Friday, April 25, 2008

Here we go, Steelers, here we go ...

When the Steelers go on the clock tomorrow, they will have some tough choices. On Wednesday, we predicted the team will trade down to add draft picks, some of whom might be spent on players such as the ones we listed in one of yesterday's posts. That would be one way to go, and it could be a very good way to go.

Another way to go would be to pick the best player available. Ed Bouchette's latest mock draft predicts Jonathan Stewart, the talented running back from Oregon.

Here at Joey Porter's Pit Bulls, we could see a case for Stewart, but we believe running back is not the Steelers' most pressing need. On the other hand, you'd hate to pass on a rare talent like Stewart, if he's available. Yet again, however, we're more than a tad concerned about Stewart's injury history and current health status (he is still in a walking cast).

We're even more concerned about the defense: Age and lack of depth on the defensive line; the prospect of James Farrior becoming an unrestricted free agent after the 2008 season; and all kinds of issues in the secondary, particularly at the safety position, which we detailed in some depth in posts on Wednesday and Thursday.

For those reasons, we believe the Steelers should strongly consider selecting one of four defensive players, with North Carolina DE Kentwan Balmer and Miami safety Kenny Phillips at the top of our list. We've previously explained in some detail why Balmer or Phillips would make sense for the Steelers in the first round. It's a close call, even if Mel Kiper projects Phillips will drop all the way into the second round, and most Steelers' fans would say we don't need a safety.

It may be a moot point. Balmer may well go in the top 20. He should. And, notwithstanding what Kiper says, there's a decent chance that Phillips will be gone by the time the Steelers pick at 1.23.

The Washington Redskins, still reeling from the murder of All-Pro safety Sean Taylor last year, may select Phillips at 1.21. The Dallas Morning News reports that the Dallas Cowboys have Phillips on their radar at 1.22 but are more likely to go in another direction with that pick. Still, the Cowboys reportedly would love to see him still on the board when their second first-round pick comes along at 1.28, shortly before the New York Giants, their division rival and Super Bowl champion, go on the clock at 1.32. The Giants need a safety who can step in and play now.

By all accounts, Phillips will do just that.

The Dallas Morning News does an excellent job profiling numerous prospects, including Stewart and Phillips, and providing comments from their respective position coaches. Here is what Phillips' position coach, Miami secondary coach Wesley McGriff, had to say about Phillips:

"The first thing I noticed (upon arriving at Miami last spring) is he's the best safety I've ever coached. And the next thing was that he could be really special with some fundamental and technique work. He had the size, speed, attitude and intellect. With a little work, he could be something else. ...The similarities between Kenny and Brandon (Meriweather, another safety at Miami and a first-round pick by the Patriots in 2007) is that they're both playmakers and you look at both, they are natural safeties, and they're smart; I thought Meriweather was a little more athletic, but he was a little smaller than Kenny. With Kenny's size and speed, he's just as good a safety. What we did with him last year, he played both in the boundary and field in coverage. We'd put him in a spot where the offense would attack.

"He might have been our best player on defense, and he was certainly our best player on the back end, so we put him in position to affect the game. He had the intellect to do a lot of things. We moved him around and gave him the freedom to go to the boundary or the field, depending on where he thought the offense would attack us. He was that smart, he knew where to go, and could switch on the fly.

"He's a sure tackler in space, and could diagnose plays quickly to get to the ball. ... He was a tremendous leader. His demeanor, in the meeting room, here's a guy going into his third year, and he took notes like a true freshman looking to get on the field, and that made guys step up. And in practice, talented as he was, guys like him might cut corners, but he didn't. He didn't need reps, but he'd work just as hard on every practice snap as anyone, and he'd get upset when we'd take him out in practice. That showed the guys that everyone needed to work hard. He wasn't so vocal, that came by example. ... We wanted to match him up on the best inside receiver, and that was because he was our best cover safety. In our blitz packages, he'd match up one-on-one on the inside, just find that guy's jersey number. Against Florida State, he was on Preston (Parker). And we repped him at corner in practice.

"He could go in and play corner for you right now. He has great cover skills. He may not have that extra step in closing speed. But he plays fast, and he's aware of what's around him, and that makes up for that step. ... He's a sure tackler, a good open-field tackler. Now, he's not going to give you that thunderous hit. But when the ballcarrier gets there, he's going to be there to make the tackle. He took pride in that. I remember against Georgia Tech, I had him down for a missed tackle, and I had to go back and show him on tape where it was. He was that upset that I had to prove it to him. He had that desire. ... I think when makes he makes contact, he needs to drive his feet more, and play lower. As far as fundamentals and technique, he needs to be playing with a lower pad level. That could be the difference between him being good and great - Playing with more pad level and when he strikes, he needs to uncoil. He's a tackler, I'd like to see him as more of a hitter. ... He can flip his hips, and come out of his breaks, he has it to play corner. He's really agile. ... He should be a free safety.

"Whatever team drafts him will upgrade their roster immediately. He watches a ton of tape, has a passion for the game, you're not going to find too many mistakes. He'll study. He's ready out of the box to play. ... He's a great kid, one of those young men, when you get a phone call and something's wrong, you know it's not Kenny. He's a great guy, and he had no problems. He never missed class, never missed a study hall, never did anything wrong. ... I think Kenny took pride in being better than previous guys to come through here. He wouldn't say it publicly, but his motivation is to match or be better than the safeties that have been here. He didn't want to let that legacy down."

That assessment jibes with just about every other perspective on Phillips that we've read.

Jonathan Stewart sounds intriguing, too, despite his injury history, as does Kentwan Balmer. So, too, does Antoine Cason, the nifty cornerback from the University of Arizona, and Chris Williams the impressive tackle from Vanderbilt (although we are convinced the Steelers plan to address the offensive line later, rather than sooner, in the draft).

Any of them would be excellent choices. We just think either Phillips or Balmer would be the best choices.

More details, here, from the Dallas Morning News.