Steelers Could Ignore OT Again in 2011 NFL Draft to Focus On Need and Value

Posted on December 7, 2010 by ted

Pittsburgh is the only NFL franchise that has not drafted an offensive tackle prospect in the first two rounds in any NFL draft over the past decade (2001-10). Do not be shocked if that streak continues in the 2011 NFL Draft. In fact, the Steelers may ignore offensive tackle altogether in April.

The Steelers rarely reach for prospects that are further down its draft value board and teams picking later in the first round simply cannot draft an offensive tackle in any round in this era without reaching at some point due to the increasing premium placed on the position by all NFL franchises.

Moreover, the Steelers could easily enter its 2011 NFL training camp (assuming a new CBA is reached and there are training camps) with three quality, proven, starting offensive tackles on its roster in LT Max Starks, RT Willie Colon and Flozell Adams, who could still start on either side.

They also could have up to two more versatile offensive linemen with significant game experience at tackle in veterans Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott, as well as two more young tackle prospects who have been on Steeler regular-season rosters in third-year left tackle Tony Hills and rookie right tackle/guard Chris Scott.

That is a lot of options for a veteran, Super Bowl-contending team with more immediate needs at right guard, cornerback and potentially defensive end if often-injured veteran Aaron Smith opts to retire after the 2010 season.

However, ignoring tackle in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft could prove disastrous for Pittsburgh as early as 2012, a season when the Steelers could be forced into starting a rookie, late, first-round offensive tackle, a recipe which is rarely successful.

After losing both Colon and Starks to season-ending injuries, the Steelers’ already-poor offensive line is now a makeshift unit.

Signing the veteran Adams right before training camp, however, has turned out to be a season-saver and one of the team’s best personnel moves of the highly-successful Kevin Colbert era. While not great, Adams has been a solid starter at right tackle this fall after spending most of his career as the Cowboys’ left tackle.

Adams, however, will turn 36 before the start of a potential 2011 season. While his annual salary doubles to $5 million in 2011, with none of it guaranteed, the Steelers will likely beg Adams to return for another training camp and would be best served keeping him on their 2011 roster even if he is an high-priced No. 3 offensive tackle.

That is because both of the Steelers’ starting offensive tackles over the past several seasons, Starks and Colon, will be returning from season-ending injuries. Moreover, while his play should not suffer upon his return in 2011, the type of neck injury Starks sustained means that any other serious injury in that area could quickly be deemed career-ending.

After struggling in pass protection early in his career, Colon emerged as one of the better right tackles in football in 2009 and was clearly the Steelers’ best offensive lineman before a season-ending Achilles tear in July that ended his 2010 season.

Colon is reportedly making great progress in his rehab, but he is unlikely a long-term answer for the Steelers for several reasons. First, players often need 1.5-2 years to recover from season-ending Achilles injuries, which is another reason why Adams will be asked back for training camp.

Second, while the Steelers’ coaching staff loves Colon and agrees with his agent that he is among the top right tackles in the NFL, Pittsburgh management has always placed more value on Starks, in large part due to his ability to play the more-important leftside.

Colon should have been eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2009 season if not for an owner-friendly provision that kept most fourth- and fifth-year players from becoming unrestricted free agents due to a new CBA not being agreed upon. That same provision will hold for this coming off-season as well, assuming no CBA is reached.

Veteran Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette wrote on the Post-Gazette‘s premium subscriber site a few weeks ago that he sees no way a CBA is reached that does not allow players like Colon to immediately become unrestricted free agents and that he expects Colon to cash in with a big paycheck while leaving the Steelers.

However, with the owners holding more cards in this labor strife due to their receiving guaranteed television revenues even if games are not played in 2011, I could easily see a scenario where teams again having the option to issue one-year tenders to their fourth- and fifth-year players like Colon and LaMarr Woodley, thus prohibiting those players from entering the free market.

If a CBA is not reached until after the draft, it seems unlikely that owners would allow the roster-shuffling chaos that would ensue with such a large group of potential free agents entering the open market so close to the season and with teams not able to draft their replacements. The later in the summer that a lockout drags on, the more likely any agreement eventually reached would prevent players like Colon from entering free agency until after the 2011 season.

Of course if a CBA is reached before the draft and the Steelers lose Colon to free agency, Adams would be the clear starter at right tackle for 2011 and tackle would become a bigger draft need for the Steelers.

However, even in that scenario, what team would pay a huge signing bonus to an undersized right tackle coming off an Achilles tear? Colon certainly would not receive the type of long-term deal reflective of a top starting right tackle in free agency.

Thus, the Steelers may be be able to resign him to a hometown discount or maybe Colon would turn down mutli-year offers, opting to instead sign a 1-year, incentive-based deal (most likely with the Steelers) with a plan of cashing in on a huge payday after returning to form in 2011.

Therefore, considering all these options, I disagree with Bouchette by arguing that the odds right now favor Colon remaining in a Steeler uniform in 2011, although that is much harder to see for 2012.

Scott is seemingly outmatched every week since he has been thrust into the Steelers’ starting left tackle role, a position he simply lacks the athleticism to play well in the NFL. However, Scott has surpassed expectations this fall and has shown himself as long-term, valuable and intelligent, reserve offensive lineman capable of playing 3-4 different positions on immediate notice. He is as tough as any Pittsburgh offensive lineman and hits somebody until the whistle. Unfortunately, that player is often not the defender he was initially assigned to block, because that man is already en route to harassing QB Ben Roethlisberger.

Essex, who has now seemingly lost his starting right guard spot for the rest of 2010 to Ramon Foster but did not fare horribly when forced to replace Adams at right tackle in the second half of last week’s 13-10 win over the Ravens, is similar to Scott in his versatility, intelligence and experience. Scott is tougher, but Essex has more size and experience within the Steelers’ system.

Both of these journeyman will be unrestricted free agents in January regardless of the CBA situation. While there will be multiple free-agent offers for top players Ike Taylor, there will likely be little external market for players like Scott and Essex. If no CBA is reached, why would an opposing owner shell out cash for a reserve offensive lineman? If a CBA is reached, then a much deeper and more talented group of offensive linemen will be available, and no franchise would sign Scott or Essex to be a starter.

Regardless, expect the Steelers to resign one of these two players of their choice to a 2-year contract in the upcoming off-season. Pittsburgh will have major free-agency issues to deal with if a CBA is reached, since Taylor, Woodley, Colon, and Matt Spaeth would all be unrestricted free agents, with the Steelers likely focusing all their energy and cash on keeping Taylor and Woodley, the latter of whom would likely receive the franchise tag if such a designation is again part of a CBA.

Taylor, however, would be the only starter on the market and the only Steeler who would receive lucrative free-agent offers if no CBA is reached. Pittsburgh must break the bank to maintain Taylor, but that would still enable the franchise to resign valuable veteran reserves like Essex or Scott to smaller, short-term contracts.

Either Scott or Essex, however, could be batting with or even sharing the right tackle job with a rookie 2012 first-round draft pick, because Colon will likely be in another uniform before the 2012 season at the latest and it hard to imagine Adams playing that long.

If that scenario scares the Steelers’ brass greatly, they could elect to draft a future starting offensive tackle late in the first round of the upcoming draft, passing over prospects at other positions who would be more likely to play sooner.

However, this is not a deep draft for tackles and Colorado’s Nate Solder, Mississippi State’s Derek Sherod, Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi and Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo are all likely to be selected before the Steelers’ pick, assuming none of the four bomb in the post-season all-star games and workouts.

If so, at this point there appears to be no other left-tackle prospect worthy of a first-round pick and the Steelers should not be reaching for a player like Arkansas’s DeMarcus Love, who most scouts see as a right tackle who may actually end up playing guard.

The ranks of offensive tackle prospects only gets thinner in later rounds and I do not see Pittsburgh veering too far down its board just to draft a tackle when it has so many roster options at that spot for 2011.

Be sure to log back onto tomorrow as we unveil a new 7-round Pittsburgh Steeler 2011 mock draft.

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