|Tuesday, April 17, 2007
By Matt Savrock
Steelers Fever Columnist
In a few short days, the slow NFL offseason will become exciting again, as teams try to build for the future through the draft. Few teams are in as good a position as the Steelers, who still have the nucleus of last year’s Super Bowl champion and will be adding a great player with the 15th overall pick.
The Steelers are not only in a good spot on the board, but they have the luxury of being able to do whatever they want with that pick. The eternal debate is whether to take the best player available or draft for a need. Both arguments have merit. Drafting to a need can result in a player who doesn’t justify his spot in the draft and ends up being a bust. But it can also give a team the missing piece to the championship puzzle.
Ben Roethlisberger gave our Steelers their first franchise quarterback in a generation and quickly paid off with the elusive One For The Thumb. On the other hand, the best player on the board can be an immediate impact player, or he could cause a team to tie up too much cap room at one position. The latter scenario is even worse if the second-best or third-best player on the board isn’t that far behind the best and could have helped the team more.
Fortunately, the Steelers don’t have to worry about that debate. There are no glaring needs, but we could use more depth almost everywhere on the field. The only thing that’s clear is we won’t, and shouldn’t, draft a quarterback in the first round. We can only put one quarterback on the field, and we have a good young signal-caller already in place. At all the other positions, our first-round pick will be able to make an immediate contribution.
We’re well situated with Willie Parker as our feature back. While he’s best known as a home run threat, he’s also highly underrated as an every-down player. But a Bettis-style power back would make him even better. Sharing the load would keep his legs fresh late in the game and late in the season, and would keep defenses honest by forcing them to account for both runners.
Having two starters at the RB position is a winning strategy, with the most recent example being the Colts, who rode the Addai-Rhodes combination to victory in Super Bowl XLI.
There are also precedents in the history of our beloved Black-and-Gold. The Super Steelers had Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, and the 1994 team featured Barry Foster and Eric Pegram. The question for the Steelers is whether the Bettis role can be filled by Najeh Davenport, plus short passes to Heath Miller, or if we should draft the next Bus. Louisville’s Michael Bush is the player best suited for the job, but his leg injury and short college career are question marks. If those factors scare off other teams, the Steelers might be able to trade down for extra picks or grab Bush in the second round. Cal’s Marshawn Lynch, rated by some gurus as a mid first rounder, is the type of player the Steelers would be considering, but he has character questions. Florida State’s Lorenzo Booker is another possibility, but he has a reputation for a questionable work ethic. The Steelers might be best served by waiting until a later round if they want a power back.
Any team, in any draft, can benefit from getting a good player here. That’s even truer for the Steelers. We’ve gotten a lot thinner. Our best linemen were Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca. With Hartings’ retirement due to bad knees, and Faneca’s age, contract status, and attitude becoming pitfalls, we will have to replace at least one and probably two All-Pros. We could also use upgrades over current incumbents such as Marvel Smith and Max Starks. If the draft-to-a-need argument applies anywhere, it could be at this position. The top two O-line prospects, Wisconsin’s Joe Thomas and Penn State’s Levi Brown, are likely top ten picks. Can we wait until next year, while Faneca plays out his contract and a current backup like Chukky Okobi fills a hole? Or should we jump on a player like Central Michigan’s Joe Staley or Missouri Southern’s Allen Barbre, whose stock is skyrocketing? Either one would be a great addition. Neither prospect played big-time college football, but that shouldn’t count. The Steelers have a long tradition of finding and developing great players from smaller schools. A partial list: Mean Joe Green, North Texas; Mel Blount, Southern; L.C. Greenwood, Arkansas A&M; Donnie Shell, South Carolina State; John Stallworth, Alabama A&M; Jack Lambert, Kent State; Dwight White, East Texas State; Terry Bradshaw, Louisiana Tech; Louis Lipps, Southern Miss; Greg Lloyd, Liberty; Ben Roethlisberger, Miami of Ohio.
We have a Pro Bowler in Casey Hampton, and the rest of the line is solid if not spectacular. On one hand, finding a stud D-lineman in the first round couldn’t hurt, especially with the transition to a 4-3. On the other hand, defensive linemen are arguably the biggest gambles in the draft. Louisville’s Amobi Okoye is generally seen as a can’t-miss prospect and is capable of playing a hybrid role during the transition to a 4-3 defense, but the Steelers won’t have a chance to pick him without trading up. We may have a better shot at Purdue’s Anthony Spencer if we want a tweener. If we look for a second defensive tackle as part of the transition to a 4-3, Michigan’s Alan Branch has seen his stock drop and should be on the board when the Steelers make their pick.
The Steelers are the best franchise in the NFL when it comes to identifying and developing great linebackers. Time and time again, we’ve reloaded at the position. Hardy Nickerson. Greg Lloyd. Levon Kirkland. Jason Gildon. Now with Joey Porter gone, the Steelers may be looking for the next great Black-and-Gold linebacker. There are a lot of options here. We could draft one of the big-name players like Ole Miss product Patrick Willis or Paul Posluszny, who, as a Hopewell Viking and Penn State Nittany Lion, has the added bonus of local flavor. We could grab a hybrid player like Okoye. Or we could just stick with James Farrior, Larry Foote, and James Harrison.
Most teams would trade secondaries with the Steelers in a heartbeat. Our leader is franchise strong safety Troy Polamalu. ‘Nuff said there. At free safety, we have Ryan Clark, a solid blue-collar player who overcame the “too small” label, serving as the mentor to Anthony Smith, who overcame the same criticisms and is the future at the position. Third-year cornerback Bryant McFadden is a great prospect who should have a breakthrough season in 2007. At the other corner, Ricardo Colcough, Ike Taylor, and Tyrone Carter are OK, but a great player at the other corner would make the Steelers’ secondary the most feared in the NFL. Michigan’s Leon Hall and Pitt’s Darrelle Revis are two of the top prospects at cornerback, and one of them should be available at #15. Maryland’s Josh Wilson, who has 4.3 speed but weighs only 188 pounds, could be a sleeper pick.
We already have future Hall of Famer Hines Ward, who has already surpassed the great Swann and Stallworth in the record books. Ward is also a former quarterback and can play the Slash role previously filled by Antwaan Randle-El. Ward’s supporting cast includes the big man, Santonio Holmes, who is emerging as a major threat, and tight end Heath Miller, a great possession receiver and one of Big Ben’s favorite targets. About the only thing missing is a big-play threat (like the Saints’ Devery Henderson). The Steelers would want a speed guy here, but the first-round wide receivers don’t fit the bill. Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson will be long gone, and LSU’s Dwayne Bowe is a big man, a role already filled by Holmes. Ohio State’s Ted Ginn Jr. showed breakaway speed at the combine, but draft gurus disagree on whether he will be available in the 15th spot. Southern Cal’s Dwayne Jarrett could be a playmaker, but isn’t a speed receiver. Add in the development time for most new wide receivers, and the Steelers, who want to win now, are unlikely to go in this direction.
Conventional wisdom states that drafting a punter or kicker in the first round is a bad, bad idea. While the Steelers have the luxury of being able to ignore conventional wisdom, there are no must-have specialists on the board, such as a kicker who consistently puts kickoffs through the end zone or a punter who’s great at pooching the ball out of bounds inside the 10. This is one position we can safely assume the Steelers will ignore.