The NFL draft is in three weeks and Ryan Wilson still isn't certain which prospect best fits the Steelers need with the 15th overall pick. After a two-week "vacation," and some time to reflect on what Pittsburgh really needs, Wilson whittles his list to four -- or five -- players. So, about those Steelers and the impending draft... I'll be honest, with less than a month to go before the biggest weekend of the off-season, I still don't have a strong sense of who Pittsburgh should target in the first round. Some of that has to do with having the 15th pick -- smack dab in the middle of the round, there are plenty of options -- but a lot of it has to do with the team's needs.
In looking forward to the draft, and trying to project the teams' most pressing needs, it makes sense to look back at the 2006 season. Here's my list of what went wrong:
Ben Roethlisberger almost died last summer. That, coupled with a preseason appendectomy kinda sidetracked his 2006 season. Unless Tomlin plans to really mix things up by drafting a quarterback, Big Ben should be around for a while.
Coach Cowher retired. I didn't believe it when rumors were floated last off-season, but in retrospect, 2006 was going to be Cowher's last year in Pittsburgh, one way or the other. Amazingly, he wasn't fired minutes after the home loss to the Bengals -- when he forced Ricardo Colclough to return punts and lose the game -- but he resigned days after the season ended. By hiring Tomlin -- and because team's can't draft coaches -- this issue has been addressed.
The secondary struggled. Ike Taylor's off year and injuries to Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Colclough were mostly responsible, but there is no reason to think that (a) Taylor won't improve in '07, and (b) Polamalu, Clark and Colclough won't be completely healthy by training camp. I wouldn't be averse to the Steelers drafting a cornerback in Round 1, but it's not a MAJOR need. If anything, they would be drafting for depth; maybe a nickel or dime back.
Kendall Simmons' inconsistency. It's hard to argue that Simmons didn't have a tough year. Since being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes in 2005, he's never been the player he was early in his career. Pittsburgh could move Simmons to center and fill the right guard spot with the team's only free-agent acquisition, Sean Mahan.
If we're thinking long term -- and what fan does that? -- left guard Alan Faneca's contract expires in 2007 and Pittsburgh might consider drafting his replacement. That's understandable, but at 31, Faneca will still be young enough to dominate for another four or five seasons.
Max Starks was more inconsistent than his line mate, Simmons. First, it wasn't certain if the Steelers would tender Starks as a first-rounder (I actually advocated a third-round tender in the hopes another team would make him an offer, and suggested Willie Colon, Trai Essex and a potential draft pick could duke it out for the job), and then there were rumors that Arizona and Pittsburgh would swap first-round picks -- and Starks -- in the days leading up to the draft. The rumor turned out to be untrue, and now it looks like Starks will be the team's starting right tackle next season (or at least in the mix for the job). I've been an early off-season supporter of drafting an offensive tackle -- maybe somebody like Penn State's Levi Brown -- and either plugging him into the right tackle spot, or moving Marvel Smith back to his original position, and letting Jones play left tackle. I'm still of this opinion, although at this rate, Pittsburgh could have more offensive lineman on the roster than wide receivers and defensive backs combined. At some point, the team has to get some production out of the guys currently littering the depth chart.
The outside linebackers didn't have impact seasons. I don't necessarily agree with this contention -- a lot of what fans and media write on the internets is often based more speculation than fact. My favorite example is from the Steelers-Seahawks Super Bowl. Some people will tell you Walter Jones owned Joey Porter all day long in their one-on-one matchup. Truth is, LeBeau had Porter regularly dropping into coverage.
Did Porter and Clark Haggans have better numbers in previous years? Sure. But number of sacks isn't THE measure of a 3-4 outside linebacker. Porter is underrated in coverage -- and I'm guessing we'll find that out early next season -- and his ability to do more than get to the quarterback was, in part, why Pittsburgh's defense had been so successful in recent seasons. Still, the linebackers -- both inside and out -- are some of the oldest starters and this arguably is their biggest first-round need.
What does this mean for April 28, when the Steelers go on the clock, sometime around 4 PM EST? Most everybody agrees -- well, most everybody who reads this site -- that new head coach Mike Tomlin is sticking with the 3-4 for now, but like recent Dick LeBeau-led defenses, could showcase 4-3 fronts at various times during a game. So, basically, taking a linebacker -- middle or outside -- appears to be the obvious choice. Jon Beason, Lawrence Timmons, Paul Posluszny, and hell, maybe even Patrick Willis (he could slide to 15th -- Roethlisberger lasted until 11th, remember) could all realistically hear their names called. I'm not a scout -- and frankly, I don't know enough about any of these players to make an informed decision (that's why we have Wex) -- but Timmons showing up at his Pro Day looking kinda flabby doesn't give me a whole lot of confidence in his work ethic. I know some folks are down on Posluszny -- Mike Mayock thinks he's better as an weakside linebacker in a Cover-2 scheme -- but Jack Ham loves him and that's worth something, I guess. My point, though, is this: You won't hear a peep from me if the club takes a linebacker. It's not an immediate need -- at least in terms of starters -- but it will be an issue in the very near future.
And the same goes for offensive tackle. Yes, I cited the increasing number of fat bodies now listed as offensive lineman on this team, but if Levi Brown is truly a big-time left tackle prospect, like shutdown cornerbacks, you can never have enough. I've written before that Pittsburgh's run blocking has masked some of the pass-blocking woes, but if the club can fix the problem -- even if it means releasing Essex, Kemoeatu (or whomever) -- then where do I sign up?
And I'd probably be okay with a cornerback too. In my mind, as Steelers depth-chart organizer, I have Taylor and Bryant McFadden penciled in as starters, Deshea Townsend at nickel back and Colclough at dime back. If Leon Hall or Darrelle Revis were taken, it just means LeBeau could devise even more dastardly schemes than we're used to seeing. A big reason the zone blitz is so effective is because the secondary is able to maintain coverage down the field.
You know what? In recounting why the Steelers suffered through an eight-win campaign in '06, I have failed to touch on a draft-eligible player who, four or five weeks ago, was my front runner for the 15th pick: Adam Carriker. The problem with Carriker isn't so much him -- it's that the club currently has Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel. But wait! As Jim Wexell explained last month, Keisel will get some reps at outside linebacker, and Carriker could be the bookend that compliments Aaron Smith nicely. It would also mitigate the need for a first-round outside linebacker, although if both Carriker and Willis are available at 1.15, I wouldn't know what to do (odds are, both will be gone).
Okay, so what do we know more than two months after the regular season has ended, and less than four weeks before Commissioner Roger Goodell takes to the podium in New York City? For one, Pittsburgh doesn't have any one glaring need. Most of last season's ills can be attributed to bad luck and sometimes poor coaching (and explained away with some arm-waving, too). Even though the defensive line is set -- at least among the starters -- I'm still intrigued by Carriker and Keisel playing together on the right side. So count me in as a "Carriker at 15" proponent. And as long as I'm making up slogans, might as well add this one to the list: "Daniel Sepulveda in the 4th" … but you already knew that.
By Ryan Wilson
Posted Apr 7, 2007