By Christopher DiMarino
There has been a lot of discussion about who the Pittsburgh Steelers might draft in the first round. For mockers and speculators alike, it has seemed more like sticking your hand in a grab-bag versus using discernible logic. I want to try and simplify the process. The general consensus is that right now no position sticks out more above another, so the Steelers might hope for a value to drop to them. This is why:
- No safeties possess the elite talent level that is usually associated with highly drafted safeties. Harrison Smith was a late first round drafted safety last year who is probably more polished than anyone in this draft. So with the deep array of possible safeties, this position might get differed to the second or third round.
- There is a slight talent level drop in wide receivers. Are Keenan Allen or Cordarrelle Patterson worth a first? There are many other options later in the draft and the Steelers are known for drafting receivers in the mid to later rounds. The combine will help discover which receivers run up the rankings and which are overlooked. The Steelers will likely look at a large bodied player, so if he underperforms his 40 time at the combine and drops, he might be a prime "under the radar" target for the Steelers.
- Outside linebackers are like safeties in that there are no elite, absolute drafts for the Steelers. Considering that the Steelers will want to reconstruct any drafted outside linebacker pass rusher anyways, a project will be a logical choice. Again, there is a chance that a Jarvis Jones type of talent will drop, but it is unlikely, so a second or third is a likely destination.
The only positions left over that have been seriously considered in the first round are inside linebacker and nose tackle. The problem with those positions is that the Steelers spent a third round pick on Sean Spence and a fourth round pick on Alameda Ta\'amu last season. It is true that Spence was called a MACK linebacker when he was drafted and that he might be a depth guy, while Ta\'amu has heavily disappointed so far. So in my opinion, both positions should be open game in the first round, but the problem is that the Steelers might be too stubborn to draft them.
I\'m not a Steelers historian, but in past few drafts I\'ve noticed that the Steelers are apprehensive to draft overlapping talent. You would think an under-aggressive team like the Steelers that tends to draft the best player available would have inevitably fallen victim to overlapping in the past but you\'d be hard pressed to find a case. Take last year as an example, certain parties felt that outside linebacker and defensive end were big needs. Ziggy Hood hadn\'t panned out yet, and with the looming likelihood that James Harrison was playing his last year in Pittsburgh, Jason Worilds did not have our full confidence. While waiting until this year to grab an outside linebacker is acceptable, don\'t forget that it will take extenuating circumstances for a rookie to start on this defense.
By electing to abstain from the outside linebacker and defensive end positions, the Steelers did two things. Firstly, they gave Hood and Worilds another chance to prove that they can be the future. Secondly, they focused on offense by drafting two offensive lineman which has laid the foundation for the Steelers offense to grow this coming year. The risk is that the Steelers could be without a clear picture at outside linebacker opposite LaMarr Woodley, going into the season and that reps will be split between Worilds, Chris Carter and a new draftee should Harrison indeed be cut loose. It\'s tough to judge whether the Steelers won or lost on that decision as I think both Hood and Worilds showed strides this past season, but neither excelled to the elite level.
So do the Steelers plan to gamble with what they have once again? Is the combination of Spence, Lawrence Timmons, Stevenson Sylvester, and possibly even Larry Foote, enough to last until next draft? If not, what level of help does the position demand? A high level player that will be meant to take the position, or another mid round pick that will give Spence a run for his money? The nose tackle position is perplexingly more muddled. None of the incumbents did anything this past season to unseat Casey Hampton, who had a very underrated year. Steve McLendon did not fully back up John Mitchell\'spraise and struggled to get on the field. Ta\'amu did nothing, but didn\'t overstep enough off the field to get kicked off the team.
Both of those important positions, in my mind, are fair game for anything up to a first round talent. A high profile nose tackle will mean the Steelers wasted a fourth on Ta\'amu. Who cares? McLendon will still get on the field as this is a position that does rotate. A high profile inside linebacker just means that Spence becomes a special teams and depth contributor, which at this point looks like the shoe that fits him. I don\'t want either idea to seem mutually exclusive. In fact, there is no real inside linebacker prospect outside of Kevin Minter at this point that would be reasonable at 17, so if a inside linebacker is taken, it will likely be in the second round or later.
So while I\'m still miles away from understanding the variables enough to be able to slop together a mock draft, I hope this helps conversation. As always, position needs don\'t dictate the draft, player availability does. Ironing out the first round is the first battle in the war that is guessing the draft, and for the reasons listed above, at this point nose tackle seems like the odds on favorite unless someone special drops. Looking at the prospects right now, the front runners to be first round options would be Jesse Williams, Johnathan Hankin,and maybe even John Jenkins. I will start to get more into depth in the position coming up!