Hunt for three key draftees heats up for Steelers
Hunt for three key draftees heats up for Steelers
February 20, 2013
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LSU's Barkevious Mingo is the sort of pass rusher off the end the Steelers look for to play outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Kevin Colbert already has framed the offseason plan for the Steelers. He and coach Mike Tomlin are not going to stand pat after an 8-8 season in which the team lost three of its final four games to miss the playoffs.
Not to mention the need to deal with serious salary-cap issues.
The road to change begins Thursday when the NFL combine gets under way at Lucas Oil Stadium, a six-day testing and research mission in which the Steelers need to further define the players they will seek to help them in the April draft.
And, for the first time since 2004, they need to find at least two skill players on offense -- a wide receiver and running back -- and an edge rusher who can pressure the quarterback on defense, something team president Art Rooney II suggested would help the team create more takeaways.
What's more, the Steelers cannot afford to use their No. 1 draft pick on a player who will be groomed to play in another year or two. That's a luxury they can afford after a Super Bowl season when not many roster openings are available. Not now.
With 17 unrestricted free agents, they need players to come in and play immediately, especially the one who will be the 17th overall pick.
While this crop of collegiate players does not have a defining star such as Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III on offense or Von Miller or Ndamukong Suh on defense, it is considered a good year for defensive ends who project as outside linebackers in the NFL.
"I wouldn't want a top-10 pick this year," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said in a conference call. "I think the fifth pick in the draft and the 25th pick in this draft are very similar. The top 10 picks, I don't see the difference-makers that we've had the last several years."
The combine might help to sort out some of that top-10 uncertainty, but, either way, that could bode well for the Steelers.
There is no question they need at least one wide receiver, and likely two, from the draft to give Ben Roethlisberger additional weapons. And there will be a need for that receiver to play immediately with the expected departure of Mike Wallace.
But, with postseason declarations from Colbert and Rooney about the lack of pressure, the need for a pass-rushing outside linebacker would appear to be tantamount. And that need is heightened because of the situation surrounding James Harrison, who will be 35 and is scheduled to make $6.57 million this season. Harrison is coming off a season in which he had six sacks in 13 games.
Some mock drafts have the Steelers selecting Georgia's Jarvis Jones (6-2, 242), a defensive end who is projected as an outside linebacker, in the first round. That would make sense to Mayock.
Other potential edge rushers who could be converted from defensive end are Ezekial Ansah of Brigham Young, Barkevious Mingo of LSU, Alex Okafor of Texas and Dion Jordan of Oregon.
"He's explosive; he's tough; he's a playmaker," Mayock said of Jones, who had 28 sacks the past two seasons at Georgia. "He fits in that 4-3, which is what he already played, but some teams that are in the 3-4 like him. The teams like Pittsburgh, they don't care as much about length as some of the other 3-4 teams do. Pittsburgh looks at an outside linebacker and says, 'Hey, he needs to be explosive. He needs to be able to disengage from blocks. He needs to be able to pressure a quarterback.'
"LaMarr Woodley. That's who those guys look like ... Harrison. They look more like him than they do some of the old-school, long 3-4 guys. So, yeah, some of the 3-4 teams will see him and say, 'Yes, he can play in what we do.' "
In other words, an edge rusher who can pressure the quarterback without the help of a scheme.
Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote accounted for 27 percent of the team's sacks in 2012 (10 of 37), but their pressure comes as a result of a scheme that springs them free.
Jones could be a top-10 pick, but his medical condition -- he was diagnosed with stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column, in 2009 -- will receive much scrutiny at the combine. Mayock likes Jones more than Mingo (6-4, 230), who is being projected as a possible top-10 pick, if not top five.
"A lot of people have him in the top 10, I've got him at the end of the first round," Mayock said. "He's got a little bit of stiffness to him. He obviously runs very fast. When the ball goes away from him, he's fantastic. He's a run-and-chase linebacker. I think he's got some upside as a pass-rusher. There's nothing about the kid I don't like, I just don't see a top-10 guy today."
Steelers' draft priority: Find a starting RB
By Jamison Hensley | ESPN.com
The Steelers, even with Jonathan Dwyer in the backfield, are in need of a feature running back.
The Pittsburgh Steelers would like to draft an outside linebacker, especially given the price tag of James Harrison, who's 34. They would do well to add a safety, considering the age of their starters.
There's no such flexibility when it comes to running back. Pittsburgh has to draft someone who can gain the tough yards, break big runs and carry the load in the ground game. Calling running back a draft need is an understatement. Finding a feature back is the priority of the Steelers' draft.
Teams talk about the necessity of having two solid running backs. Right now, the Steelers have just one running back under contract, Baron Batch, who has a healing forearm and a 2-yard average on 25 career carries. General manager Kevin Colbert should get a front-row seat when the running backs take the field for the NFL combine. The Steelers can't go into the 2013 season with championship aspirations if they don't have an answer at running back, and they don't need an anonymous player to point that out.
Pittsburgh's running game declined in 2012, producing the franchise's fifth-worst rushing season in the past 50 years:
Year Rush yards per game (rank) Yards per carry (rank)
2008 105.6 (23rd) 3.7 (29th)
2009 112.1 (19th) 4.2 (16th)
2010 120.3 (11th) 4.1 (18th)
2011 118.9 (14th) 4.4 (11th)
2012 96.1 (26th) 3.7 (28th)
The challenge for the Steelers is choosing a top runner in a running back class that lacks top-tier prospects. It's not an ideal situation, but it's not as if Pittsburgh has another option.
It's time to move on from Rashard Mendenhall, an unrestricted free agent who is expected to get a better offer elsewhere. It's time to acknowledge that restricted free agents Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are complementary backs, not starting-caliber ones. It's time to add fresh legs to a Steelers' running attack that has been losing ground the past couple of years.
The Steelers rushed for 1,537 yards in 2012, their fewest in a season since 2003 (1,489). They failed to make the playoffs both seasons, which isn't a coincidence.
"I can say collectively that group wasn't as good as we anticipated," Colbert said after the season. "Where we were in the running game last year was indicative of the talent at the position.”
That was a Bernard Pollard-type shot from Colbert. The message is that the Steelers have to upgrade the running back position, not stick with the status quo.
Even if the salary cap-strapped Steelers had the space, they shouldn't go after free agents like Steven Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw or Reggie Bush. It's proven that you want to avoid backs who have more than five years of wear and tear. A big back like Shonn Greene is intriguing, but he is probably too pricey for Pittsburgh's cap situation.
The Steelers also shouldn't consider Mendenhall, even though it's tempting to re-sign him because of his age (25) and previous success. Mendenhall hasn't been the same runner the past two seasons. He's been using so many stutter steps and spin moves approaching the line of scrimmage that he seems to be auditioning to become the next Steeler on "Dancing With The Stars." He also has had issues with fumbling (11 in 1,006 career touches) and with leaving the stadium after being told he wasn't going to play (which led to a one-game suspension).
The easiest -- and cheapest -- way to improve the position is through the draft. The difficulty is finding the right runner. Ask a draft expert to name the top running back in this year's draft and you might get five different answers.
Alabama's Ed Lacy, who has been projected to go in the first round by Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, will reportedly not participate in workouts at this week's NFL scouting combine because of a hamstring injury. Wisconsin's Montee Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards last season, but there are concerns that he was overworked in college. North Carolina's Giovani Bernard lacks ideal size, although he can produce big plays in the run and pass game. Michigan State's Le'veon Bell is a bruising back who doesn't have great vision. South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is the most talented back, but he suffered major injuries to both knees in consecutive seasons.
The Steelers historically don't take running backs early in the draft. Since 2000, only one running back (Mendenhall) has been selected in the first four rounds by Pittsburgh. Recent NFL history shows the Steelers don't have to reach for a running back in the first round this year. Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris and DeMarco Murray were all selected No. 53 (second round) or later in the past five drafts.
Some will argue that the Steelers don't need a featured back. This is a passing league, and the offense will still be centered on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But running the ball is an indicator of success. Of the top 12 rushers in 2012, eight came from playoff teams. The Steelers have to get defenses to respect their running game so pass-rushers aren't teeing off on Roethlisberger.
"I can't say that I have the answers, but I think, again, everybody in this building agrees that that's a place we've got to get better at, and we've got to figure out what we need to do to get better," team president Art Rooney II said after the season. "It's something that I think, for the Pittsburgh Steelers to be successful, that's got to be one of the foundations and we've got to figure that out."
A few years ago, Rooney mandated that the Steelers run the ball more consistently and efficiently. They thought they could fix the running game by changing offensive coordinators. Now, it's time to make a change at running back, and the Steelers need to do so through the draft.