The Larry Foote signing put a close to the Steelers’ free agency season. Of course, Kevin Colbert said he’ll keep his eyes open, but told reporters that “the focus is going to shift more heavily toward the draft.”
We can do that. The Foote signing was a final piece of the pre-draft puzzle as we get around to posting odds on the Steelers’ first-round pick.
From the longshots to the favorite, here’s what my instincts are telling me:
18-1 – Jared Odrick, DE, Penn State: I watched this guy all year and was captivated by his height, quickness and relentless motor. No, he was not a two-gapper, but I strongly doubt that Aaron Smith was a two-gapper during his days at Northern Colorado. He was taught, and so can Odrick. But the rest of the draft analysts don’t seem to share my enthusiasm on Odrick anyway. And even if Mike Tomlin shows up at Penn State’s Pro Day and shouts out encouragement as he did to Quentin Groves a few years ago, I don’t see a two-man position receiving a second consecutive No. 1 pick, particularly since the Steelers also kept last year’s sixth-round pick, Sunny Harris, and hold him in high regard at the position.
15-1 – Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida: This is another guy about whom I raved all season, but that was when I thought he was a second-rounder. His stock has risen, and I’m not really sure why. He didn’t have a first-round game against Alabama, and at 304 pounds ran a 5.27 40 at the combine. He’s quick to the second level, but rarely pulled at Florida. A very good player, Pouncey can also play guard, but I only see the Steelers considering him as a member of a pool of late first-rounders in a trade-down. I prefer they wait on Baylor’s J.D. Walton in R2-3 if they’re finally going to put a high priority on the center position.
12-1 – Rolando McClain, ILB, Alabama: What? You say I may as well throw long odds on Eric Berry and C.J. Spiller, too, since the Steelers won’t have a chance to draft them either? Well, I believe there’s a good chance McClain will fall to the Steelers – and that they will pass. Yes, it’s a surprise, particularly since I’ve tooted this guy’s horn all season long. But I’ve also always questioned his motor. It was something I tried to repress because I admire his leadership, intelligence and run-stuffing ability so much. I think I just wanted him to be the perfect replacement for James Farrior. But I’ve been hearing whispers about him lacking speed. At his Pro Day he ran well, and told scouts that he’d been bothered by a hamstring injury since mid-season. So I went back and watched the national title game, and his lack of speed is clear. Texas ran five outside plays that should’ve involved McClain – or any inside linebacker worthy of pick 18. He got to one, only because the flow took him that way and he broke quickly to break up the screen pass. But he was hopelessly outrun on two outside running plays and two bubble screens. It’s a wonder Texas didn’t run outside more often because they were hugely successful. If it was the hamstring, well, that’ll be tough to prove. Throw in his admission of having Crohn’s disease and I see McClain slipping. I also watched Brandon Spikes the other night and would prefer drafting him in the second round to McClain in the first.
8-1 – Joe Haden, CB, Florida: In watching Spikes, it wasn’t difficult to miss Haden as he broke sharply on short passes and came up hard in run support. He’s a viciously physical cornerback, something the Steelers require. But, is he fast enough? That question arose up after the 193-pounder ran a 4.58 40 at the combine. In taking a closer look at his bowl game, Cincinnati’s receivers twice beat Haden deep. The first time he was fooled on a gadget play and recovered in the nick of time to break up the underthrown pass. On the second, he was clearly beaten but the deep ball was overthrown and incomplete. Certainly it’s a small sampling, but the question remains in my mind, particularly in a draft that’s thick with upper mid-round cornerbacks. While Haden plays a position at which the Steelers have a clear need, and he plays it with Steelers-style toughness, the odds are high because someone may draft him earlier. And if he’s not drafted earlier, it’s possible the Steelers are worrying about his speed as well. (P.S.: The Steelers drafted my 8-1 choice last year.)
5-1 – Sean Weatherspoon, ILB, Missouri: This guy dropped on the tote board when the Steelers signed Larry Foote the other day. I’d given several reasons why Weatherspoon makes sense for the Steelers, and there’s a good chance he’ll be available at pick 18. But with two solid backups now behind Farrior and Lawrence Timmons, and two just-signed special-teams stars from the CFL behind Foote and Keyaron Fox, it would make little sense to squeeze Weatherspoon onto the roster for future consideration. So, why have him rated so high at 5-1? Well, I can just hear Mike Tomlin telling reporters on draft day that Weatherspoon will start his career as an OLB – a position with a hole on the second-team depth chart – because that’s where he played in college. Yes, Weatherspoon, like Timmons before him, was a 4-3 OLB, but he prefers the middle and that’s where 4-3 OLBs play on 3-4 NFL teams. This thinking would be swallowed whole by the media, as it was when the Steelers tried to tell us that Timmons was an outside linebacker on draft day 2007.
4-1 – Mike Iupati, OG, Idaho: At the combine, new OL coach Sean Kugler told Iupati he was the Steelers’ No. 1 offensive lineman. And Iupati fits a position of need. He’s a 6-5+, 331-pounder who can not only run better than any other Steelers lineman, he has the frame to add 20 more pounds. He’s a monster and would help the Steelers with their short-yardage game. But Iupati’s shown to be a liability in pass protection. His supporters claim these problems can be fixed, that he’s played too little football and probably hasn’t received much coaching yet. Still, in my mind, a guard at pick 18 should be a sure thing, as Steve Hutchinson was at pick 17 in 2001. But the upside here is too big to ignore, and it’s quite likely he’ll be available when the Steelers take their turn.
3-1 – Earl Thomas, FS, Texas: Here’s a guy I was willing to ignore because of A.) the depth of the position in the draft, B.) his poor showing against the Alabama run game, and, C.) the fact the Steelers signed two safeties in free agency and already have Troy Polamalu at the position. Then I learned yesterday that the Steelers had scheduled Thomas for a visit on April 8-9. When I searched his numbers for my story, I read an intelligent write-up in which the analyst compared Thomas to Polamalu. Not that I take such media remarks seriously, but when I turned the tape on to re-watch Thomas in the national championship game, the comparison rang true. Sure, Thomas was run over a couple of times by the Alabama RBs. But as I watched him closely, I saw the quick-twitch Polamalu speed as Thomas came up hard to upend Alabama backs on a handful of occasions with shoulder-first dives at their feet. I also watched Thomas stop three breakaway Alabama plays down the sideline with a burst of speed from the middle of the field. I also watched Alabama – seemingly on purpose – avoid throwing at all to anyone covered by Thomas. The three or four deep Alabama passes were all thrown with the other Texas safety over the top. Nick Saban was not about to let Thomas beat him, because, as a redshirt sophomore, Thomas had intercepted a school-record eight passes, 10 in his two-year career. In the title game, he was used as a chess piece in the Polamalu mold: He blitzed, covered slot receivers, played deep center field, played in the box, and on special teams he was used as a jammer and later came off the edge and almost blocked a punt. He’ll play this coming season as a 21-year-old and is nearly the exact size (5-10.2, 208) as Polamalu (5-10.1, 206) when Polamalu came out. Polamalu ran a 4.40 40 at his combine and dipped into the 4.3s at his Pro Day. Thomas ran a 4.48 at the combine and will likely run faster at his Pro Day (March 31). Thomas might also be able to play cornerback, and could in the least replace Deshea Townsend as the Steelers’ nickel back and third safety.
However, with Thomas’s stock on the rise, and the prototype having been established by Polamalu (no safety shorter than 5-11 had been drafted in the first round for 19 years before Polamalu), it’s unlikely that Thomas will be available at pick 18. The Jacksonville Jaguars, at 10, are becoming the choice landing spot on mock drafts for Thomas, after the safety-deficient Jags addressed their other main weakness by signing pass-rusher Aaron Kampman in free agency.
But, there’s the possibility of trading up, something Kevin Colbert has done twice. The first time in team history was in 2003, when the Steelers held their breath as the San Diego Chargers, picking 15th with a hole at SS after losing Rodney Harrison, traded down 15 spots to draft a CB named Sammy Davis. The Steelers then moved up 11 spots to draft Polamalu with the 16th pick. It cost them third-round and sixth-round picks, which was less than half of the points required, according to the draft pick value board. If the Steelers can procure a similar deal this year, or even pay a smaller price if the Jaguars pass on Thomas at 10, it’s the move I expect them to make.