The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons and arguably have their least talented projected 53-man roster entering an NFL Draft since the turn of the Millennium.
Fortunately help should be on the way from what many draft observers (including Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert) have proclaimed possibly the deepest overall talent pool ever to choose from in an NFL Draft.
With glaring holes throughout its depth chart, Pittsburgh rookies should have the opportunity to compete for immediate starting jobs and/or serious playing time at receiver, defensive end, cornerback, inside linebacker, outside linebacker and possibly even left tackle depending on when the Steelers address each position in this week’s three-day NFL draft.
“I don’t think we can say that there’s going to be an impact guy that’s going to come in and be a starter,” Colbert told media at his pre-draft press conference on Monday. “I think they’ll certainly be able to compete and maybe to contribute in some of the sub-packages and they’ll continue to develop.”
Of course, the Steelers sticking to an antiquated strategy of always drafting the “Best Player Available” over their many immediate positional needs could prevent improvement in 2014. This quote is disturbing, particularly since it came from the man who will have final call on each Pittsburgh selection.
However, it also shows why football people with experience outside the Steelers’ organization must be added to the front office in power positions if Pittsburgh fails to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season this fall despite having one of the league’s top five franchise quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger) in the prime of his career.
Accordingly, here is a list of players Pittsburgh should consider drafting in the first round at No. 15 overall (assuming they do not trade down, which is preferable) and – more importantly – those the Steelers should not select in the opening round. In this era of free agency, 1st-round picks who are not quarterbacks must make significant contributions immediately and be regular, every-down starters by year No. 2 at the latest unless you have a loaded and deep team, which the Steelers clearly are not right now.
5 PROSPECTS STEELERS SHOULDN’T DRAFT AT No. 15 IN FIRST ROUND
1. TE Eric Ebron, 6-4, 250, North Carolina
A boom-bust prospect who could either be the pass-receiving tight end in the NFL in three years or completely out of the league. The best part of Colbert’s tenure and why he has historically enjoyed so much success with 1st-round picks is that he values college production above all else and usually goes for sure things with opening selections over long-term potential.
In their rotating mock draft for ESPN, Todd McShay pegged Ebron to the Steelers at No. 15 as the best available player on the board, and then was quickly and justifiably lambasted by veteran personnel man Bill Polian for drafting a Steelers tight end who does not block well or willingly, and has work ethic and maturity problems.
Mel Kiper then came back to draft receiver Jarvis Landry in the 2nd round for the Steelers, which is much earlier than many experts project the LSU star to be selected from such a deep group of receiver prospects. McShay culminated the three-round mock draft with the Steelers selecting troubled Clemson corner Bashaud Breeland.
In other words, because they failed to address the Steelers’ two biggest needs (corner and receiver) in the 1st round, the ESPN crew ended up reaching at both spots in rounds No. 2 and No. 3, resulting in a mock draft despised by most Pittsburgh fans.
Worse, this potential 1st-round pick almost assuredly would not start this fall for Pittsburgh, who recently extended the contract of veteran, three-down player and excellent blocker Heath Miller through 2016.
Some have suggested the Steelers would use Ebron as the big receiver they so desperately need, but that would require head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley to change their system and wont, which seems unlikely to ever happen quickly from these two for better or worse.
Further, with Roethlisberger’s propensity to keep plays alive and scramble from side to side, the Steelers need another speedy receiver on the field rather than a second tight end. Ebron is the only potential 1st-round pick that should make Pittsburgh fans cringe.
2. S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 6-2, 208, Alabama/S Calvin Pryor, 5-11, 207, Louisville
These two players are not placed on this list due to their talents, but rather their position. The Steelers’ only lucrative free-agent signee this offseason was Mike Mitchell, a former Carolina Panther who was inked to a 5-year, $25 million deal to replace Ryan Clark at free safety.
Meanwhile, the contract of Troy Polamalu was extended for two years following the future hall of famer’s first fully healthy season since 2008. In other words, the Steelers’ starters at safety are set for at least a couple of years, so no prospects at that spot should be considered in the opening round. If the Steelers take a safety in any of the first four rounds this weekend ahead of so many other needs, then trading away their 3rd-rounder from this year’s draft to take Shamarko Thomas in the 4th round of the 2013 draft was clearly a mistake.
3. ILB C.J. Mosley, 6-2, 234, Alabama/ILB Ryan Shazier, 6-1, 237, Ohio State
Unlike safety, a quality rookie would have an excellent chance to start at inside linebacker next to stalwart Lawrence Timmons. After all, rookie 6th-round pick Vince Williams started 11 games last year and was serviceable after veteran Larry Foote was lost to a season-ending injury. Foote has since been released.
Either Mosley or Shazier would likely start from the opening game and provide an immediate upgrade. However, the Steelers need a bigger, run-stuffing mike linebacker next to the athletic Timmons, and neither of these prospects fit that description. In fact, Shazier is a much better fit to play weakside outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme than any spot in a Dick LeBeau-coached defense.
Mosley’s stock has fallen somewhat due to a history of injuries and because some recent Alabama defensive prospects failed to live up to NFL expectations after essentially participating on what has become an annual college all-star team comprised of former five-star recruits.
However, I do believe Mosley will be a solid pro if he can stay healthy and would excel next to Timmons. But the Steelers only need a one- or two-down inside linebacker to play next to Timmons. They also need to start using more dime and nickel alignments, taking the second inside linebacker off the field for obvious passing downs like they did more often last year after Foote went down.
But the addition of Mosley would mean that both inside linebackers are far better than any corner on the roster, which is a recipe for disaster in a conference featuring Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Please also remember that both projected Pittsburgh starting cornerbacks in 2014 (Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen) are slated to be unrestricted free agents after this fall.
4. OLB Anthony Barr, 6-5, 255, UCLA
Barr is widely considered among this draft’s top pass rushers and best 3-4 outside linebackers, which is one position group that is not particularly deep in this mostly otherwise loaded draft. However, his mock projections vary greatly. Many see bust potential, evident by Barr ranking as the No. 31 overall prospect by ESPN.
The Steelers need to draft an outside linebacker this week. However, their 2014 starters are set after Jason Worilds followed up his breakout season by quickly signing the Steelers’ transition-tag offer worth $9.754 million this fall.
It would appear unlikely that Worilds would sign a one-year deal with no signing bonus so fast without giving other teams a chance to make a better offer if Pittsburgh’s brass had not conveyed to him that he was in their long-term plans. However, it would be prudent for the Steelers to take a wait-and-see approach with the often-injured Worilds, who will enter the first season of his career as an undisputed starter and as Pittsburgh’s top pass rusher.
There are concerns about the pass-rushing potential of last year’s 1st-round pick, Jarvis Jones, after he recorded only one sack in eight starts and 14 games of action as a rookie. Jones, however, was solid in run support and defending the pass, making him a likely bet to start at right outside linebacker for at least the next few years.
With so many other immediate and 2015 needs, the Steelers cannot afford to draft Barr at No. 15 overall to be the team’s No. 3 outside linebacker for this fall and possibly years beyond, but that is exactly what the respected Neal Coolong did in his latest mock draft for Behind the Steel Curtain.
If there is one position where the Steelers have shown a propensity to bypass their draft needs and become enamored with a prospect it is outside linebacker, as shown by the illogical selections of Worilds in the 2nd and Thad Gibson in the 4th rounds of the 2010 draft even though the Steelers had two then-Pro Bowl starters (LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison) each under contract for four more years and no roster spot for Gibson.
It would be far more understandable if Pittsburgh selected a 2nd or 3rd round outside linebacker in this year’s draft, but Barr at No. 15 would be inexcusable considering he may not start for multiple years, as well as the Steelers’ huge needs at corner and receiver.
5. DE RaShede Hageman, 6-6, 310, Minnesota/NT Louis Nix, 6-6, 331, Notre Dame/DE Stephon Tuitt, 6-6, 304, Notre Dame
The Steelers’ need on the defensive line based on their current roster is greater than any other position. Outside of budding star Cameron Heyward, undersized nose tackle Steve McLendon and the recently-signed Cam Thomas, the rest of the defensive linemen on the Pittsburgh roster have a combined 22 career NFL regular-season snaps.
Any of the three prospects above would be excellent additions… at the Steelers’ No. 46 overall selection in round No. 2. All would be major reaches in the 1st round. Even though I offer criticism of Colbert’s BPA draft strategy, one positive is it means that he will not reach for any player in the 1st round, which is why none of these three will be seriously considered for that spot.
5 PROSPECTS STEELERS SHOULD DRAFT IN FIRST ROUND AT NO. 15 OVERALL
(and who realistically may be available at that spot)
1.CB Darqueze Dennard, 5-11, 199, Michigan State
The Steelers must get a No. 1 corner for 2015 out of this draft and that should probably be addressed in the 1st round based on the positional value for each team need throughout this draft. Dennard is a complete and physical player, who is rated as the top corner prospect in the draft by most services, including ESPN and CBS Sports.
2. CB Kyle Fuller, 6-0, 190, Virginia Tech
Ideally the Steelers could trade down 4-7 spots in the first round and select Fuller. However, they could lose Fuller through such a scenario, because his stock has been rising due to no weaknesses in his game. Still, it would be worth potentially losing Fuller to stockpile premium picks, especially if Pittsburgh picks up a 2nd-rounder like Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King just projected in a hypothetical trade-down with the Eagles in which the Steelers still netted Fuller at No. 22 overall.
“Kyle Fuller is one of my favorite players in the whole draft,” NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock told the Baltimore Sun. “What’s interesting about the corners is that most of the personnel guys have [Ohio State corner Bradley] Roby and Gilbert as their highest rated corners just because they have better movement skills.
“Most of the coaches like Fuller and Dennard because they’re better football players today. You know what you’re getting. Fuller is my No. 1 corner, first- round corner. He has it in his DNA. He can play on, off, he can play man or zone.”
3. WR Odell Beckham, Jr., 5-11, 198, LSU
Beckham has emerged as the clear No. 3 receiver prospect in this draft behind Clemson’s Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, both of whom will undoubtedly be selected in the top 10 overall.
He would be a nice pick for the Steelers, who clearly have a need at receiver. But there will be tremendous value at receiver still available for Pittsburgh in the 2nd round, as opposed to corner where the fall-off between 1st- and 2nd-round talent in this draft is more precipitous. If the overall depth of talent at those two spots were reversed, Beckham would sit atop my list right now, because he is a very good football player. However, he does not offer the size infusion needed in Pittsburgh’s receiving corps, where the current top three targets are all under 6-feet and 200 pounds.
4. OT Taylor Lewan, 6-7, 309, Michigan
Lewan is unlikely to still be on the board when the Steelers select at No. 15 overall. He may go as high as No. 5 to the Raiders. However, multiple draft prognosticators have him slotted to the Steelers or still available at No. 15.
Although he has off-the-field problems, Pittsburgh would have to consider Lewan at this spot if the front office and new offensive line coach Mike Munchak view him as potentially an above-average left tackle in the NFL. 6-foot-3 Kevin Beachum is better suited playing right tackle or guard. Neither fourth-year pro Marcus Gilbert or third-year bust Mike Adams appear capable of playing left tackle in the NFL, and both may be falling out of the Steelers’ long-term plans.
Notre Dame’s Zack Martin, who Kiper had going to the Steelers in a recent mock draft, has a higher probability of being a Pro-Bowl level player than Lewan. But that is because the 6-4 Martin projects best at guard or right tackle. Yes, he is athletic enough to play left tackle, but that would not be his best position.
The Steelers probably should not take an offensive lineman before Saturday. The only way they should consider doing so is if a quality left-tackle prospect is available. Lewan may fit that bill if he falls to No. 15 overall.
5. CB Justin Gilbert, 6-0, 202, Oklahoma State
Gilbert offers the best combination of size, athleticism (4.37 in the 40-yard dash) and play-making skills (seven interceptions in 2013) of any corner in this draft.
He has the potential to lock up the opponent’s best receiver in man-coverage regardless of that receiver’s size or speed. However, in between his standout sophomore and senior seasons, Gilbert had a subpar junior campaign, where he clearly lost confidence. That is not something you want to see in college from a potential 1st-round cornerback.
Moreover, Gilbert does not support the run or play zone coverage as well as Dennard or Fuller. In other words, he is not as good a fit for a classic Steelers corner. However, a player with his coverage skills and talent must be considered at No. 15 overall, or especially if Pittsburgh trades down a few spots in the opening round.