Sunday, February 10, 2013

The First Time I Met Charlie Sheen, Part III -- How the Steelers' 2013 Draft Might Just Shake Out

Gorilla at Erie Zoo
Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls would be inclined to jump on the opportunity to grab a good offensive lineman with the Steelers’ first-round pick (No. 17 overall) in the first round, and especially a fierce left tackle like Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson.

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.

Can We Count on Lamarr Woodley to Play 10 Games?
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.

The First Time I Met Charlie Sheen, Part II -- Mel Kiper's Projection for the Steelers Feels Off-Target

It's early -- we haven't even gotten to the Combine yet --- but the NFL Draft is approaching fast. Mel Kiper has two interesting names on either side of the Steelers No. 1 pick at No. 17 overall. 

We’ll get to Kiper’s current projection for the Steelers, but he has two players, OT Lane Johnson (Okla) going at No. 16 to St. Louis, and G Chance Warmack (Alabama) going No. 18 to Dallas, bracketed around the Steelers' pick at No. 17.

We suspect both players will be gone before the Steelers’ choice, but it's encouraging to think that Kiper, at least, projects those two guys may be right in the neighborhood of the Steelers' choice. Either Johnson or Warmack would look good in Black 'n Gold.

As for the Steelers, Kiper has Pittsburgh taking the unbelievably athletic but raw pass-rushing DE/OLB Ezekial Ansah (BYU), who has been compared to Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants.

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls don't see the Steelers taking Ansah, so Kiper's projection here feels off-target. The excellent blog Steeler Depot has an interesting take on Ansah going to the Steelers, which you can read here.

Kiper also has Notre Dame linebacker Mante Te'o going in the tip 10, but we don't see that happening either. What if Te'o drops to No. 17? We’d would pass on him thank you.  Too much drama. It would be interesting, however, if he drops to No. 32. Baltimore's going to need somebody to step in for Ray Lewis, and wouldn't that be an interesting scenario? Talk pressure on a kid who's already proven to be, uh, shall we say, a bit of a "head case"?

It’s Time to Draft a QB, and Here's the Guy

Mel Kiper was asked which QB might be flying under the radar -- this year's Russell Wilson. It's an interesting question.

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls immediately thought of Geno Smith (WVU), but Smith isn't exactly flying under the radar, as he is projected to go in the first round.  Wilson, of course, is far more accomplished and polished, but Smith’s game superficially resembles Wilson’s.  

Kiper answered the question, however, by naming Duke QB Sean Renfree (6'3', 225). The way Kiper talked about him, he sounds like a solid backup at the very least (kind of like Kirk Cousins) with starter potential and lots of upside. In Renfree's case, lots of upside. 

No expertise here, but Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls remember seeing Renfree play a little this past season, and he caught our attention. We made a mental note then, along the lines of, why haven't we heard about this guy?  

Well, for one thing, he played at Duke, where football has long been an inglorious afterthought. Still, Renfree looks like a quarterback. Honestly, it was the same kind of gut feeling we had 14-15 years ago when we saw Tom Brady playing at Michigan. Same damn thing, seriously, not that we’re comparing Renfree to Brady, no way.  

One thing, though, Renfree can actually run, maybe not quite like Colin Kaepernick, but he can run (a 4.5 40, same as Kaepernick). The main thing, to our untrained eyes: Renfree has the poise you want in a quarterback. Oh, and he completed 67 percent of his passes last year. 

Athletic? Look at Renfree's Rivals profile when he came out of high school.  Even then, Renfree was athletic (36-inch vertical leap, 4.5 40, 400-lb vertical squat as a senior in high school). Smart? He's seems intelligent (3.9 GPA in high school and whatever exposure to education he may have gotten at Duke).  

Football-smart is what we're more interested in, and Renfree had four years under one coach at Duke, and that coach was David Cutcliffe, the New York Giants' former QB coach who made a name for himself working with Eli Manning.

What's the Catch?
The BIG hang-up about Renfree at this point is that he suffered a torn right pectoral muscle while attempting the last pass of his final game, the Belk Bowl vs. Cincinnati, where he completed 37 of 49 passes for 358 yards. Renfee is expected to make a full recovery, but he will be unable to participate in the Combine and might not even be ready to work out until May.  

In a weak quarterback class, Kiper projects Renfree going in the fourth-fifth-sixth round. If that's the case, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls would love for the Steelers to take him in the third round (same round as Joe Montana)

Seriously. Take Renfree higher than he's projected to go. Look how the 49ers traded up to get Kaepernick near the top of the second round in 2011. Most projections had him going in the late third round, where Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls vainly hoped he might be available for the Steelers in the third round.

This year, leave nothing to chance. Take Renfree in the third round and be done with it.

Maybe Not Such a Long Shot
It's about time the Steeler draft a quarterback they can legitimately develop as a viable backup to Ben Roethlisberger.  Quit fooling around.  Renfree’s not going to play for the Steelers this year anyway, unless both Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch (?) go down with injuries. If that’s the case, how much more useless could Renfree (or anybody else) be than Byron Leftwich has been the past couple years?  And who knows?  … you just might catch lightning in a bottle.

According to the Charlotte Observer, here is what Renfree's college coach, David Cutcliffe, had to say about him:
When Cutcliffe met with the media, he said Renfree’s work ethic matched that of his most famous protégés, Peyton and Eli Manning. 
“Everyone is aware of Peyton and Eli’s work ethic and how hard and well they prepare. Same guy,” Cutcliffe said of Renfree. “He has the same skills, knowledge, mental aspects of the game, same preparation. Every player on our team saw how hard he worked in the weight room, how hard he worked in the meeting rooms. He may be one of the most unsung football players in the ACC. He’s not a lot of flash. Just look at the yards he threw for, look at what he’s done in his career as a quarterback at Duke, moving this program forward. 
“Anybody in the National Football League or collegiately that does not want Sean Renfree in their locker room would be out of their mind.”
YinzBurgh BBQ for Everyone!
Congrats to our favorite take-out barbeque joint, YinzBurgh BBQ, on its one-year anniversary!  Read more here about the best joint in town.

The First Time I Met Charlie Sheen: Steelers' OL Candidates Chace Warmack & Lane Johnson

American Gothic, by Grant Wood
Despite what we wrote in our prior post, the Steelers still need to fortify the offensive line, always, seemingly, a question mark in flux.  After finishing each of the past three seasons on injured reserve, veteran guard Willie Colon’s time in Pittsburgh in almost certainly done, and it’s about time.  Max Starks is a free agent (again), but the Steelers may bring him back (again).

The Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette projects the Steelers opening the 2013 season with the following starters on the offensive line: Marcus Gilbert (LT), Kelvin Beachum (LG), Maurkice Pouncey (center), David DeCastro (RG), Mike Adams (RT).

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls may be wrong here, but we have little faith in tackle Marcus Gilbert. He has a lot to prove (durability, toughness, technique). He may or may not have earned a starting job, but it would be prudent, one would think, for the Steelers to have another legitimate option for the crucial left tackle position, and we would have no problem having Max Starks back.

OL Candidates for the First Round
In the first round of April’s NFL Draft, the following players may be available and would be worth strong consideration:

Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson will almost certainly go in the first round, touted at this point in the 15-20 range, right where the Steelers pick at No. 17. He'd be ideal at LT for new OL coach Jack Bicknell Jr's. zone-blocking scheme. Johnson would step right in at left tackle and start from Day 1 -- he's known for good feet, mobility, and ability to stonewall speed both power- and speed-pass rushers.

Alabama's Chance Warmack (6’2”, 322) will probably be the first guard taken, but he may still be around at No. 17.  In draft-speak, Warmack is a classic road-grader, and he absolutely demolished Notre Dame linebacker Mante Te’o in January’s collegiate BCC championship game.

YinzBurgh BBQ for Everyone!
Congrats to our favorite take-out barbeque joint, YinzBurgh BBQ, on its one-year anniversary!  Read more here about the best joint in town.

Why the Steelers Won’t Draft an Offensive Lineman in the First Round This Year

The Steelers have invested heavily in the offensive line over the past few years. Having so much money tied up in one positional area presents salary-cap implications for what can be done with the rest of the roster.

With two Number One draft picks (Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro) and two Number Two draft picks (Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams), the Steelers will probably pass on an offensive lineman in the first round this year.

Revisiting the 2012 Draft: David DeCastro vs. Kevin Zeitler and Mike Adams vs. Kelechi Osemele

Looking back, the eminently reasonable consensus at the time of the 2012 NFL Draft was the Steelers had no choice but to select guard David DeCastro (Stanford) when he fell to them at pick No. 24 of the first round. He was an ideal choice at a position of dire need. DeCastro was widely considered the best guard in the draft, a no-brainer at No. 24, and possibly the next Alan Faneca

A perfect choice.

Or was he?  Because of his pre-season knee injury, we never got to see the real David DeCastro last year. We never got to see the player everybody expected would be the next Alan Faneca.

The Cincinnati Bengals -- the Bungles, for crying out loud -- were criticized loudly for trading down in the first round and thereby passing on their chance to select DeCastro.  Typical Bengals, people said. 

Instead of jumping on DeCastro, the Bengals selected Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, whom they claimed at the time was the player they'd targeted all along and was the guard they preferred over DeCastro.

Along with everybody else, we still have high hopes for DeCastro. He showed enough at Stanford -- plenty enough -- to merit being picked at No. 24.

People would have howled if the Steelers had selected Zeitler over DeCastro.

Still, however, it’s fair to point out that two nagging, related, little, niggling question marks hovered at the time of the draft (at least for Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls).  Those questions were: (1) the level of in-the-trenches-play in the Big 12 (DeCastro) vs. the Big 10 (Zeitler); and (2) the historical pedigree of offensive linemen coming out of Stanford (so-so) vs. those coming out of Wisconsin (strong).   

It remains to be seen how the respective careers of DeCastro and Zeitler will play out.  DeCastro almost certainly returned to the field too soon last year. He looked pretty good at times. He also looked very shaky at times. No doubt he got pushed around in late season games vs. San Diego and Cincinnati, among others.

One thing is sure. Zeitler had the better rookie season.  Not only did he start all 16 games for the Bengals, he showed polish, power and technique early in the season and got better as the season progressed. 

Here's a Pro Football Reference write-up from early November 2012:

While many criticized the Bengals for passing on a chance to draft David DeCastro in the first round, instead trading back, gaining an extra pick and taking Zeitler, whom they had coveted the whole time. Zeitler is a mauler in the typical Wisconsin mold, but his pass blocking prowess has been a pleasant surprise.

Against the Steelers (Week 7, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2012), Casey Hampton sometimes shaded to Zeitler’s inside eye. Zeitler was able to blow Hampton off the ball with little or no help from Faine, including a block that was almost singlehandedly responsible for a 4th-and-2 conversion.

It would not be unreasonable to expect Zeitler to become a perennial Pro Bowler with his weekly development as a blocker. He is extremely polished for his experience level and packs a monster punch upon engagement. His footwork is outstanding. Many young linemen rely on their brute strength, being used to playing inferior college competition. But Zeitler anchors well and keeps his weight centered.

Outside of A.J. Green, Zeitler is becoming one of Cincinnati’s best draft picks in recent memory.

Revisiting the 2012 Second Round Choice
Let's be clear: Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls really don't have a problem with the Steelers selecting DeCastro over Zeitler.  

Unlike almost everybody else, however, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls weren't crazy about the Steelers selecting tackle Mike Adams (Ohio State) over tackle Kelechi Osemele (Iowa State, 2nd round to Baltimore).

Mike Adams
Adams may turn out to be a great player -– we’re not writing him off –- but Osemele had caught our attention before the 2012 draft, and we wanted the Steelers to nab, somewhere.  Osemele went maybe a little higher than he was projected by most observers.  That didn't deter Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome from selecting Osemele at No. 60 overall, four picks after Mike Adams.

Adams shows promise, and he was named the Steelers' rookie of the year. He started six  games, appeared in 10, and his run blocking was particularly strong.  His pass-blocking remains a question mark, though, and he clearly struggled with speed-rushers in pass protection for the team’s $102 million quarterback.

There is no question, however, who had the better rookie season, and that was Osemele.
Kelechi Osemele
Osemele started all 16 regular-season games at tackle for the Ravens.  Because of a late-season injury to starting guard Jah Reid, the Ravens moved Osemele to guard and inserted Bryant McKinney at left tackle for the wild-card playoff  game vs. Indianapolis. This move, with the corresponding move of Michael Oher to right tackle, solidified the offensive line for Baltimore during their playoff run and, of course, the Super Bowl.  At the very least, Osemele proved he has positional flexibility and is a solid NFL starter with plenty of upside.

Arguably, the difference between the relative productivity DeCastro/Adams vs. Zeitler/Osemele is that the latter two stayed healthy all year.  DeCastro/Adams combined for nine starts, and Zeitler/Osemele combined for 32 starts in the regular season, plus four playoff starts and, for Osemele, a start in the Super Bowl.  Both played at a high level and improved as the season progressed.

We can hope for similar results from DeCastro and Adams in 2013.  

At the very least, however, it appears the Steelers picked the wrong Samoan (Alameda Ta'amu instead of Kelechi Osemele).

Why Not a Tight End in the First Round?

Stanford TE Zach Ertz, going high.
Watching the success of the Baltimore Ravens' tandem of Dennis Pitta and Ed Hickson at tight end makes Joey Porters Pit Bulls wonder if it wouldn't make sense for the Steelers -- even with all their other needs -- to consider drafting Stanford tight end Zach Ertz (6'6", 252) with the team's No. 1 choice at No. 17 overall, especially considering the multiple serious knee injuries veteran tight end Heath Miller suffered at the end of the season.

Miller is one of the best tight ends in the NFL and teammates him as the Steelers' team MVP in 2012.

Like NFL tight ends Jimmy Graham of New Orleans and Antonio Gates of San Diego, both of whom are top-notch,Ertz played basketball in college. Unlike those two, however, Ertz actually played NCAA Division I football, and at such a high level of performance that he is considered one of the top two tight ends in this year's draft Not just a pass-catching receiver, Ertz is also reputed to be a strong blocker, a complete tight end, much like Pittsburgh's Heath Miller.

Nobody knows what Miller's recovery time will be, or if he will be the same player (a great one) when he returns. We'll learn more about Ertz and other draft prospects at the NFL Combine later this month.

This is not to write off Miler.  It's just to suggest that the it would nice, prudent and sensible for the Steelers to have a legitimate duo-threat at tight, like the Ravens (Pitta and Hickson), the 49ers (Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker) and the Patriots (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez).