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How James Harrison’s Release Affects the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Strategy in the 2013 NFL Draft

Move over, running back and wide receiver. Make room for outside linebacker on the list of Pittsburgh Steelers’ urgent draft needs.

With the release of James Harrison, and the questionable depth behind him, the Steelers need to use a high draft pick on an outside linebacker who can get to the quarterback. If they don’t and LaMarr Woodley doesn’t shape up, opposing quarterbacks will have time to complete a sudoku puzzle before releasing the ball.

Here’s the problem. The Steelers also will have gaping holes at running back and wide receiver because they expect to lose Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace as free agents.

In recent years, the Steelers have been able to get away with not drafting for their specific needs.

They needed an offensive lineman in 2008 after not re-signing Alan Faneca. Instead, they were smitten with Mendenhall when he unexpectedly dropped to No. 23. Despite not addressing the offensive line until the fourth round, they won the Super Bowl the following year.

The Steelers drafted Ziggy Hood in the first round of the 2009 draft and Cameron Heyward in the first round in 2011 because they were starting to age on the defensive line. They didn’t need either of them to contribute right away.

In 2010, the Steelers took Maurkice Pouncey in the first round because they weren’t totally enamored with Justin Hartwig at center. Pouncey won the starting job in training camp, sooner than anyone expected. Even if Pouncey wasn’t ready to start right away, at least the Steelers would have had a center with a Super Bowl ring.

This year, the Steelers need depth at safety and inside linebacker, and if they don’t re-sign Larry Foote they’ll need more than depth at inside linebacker. They also need a backup quarterback who’s not old enough to have grandkids and maybe a tight end to compete with David Paulson until Heath Miller recovers from his knee injury.

But all those draft needs can wait. The Steelers aren’t drafting for the future. They’re drafting for now. Outside linebacker, running back and wide receiver all need immediate attention.

So which leak do they fix first?

That decision isn’t as difficult as it sounds. The Steelers should shape their strategy based on the strengths and weaknesses of the 2013 draft class.

NFL Draft Scout ranks just two running backs – Alabama’s Eddie Lacy at No. 33 and North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard at No. 61 – in the top 75. NFL Draft Scout’s rankings might not necessarily match the Steelers’ draft board, but they strongly suggest that it’s not worth it for the Steelers to use the No. 17 pick on a running back.

The Steelers can use history as a guide when it comes to wide receiver. Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders all were third-round picks. Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick. They’ve done well drafting receivers in later rounds.

That leaves outside linebacker as the position the Steelers should focus on in the first round. The question then becomes who and where.

They can pretty much forget about Oregon’s Dion Jordan. He’ll be gone by the time the Steelers pick.

LSU’s Barkevious Mingo and Brigham Young’s Ezekial Ansah might still be on the board, but neither is a can’t-miss prospect. Mingo’s production lagged in 2012. He’s a defensive end who will be asked to move to outside linebacker even though he’s never played the position. Ansah didn’t even begin playing football until 2010. It would be risky for the Steelers to use their highest draft pick since 2007 on either of those players.

I had Georgia’s Jarvis Jones going to the Steelers at No. 17 in my Steeler Addicts mock draft last month. Jones led the nation last season with 14.5 sacks. However, Jones comes with a medical red flag. He transferred from USC after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spine.

Then on Sunday, according to National Football Post, Jones received a much better medical report.

The Steelers probably will want to conduct their own tests. If they’re not satisfied, that could leave them with no pass rusher they’d be comfortable taking at No. 17.

That’s where trading down enters the discussion.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should think about trading out of the 17th spot and picking up extra picks in the later rounds.

Say the Steelers traded with the Atlanta Falcons, who have the No. 30 pick in the first round. In addition to swapping first-round picks, they also could get the Falcons’ second-round pick (No. 60) and their fifth-round pick (No. 156), according to Draft Tek’s trade value chart.

If enough teams pass on Jones because of medical concerns, the Steelers would be better off taking him with a later pick in the first round, because the additional picks would give them more margin for error. Not that the Steelers and Falcons are necessarily on the phone talking trade, but using that scenario as an example, the Steelers would have three picks in the first two rounds and seven picks in the first five rounds.

Whether the Steelers stay put at No. 17 or trade down to stockpile picks, their draft strategy shifted dramatically when James Harrison was called into the office on Saturday.

Outside linebacker has become their most pressing need.

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1 comment

  1. charles maftin

    No turnovers and no sacks means that OLB was our most pressing need before James left and he was our best pressure. I wish that Woodley was the cap space that we saved.

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