Once considered by many the best general manager and drafter in the NFL, the selections, roster management and salary-cap wisdom of the Steelers’ Kevin Colbert have been suspect since 2008.
The team had an amazing run of successful 1st -round picks from 2000-08, but recently-departed 2009 pick Ziggy Hood can now be labeled the worst opening-round selection of the Colbert era.
In fact, the Steelers no longer had any players on their roster from the 2008 and 2009 drafts entering the 2013 season. Whereas Pittsburgh still had playoff-caliber starters last fall, the bottom 15 players on the Steelers’ roster were less-talented than any such contingent since the pre-Chuck Noll era, which began in 1969. NFL teams must have quality depth to advance to the playoffs, which Pittsburgh has now missed for two seasons ongoing for the first time this century.
However, worse than his recent drafts has been Colbert’s recent propensity to annually restructure a series of contracts to become cap compliant (i.e., not adding years to the contracts or getting hometown discounts, but instead simply prorating signing bonuses onto future caps), thus assuring the Steelers are in perpetual salary-cap hell entering each offseason.
Facing their worst cap situation ever, the Steelers received a reprieve this offseason when the NFL team salary-cap limit jumped nearly $10 million above initial expectations.
Despite still having little free money to work with while other teams were flushed with cash, Colbert responded with one of his finest offseasons. For example, he kept the Steelers’ best free-agent for 2014 by placing the 1-year transition tag on Jason Worilds without giving the outside linebacker a huge extension based on his first decent season. More important, he restructured the contract of only one player, WR Antonio Brown, without an extension.
Colbert astutely extended the contracts of SS Troy Polamalu (who had his healthiest season in 2013 since 2008) and veteran TE Heath Miller, both of whom gave the Steelers hometown discounts and received no new money in their deals. Colbert also wisely decided to keep Ike Taylor for the final year of his contract, after the veteran cornerback agreed to a $4.25 million paycut with no new money.
Recognizing how poor Pittsburgh’s 53-man roster was last season, Colbert went against his wont to replenish the Steelers with cost-efficient outside free agents, such as S Mike Mitchell (who will start at FS and was the only signee to receive an above-average salary), DL Cam Thomas, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Lance Moore, LB Arthur Moats, CB Brice McCain, WR Darius Heyward-Bey and P Adam Podlesh, while also re-signing S Will Allen, C-G Cody Wallace, G-T Guy Whimper and TE Michael Palmer for added depth.
After all these moves, the Steelers now only have eight clear roster spots for their nine selections in the upcoming NFL draft, a figure that could be reduced one further if Pittsburgh acutely re-signs veteran DE Brett Keisel in June for one more season to address porous depth on the defensive line and lack of a quality starter opposite of budding star Cameron Heyward.
Colbert, however, must hit on several picks in this draft to not only sustain long-term success, but also to address immediate needs in 2014, and keep the organization in playoff contention beyond while it still has a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. Always taking the best-player-available (BPA) strategy – when that means a premium draft pick could sit on the bench for 3-4 years due to players ahead of him at his position – does not work anymore in this era of free agency as noted in this MMQB feature on the Steelers.
Instead the Steelers should always use a formula that takes into account each player’s potential (BPA), along with depth-chart needs for that season, position needs for the next season (2015), and where to best address those specific positional needs in the draft based on players’ talent and depth expected to be available in each round.
This is where Colbert has too often failed. For example, Thad Gibson was a 4th-rounder and the team’s second OLB selected in the 2010 draft even though no roster spot was available for Gibson (who was cut early in his rookie season) and at that time the team had two Pro Bowl-level OLBs locked up on long-term deals.
For some odd reason, Colbert did not select an offensive lineman with any of his nine selections in 2013 even though Pittsburgh only had six roster-worthy linemen. Instead, he wasted a 4th-round premium pick on QB Landry Jones, took CB Terry Hawthorne in the 5th even though most considered him a 7th-rounder at best, and then (in typical Colbert BPA fashion) drafted a second WR in the 6th in Justin Brown (who no one expected to be drafted at all), even though it was clear he had little chance of making the 53-man roster, which of course he did not.
Accordingly, this is the blueprint Colbert should follow next week during the 3-day draft to address the Steelers’ seven positional needs for those eight clear roster spots rather than just taking BPA in each round:
2014 Positional Ranking Need: 3
2015 Positional Ranking Need: 1
Best Round to Address Need in 2014 Draft: 1st
Yes, the Steelers return their top three corners from last season in Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay. But projected starters Taylor and Allen are unrestricted free agents after 2014. Moreover, Taylor – who regularly matched up in man coverage against the opponent’s top WR for years and would have been a perennial Pro Bowler if not for his abysmal hands – has finally slowed down over the past 1.5 years, ranking among the worst corners in the league last fall per Pro Football Focus.
The 2014 season may be Taylor’s last in Pittsburgh. The NFL has become a pass-focused league. The most important players in today’s game are franchise quarterbacks, pass-blocking left tackles, elite pass rushers, shutdown corners and play-making receivers. The Steelers no longer have an elite corner, but may have the chance to draft Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard as a safe, solid pick at No. 15 overall.
Dennard does not have elite size (5-11, 199) or athleticism (4.51-second 40-yard dash), but he is a surer bet to achieve in the NFL than the bigger and more athletic Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State, who has a higher boom-bust ratio and is not a classic Steeler cornerback fit (e.g., not a solid tackler or as physical as Dennard). Gilbert, though, must also be considered, especially if Dennard has already been selected before No. 15. A slight trade down to take Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller 4-6 picks later, while picking up a 3rd- or 4th-rounder in the process, should also be among the Steelers’ top 1st-round options.
The talent drop-off and uncertainty among 2nd and 3rd-round CB prospects is why that position should ideally be addressed in the opening round. However, despite a ton of mocks having the Steelers selecting two corners in this draft and Colbert often tabbing players at the same position in the same class, Pittsburgh should only take one CB, since the roster already includes Taylor, Allen, Gay, McCain and fifth safety Robert Golden, who can also player corner.
2014 Positional Ranking Need: 2
2015 Positional Ranking Need: 2
Best Round to Address Need in 2014 Draft: 2nd
Pittsburgh has now lost Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery over the last two offseasons via free agency. 2013 team MVP Antonio Brown is a star, but the Steelers have a drop-off to Marcus Wheaton, a 3rd rounder last spring who was ineffective as a rookie, and the veteran Moore. Moreover, all three of those WRs stand between 5-9 and 5-11, and weigh between 182-190 pounds. Essentially, they are surfs by today’s NFL norms.
The Steelers desperately need another playmaker at WR, preferably with size. LSU’s Odell Beckham has become a popular pick for the Steelers at No. 15 in many mock drafts, especially if Dennard is gone. While a very good player, No. 15 would be a little early for Beckham, and at 5-11, 198 pounds, his addition would do nothing to address Pittsburgh’s lack of size at receiver.
Pittsburgh should plan on filling this need in a 2nd round that could be one of the best ever for receivers depending on how many are selected in the 1st round. Penn State’s Allen Robinson, Vandy’s Jordan Matthews, Fresno State’s Davante Adams, Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, Ole Miss’ Donte Moncrief and Indiana’s Cody Latimer have all been available in multiple mock drafts when the Steelers are slated to select at No. 46 overall.
Surely some of these players will already be selected, but the Steelers should have a choice from at least a couple of these proven pass-catchers in the 2nd round. Moreover, all six of those players stand at least 6-1.5 and weigh at least 212 pounds.
However, there will likely be a drop-off in talent and especially size if the Steelers wait until their compensatory selection at the end of the 3rd round to address receiver. The six receivers listed above are all ranked between the No. 30-70 overall players in this draft per CBS Sports.
Afterward the next WRs with overall rankings are 5-9 Bruce Ellington from South Carolina (No. 90), 6-1 Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin (No. 96), 5-9 Dri Archer from Kent State (No. 99) and 5-9 Robert Herron from Wyoming (No. 110), all of whom would be reaches for the Steelers in the 3rd round.
Further, despite many Steeler-fan mocks doing so, the Steelers should not take two receivers in this draft. They generally keep five WRs on the 53-man roster and already have Derek Moye, Heyward-Bey and Justin Brown fighting for the last spot. That is enough competition for a No. 5 receiver who will not dress for games if everyone is healthy.
3. DEFENSIVE LINE
2014 Positional Ranking Need: 1
2015 Positional Ranking Need: 3
Best Round to Address Need in 2014 Draft: 3rd or 4th, and possibly drafting a second DL prospect later on day No. 3.
It is frustrating that Colbert seems to always leave one position group ridiculously thin entering training camp. In 2013 it was the offensive line. Not surprisingly, early-season injuries on that unit, coupled with little depth, were primary reasons the Steelers’ started 0-4 last season.
This year Colbet has mostly ignored the defensive line, which was already a weakness evident by the Steelers ranking 21st against the run in 2013, their second worst run defense in 44 years.
Since the end of the 2013 season, the Steelers lost Hood (who was clearly not a fit for a 3-4 scheme and a major liability against the run) and underrated DE/NT Al Woods to unrestricted free agency. Further, they seemingly are ready to move on from Keisel, even though The Beard was clearly the team’s second best defensive lineman for the 12 games he played in 2013 and arguably should have been selected for the Pro Bowl after 2012.
The Steelers only addition on the defensive line has been Thomas, a 6-4, 335-pounder who struggled at nose tackle in San Diego, but will be tried at DE next to NT Steve McLendon in Pittsburgh, even though McLendon seems like the more natural of the two to play outside.
Those two join Heyward in the projected starting lineup. The problem is the Steelers literally may not have an NFL-caliber defensive lineman on the roster other than those three. The current second-team of Brian Arnfelt, Hebron Fangupo and Nick Williams have a combined 22 career regular-season NFL snaps. They should – at best – enter camp as the No. 6-8 defensive linemen, fighting for spots at the end of the roster.
This is why the Steelers will be tempted to draft a defensive lineman in the 2nd round if Minnesota’s RaShede Hageman, or either Notre Dame star DE Stephon Tuitt or NT Louis Nix are still on the board.
Pittsburgh, however, is more likely to address this need in the 3rd round, and/or with two picks on the third day of the draft.
4. OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
2014 Positional Ranking Need: 5
2015 Positional Ranking Need: 4
Best Round to Address Need in 2014 Draft: 3rd or 4th round.
The Steelers’ starting OLBs for 2014 are set after Worilds quickly signed his 1-year transition tag worth $9.754 million, while 2013 1st-round pick Jarvis Jones will be an undisputed starter.
Each player brings concerns, though. Dating back to his college days at Virginia Tech, Worilds has a history of being hindered by nagging injuries, although in what may surprise many Pittsburgh fans, Worilds he has only missed a total of seven games in his four NFL regular seasons. More important for the long-term, however, is that he is signed only through 2014.
No one argued stronger for Jones to be the Steelers’ top pick last year than me. In a rarity for a rookie under legendary DC Dick LeBeau, Jones saw extensive action in 2013, starting eight games. He eased pre-draft concerns that he was too small (245 pounds) or slow (4.9 in the 40) to stop the run or drop into coverage, proving adequate in both facets.
The grave concern now is that Jones simply may not be fast enough to rush the passer in the NFL, which is where he excelled at the University of Georgia as a 3-4 OLB and why he was drafted in the 1st round. Jones only had one sack as a rookie, often going through long stretches of games without even getting near a quarterback.
The Steelers did add hybrid OLB/ILB Arthur Moats in free agency from Buffalo to add depth, but he was signed for only one season. Chris Carter has shown that he is a borderline NFL-caliber player, who seemingly will never be much of a contributor.
Thus, the Steelers need to take an OLB in this draft. Unfortunately, that is one position where it is now much more difficult to find quality later in the draft due to how many teams are playing a 3-4 defense regularly or at least occasionally, and the premium that all organizations now place on pass rushers regardless of their scheme.
Although all three of the positions above are more pressing and bigger needs, it would be far more understandable if the Steelers surprised by taking a 2nd-round outside linebacker like Boise State’s Demarcus Lawrence next week than it was when they selected Worilds in the same round in 2010 despite having two Pro-Bowl caliber starters each locked up for at least four more years at that time.
5. INSIDE LINEBACKER
2014 Positional Ranking Need: 4
2015 Positional Ranking Need: 5
Best Round to Address Need in 2014 Draft: 4th round or later.
Despite the positional rankings above, ILB is probably the position where any rookie selected in the first four rounds would have the best chance to start. Underrated Lawrence Timmons is entrenched as one starter. But the mike linebacker spot is wide open between last year’s 6th-rounder Vince Williams, pass coverage specialist Terence Garvin and wildcard Sean Spence, a 3rd -rounder in 2012 who remains unlikely to ever fully recover from his devastating knee injury but will be given a chance to compete this fall in training camp.
But is this position that important in today’s NFL? After all, we are talking about a 1- or 2-down run stuffer, the kind of player who is easy to find and playing less each year throughout the NFL. The Steelers lost veteran Larry Foote early last season to injury and did not lose much when the then-raw Williams started 11 games.
Expect the Steelers to add some depth at this position, but not until day three. Unfortunately, it is a thin draft for ILB prospects after Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy and Wisconin plugger Chris Borland, the latter of whom would be a better fit to play opposite of the athletic Timmons in the Steelers’ base 3-4 alignment.
6. OFFENSIVE TACKLE
2014 Positional Ranking Need: 7
2015 Positional Ranking Need: 6
Best Round to Address Need in 2014 Draft: 4th round or later.
The Steelers top eight offensive linemen appear set after the re-signing of Wallace and Whimper for depth. It would be imprudent, though, for Pittsburgh to completely ignore the offensive line for a second consecutive draft.
Specifically, the Steelers should target a day-three offensive tackle to develop, since starting RT Marcus Gilbert is an unrestricted free agent after 2014 and his play has not warranted an extension before this season, third-year OT Michael Adams has been a disappointment thus far and starting LT Kevin Beachum lacks prototype size for an NFL tackle.
7. RUNNING BACK
2014 Positional Ranking Need: 6
2015 Positional Ranking Need: 7
Best Round to Address Need in 2014 Draft: 4th round or later.
The signing of Blount, along with the expected improvement of the second-year Bell, should give the organization their best pair of power tailbacks since Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley propelled the Steelers to a 15-1 regular season in 2004. Pittsburgh, however, literally does not have another running back on the roster with an NFL regular-season carry on his resume. Therefore, the Steelers need to add depth to this spot, preferably with a speedy, scatback-type to serve as a change-of-pace option to the bruising Bell and Blount.
Coming Wednesday: Four Different Steeler 7-Round Mock Drafts, Two of Which Include Trades