Almost every draft expert and Pittsburgh media member projected the Steelers to draft one of the top three cornerbacks or receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. with their 1st-round pick of the 2014 NFL draft on Thursday.
After all it was clear that corner and receiver were the Steelers’ two biggest needs in this draft due to the lack of quality players signed at both spots beyond 2014 and just how important playmakers on the perimeter have become in today’s NFL.
Although three of the four players projected most often to the Steelers were selected before No. 15 (Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert, Beckham, Virginia Tech CB Kyle Fuller), the draft seemed to still fall in Pittsburgh’s favor when Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard – seemingly a perfect for the Steelers’ scheme and the top-rated corner prospect in the draft per most services – was still available.
But once again, Kevin Colbert showed that he does not take into account his team’s most urgent needs by taking the best player available on his board with the 15th overall pick, who the Steelers had as Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Let’s be clear, though: The Colbert BPA philosophy is not only flawed and failed; it’s a farce. The only times Colbert has not addressed clear draft needs or bypassed significant needs to take the BPA in the first three rounds of an NFL draft is always for a linebacker. In other words, the Steelers either draft for need in the first three rounds or take a linebacker ahead of greater needs at other positions.
Moreover, it is no coincidence that the quality of Colbert’s drafts have generally fallen since Mike Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher as head coach. Tomlin – who only coached in 4-3, cover-two, Tampa-style defenses before coming to Pittsburgh –regularly falls in love with players who are not natural fits for legendary coordinator Dick Lebeau’s 3-4 defensive scheme, much like Shazier. Essentially, he seems to be looking for the next Derrick Brooks or Warren Sapp, even though neither of these Hall of Famers would have fit LeBeau’s scheme.
Not surprisingly, Tomlin and Colbert defended a pick that was not well-received by much of the Steelers nation. Tomlin emphatically stated that the Steelers did indeed draft Shazier to fill a need at inside linebacker, with Colbert more pragmatically stating they would not bypass better players for positional needs.
As I noted in my pre-draft analysis, Shazier or Alabama’s C.J. Mosley would have a better chance to immediately start and excel at inside linebacker than any player the Steelers could have taken at cornerback, receiver or on the defensive line, all of which, however, were nonetheless bigger team needs in this draft for reasons I laid out in another piece.
Accordingly, the Shazier selection at No. 15 overall was immediately dubbed “a luxury pick” by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr. A Pittsburgh franchise that has suspect talent and poor depth on its overall roster, and has not posted a winning season in the past two years despite having a franchise quarterback in his prime could not afford “a luxury pick” at No. 15. Instead, this was simply another suspect and unsound Colbert selection for four major reasons:
1. Value of 3-4 Inside Linebackers Versus Cornerbacks in 2014
The Steelers already have one high-priced, former 1st-round pick at inside linebacker in Lawrence Timmons. They did not need another for what has become among the least important positions in today’s NFL. Most teams that run a 3-4 defense leave one inside linebacker on the the field when they utilize a dime-defense (six defensive backs) to counter the prevalence of 3-, 4-, and even 5-receiver sets employed by opposing offenses.
In contrast, cornerbacks and pass rushers now rate right behind quarterbacks and left tackles as the most important players in the modern-era NFL. In Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seattle defense shut down Peyton Manning and Denver’s record-setting offense in a 43-8 rout, because the Seahawks had the size, athleticism and depth needed at corner to match-up with Denver’s talented receiving corps.
In contrast, the Steelers top three cornerbacks in 2014 will be 35-year-old Ike Taylor, who Pro Football Focus ranked as the 97th-best cornerback among the 110 in the NFL who saw regular action in 2013, often-injured and inconsistent fourth-year player Cortez Allen and career journeyman William Gay.
That trio ranks among the worst in the NFL. Even more concerning, Taylor is in the final year of his contract and likely career, while Allen is also an unrestricted free agent after 2014.
The choice between drafting a No. 1 corner versus a No. 2 inside linebacker should not even be a choice; and if it is, your organization needs other, more-practical and intelligent people making draft decisions.
2. Shazier Not a Good Scheme Fit
Shazier’s scouting report is a near-mirror of the reports on Timmons before he was drafted or that could be written now. Both players are a bit small for modern-era inside linebackers and are below-average (not among 1st-round picks, but all ILB draft prospects) in their ability to shed blockers, while directly confronting north-south running plays.
Both players, though, are outstanding sideline-to-sideline tacklers, who seemingly best fit as weakside outside linebackers in a 4-3 defense. Neither is a good fit as a mike linebacker (more of a thumper and run-stuffer) in a 3-4 defense.
In other words, Timmons’ and Shazier’s talents are so similar that they do no mesh well. Both must be protected by a big, physical and effective 3-4 defensive line, none of which describes the Steelers’ below-average and thin defensive front that ranked 21st in the NFL against the run last year and is far worse on paper right now than in 2013 since Brett Kiesel, Al Woods and Ziggy Hood have been replaced by only the addition of San Diego castoff Cam Thomas.
3. 2014 Steelers Defense Will Now Rarely Go Dime
I give Steelers Depot credit for producing more content over the entire year than any other site. I visit and enjoy articles from that site daily. It provides great info. However, let’s be clear that Steelers Depot is a propagandist, homer site featuring writers (PR specialists?) who rarely (if ever) criticize the front office or coaches. Hence, check out this uninformed piece stating that the Shazier selection is in-line with NFL teams using more defensive sub-packages in the modern game.
Yes, most teams are employing more sub-packages. The Steleers will not be among them in 2014 after the Shazier selection. Shazier and Timmons should both be three-down players. It would be imprudent to take either player off the field on passing downs, since (A) playing in space is their greatest strengths and (B) sadly, both probably cover the pass better than the Steelers’ pathetic cornerback corps.
Thus, Pittsburgh will employ two primary defensive looks in 2014. A base 3-4-4, and then a nickel, where corner Gay subs in for a defensive lineman. The Steelers will now infrequently employ a dime defense (where a defensive lineman and linebacker both leave the field for two defensive backs), which devalues both Pittsburgh strong safeties.
4. Adding Shazier Makes Polamalu More of a Traditional S and Shamarko Thomas A Questionable Colbert Draft Pick/Trade
In 2013, Troy Polamalu had his first fully healthy season since 2008. Although his athleticism has slipped through age, Polamalu forced five fumbles last fall and was at his best while essentially playing rover (a combo linebacker/safety) in the Steelers’ dime alignment.
But with Shazier now likely to be an every-down player, along with the other three starting linebackers, Polamalu will likely play a more traditional role as a zone safety in the sub-packages and base defense, which is where he is an average NFL player, because those schemes prevent him from freelancing or playing on instincts.
Shazier rightly moves the marginally-talented Vince Williams and Terence Garvin into reserve roles at inside linebacker. However, his addition also makes Shamarko Thomas predominately a backup strong safety behind Polamalu, even though Thomas showed steady improvement after becoming the third safety in Pittsburgh’s dime alignment last year.
Colbert traded away a 3rd-round pick in this year’s draft to move up to take Thomas in the 4th round of the 2013 draft even though everyone knew the 2014 draft would be much deeper. Now, it is too early to declare that deal a mistake and Thomas does provided needed depth behind Polamalu, who has a history of injuries.
But barring an injury to Polamalu and/or the rare occasions when Pittsburgh employs a dime alignment in 2014, Thomas will now be relegated to mop-up duty and special teams, because it is clear that the Steelers’ coaches view him as exclusively a strong safety, who cannot effectively play free safety, where Mike Mitchell and Will Allen will get all the snaps.
For all these reasons, Shazier was the wrong pick at No. 15 overall when Dennard was still available. I have no doubt that Shazier will start in 2014 and should provide an instant upgrade at inside linebacker.
But it is far more important to have a good cornerback than potentially a very good second insider linebacker in today’s game; and the Steelers will now rely on their cornerback trio from 2013, none of whom should engender confidence for a return to the playoffs. If the Steelers do not return to the playoffs in 2014 while Roethlisberger is in his prime, then several front-office figures need to be replaced before 2015.