Tuesday, April 01, 2008

It's Getting Drafty In Here

No clue. During our long winter somnambulance, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls like others across Steeler Nation have given plenty of thought to the NFL Draft, April 26-27. And we still don't have a clue.

The top of the draft appears muddled, with no clear choice for a consensus No. 1 overall pick. This uncertainty produces a ripple effect, of course, on how the next 22 picks will shake out, and the Steelers go on the clock at pick number 23. We usually have a clearer sense of this, by the way, even allowing for the wildly varying quality of most mock drafts and prognostications.*

Most of this year's mock drafts predict the Steelers will pick an offensive lineman in the first round. Sounds eminently reasonable, and a couple of months ago, we would have said two of the first three picks should be offensive linemen.

Maybe. But, uh, maybe not.

A closer look at the offensive linemen likely to be available at 1.23 raises more questions than answers. The very best tackles (Jake Long, Michigan; Ryan Clady, Boise State; Chris Williams, Vanderbilt; Jeff Otah (?), Pitt) will be gone, and questions remain about the others (Sam Baker, USC; Gosder Cherilus, Boston College; Eric Young, Tennessee).

Best Available?

If you take the Steelers at their word, they will pick the best player available regardless of position (except for quarterback and tight end).

But still … the offensive line was putrid last year and should have been addressed either in last year's draft or during the off-season in free agency. We can't say with any confidence that Justin Hartwig or Darnell Stapleton (or Kendall Simmons or Woody Allen for that matter) will be an upgrade at center over the overmatched Sean Mahan, who got thrown around, consistently, like a rag doll last year.

At guard, longtime stalwart Alan Faneca is gone, so the left guard position is certain to be a downgrade, no matter who mans the position. Left tackle Marvel Smith has shown signs of wear and tear, and at right tackle, well, that's a question mark at best (Max Starks, we mean you).

With Faneca's departure, most mock drafts predict the Steelers will select University of Virginia guard Branden Albert. Sounds good, if he's there, but Albert's stock appears to be rising, and he may very well be gone. I f he's there, take 'im.

If not, however, who else might be available? Besides offensive line, what other positions do the Steelers need to fill, and who might be available? This is so hard to read, this year, partly because the Steelers have problems, they are many, and they are great (to paraphrase Chuck Noll's famous statement about running back Sidney "The Bull" Thornton).

Again, if you take the Steelers at their word, they need to shore up all positions except quarterback and tight end. Presumably running back would be a lower priority, although you would like to see a solid fullback added to the roster. West Virginia's Owen Schmitt would look good in black and gold, assuming you could get him, say, when the Steelers pick in the third round (not likely, from what we're reading).

On defense, the defensive line is showing age, and inside linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote aren't getting younger, either.

Nor can you ever have too many corners (good ones, that is). Might cornerback Antoine Cason from the University of Arizona be a possibility in the first round? There are other corners being discussed as first-round material include … but we like what we've read about Cason.

On the other hand ...

Joey Porter's Pit Bulls would love to see Oklahoma wide receiver Malcolm Kelly fall to the Steelers in the first round. It ain't gonna happen. Two months ago, according to most draft projections, it seemed possible. Today, not at all. He'll be a top 15 pick.

So, having said all that, we have no clue. Especially, if Albert's gone or, for that matter, Chris Williams (OT) or Malcolm Kelly (WR).

If those three are gone, we wouldn't mind Antoine Cason, frankly, but we're leery of Cherilus and Baker at that point in the first round. A defensive lineman? Ehh, maybe, but probably not this year, not in the first round.

Later in the Draft

Players who might be available (rounds 2-4), and who might be a good fit for the Steelers, are:

  • Owen Schmitt, FB, West Virginia– Can you say, "Short-yardage specialist?" This guy was never tackled behind the line of scrimmage and, supposedly, was a tough blocker for WVU's rampant running game.
  • Cliff Avril, LB/DE (3-4), Purdue – Avril continues the tradition of highly accomplished pass rushers coming out of Purdue. Too small to play defensive end in the NFL, he would convert to OLB in the Steelers' scheme.
  • Andre Caldwell, WR, Florida – This guy is often compared to Hines Ward, only faster, so that immediately gets your attention. Traditionally, we've been leery of receivers coming out of the University of Florida, but Caldwell doesn't fit the typical profile.
  • Steve Justice, C, Wake Forest – Justice is billed as a skilled technician, but undersized, which might not be good considering the defensive match-ups in the AFC North. Still, the Steelers have a long history of success at center, and it certainly needs upgrading.
  • Also, Kirk Barton, offensive tackle, Ohio State, whose performance at The Combine prompted this report from CBS Sportsline :

“Senior offensive tackle Kirk Barton also had a strong day. Characterized as a tough guy with marginal athleticism throughout his career, Barton raised eyebrows with a 4.95 40. The sub-five-second 40 was the first scouts have seen from Barton, as the four-year starter was limited at the combine due to a knee sprain suffered at the Senior Bowl.

“The fastest time recorded by any offensive lineman in Indianapolis was the 4.99 by Rutgers' Jeremy Zuttah. Barton, while not running the 40 at the combine, showed impressive strength there, ranking among this year's strongest men with 34 repetitions of 225 pounds.”

*Footnote: Last year, pre-draft, planning ahead for the departure of Clark Haggans (and given the paucity of first-round-quality offensive linemen), we suggested the Steelers take a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the first round.

They did, just not the player we would have taken. The Steelers selected Lawrence Timmons; we preferred Purdue's Anthony Spencer, who went to Dallas at pick number 26.

The jury is still out on both Timmons and Spencer, but we are delighted the Steelers actually did take Lamarr Woodley, whom we had urged them to grab in the unlikely event he were still available in the second round. He was, and they did.

As for last year's first round – sorry, we just can't let it go – the vigorous case we made for drafting Florida safety Reggie Nelson looks better and better today (considering how little Timmons contributed).

Last April, of course, nobody could have foreseen Ryan Clark's health issues or Anthony Smith's late-season meltdown, so admittedly this is all 20/20 hindsight. But, still, who contributed more to their respective teams last year, and who would you rather have: Timmons or Nelson? Nelson is starting at safety, by the way, for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who (as we all know) defeated the Steelers twice last year, including in the playoffs.

For all we know, Clark will return, and Smith will continue his development, but still … we thought Timmons was a reach at number 15, and we still believe that.