Steelers might turn corner with younger secondary
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
April 21, 2012
The Steelers led the NFL in pass defense last year for the second time in three seasons, limiting opponents to 172 yards per game.
But the secondary was exposed in a playoff loss at Denver, allowing numerous big plays, including an 80-yard touchdown pass on the opening play from scrimmage in overtime that ended Pittsburgh's season.
With that in mind, many expect the Steelers will be looking for help in the secondary during the NFL draft, which will be held April 26-28.
The Steelers hold 10 picks, including the 24th selection of the first round.
Even with the loss of starting cornerback William Gay as a free agent and the release of former starter Bryant McFadden, the Steelers feel good about what they have in the secondary.
Cornerback Ike Taylor is coming off one of his strongest seasons, and veteran Keenan Lewis stepped in as the third cornerback last season and performed admirably. The Steelers also are excited about the potential of Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, a pair of rookies in 2011.
The team also is solid at safety with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark both coming off Pro Bowl seasons and a pair of veterans in Ryan Mundy and Will Allen as backups.
However, the age of the players in the secondary could be a concern. Clark is 32, and Taylor and Polamalu each are 31. (And when the last time we got a full year play from Troy? Given the way Troy plays and his concussion history he won't be playing much longer. I think we need to draft a top safety or corner back especially since hands of stone Taylor can't catch (intercept) a cold. - mesa)
Because of that, adding youth to the secondary will be a priority in the draft, particularly in the later rounds.
At cornerback, LSU's Morris Claiborne is the clear-cut top pick and will likely be one of the first five or six players selected. South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore should be the next cornerback selected, slipping in ahead of Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, who didn't help his draft stock by getting arrested for marijuana possession earlier this year.
But the player who is the biggest wildcard among the cornerbacks in this draft is North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins, who began his career at Florida but transferred after being arrested several times, including twice for marijuana possession.
"(As far as) talent, top 10 to 15," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper via conference call. "If he had no red flags, he would be in the top 15, at worst the top 20, probably top 17, because Cincinnati is picking 17 and needs a corner. He could still be in the mix. The Lions need a corner desperately at 23.
"Or he could get into the second round very easily. I have him going to Carolina, picked 40th. Could he be a first? Yeah, but if that does push him down, it'll be for that reason."
Among safeties, Alabama's Mark Barron is likely the only player at the position who will be selected in the first round.
In later rounds, the Steelers could take a look at Wayne State's Jeremy Jones, West Virginia's Keith Tandy, or Coastal Carolina's Josh Norman.
Jones (5-10, 197) played free safety at Wayne State, setting records with 406 return yards on his 17 career interceptions. He also showed some ability to blitz, finishing with 8 1/2 career sacks.
Tandy (5-10, 202) also is more of a safety prospect, though he started his final two seasons for the Mountaineers at cornerback. A strong tackler, Tandy showed good ball skills throughout his career, recording 10 in his final two seasons.
Norman (6-0, 190) intercepted eight passes as a sophomore. Teams spent the next two years trying to avoid Norman's area. Solid in run support, Norman fits what the Steelers like in their cornerbacks as he led team in tackles with 62 as a senior.
Odds and end zones
Friday was the final day for teams to make offers to restricted free agents, meaning wide receiver Mike Wallace has no option but to return to the Steelers in 2012. ... Former Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon visited the Baltimore Ravens Thursday but was not signed to a contract. The Ravens instead signed Curtis Painter, who started last season for Indianapolis in place of injured Peyton Manning.