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If I were Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert (Part 6)

March 13, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 11, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note: This is the sixth installment in a series.  If you haven’t already read the earlier installments, please click the links below

Part 1,
Part 2,
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

In the last two installments in this series, I suggested that the Steelers’ first priority in the upcoming draft should be defensive line, and their second priority should be defensive backs.  Now I plan to discuss what I believe should be the Steelers’ third priority.

I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise to many of you when I say that the Steelers’ next priority should be……..(drum roll )…..the offensive line.

I know that many of you think that O-line should be priority #1, 2, and 3,  but I’ve already established why I don’t agree with that.  The one thing that I do need to clarify is that even though I prioritize offensive line as #3, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I believe the Steelers shouldn’t take an offensive lineman until their 3rd pick.  Team needs have to be balanced with the value of the players available.  For example, if Illinois CB Vontae Davis were still available at the 32nd pick (he won’t be), I’d definitely take him in the first round, despite saying that defensive line should be the Steelers’ first priority.  (Translation: I’m a “best player available” guy).

I don’t think it’s really necessary to remind anyone why the offensive line is a key priority for the Steelers.  Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked over 110 times during the past two years (including playoff games).  That’s just too many.

It is a common refrain in Pittsburgh to blame Ben for his own misery.  “Big Ben holds the ball too long”, we often hear.  I agree with that sentiment.  Big Ben DOES hold the ball too long.  But holding the ball too long didn’t cause 110 sacks.

Think back to the Philadelphia Eagles game this past season.  During that game, Roethlisberger was sacked 8 times, before finally leaving the game for good with an injury.  Those 8 sacks were NOT due to Big Ben holding the ball too long.  The offensive line played like a team of matadors.  Ben averaged about .04 nanoseconds between the time the ball was snapped, and the time he ended up on his back.

I don’t think I need to convince anyone that the offensive line was the Steelers’ achilles heel this season.  Instead, let’s look at each player and determine what issues need to be addressed.

LT Max Starks - Max Starks was the unheralded hero of the Steelers’ Super Bowl run.  When Marvel Smith went down, Starks stepped in and replaced him admirably.

Some Steelers fans can’t seem to forgive Starks for losing his RT position to Willie Colon in 2007, and then not being able to take it back from him in training camp in 2008.  Since Colon hadn’t played particularly well, that must mean that Starks was really bad.

Only the Steelers’ coaches know for sure why Starks didn’t win the RT position, but the reality is that Starks played adequately at left tackle when he got his chance.  He did struggle against speed rushers like DeMarcus Ware, but who doesn’t?

Starks is big and strong, and is rarely bull-rushed.  He needs to improve his lateral movement, but at only 27 years old, and with only 1 year under his belt as a starting left tackle, Starks still has upside.

LG Chris Kemoeatu - Kemo was a disappointment in his first year as a starter.  Kemo is bigger and stronger than Alan Faneca.  At 6’3″ and 344 lbs., Kemoeatu should be more effective in run blocking than Faneca was, even if he doesn’t have the speed to pull like Faneca.  However, that often didn’t prove to be the case.

But Kemo’s shortcomings are usually not physical.  It isn’t his speed or his strength that holds him back.  Kemo’s greatest shortcomings are mental.  Kemoeatu had been on the  Steelers’ roster for several years before being called upon to start, so he should have had a complete grasp of the Steelers’ blocking schemes.  Yet, Kemo often played like he didn’t know what was going on.

Kemoeatu is prone to far too many penalties.  He holds too often, and he seems to be called for being off-sides more often than any other player in the league.  If players were ranked by penalties, Kemoeatu would be All-Pro.

Fortunately, 2008 was Kemoeatu’s first year as a starter.  Now that he has a full year under his belt, things should come a little easier for him.  Being only 26 years old, his best years are still ahead of him.

C Justin Hartwig - After suffering through the Sean Mahan fiasco, Steelers fans greeted Hartwig like the French greeted Patton’s army.  He was a conquering hero before he ever stepped onto the field.

Some fans are quick to say that Hartwig gave up more sacks than any other center in the NFL.   That may be the case, but can any center really succeed or fail on his own?  Remember, Hartwig was surrounded by “off-sides Chris” Kemoeatu, and an undrafted free agent  (Darnell Stapleton) who wasn’t expected to play last season.

Hartwig will be 31 during the 2009 season.  He is the oldest of the Steelers’ starting offensive linemen, but he is far from over-the-hill.  In fact, he may have been their most consistent lineman last year.

Like most of the Steelers’ offensive linemen in 20o8, Hartwig was new to the unit.  Hartwig’s performance should improve as the Steelers’ line as a whole improves.

RG Darnell Stapleton - Stapleton was the biggest surprise of the bunch.  He was not expected to play, and he stepped in admirably when Kendall Simmons went down.

Stapleton is to be commended for stepping in and doing a good job as a surprise replacement.  I have nothing bad to say about his performance.  He exceeded my expectations.

I am, however, disappointed with Trai Essex.  I expected much more from him than I did Stapleton.  Yet despite all of the injuries to the Steelers’ offensive line, Essex wasn’t able to win a starting job, while Stapleton started in the Super Bowl.

RT Willie Colon - The only player in the NFL who could possibly dethrone Chris Kemoeatu as “king of the penalty” is Willie Colon.

Colon was the senior member of the Steelers offensive line last year.  He was the only returning starter from the 2007 offensive line.  His experience should have given him the strongest grasp of the Steelers’ offense.  Yet, Colon often looked like he had no idea what he was doing out there.  That is inexcusable.

Scouting reports have often noted that Colon is better suited to play guard than tackle.  Obviously, the Steelers’ coaches don’t agree, since Colon remains a tackle.

My hope is that Colon will continue to improve along with the rest of the Steelers’ offensive line.  However, the fact that he is still penalty-prone after 2 years as a starter is troubling.

If I were Kevin Colbert, I’d go into the draft looking for opportunities to upgrade the offensive line at every position.  The offensive line is unlike any other unit on the Steelers.  There is no offensive lineman who has made himself indispensable.

On defense, players like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu can feel very confident that their positions are secure.  On offense, Big Ben’s position is secure.  So are Hines Ward’s and Santonio Holmes’.  Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Mewelde Moore are secure.  Even special teamers Jeff Reed and Daniel Sepulveda are secure.  But is there a single offensive lineman that imparts that type of confidence?

Answer this question:  Are any of the Steelers’ offensive linemen among the best 10 in the league at their position?  My answer would be “no”.  In fact, I only think that we have one who is in the top half of the league at his position (I’ll leave it up to your imagination which one I’m talking about).  That’s a problem.  A big problem.

Kevin Colbert’s challenge with the offensive line is different than it is for other units on the Steelers.  With the defensive line, he has players who are still very good, but who are getting old.  He has to find replacements while the incumbents still have a year or two left in their tanks.

With the defensive backs, he has to add depth because the Steelers lost a starter, and they don’t have enough DB’s on the roster.

With the offensive line, the challenge is just as great, but less immediate.  The players are young, there is plenty of depth, and all of the starters are under contract.  Moreover, the players should get better as they get more experience.  However, as a whole, the players just aren’t as good as they are on other parts of the team.  The O-line can use an upgrade at every position.

Despite their shortcomings, the O-line was  good enough to win the Super Bowl.  That can’t be emphasized enough.  There aren’t many teams that look to make wholesale changes to a group that just won the Super Bowl.

I think most fans will agree on the Steelers needs.  What we  don’t all agree on is which need is most pressing.  One reader commented that he thinks it’s more important for the Steelers to replace players who are young and bad, rather than replacing players who are old and good.  Thus, he’d upgrade Willie Colon before finding Aaron Smith’s replacement.  I definitely see the logic in that line of thinking, even though I don’t agree with it.

If I were Kevin Colbert, I’d take all of these factors into consideration, and then select the best player available at our draft slot, regardless of position (with the exception of QB, TE, and K/P, which I wouldn’t draft no matter who was available).

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9 Comments to “If I were Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert (Part 6)”

  1. RajiRayRay says:

    I think Defensive Lineman will get the call in the draft followed by CB / Safety. I think the team has confidence in the growth potential of the O-line considering age and ability while Defensively we are aging. I love the teddy bear (hampton) but he only has a few years left on top along with the others. Our defense takes years to master and I dont really see depth at this time. I think this draft will have 2 d-line recruits atleast.
    I’m excited about this years draft. Last SuperBowl win we lost a couple players and it hurt, this time we are pretty locked locked up from what I see.

  2. This is “young and bad” vs “old and good” here. As you point out (and I agree), many of the disagreements within this series involve confusing “priority” for the overall draft with what to do on the first pick, second pick, etc. In other words, you are not saying take a D-lineman with the 1st pick, a DB with the 2nd, an O-lineman with the 3rd - but that, for the long term health of the Steelers, it is most important to address D-line, second most important to address DB’s, etc.

    As such, I think most steeler fans would agree that these are all important positions to address. Any remaining disagreement on priorities now stem from making projections under uncertainty. For example:

    You feel that addressing D-line is the most important because, being old, they will start to decline over the next few years. And, since their back ups are old, the long term replacements for the starters are currently not on the team. Meanwhile, the O-line isn’t that good but they do have a lot of young bodies available - and they might improve. Uncertainty comes into play because we do not know how soon the current D-line starters will start to decline or whether any of the young O-linemen will improve (or by how much). Ergo, you apparently feel that the chance of the d-line declining is greater than the chance of the O-line failing to improve.

    This is where I disagree. I feel that, for the next year or two, the chance of the O-line improving is fairly small and the chance of the d-line declining is fairly small. Hence,
    the O-line will continue to be worse than the D-line and will continue to be the Steelers weak point. That is why I feel it is the highest priority.

    Although, I too agree with the “best player available” position (within reason - they should trade down before taking a QB, HB, or TE no matter what the grade).

  3. John,
    Bingo!!! I couldn’t have summarized it better.

    I also agree with your point about QB, TE, etc. I definitely wouldn’t draft those positions, not matter who fell into our lap. I think I’m going to go back and edit the article to make that point. Wouldn’t want someone to think I want us to take the top tight end in the draft if he’s available at our pick.

  4. while it is impossible to really pick the first 31 selections it seems to me that the values in the the first round is not going to be there for the Steelers at 32. It sounds like the O-line ( with the possible exceptions of Mack and Unger) will be gone. The D-line again same story. Which means do the Steelers reach for a (BC) Brace or J Gilbert (SJS) or address it later. From all the reports I read it doesn’t appear that a DB is going to be there that deserves a first round selection either. It seems that after Jenkins and Davis ( both of whom are sliding ) there is a group of 5-7 guys who could go anywhere from the late 20′s to the third round.
    Which means that the best bet for the Steelers in my opinion is to trade up. They lost very few players, they have guys like Davis, Hills, Mundy, Lewis and Woods, who will hopefully be on the active roster. My point is unless they hit 7 or 8 homeruns some of the picks won’t make the team anyway. I don’t know what it will take to move up, but if Jackson of LSU somehow makes it to the high teens, or Oher the tackle slips I think its the thing to do. I think a guy like Jackson would be worth maybe the 32nd and the second round pick if it had to be done

  5. Projectitng draft day trades will be very hard until the comp picks are released. If we get a 3rd round pick for Faneca I could easily see our normal 3rd used as fodder to trade up in the 1st or 2nd. Even that will really depend on the scouting department. That is, we all think that Jackson is the best thing since sliced bread but how far apart do the Steelers have him rated from Gilbert? How far apart do they have Mack and Unger rated from Woods?

    I try to follow the draft data closely but I don’t watch enough college football to tell. All things being equal I would like Mack or Britton to fall them at 32, Brace or Gilbert to fall to them at 64, then use their 3rd and 4th rounder to move up to select one of the remaining top tier DB’s, and finally the comp 3rd rounder for depth at any number of places.

    Unlike the last post-SB draft, however, the Steelers have more holes to fill so they might feel reluctant to spend too many picks to move up.

  6. Jason,
    I agree completely. The Steelers need quality more than they need quantity of picks.

    Trading up to get Jackson would make a lot of sense. He is the only top-tier 3-4 DE in this draft. We need one in the worst way. We may need to jump ahead several spots if we want to get him.

    The Steelers have proven (with Troy and Santonio) that they’ll move up to get a player that they really want, so don’t be surprised if they do it again.

    One guy that I’m keeping my eye on is Andre Smith from Alabama. Everyone knows that he hurt himself at the combine. Now, some people are saying that he hurt himself even more at he pro day. He did poorly on the bench press. Now some scouts are questioning his strength.

    Despite the stupid personal moves he’s made, he hasn’t shown himself to have bad character. He hasn’t been arrested. He doesn’t hit women. If he were to fall all the way to #32, I’d be a happy man.

  7. I think one of the biggest problems the offensive line had, is coaching. Yes they are young and inexperienced, but I think they clearly had no clue on assignments. Some defensive lineman lined up over the guard, who then turned and double teamed the NT with the center, leaving a free run up the gut. I think more work/drills in training camp will help alot (these guys weren’t together in camp last year), but I think the line shows the drop off from Russ. It would be nice to find another Russ out there.

  8. Scott D
    There is no doubt that losing Russ Grimm was a big blow to the Steelers. Frankly, I think the team misses him far more than they miss Whisenhunt.

    I agree with you that if the Steelers O-line were coached better, they wouldn’t look nearly as bad as they do. Remember how confused they looked against the Philadelphia Eagles this past season? Even after half-time, they made no adjustments. They were just as confused in the second half as they were in the first half. That’s just inexcusable.

  9. Scott D.
    I agree. I was surprised the O-line coach still has a job. Yes, they won the super bowl, and yes there have been injuries and new starters the past few seasons, but I don’t see an improved group overall. I don’t know if thats the coach or the players, but I think in this circumstance you have to go with a different coach. I’m also under the impression that this coach had not had great success in the past at the same position with other organizations.I don’t remember where read it, but I remember other teams having more success after his departure. Again I don’t know if that was due to different starters or what, but change needs to happen.


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