By Christopher DiMarino
Can you feel the excitement growing in Steeler Nation? With just over 3 weeks remaining before the draft (April 26th), every fan is on the edge of their seats. There seems to be a blitzkrieg of draft profiles and mocks popping up all over the web and I am enjoying all of them. The draft is unlike anything else in football because of the magnitude of differing opinions both on prospects and likely team decisions. I’ve been especially impressed when reading the comment wires on how many Steelers fans have legitimate opinions and can back them up.
The first round pick is always the most public and debated. As a contrast, the Steelers are successful partially because of the players they take in rounds 2-5. The major reason the first round is so widely discussed in my opinion is the lack of variability. You have a much better idea who will be available at 1.24 then you do at 2.24. So you could do months worth of work on the Steelers 3rd round pick and he could be snatched mid second round. This focus on the first round is justified as that player is typically the only guy who will have a chance to start in the coming season. With the holes the Steelers have, we could see 2-3 eventual starters taken on draft day.
The consensus seems to remain that the Steelers will choose between OL and NT at 24. If neither target has a player that’s Steeler material than the popular alternative is Dont\'a Hightower. Jeremy Hirtz did a great piece on him and I have no doubt that he would be a huge value to Dick Lebeau’s juggernaut of a defense. Over run stopping and “thumping” (everyone likes a thumper), I value him for his leadership, intelligence experience in an elite defense. So the big question becomes, can a 2 down linebacker be the play caller/leader for a defense? You would typically like the caller to be a guy who’s in on every rep, so Hightower’s skills may go unseen until he can prove himself a 3 down backer.
So to get to the bulk of this article, the next decision for the Steelers would be a wild card. Many believe that the Steelers will take the Best Player Available (BPA). This could range from Stephon Gilmore to Stephen Hill or from Mark Barron to Coby Fleener. Unless the choices are severely limited, there will be 4-10 such players in positions of lesser need that the Steelers will have to choose from (assuming no trades). I say 4-10 because I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as 1 or 2 players fighting for the BPA. Of these, certain players will be ranked 5-10 positions higher or lower than others. As a skilled player, all of them have enough allure to become important to a team.
So I want to clarify this BPA situation still has some wiggle room and can be broken down further. While OL and NT are the primary areas of need, ILB, S/CB and TE/WR are secondary areas of need. The Steelers love edge rushers, but may have to wait until next year to draft James Harrison’s replacement, assuming Jason Worilds isn’t the answer. I would rule out CB and WR from this secondary list, as later round depth is needed more than elite talent.
For those reasons, I believe that the next likely scenario is that the Steelers will chose between Fleener and Barron. It’s no secret that I am a Barron fan; I’ve been very vocal about him even though few others even correlate him with the Steelers at 24. I think Ryan Clark is great, but only a serviceable compliment to Troy Polamalu. A dynamic tool that could be used in conjunction with Troy would cause nightmares for opposing play/signal callers. With a season that saw this great defense hitting lows for turnovers, specifically interceptions, it may be time to add a ball hawk.
You may also guess that I like Fleener based on all the Tight End articles that I’ve written. Heath Miller is a beast, but has been rendered a role player thanks to his great blocking. Adding a receiving option like Fleener will take some of the pressure off Miller and bring the Steeler offense into the new generation of pass offenses. These hybrid tight ends are a huge asset for an offense, especially the new(ish) one that Todd Haley will be scheming up. I also think that Fleener’s receiving ability will be a compliment to Miller as he will see much less attention and is still a great receiver and zone defense killer. This will also relieve the pressure that the Steelers are facing at wide receiver. As the young receivers excel and the cap tightens some receivers might become cap casualties.
There are good reasons to take both of these young players. I keep referring to the new NFL passing style and both of these players help the Steelers adjust to this trend. A hybrid tight end provides matchup issues with his height, as well as elite speed for his size. A talented safety is a player that can cover this new style of player, or be responsible for more space allowing extra attention to be given to these players. This contrasts the value of a player like Hightower who would be much more valuable in the old, run heavy style of NFL.
So to recap, safety is a need because of Clark’s age/upgrade concerns. Fleener would help the pass game and take the pressure off of Miller. Hightower would help gap the departure of James Farrior from a leadership/play call and run support side. I think drafting a high profile wide receiver will only strain the Mike Wallace situation and complicate the Antonio Brown/Emmanuel Sanders dynamic. I think the Steelers will draft up to 2 wide receivers, but in the mid to later rounds. Finally at Corner, drafting a new talent would be helpful, but with the promise shown by Cortez Allen and even Curtis Brown, it would be rash to try and replace them.
There are flip sides to these choices as well. Hightower doesn’t help with the new pass heavy NFL. Barron won’t likely have an immediate effect and the Steelers need relief at other positions now. There isn’t a dire need at tight end, and several later round options to choose from (where the Steelers have several picks). The way I like to look at it is if the Baltimore Ravens drafted these guys, which would I dread the most. I use the Ravens as an example but you get the idea. Out of the entire list of 1st round possibilities, I feel that Barron and Fleener would anger me most in Ravens uniforms.
The fundamentalist inside me still wants to see a new Nose Tackle or Offensive Lineman to anchor the major areas of need. The logical execution would be to draft these positions as early as possible. But with several intriguing options in the 2nd round and even a few in the 3rd, the 1st round may end up spent elsewhere. And in that case, the best player available could mean anything from a ball-hawk safety to a red zone monster tight end.