By John Harris
Sunday, January 27, 2008
MOBILE, Ala. -- The average age of the Steelers' roster entering next season is 27.1. The average age for 20 of the 22 starters from the 2007 season opener (not including veteran free agents Alan Faneca and Clark Haggans, neither of whom are expected to return) is 27.85.
For the Steelers to continue to move forward, coach Mike Tomlin believes their average age must go backward.
Scouting college players last week at the Senior Bowl, Tomlin said the Steelers -- who next season will feature eight returning starters 30 and older -- need a more balanced blend of veterans and younger players at key positions.
"Ideally, when you've got a healthy football team it's always a mix of guys that are been-there, done-that guys and guys that are emerging," Tomlin said. "I think we've got the makings of that and we've got to continue to add to that, of course."
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Tomlin said the Steelers will concentrate on getting younger on the offensive and defensive lines. The best way to accomplish that is through the draft.
"There's some interesting young guys, not only here (at the Senior Bowl) but in this draft class," Tomlin said. "But you know for me, as coaches, we're all playing catch-up at this point. Scouts have been out and they know quite a bit about the guys. This is just a first opportunity for us to put some names and faces together and watch these guys compete. It's been a good week. I'm excited about what's out there."
The offensive line prospects for this year's draft are particularly strong at tackle. There were four excellent tackle prospects at the Senior Bowl -- USC's Sam Baker, Vanderbilt's Chris Williams, Boston College's Gosder Cherilus and Ohio State's Kirk Barton.
The Steelers' average age by position (does not include free agents):
Position Avg. age
Defensive line 28.8
Defensive back 27.7
Wide receiver 27.0
Tight end 26.6
Offensive line 26.1
Running back 25.0
Baker and Williams are projected first-round picks. Pitt's Jeffrey Otah, another potential first-rounder, did not attend the Senior Bowl.
Based on what Tomlin said about the need to get younger, taking defensive linemen early in the draft should be among the Steelers' biggest priorities because all three of their starters will be 30 and older next season. Aaron Smith turns 32 in April. Brett Keisel will turn 30 and Casey Hampton 31 in September. Backup nose tackle Chris Hoke will be 32, and backup end Travis Kirschke will be 34.
"That's the nature of ball. I'll always say that," Tomlin said. "You always have to continue to pump fresh new blood in. We intend to do that."
USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, a top-five pick who was the most talented player at the Senior Bowl, will be gone when the Steelers' number is called with the No. 23 pick. But even if the Steelers pass on taking a defensive lineman with their top pick, there are talented players who will be available in later rounds. A few who impressed at the Senior Bowl include Arkansas' Marcus Harrison, Maryland's Dre Moore and USC's Lawrence Jackson.
The Senior Bowl was the final opportunity for teams to observe some of the top college players eligible for the draft compete against each other head-to-head. Next month's NFL Combine in Indianapolis will focus on players' 40-yard times, agility drills and how many times they can bench-press 225 pounds.
"The combine is further along in the process, so you know more about them going into the combine than you do at this point," Tomlin said. "This is really your first exposure to a lot of them, so it is important. By the time you get to the combine, you've watched the tape, you've seen them play, you've watched six, seven or eight games on guys you have hot-listed and it's about sitting down getting to know them and how they conduct themselves, how they go through the interview process.
"Really, this is just something to whet your appetite and get you started."