The day the Steelers hired Chuck Noll in 1969, a philosophy change took place in their organization that they have followed the past 39 years.
They build, rebuild and replenish primarily through the draft. Even when free agency took hold in 1993, that belief did not waver. It has modified out of necessity because of free agency and the reduction to seven rounds of the draft. But other than signing a veteran free agent or two each year and the occasional trade, the Steelers stock their roster through the draft and signing rookie free agents when it's over.
The opportunity to do so Saturday and Sunday, however, won't be as strong for them as in the past. They have only six draft choices, one in each of the first six rounds. They traded their seventh-round choice for Allen Rossum, a player they released this year, and they received no extra compensatory picks from the NFL.
Unless they make a trade, they will have two picks on Saturday, starting with the 23rd in the first round, and four more on Sunday.
And while they have no major holes to try to fill in their starting lineup, they have needs everywhere. Kevin Colbert, their director of football operations, sees that six pack as a way to help his team.
- What: Annual NFL player draft. Seven rounds ??? two on Saturday and five on Sunday.
- When: 3 p.m. Saturday, then resumes at 10 a.m. Sunday.
- Where: Radio City Music Hall, New York.
- TV: ESPN & NFL Network.
- No. 1 pick: Miami.
- Steelers: Select 23rd in the first round, then have one pick in every succeeding round except the seventh. They traded their seventh round pick to Atlanta last year for Allen Rossum.
"I think it can help it greatly," Colbert said. "There's no question. If we have six picks at our disposal, there's certainly six picks in this draft that definitely can help our team at all levels. I wish we did have more picks, but we'll make the best use of those six."
Their needs outnumber their draft picks.
The Steelers have an obvious job to fix their offensive line. That line was neither strong nor consistent last season, then it lost one of the best linemen in team history, seven-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca. Their top move in the offseason was to sign Justin Hartwig, released by Carolina, to help them at center.
Chris Kemoeatu is the assumed replacement for Faneca. It appears Max Starks, who carries their $7 million transition tag, will return and compete with Willie Colon at right tackle. If Colon does not keep his seat, it's possible he will get a chance to compete with Kemoeatu as well.
The starting defensive line remains strong, but it's getting older and there's little depth at end. If they did not know already, the Steelers discovered just how valuable Aaron Smith is to them when a torn biceps ended his season four games early, a period that included the playoff loss to Jacksonville.
"We need to strengthen ourselves in our lines, of course," coach Mike Tomlin said, listing a priority shortly after last season ended. "I talked about offensive and defensive lines ... you always need big strong men in the interior on the rise. We're older in those positions. We are. That will be our intentions, along with all areas, of course. But, in terms of having the personality that we want to have, there is no secret that we want to run the football and run it big time. We want to smash the run, so it starts inside and up front."
Many of the mock drafts have an offensive or defensive lineman going to the Steelers in the first round, for obvious reasons.
But it does not mean that's what they will do. Colbert called this draft the deepest for offensive tackles he has seen in 25 years. Also, a bunch of wide receivers and defensive backs have come through the Steelers' facility the past several weeks as they take closer looks at some of the college prospects.
Ben Roethlisberger's wish for a tall wide receiver aside, they need another at the position. Cedrick Wilson's release means they have just three experienced wide receivers. Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are a good tandem; Nate Washington needs to turn his promise into consistency. After that, there's not much there.
Their secondary could use a boost. They worry about free safety because Ryan Clark lost his spleen, and Anthony Smith has yet to show he can play the position adequately. Their corners are solid, if not spectacular, but, if they found another, they might consider ultimately moving Deshea Townsend to free safety.
There's also a glaring need for a banger at running back behind Willie Parker. When the Steelers needed the tough yards last season, oftentimes they weren't able to get them, and leads and games were lost because of it. Someone to take some of the carries off Parker and do it off tackle would be a welcome sight at Heinz Field against the toughest schedule in the NFL.
Because the group of running backs in this draft is so deep, they likely can get a good one in the third or fourth round. It's unlikely they will get a good offensive or defensive lineman there. It's imperative they get their linemen high and then go for a back, a wide receiver and a defensive back later in the draft.
There's also the matter of quarterback. It would seem the Steelers do not need a quarterback. They certainly don't need a starter. The question becomes, how long will Charlie Batch be No. 2? He's 33 and has not had to take a beating in a while, so perhaps he can play another five years. On the other hand, is it time to groom someone to become No. 2 down the road?
If the Steelers had a seventh-round draft pick, that might be a logical move. They've shown an affinity for Penn State's Anthony Morelli, who could be drafted in the sixth round.
And don't forget outside linebacker. Even though the Steelers used their first two draft picks last season on Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, they still have little depth at the position. They said Timmons was an outside linebacker when they drafted him, but he'll compete on the inside this year. Woodley will become their starter on the left side, but, with the departure of Clark Haggans, team MVP James Harrison is the only outside linebacker with much experience.
Colbert has stated the Steelers could draft a player at any position in the first round except quarterback and tight end. It's easy to see why.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com.
First published on April 20, 2008 at 12:00 am