|Gorilla at Erie Zoo|
Many prognosticators point to linebacker as a possibility, but we'd be a bit surprised if the Steelers draft a linebacker in the first round this year. They certainly need one or two new impact linebackers, and it's entirely possible they will really need somebody to step in for James Harrison, who may be released as a salary cap casualty, although the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette claims the coaching staff wants him back.
Although Jason Worilds made some progress last season, we’re not convinced he's the real deal. As a second-round draft pick entering his fourth season, this will be his make-or-break year. Chris Carter hasn't shown much, and Stephenson Sylvester remains a question mark. We have slightly higher hopes for him than Carter, who looks like he's never adjusted to playing linebacker in the 3-4 defense (instead of the passing-rushing defensive end role he played in college).
Keep in mind, though, the Steelers gave Harrison and predecessors like Jason Gildon a few years, more or less, on the sidelines and special teams before they stepped in. The Steelers apparently intend to have Worilds move in as the starter to succeed Harrrison.
Many people say it might make sense for the Steelers to flip-flop Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, and it might make sense, but knowing the Steelers, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls don't think that's going to happen.
Frankly, it’s a fair question to wonder whether we can count on Woodley to play 8-10 games a year, ever. He seems to have chronic hamstring problems. Still, Woodley just looks like an inside linebacker, and Timmons looks like he should be covering the big, fast tight ends coming off the line these days. Maybe that's the role the Steelers see for Sylvester. Still, they need somebody to rush the passer, and that's an enormous need, so Woodley stays on the outside.
Also of concern: Larry Foote isn't getting any younger. He's always been a bedrock in the linebacker corps, steady, but never great. He’s never been a devastating thumper; never particularly disruptive; and his play slipped noticeably in the second half of last season. The Steelers apparently envision Sean Spence taking over for Foote after 2013, but Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls can’t help but wonder if Spence is too small -– and nobody has seen him in a regular-season game.
Free Agency or a Later Draft Pick?
It would be interesting if the Steelers were to sign Baltimore's Dannell Ellerbe out of free agency, but that's going to happen. Joe Flacco's contract situation really complicates things for the Ravens, but we expect Baltimore will let pass-rushing linebacker Paul Kruger walk and try to keep Ellerbe to maintain continuity at inside linebacker in the wake of Ray Lewis's departure. At this point, Baltimore can't afford to sign Kruger (13.5 sacks), and neither can Pittsburgh.
In the draft, we believe the Steelers will add to the linebacking corps after the first round by drafting, say, Jon Major of Colorado. For some reason this guy hasn't been mentioned as anything but a mid-round selection, but his productivity was off the charts for a bad Buffaloes team, and his instincts appear to be superb. Jon Major to the Steelers in the second round? Too high? Maybe; maybe not. We haven't seen him much, but he reminds us a bit of Sean Lee.
By our calculations, the Steelers will not pick a linebacker a LB in the first round. We’ve already discussed in previous editions of this series why we don't see the Steelers drafting an offensive lineman (too much money tied up in the four high draft choices on the line already) and running back (not enough value for a first-rounder).
Where does that leave us? Wide receiver? Not gonna happen. The Steelers believe they can get one in later rounds, like they did with Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. If, however, Oregon State receiver Markus Wheaton lasts until the Steelers' pick in the second round, grab him.
Wheaton sounds every bit as good, if not better, than the more highly touted wide receivers like Keenan Allen (Cal) and the handful of others mentioned in the top tier of receivers. He looks like he is slotted to go in the second round, but probably before the Steelers' pick at No. 17 in Round 2.
|Big Daddy Lipscomb, 1961|
Defensive Line or Secondary?
By our calculations, then, that leaves two broad positional areas where the Steelers are most likely to invest their first-round selection: DL and the secondary. On the DL, they already have two first rounders in defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward.
To digress for a second, the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette makes an interesting suggestion, which is to switch defensive end Ziggy Hood and nose tackle Steve McClendon, and that sounds like a good idea. We also don't think it's going to happen.
With two of the last four No. 1 draft picks having gone to the defensive line, it‘s a long shot for the Steelers to draft for the DL in the first round this year. Again, too much payroll tied up in one positional category, and it’s too soon to let go of either Hood or Heyward.
|Hall of Famer Jack Butler|
Safety or Corner?
That brings us to the secondary: Safety or cornerback? The Steelers will be counting on Troy Polamalu to return to form, and Ryan Clark was probably their defensive MVP last year. Safety is a near-future need. Texas's Sonny Vaccaro is a guy who some people project to the Steelers at No. 17. Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls don't buy it.
That brings us back to cornerback, where the Steelers have a gaping hole with the departure of Keenan Lewis. Ike Taylor (just like Brett Keisel and Larry Foote) isn't getting any younger, and Curtis Brown has been a big disappointment, although he probably will get one more season to prove he belongs (much like Lewis got last year).
We believe the Steelers would rather keep Cortez Allen at the slot-corner, but it's entirely possible they intend for him to start in place of Lewis. That still leaves them extremely thin at corner. If either Taylor or Allen go down with an injury, then we're left with the likes of Josh Victorian and Curtis Brown starting, and everybody saw how that worked out for the Steelers vs. San Diego and Dallas.
|Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau|
So, all of that brings us squarely back to one of the first three players who caught our attention when we first started looking closely at possible draft picks after the season: CB Xavier Rhodes, Florida State.
There might be one other corner worthy of No. 17 on the board at that point, but that's the guy we’d think the Steelers might give a very, very close look at the Combine.
You can never have too many corners, and good ones are always at a premium. With passing games the way they are these days, the best corners will go off the board early on April 24.
It’s early, but it’s later than you think.