Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Stirring From Our Long Winter Somnambulance ...

When the NFL Draft has come around each April the past few years, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls made the case for the Steelers trading down, out of the first round altogether.

Not this year, although perhaps there’s no better time to do so than when you’re coming off a Super Bowl Win.

This year, however, is not the year to trade down. This year, thankfully, the Steelers can sit right where they are, at Pick No. 32, and make a (hopefully) safe pick of a (presumably) quality player who will contribute this year and step in as a valid starter in 2010 and beyond. That’s because this year’s draft is widely considered to be thin at the top of the first round but deep at the bottom, especially at positions of particular interest to the Steelers (offensive line, defensive line, cornerback and wide receiver).

Names that have been bandied about include tackles Eben Britton (Arizona) and William Beatty (Connecticut); centers Doug Mack (California), Eric Wood (Louisville) and Max Unger (Oregon); receivers Hakeem Nicks (North Carolina) and Kenny Britt (Rutgers); defensive ends Jarron Gilbert (San Jose State), Tyson Jackson (LSU) and Evander Hood (Missouri); and corners Sean Smith (Utah), Vontae Davis (Illinois), Louis Delmas (Western Michigan), Alphonso Smith (Wake Forest) and Darius Butler (Connecticut). Some of these players will be off the board before the Steelers’ turn. Some will be better pros than others. One or two may even last until the Steelers pick at the end of the second round.

We've got a feeling the Steelers are eyeballing the cornerback position, but that there will be intense debate invovling several of the names listed above.

In any case, if the Steelers trade down at all this year, they are more likely to do so in later rounds. One potential trading partner would be Jerry Jones, the notoriously itchy-fingered trigger man for the Dallas Cowboys, who dealt away this year’s first-round pick to the Detroit Lions last year, in-season, for wide receiver Roy Williams.

In fact, the Cowboys have only one pick all day Saturday – the 51st overall – but Jones does hold other cards, notably two fourth-round picks and three fifth-round picks.

Pheh, as Myron Cope would say. Still, if the Steelers want to add depth in a draft deep at several positions of need, they may consider dealing with that old traveling carnival-snake-oil- wheeler-dealer-oilfield-gambler Jones, later in the draft.

Or not.

Personally, we’d like to see the Steelers bat their long lashes at Jones and then declaim, abashedly, “Why, Mr. Jones, I do declare, you are so forward!” and walk away. Let him stew.

Anyway, as for whom the Steelers actually may pick in the first round, eh, it’s tough to say – simply because it’s tough to predict who will go in the first 31 picks. Although the Super Bowl-winning offensive line remains nearly intact, it needs help, and depth, and future re-tooling. Same goes for the more polished and productive, but aging, defensive line.

Holes opened this offseason at cornerback and wide receiver, with the departures of free agents Bryant McFadden and Nate Washington, both of whom were valuable contributors and who will become starters for the estimable Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans, respectively. DeShea Townsend at corner isn’t getting any younger, nor is Hines Ward at receiver. Both entered the league together 12 years ago and have been with the Steelers ever since. It’s time to add some (talented) depth to those positions. You can never have too many corners or receivers (good ones, that is).

In any case, we’re optimistic the Steelers will select a good player at good value for Pick No. 32. Let’s hope the Steelers draft at the very end of the first round every year.

For what it’s worth, we felt the much the same uncertainty last year, when first assessing the 2008 draft a full three-and-a-half weeks ahead of the actual event. In fact, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls were tempted to take the easy way out this week and simply use last year’s initial assessment once again this year, with some minor modifications:

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 25-26. 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 31 picks will shake out, and the Steelers go on the clock at pick number 23 32. 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 1.32 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.

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 ... 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.

In the end, not knowing whether Ryan Clark would return in good health and good form (which he did, with impact, just ask Baltimore running back ) we “chose” the University of Miami’s Kenny Phillips, a safety, whom the New York Giants selected with – you guessed it -- Pick No. 32 at the end of the first round. Nice symmetry, eh?