By Jeremy Hritz
It’s never too early to talk about the NFL Draft, and it’ never to early to speculate about the direction that the Pittsburgh Steelers will go in the first round. While the needs on the offensive line are well known, there are some other positions that need to be considered with the 24th overall pick.
The pundits have wasted no time in showcasing their 2012 Mock Drafts on espn.com and nfl.com. In looking at those projections, the following seven players have surfaced:
Upon examining this list, and when considering the 2011 Steelers season and the challenges presented by the salary cap, certain players will not hear their name called by Roger Goodell when the Steelers make their first round pick.
Based on the potential that Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown demonstrated this year, plus the consistent and solid play of Ike Taylor (sans the Denver debacle), it does not seem likely that the Steelers will go after a cornerback, at least not in the first round, so we can forecast that neither Chase Minnifield form Virginia or Janoris Jenkins from North Alabama will be selected.
While safety will be a need in one or two more years, selecting one in this year’s draft would be done solely to begin the grooming process for whenever Ryan Clark or Troy Polamalu either step down or regress to a point where there skills are not longer effective. Drafting safety Mark Barron from Alabama is a possibility in the first round, but not a highly likely one as safety is not an immediate need. Safety is an area the Steelers will probably address after the third round.
There is no question that the greatest need for the Steelers this year is on the offensive line. The questions is, will the offensive lineman that are available when they make their first round selection have the potential to step in immediately and contribute? While it is extremely early, Mel Kiper has Cordy Glenn ranked as the # 2 guard prospect in the draft, while Kelechi Osemeli is ranked as the # 5 best tackle. Both of these players could be available when the Steelers pick at number 24, and could possibly even fall into the second round.
The name that is being linked the most to the Steelers in the first round is nose tackle Dontari Poe from Memphis. Kiper has projected the massive 6’5, 345 pound beast as the Steelers’ pick, being that he is a perfect fit in the middle of a 3-4 defense. Fletcher Cox is being projected as a 4-3 defensive tackle or a 3-4 defensive end. Unless the Steelers are not convinced by Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood, they will most likely not draft Cox unless they believe that he can play nose tackle, which he is not ideally suited to do at a light 295 pounds.
Considering the recent ACL injury, surgery, age, and salary cap number of Casey Hampton, the best move forward, if the Steelers’ organization believes that Poe could step in immediately and play, would be to draft him in the first round. This would insert an enormous body in the middle to free up Lawrence Timmons and whoever lines up beside him next year to stop the run. This would also be the final puzzle piece in completing what would be a young defensive line that could develop together over the next ten plus years. The other benefit of this move would be that it would make Hampton expendable and free up some cap space, which the Steelers are in desperate need of. And based on the success that the Steelers had in last year’s draft by picking Marcus Gilbert in the second round, the Steelers could again address the offensive line there, and again in the third round if believed to be necessary.
Poe could be wearing the black and gold next year, unless he is taken before the Steelers make their pick. If he does make an early exit, then the pick will be an offensive lineman, possibly Glenn or Osemeli. As we move closer to the beginning of free agency on Tuesday, March 13th, and closer to the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday, April 26, the direction that the Steelers will go with their first pick will become clearer. Steeler Nation can’t wait.