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Pittsburgh Steelers mock draft analysis

April 22, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 22, 2009
By Donald Starver

With only 3 days remaining until the 2009 NFL draft, fans are searching for any final clues that may help them determine who their favorite team is going to draft.  Traffic at mock draft websites is at an all-time high this time of year.  Fans seem to think that mock drafts may have some insight that will tell them who their team is going to select (they don’t).

With that in mind, I’ve decided to make your lives a lot easier.  Rather than allow you to spend countless hours scouring the millions of mock drafts that are out there, I’ve done the heavy lifting for you.  I’ve studied every mock draft in the HailRedskins mock draft database and the Walter Football mock draft database.  If you haven’t visited these excellent sites, I recommend that you do so.

There is a lot of overlap in the websites that are listed.  However, Walter Football’s database contains 250 mock drafts while Hail Redskins only has 228.  Therefore, I chose Walter Football’s mock draft database as the data source for this analysis.

I have cumulated the results of all of the mock drafts listed in Walter Football’s mock draft database, and am reporting the results for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Some of the mock drafts in the database were eliminated because they were too old to be considered valid.  I immediately eliminated any mock drafts that were done prior to the Super Bowl.  Afterall, how good could a mock draft be if it didn’t even reflect the correct draft order?  Additionally, I eliminated all of the mock drafts that had broken links.  Lastly, Walter Football’s database includes several mock drafts that are clearly intended to be jokes.  Those were also eliminated from my analysis.

Once I had eliminated all of the mock drafts that I considered to be invalid, I was left with 189 mock drafts.  Those 189 mock drafts were the basis for this analysis.  It was a lot of work compiling 189 mock drafts, so I stopped at the 1st round.  Here is what the mock drafts think the Steelers are going to do in the 1st round of Saturday’s draft.

By far, offensive line was the position that the mock drafts thought the Steelers were going to select in the first round of the draft.  126 mock drafts (66.7%) had the Steelers taking an offensive lineman in the first round.  Defensive back got the next highest number of votes with 33 mock drafts (17.5%) predicting that the Steelers would take a DB.

Here is the breakdown by position:

Position/# of votes/% of votes
Offensive line/126/66.7%

Defensive back/33/17.5%

Defensive line/21/11.1%

Wide receiver/7/3.7%

Running back/2/1.1%

Four of the top 5 vote getters were offensive linemen.  This should come as no surprise, given the problems the Steelers’ offensive line had this past year.  The top vote-getters were as follows:

Name/position/# of votes/% of votes
Alex Mack/OL/52/27.5%

Max Unger/OL/22/11.6%

Eben Britton/OL/18/9.5%

Sean Smith/DB/9/4.8%

William Beatty/OL/9/4.8%

Alphonso Smith/DB/7/3.7%

Jarron Gilbert/DL/7/3.7%

Vontae Davis/DB/5/2.6%

D.J. Moore/DB/5/2.6%

Eric Wood/OL/5/2.6%

Darius Butler/DB/4/2.1%

Tyson Jackson/DL/4/2.1%

Phil Loadholt/OL/4/2.1%

Robert Ayers/DL/3/1.6%

Hakeem Nicks/WR/3/1.6%

Fili Moala/DL/2/1.1%

Michael Johnson/DL/2/1.1%

Evander Hood/DL/2/1.1%

Kenny Britt/WR/2/1.1%

William Moore/DB/1/0.5%

Patrick Chung/DB/1/0.5%

Louis Delmas/DB/1/0.5%

Ron Brace/DL/1/0.5%

Troy Kropog/OL/1/0.5%

Jamon Meredith/OL/1/0.5%

Lesean McCoy/RB/1/0.5%

Beanie Wells/RB/1/0.5%

Percy Harvin/WR/1/0.5%

Darius Heyward-Bey/WR/1/0.5%

While 2 mock drafts had the Steelers taking a running back in the first round, I just can’t see that happening.  Rashard Mendenhall was drafted in the first round last year, and the Steelers are very solid at running back with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Mewelde Moore.

In my opinion, all of the other positions that received votes are a possibility.  We all know that the Steelers aren’t going to draft a quarterback or tight end in the first round, regardless of who is available.  We also know that they aren’t going to draft a special teams player (unless it is a wide receiver who also returns kicks or punts).  Beyond this, nobody knows what the Steelers will do.

I have learned over the years that trying to predict who the Steelers are going to draft is nearly impossible.  They play their cards very close to the vest, and they almost never do what fans expect them to do.  Nevertheless, I hope that this analysis may have added some insight into what we are likely to see on Saturday.

Go Steelers!!!!!!

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The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 2)

March 23, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 23, 2009
By Donald Starver

In part 1 of this series, we did a primer on the 3-4 defense.  We talked about the unique characteristics of the 3-4, and how it impacts the type of players the Steelers select in the draft.  In this installment, we’re going to take a look at the most important position on any 3-4 defense; the nose tackle.

The nose tackle is the central figure in any 3-4 defense, and is one of the most difficult positions to find.  There just aren’t many athletes that have the unique characteristics needed to play nose tackle.

Nose tackle is probably the most physically demanding position in football.  His primary responsibility is to control the “A” gaps.  Those are the two openings between the center and the guards.  The nose tackle must hold his ground and not allow himself to be pushed back into the linebackers.   If the nose tackle is unable to do this, his team will be susceptible to running plays.

The nose tackle must be prepared to face a double-team on every single play.  This means the nose tackle must have tremendous stamina and endurance.  Taking on two offensive linemen who both may weigh over 300 lbs. is no easy task.  To do it for a full 60 minutes requires excellent conditioning, despite carrying around tremendous bulk.

This is one of the reasons why Mike Tomlin was so hard on Casey Hampton during the Steelers’ 2008 training camp.  Tomlin knew that Hampton could not afford to be out of shape.  The concern was not his weight, since the extra weight might actually prove helpful at nose tackle.  Rather, the concern was with Hampton’s endurance.  There is a very thin line between being an immovable, athletic nose tackle, and being a fat, out-of-shape slob.

That’s one of the reasons that NFL teams don’t simply import 600 lb. sumo wrestlers and plug them in as nose tackles.  While those guys may have the necessary girth, they don’t have the other attributes needed to play nose tackle.

The nose tackle must have tremendous size, powerful arms and legs, excellent stamina, durability, mental toughness, lateral quickness, solid technique, and an ability to generate maximum leverage.  In addition to all of this, the nose tackle must also have a unique mental profile.  He has to be completely selfless.  He must understand that while he will have to perform a more physically demanding task than any other player on his team, he will seldom be recognized for his work.  His best efforts will rarely show up in the statistics.  Moreover, the linebackers will receive all of the glory, even though the nose tackle actually does the heavy lifting.

3-4 nose tackles don’t have to be as fast as 4-3 defensive tackles, since they are not tasked with generating a pass rush like 4-3 tackles are.  In the 3-4, that responsibility fall to the linebackers.

The ideal nose tackle will be proficient at reading and reacting to offensive plays.  He must be able to quickly diagnose a play and know where the ball is going.  He must have quick lateral movement to fill either “A” gap before the runner can get through it.

The standard for nose tackles was probably set by Ted Washington.  At 6’5″, 365 lbs., Washington was an immovable man-mountain.  One AFC personnel director said that Washington “was huge, had long arms, and you couldn’t budge him.  He could hold off a 320 lb. lineman with one hand and make the tackle with the other”.

Current notable 3-4 nose tackles include the Steelers’ own Casey Hampton (6’1″, 325 lbs.), the Chargers’ Jamal Williams (6’2″, 348 lbs.), the Browns’ Shaun Rogers (6’4″, 350 lbs.), and the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata (6’4″, 345 lbs.).  Hampton is smaller than the others, but his low center of gravity and powerful legs allow him to generate tremendous leverage.

As a side note, you may have noticed that the AFC North is filled with big, powerful nose tackles.  This is why Sean Mahan was not a viable center for the Steelers.  He just wasn’t big enough to handle the huge nose tackles that he had to face in the AFC North.

The thing that makes it even harder to find a potential 3-4 nose tackle is that most colleges play a 4-3 defense.  Few college players have experience holding the point of attack.  Instead, most college tackles are asked to penetrate gaps and provide a pass rush.  They are skilled in moving forward, and are seldom asked to stand firm.

In the 2009 draft, there are only a handful of potential NFL nose tackles.  Two of them play for Boston College.

Boston College’s B.J. Raji is the top defensive tackle in the entire draft.  At 6’2″ and 334 lbs., he is viewed as a good candidate for either a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme.  Raji dominated linemen at the Senior Bowl.  At Senior Bowl practices, he dominated highly rated offensive linemen Alex Mack and Max Unger.

Raji’s Boston College teammate, Ron Brace, is also viewed as a potential 3-4 nose tackle.  Brace is 6’3″ and 329 lbs.  However, because he played next to Raji, Brace never had to face double-teams.  It is unclear how well he will handle the double team.  Moreover, Brace had recurring back injuries in 2008.  That is not a good sign for someone his size.

Sammie Lee Hill of Division II Stillman (Alabama) College is considered another nose tackle prospect.  Hill is 6’4″ and 328 lbs.  However, the caliber of competition that he played against raises questions as to whether Hill can hold his ground against NFL linemen.

Michigan’s Terrance Taylor (6’0″, 308) was once viewed as a decent nose tackle candidate.  However, Taylor struggled in the East-West Shrine Game.  That raised questions in some scouts’ minds.  Additionally, Taylors’ conditioning has been questioned.

As we said earlier, top tier nose tackle candidates are rare.  Three of the four candidates mentioned above have significant question marks, and only Raji is viewed as a “sure thing”. Raji will probably be drafted in the top 10 picks, and will not be a candidate for the Steelers.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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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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If I were Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert (Part 5)

March 11, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 11, 2009
By Donald Starver

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

Part 1,

Part 2,

Part 3

Part 4

In our last installment in this series, we talked about what the Steelers’ top priority should be in the upcoming draft.  Most fans probably think that the Steelers’ top priority is the offensive line, and most mock drafts reflect as much.  However, I argued that the Steelers’ top priority should actually be the defensive line.

Having established what the top priority should be, I now want to move on to the Steelers’ second priority in the 2009 NFL draft.

I can hear some of you saying, “finally, he’ll address the offensive line”!  Ummmm, no.  In my opinion, the offensive line is not the Steelers’ top priority in the 2009 draft, nor should it be their second priority.  Nope, that honor falls to the defensive backfield.

The Steelers need DB’s much more than they need offensive linemen.  No, I haven’t been smoking crack.  I’m completely serious.  The Steelers have their entire starting  offensive line from the Super Bowl returning next year.  Every single player will be back.  Moreover, they also have lots of young talent waiting in the wings to challenge the starters for playing time.

Last year’s 4th round draft pick Tony Hills will have a year under his belt, and will actually know what is going on.  Trai Essex looks like he’ll still be around, even though he hasn’t been able to win a starting job after 4 years with the team.  Jason Capizzi is huge, and seems to have potential.  Doug Legursky also shows promise.  As does Jeremy Parquet.

In addition to all of those players waiting in the wings, the Steelers will almost certainly take at least one offensive lineman in the upcoming draft.  So offensive line is covered.  Sure, they’re not world-class, but they’ll do.

Contrast that with the Steelers’ defensive backs.  Unlike the offensive line, the DB’s did lose a starter.  Cornerback Bryant McFadden signed a free agent contract with the West Pittsburgh Cardinals.

We all know that Ike Taylor is the Steelers’ most talented cornerback.  But Bryant McFadden was probably their most consistent cornerback last year, and he was definitely the best in run support.  He will certainly be missed by the Steelers.

Backup cornerback William Gay did get a lot of playing time last season, and Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau feels that he’s ready to step in and replace McFadden.  But Gay is not as good as McFadden.

Frankly, I still question the mental competence of William Gay.  After all, he’s the same guy who wore a NY Yankees cap and Arizona Cardinals colors to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl victory parade.  How smart can the guy be if he can make such an inexcusable (and unforgivable)  faux pas?  (Note to William Gay:  our baseball team is the Pittsburgh Pirates, and our team colors are BLACK AND GOLD!!!).

Deshea Townsend is still on the roster as a backup, but Deshea has never been an incredible talent.  Deshea has remained in the league because he is one of the smartest players on the team.  He’s neither big, nor fast, but he seldom makes mental errors, and he never gets caught out of position.  That is a great asset to have as a backup, but Deshea is in his 13th year in the league, and it’s time to yield to younger, faster legs.

What would happen if Ike Taylor ruptured his achilles tendon and had to miss the 2009 season?  The Steelers would be screwed, that’s what would happen.  They have no other cornerback on the roster who can defend top-tier wide receivers, and they have almost no depth at the position.

The situation is not quite as bad at the safety position, since they didn’t lose a starter.  However, the Steelers did lose depth at the position when safety Anthony Smith was allowed (or should I say, “asked”) to leave.

Troy Polamalu is All-Universe, and Ryan Clark is solid.  Their positions as starters are basically guaranteed.   No worries there.

Tyrone Carter is the only other safety on the Steelers’ roster with any actual NFL experience.  Last years’ 6th round draft pick, Ryan Mundy, spent most of the season on the practice squad after being released during the Steelers’ final cuts.

Tyrone Carter has always played competently when called upon.  However, I have always felt uneasy having to rely on a 5’9″ safety.  Sure, lots of 5’9″ guys flourish at cornerback.  But not many do at safety.

Earlier, I listed a slew of young, aspiring offensive linemen waiting in the wings for the Steelers.  As you can see, we have no such list at defensive back.  We basically have an old man, a munchkin, and a practice squad player.  That is our depth in the defensive backfield.  Does that make you feel either comfortable or confident?  Me neither.

That is why if I were Kevin Colbert, my second priority in the 2009 NFL draft would be defensive backs, NOT offensive linemen.

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If I were Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert (Part 4)

March 09, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

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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