March 9, 2009
By Donald Starver
Note: This is the fourth installment in a series. If you haven’t already read the first part, please click here. If you haven’t read the second part, please click here. If you haven’t read the third part, please click here.
We’ve already talked about the Steelers’ free agency situation, and what Director of Football Operations, Kevin Colbert, should do. Most of our predictions materialized exactly as we said they would. Now it’s time to look at the upcoming NFL draft. What positions should Colbert be focusing on as the draft approaches?
When I read most mock drafts, as well as most fan forums, the conversation seems to be pretty consistent. There seems to be a consensus that the Steelers’ top need is on the offensive line. After the 2008 draft, many Steelers fans were disappointed that the Steelers didn’t draft offensive linemen in all 7 rounds of the draft (okay, maybe we’re exaggerating, but they definitely wanted o-line in the 1st round).
I understand the rationale behind this line of thinking. Afterall, Ben Roethlisberger took 47 regular season sacks in 2007. Most fans thought that Ben wouldn’t live through another season like that. But Big Ben proved them all wrong, as he survived 49 regular season sacks in 2008. If we add in post-season sacks, Big Ben has taken over 110 sacks over the past 2 years. That’s a lot of sacks for any quarterback to take. But it’s an unacceptable number of sacks for a $100 million quarterback to take.
To put it into perspective, Indianapolis Colts’ QB Peyton Manning took 23 regular season sacks in 2007, and 14 in 2008. New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees took 16 sacks in 2007, and 13 in 2008. Moreover, both quarterbacks took over 100 more pass attempts each year than Roethlisberger. That means they had more than 100 more opportunities to be sacked, and yet, each was sacked less than half as often as Roethlisberger.
Those are mighty compelling reasons why offensive linemen should be the Steelers’ top priority in the coming draft. Most mock drafts have the Steelers taking names like Alex Mack (C – California), Max Unger (C – Oregon), Eben Britton (T – Arizona), or Duke Robinson (G – Oklahoma) in the first round. Drafting offensive line in the first round is the obvious answer, and I understand why so many come to that conclusion.
However, if I were Kevin Colbert, I would not rank offensive line as my top need. Sure, the sack figures that I listed above are worrisome. Big Ben needs to survive the 2009 season. I get that. But in my opinion, the Steelers’ top need going into the 2009 NFL draft is defensive line. In fact, it’s not even close.
If we look at the players who were on the active roster at the end of the 2008 season (Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons were both on injured reserve), the Steelers offensive line had an average age of 25. That group will average 26 years old next season. The only offensive lineman on the roster who is over 30 years of age is center Justin Hartwig. He will be 31 years old during the 2009 season. Every other Steelers offensive lineman will be in their 20′s. That’s a pretty young group of players.
In addition to their youth, only one of the offensive linemen who started for the Steelers in the Super Bowl had more than one year of starting experience at his position with the Steelers. Right tackle Willie Colon was in his second year as a starter. All of the other offensive linemen were in their first year as Steelers’ starters at their position.
Contrast that with the Steelers’ defensive line. While the offensive line will average 26 years old next year, the defensive line that played in the Super Bowl will have an average age of 32 next year. None of the starters in the front 3 is under 30. Aaron Smith will be 33 this season, Casey Hampton will be 32, and Brett Keisel will be 31. The key backups were even older. Travis Kirschke will be 35, Orpeus Roye will be 36, and Chris Hoke will be 33.
The Steelers only have two defensive linemen on the roster who are under 30, Nick Eason and Scott Paxson. Neither is an important contributor.
Aaron Smith is the senior statesman of the starters. He is 33. Smith has been so good for so long, that it is easy to assume that he will always man his post on the Steelers’ defensive line. But he won’t. Smith probably only has 1 or 2 seasons left in him. Moreover, it probably says something bad about the Steelers’ front office if they rely on a 34 or 35 year old lineman for the majority of the snaps.
The Steelers’ defense is very complex, and few players start in their rookie season. So the Steelers need to draft Smith’s replacement BEFORE he is actually needed. Give him one year to play as Smith’s backup, and then move him into the starting lineup in 2010.
Nose Tackle Casey Hampton is also coming to the end of his career. Because of their incredible girth, NFL nose tackles tend to wear down faster than any position other than running backs. Hampton’s performance has slipped noticeably of late. Moreover, he has increasing difficulty maintaining his fitness in the off-season as he gets older.
The Steelers are lucky to have an incredible backup for Casey Hampton in Chris Hoke. When Hoke enters the game, the Steelers don’t miss a beat. I’ve always felt the Chris Hoke was one of the most under-appreciated players on the Steelers’ roster. Unfortunately, Chris Hoke is even older than Casey Hampton. So he is not the long-term solution that the Steelers need.
Brett Keisel is the youngest of the starters, but he is going to be 31 next season. That’s much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Keisel has a few more good years left in his legs, but he is the least dominant of the Steelers’ three starting defensive lineman. If the Steelers can upgrade Brett Keisel, they should definitely do it. However, relative to finding replacements for Smith and Hampton, Keisel is the least of the Steelers’ worries.
As I mentioned earlier, Nick Eason and Scott Paxson are the only two Steelers defensive linemen who are under 30 years old. I don’t think many Steelers fans see either of these two players as the heir apparent to Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton. That means the Steelers have no successors on their roster. That’s a problem. A big problem.
Can the Steelers continue to win with their current offensive line? There’s a Lombardi Trophy at Heinz Field that proves that the answer to that question is “yes”. Is the offensive line the best in the league? No, of course they aren’t. But because of their youth and limited experience playing together, the offensive line is going to get better. Time will have the opposite effect on the defensive line. Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton are going to get worse, not better. Brett Keisel’s speed will begin to decline as well. The Steelers need to start grooming their successors now, while they aren’t truly needed.
So contrary to popular opinion, I contend that defensive line, and NOT offensive line, is the Steelers’ top need. Hopefully, Kevin Colbert sees it that way too.
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