Today, we have a guest blogger on Steelers Today. John DeWald is a regular reader of Steelers Today, and a frequent commenter. John’s comments are always insightful, and so we invited him to share his thoughts with a larger audience. Take it away, John.
April 23, 2009
By John DeWald
After all of the newspaper and magazine articles discussing team needs and college players… after all of the mock drafts floating across cyberspace…after all of Mel Kiper’s pontifications (and hairspray)…after all of the discussions on this site…we now know the Steelers draft plans. Based on the team’s moves this offseason, we can definitively state who the Steelers will select in the first round this year. And that person is…..the best player available (within reason).
Now before you groan about making such a generic prediction, let me explain what this really means.
The Steelers have made a number of key moves this offseason. Right now you are probably scratching your head thinking “Did I miss the news about something?” The answer is no, you did not miss anything. These were not moves that necessarily make headlines, but moves that were pivotal. The sole purpose of these moves was to give the team flexibility in the draft.
The moves in question were the signing of Colon, Starks, Kemoeatu, and Essex on the O-line , CB-Bryant, HB/KR/PR- Logan, and WR-Nance. Underwhelming yes but still pivotal.
Unlike after the last Super Bowl, this team entered the offseason with some definite needs. The offensive line did not have a good year, the defensive line is getting old at every position, and they lost Washington, McFadden, Marvell Smith, Anthony Smith, and Simmons (cut) in free agency. As evidenced by the various discussions on this site, there is a strong difference of opinion as to what the Steelers’ top priority this offseason should be. The Steelers build through the draft and every move they have made this offseason has been to ensure that there is no “top” priority in order to give them maximum flexibility early in the draft. So, while they will undoubtedly address the offensive line, defensive line, secondary, and wide receivers, there will be no reason to reach for any particular position on the first day. Put another way, while the Steelers WILL draft for need, they have made sure that they have no glaring needs in order to insure that they have the flexibility to take the best player available (BPA). For example, while Mendenhall was the BPA he also filled a “need” position because the Steelers needed depth behind Parker – Sweed may have been the BPA but the Steelers were also concerned that they would lose Washington when he hit free agency (which they did). To see how their recent moves impact this year’s draft, let’s look at the various “need” positions
On the offensive line they lost Smith and Simmons. They were generally considered the top two Steeler linemen at the start of last year but both lost considerable time due to injury. This leaves them with the much criticized lineup of Starks, Kemoeatu, Hartwig, Stapleton, and Colon. During the offseason, to the consternation of some, they proceeded to franchise Starks, sign Kemoeatu to a long-term deal, and give Colon a first round tender as a RFA. Yes, they improved through the year and won the Super Bowl with this line. But, even at the end of the year, they were still only an average line. The aforementioned moves, however, were actually quite good.
Colon’s tender is only for one year, and at roughly $2 million, is relatively cheap for a starting tackle. If he improves this year, they can sign him long term. If not, they can let him go, or move him inside to guard at a lower cost. Kemoeatu’s deal is for 5 years but only included a $4 million signing bonus, so they could conceivably cut him as early as next year without that big of a cap hit (if there is a cap). The deal for Essex is only a 2 year deal for about $1 million/year – respectable for a guy who can backup multiple positions. The only move I would question is franchising Starks. While I currently consider Starks the best Steeler lineman, he is still only in the above-average to good range. By franchising him, we seem to be competing against ourselves. We transitioned him last year and he received no other offers on the open market. As I said before, however, these moves were quite good because they keep young players in place where they might develop, and provides insurance so there is no need to reach for a particular position during the first day of the draft. The moves also allows them to target any position along the line. Note: The other backups(besides Essex) are the completely untested Hills, Capizzi, Parquet, and Legursky.
On the defensive line they have made no moves, as everyone from last year’s team is still under contract. Yes, they are all 1 year older, but the Steelers believe that they will perform at a high level next year. The issue here is really in 2010 and beyond, especially at DE. A NT can come in and produce as a rookie, a 3-4 DE typically cannot (see The 3-4 And The Steelers’ Draft part 3). So they need to find young depth at DE and allow them to spend 1-2 years learning the defense before they can be expected to start. As such, DE is definitely an area they need to address but it does not necessarily need to be done in the early rounds since they would have 1-2 years to bulk up and learn the defense. While I don’t expect the team to resign Hampton, replacing him this year is not a priority because, as mentioned above, a rookie NT can start in a 3-4 (Hampton did).
In the secondary, they lost McFadden and Smith, and Townsend is getting older. McFadden was a good player but I don’t believe his loss will have that much of an impact. Remember, it took the guy 4 years to beat out Townsend. Gay filled in admirably for McFadden and Lebeau seems quite high on him. The key issue here is that they resigned Fernando Bryant. On the surface this does not amount to much, as he is passed his prime. However, the Steelers don’t expect him to be a starter, but only to provide depth as the 4th cornerback. What he brings is the flexibility for the Steelers to select a cornerback later in the draft who can essentialy “red-shirt” his first year to learn the defense, rather than to reach for one early.
There is also the issue of Anthony Madison. This is the year he has to prove whether he is more than just a special teams player. The loss of Anthony Smith isn’t really a loss, but it does mean that the Steelers need to pick up another safety somewhere in the draft.
The only other position that is sometimes discussed as a need position is WR. In my opinion, however, it is in pretty good shape with Ward, Holmes, Sweed, Baker, Nance, and Williams. They wanted to add Galloway as a cheap veteran and will likely draft a WR somewhere in the middle to late rounds to compete with this group. I would not expect them to use a pick in the first 2-3 rounds, however, unless some big time talent drops considerably. They are high on Sweed, and believe Baker or Nance could step up for the 4th spot. Nance, in particular, could be a steal. I don’t think the Steelers’ picked him up just because he was a former teammate of Ben’s (Miami of Ohio). He was a highly rated WR in college, but missed considerable time in his junior season and some of his senior season due to injuries. As such, he needed considerable time to adapt to the NFL (hence, the past 3 seasons on Minnesota’s and Pittsburgh’s practice squads). At 6’4, 210 with 4.5-4.6 speed, he could be a significant contributor at the 4th WR slot. Nance had 90 receptions, 1,498 yards and 11 touchdowns when he was a sophomore. He started his junior year with 25 receptions for 337 yards in four games before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury. He was more productive as a senior with 81 receptions for 1,107 yards and 14 touchdowns. The knocks against him is that he had early trouble holding on to the ball and that it took him a while to learn the playbook (not uncommon traits in college WR’s with only a little over 2 years of playing experience). Personally, I would much rather have the Steelers let Sweed, Nance, and Baker duke it out for the 3rd and 4th wide receiver spot, and address the O-line and D-line early in the draft.
As far as the other positions:
QB: The position is set with Roethlisberger, Dixon, and Batch. They will not draft a QB but will likely sign an undrafted free agent to participate in training camp.
RB: Is also set with Parker, Mendenhall, Moore, and Logan.
Note: they added Stefan Logan – a scatback from the CFL with a 7.3 YPC last year (889 yards on 122 carries / 477 yards on 52 receptions). He’s 27 but has little wear and tear as he didn’t graduate from (Division II) South Dakota until 2006 and played only one year in the CFL. His college Bio provides the following: “Originally of Miami, Fla., Logan wasn’t a highly recruited player out of high school. In fact, he played just one season of football as a junior at Jackson (Fla.) High School. Later, wanting one last chance at football, Logan began a search for a college and walked on at South Dakota in 2003. Four years later, he is the best running back in school history and ranks as one of Division II’s all-time greats. Already with 15 school records to his credit, Logan is the 11th player in NCAA Division II history to rush for 5,000 yards (5,968) and surpass 7,000 all purpose yards (7,770).” He returns punts and kicks and could be Pittsburgh’s version of Darren Sproles…or practice squad material.
FB: It would be nice, but who are we fooling. They have Davis and McHugh under contract and will not draft one unless Arians projects him as a TE.
TE: They are set with Miller, Spaeth, and McHugh. I wouldn’t put anything past Arians, but I expect Colbert to have enough sense not to take one before the 5th round at the earliest (unless they plan to move McHugh to FB full time).
LB: The position is stacked with talent and depth with Harrison, Woodley, Farrior, Foote, and Timmons. They also have last year’s 3rd round pick (Davis) as well as special teamers Fox, Bailey, Frazier and Harrison. This depth will not keep them from drafting a LB, but unless someone drops precipitously, it won’t be until the later rounds. They have the flexibility here to pick up a small school talent and give him 2 years to learn the defense and get used to the speed at the NFL level.
So that is the Steelers’ plan – make enough offseason moves so that they have the flexibility in the draft to take what comes to them rather than reaching for specific positions regardless of value. Given their moves and roster, they could now conceivably target roughly half of the available positions in the first round few rounds. Now we just need to wait and see how the draft plays out.