season Additions: Bruce Gradkowski (signed to a 3-year deal via free agency)
Off-season Departures: None thus far, but free agent Byron Leftwich will not return and free agent Charlie Batch will likely not return if the Steelers draft a quarterback this week.
Position Analysis: When healthy, Roethlisberger remains a marquee, franchise quarterback. The Steelers will be forced to negotiate a long-term extension with him after 2013, a scary proposition due to the physical pounding he has taken in his nine NFL seasons and questions about how well Roethlisberger will play when his mobility starts to decline with age. Nevertheless, he is the key to the team’s short-term and long-term success, and may already be the best quarterback in Steelers’ history. Adding Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh native, as a backup should provide a younger, more athletic and less brittle No. 2 quarterback over Leftwich and Batch. Former University of Alabama star John Parker Wilson was brought in as a street free agent to compete for the No. 3 job.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (4-6) Sean Renfree, Duke; (6-7) Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt; (7) Colby Cameron, La. Tech and Alex Carder, Western Michigan.
Draft Strategy: Although Batch could be brought back for one more reason or the team could elect to let Wilson compete with an undrafted rookie free agent for the No. 3 spot, now would be an opportune time to grab a late-round development prospect with physical talent.
Stay-away From: Any players drafted in the first five rounds.
Why: The Steelers have too many other needs to expend an early or even middle-round selection on a potential third-string quarterback.
COMING LATER THIS WEEK:
Monday – Steelers Defensive Position Analyses and Draft Needs
Tuesday – The case for drafting Jarvis Jones at No. 17
Wednesday – Steelers 7-round Mock Drafts