By Jeremy Hritz
The NFL Draft is slowly becoming the focus for the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 2012 season nears completion and soon, end of the year evaluations of players will begin. The Steelers are a team that build through the draft, and in the 2013 season, the team will be counting on several of their previous draft picks to assert themselves in the starting line-up. Never big spenders in free agency, it does not appear that the Steelers will make any ground-breaking signings in the offseason, and their priority in free agency will be the resigning of their own, Keenan Lewis, though doing so may be difficult.
Honestly, the Steelers are not that many pieces away from being a Super Bowl contender, and had they not experienced the number of injuries that they did in 2012, they would more than likely still be playing. The amount of playing time that several of the young prospects enjoyed this season will help the Steelers in 2013, and no other position will benefit more than the offensive line. Next year, the Steelers will have a second and a third round pick as the starting tackles, and two first rounders at center and right guard. The only question mark heading into next season will be at the left guard position, and whether or not the team will resign Ramon Foster. However, as a result of the performance of Kelvin Beachum and his versatility, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him inserted in the lineup as the starting left guard next season, or possibly the flip flopping with David DeCastro at right guard. The bottom line is that the offensive line is set, and unless a once-in-a-lifetime talent is available when they pick in the first round, they probably won’t select an offensive lineman until the later rounds.
The Steelers have to make drafting an explosive pass rusher their priority next season with their first round pick, as it is the element that has been absent the past two years in creating turnovers on defense. James Harrison has one foot out of the door, and with uncertainty surrounding what to expect from Jason Worilds and Chris Carter, the Steelers need to have a fireball off of the edge to harass opposing passers. While Georgia product Jarvis Jones will more than likely be gone when the Steelers make their pick in April, they should have an opportunity to draft outside backer Anthony Barr out of UCLA should he decide to declare himself for the draft (he’s no Alonzo Jackson). (Barr has announced that he will return to school since this piece was written)
The other puzzle piece that the Steelers will have to address is the wide receiver position, as Mike Wallace is as good as gone. The Steelers have a nice complement of smaller, speedy receivers in Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, but they could have an opportunity to add a rangy, physical pass catcher in the second or third round, should one be available. The receivers struggled to get open at the end of the season, and without Wallace, they could be challenged even more next year which is why the will have to address this position with either a second or third round pick.
The last priority that they must address this year in either the second or third round is safety. This past summer, I wrote about the lack of quality depth at this position, and if the Steelers don’t address it in this year’s draft, they could suffer a serious drop-off once Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark retire. The Steelers won’t be looking for a player to step in immediately and play this year, but they will want to get a physical, tough individual that can learn behind Polamalu and Clark.
There is also no question that the Steelers will need to add for some depth at defensive end between the third and seventh rounds, but I can’t see them admitting failure with Ziggy Hood or Cameron Heyward just yet and drafting a nose tackle early. Plus, it is time for Steve McLendon to step into a starting role, that is, if the Steelers resign him, which they more than likely will.
While many will argue that the Steelers should draft a running back early, I just don’t see that happening based on the youth that they have at the position and based on the failed experiment with Rashard Mendenhall. If the Steelers do take a back in this draft, it won’t be until the later rounds. What would help this position the most would be to bring in a solid yet cheap veteran free agent; unfortunately, there isn’t much to write home about on the market. While unlikely, it wouldn’t hurt for the Steelers to make a phone calls to St. Louis or Jacksonville to see if they are willing to depart with their starting running backs, both of whom are not happy in their current situations.
So much to consider, so much to write about. Good thing the draft isn’t until April.