First Round Oline Talent - A Post That is Far Too Long

So, we find ourselves in the No Man’s Land of the football year – stuck in the offseason between the multi-multimillion dollar opening days of free agency and the 2009 NFL draft. As football fans, it’s a fairly boring period. And, might I add, particularly boring for Steelers fans. Seeing as the Rooney’s rarely make a big splash in free agency and have the tendency to keep their opinions as to the draft pretty close to their chest, most of us have nothing else to do other than complain about the impending loss of our own free agents (see McFadden, Bryant), the need resign upcoming free agents (see Harrison, James & Miller, Heath), and wonder what second- or third-tier free agent we might be able to pick up. Oh, that and look at endless and oftentimes ill informed mock drafts. Indeed, it’s almost enough to make you want to sign up for the NFL network just to NFL Replays on a Sunday afternoon (Disclaimer: I am actually watching NFL Reply right now, God help me).

In order to pass the time then, I thought I might speculate on what might happen with our (barely) first-round pick at 32. Of course, I am no more informed than anyone else, but having done some research in the last few weeks I thought I might offer a few opinions and hopefully open up some thoughtful discussion (with a sense of history, of course). In particular, I am interested if there will be any lineman –OT, G, or C – worthy of our number 32.

Now I understand that our first rounder might very well not go to rebuilding an offensive line that is, at best, frustratingly adequate in its best moments. It could very well also go to a CB (there’s been considerable discussion about Alfonso Smith for this pick), to bolster our aging Dline (one could dream Tyson Jackson would be available), or if a monster WR happened to fall – although this doesn’t seem to me to be a position of need that ought to be looked at this early in the draft. That is, again a top rated monster falls to us. It seems highly unlikely that we would be interested in a Safety, QB, RB, TE or OLB here (although if a monster ILB falls to us I wouldn’t see us passing just because it’s an ILB – Farrior isn’t getting any younger and Foote is on the last year of his contract). It seems most likely that we will take the highest rated OT, G, C, CB, or DL available at 32, with a slight bias in favor of the positions in the trenches.

The Offensive lineman we could realistically draft at 32 might include OT’s William Beatty (UConn) and Eben Britton (Arizona); Guards Duke Robinson (Oklahoma) and Andy Levitre (Oregon State); and Centers Alex Mack(Berkley) and Max Unger (UOregon). I think it possible that a tackle such as Michael  Oher (of The Blind side fame)could fall into the 20’s, making it possible to trade up for him without giving away the whole draft – although I would also find it hard to believe that he would get past Philly at 21, although the fall of Andre Smith may push Oher down as well since Oher is seen as a less polished talent than Smith.

My initial thought is to pass on Beatty outright. He’s a one-year wonder at UConn who only started to show up to games this last year – coincidently right before he would declare for the draft. While he had a fine Senior Bowl, I still question his work ethic as well as the pride he might bring to the position – if he is okay taking plays off we’re no better off with him than with our current roster. Also, as some folks on here have mentioned before, I am a bit skeptical that our current Oline or Oline coach have the ability to motivate new guys. It seems like whoever we draft for this line will have to be a great self-motivator, he’ll need the kind of motor to keep going no matter what the attitudes of those around him. Beatty just doesn’t seem like that sort of guy to me.

Britton is a tougher case to decide. He’s played solidly his entire career, but might lack the athletic ability to make it at LT in the NFL (unlike someone like Oher who has tons of physical ability, but might lack the mental toughness/quickness to be a great LT). Most analysts argue that he projects at an RT in the NFL, although as we all know RT is a position of weakness for us. I have no qualms about taking an RT in the first round, but I don’t want to take a lesser athlete at RT than we could get at G or C simply because there’s a run on tackles in the first round. We could get a quality RT in Day 2 of the draft. And, besides, the Coaches have yet to see the wisdom of moving Colon to Guard and I doubt they would with the addition of Britton. Combine that with our tendency to more or less “redshirt” our draft picks for a year, it seems unlikely that if we picked up Britton he would start before next season anyway. There is also the Tony Hills experiment to consider, who if he develops properly could take the job after Colon’s current contract is up. So, I say we pass on Britton – I think we could get a comparable talent later in the draft that would play well with a year of conditioning/practice with the team.

On to Guard. This, as almost everyone recognizes, is a poor draft for guards. There is some quality depth, but there is probably no elite guard in the draft. Or, alternatively, there probably isn’t a huge talent gap between the top 10 guards going in this year – or at least not as much as you would hope. I remain unconvinced that either Robinson or Levitre is first round material. Robinson plays well as a run blocker in a power scheme – he’s a rhino in a phone booth as some say  - but he lacks the technique to be a great pass protector, and lacks the speed/coordination to do much pulling - a skill that is essential to be a good guard in the Steelers running scheme. Robinson is also said to have a soft body (a bit too flabby for a power blocker) and doesn’t possess the kind of fundamental’s to rely on if he gets “out physical-ed” by an opposing player. Robinson is aggressive at least, which may make him an upgrade over Simmons. But I also don’t think a slight upgrade over Simmons is what we want out of a first rounder lineman, especially at guard. Levitre is a pick I could probably live with since he is big, technically sound, and appears mentally tougher than Robinson. He played left tackle at Oregon State, so he has the kind of speed, footwork, and athleticism to develop into a pulling guard. This is not to say that he would develop into another Fanaca, but he might be a more than serviceable left guard for the next 10 years. Still, I think we could get greater value for our pick with one of the top centers. That being said though, if we pass on this guy at the end of the first it’s obvious that he won’t be there at the end of the second. Robinson, however, just might. And as a second rounder he would be of great value.

Unlike the class of guards, the center class is one of the strongest in a number of years, with at least 3 possible first day selections available (Mack, Unger, and Louisville’s Eric Wood). Of the three top centers, only Mack and Unger deserve first round consideration – Wood is a going to have a great pro career, but for different reasons Mack and Unger could be impact players for a decade on whatever team they fall to. If we decide to pass on the centers, Wood may still be available at the end of the second and if he is, we should strongly consider him a bargain there.

Mack is a big, strong three year starter from Berkley. Most of you are familiar enough with Mack to know that he is considered by some to be the strongest center in the draft and perhaps the best center to come out in the last five years or so. However, looking through a number of Mock Drafts/Scouting organizations, there appears to be no consensus as to who the top center is. While Mack is lauded as being a mentally tough, tenacious, play to the whistle brawler, Unger is praised for his versatility and obvious physical skills. They are of similar size (although Mack is a little heavier) and have both excelled in their respective schools. My preference, however, is for Mack. In what follows I’ll attempt to make my argument.

Unger is a fine athlete, and while I would not be upset if we went with him over Mack, he seems a worse fit for us than Mack. First, the issue of strength is an issue with Unger – he only put up 22 reps at 225 at the Combine (Eric Wood, for instance, put up 30). While I am not sold on the notion that Combine drills predict much about professional success (work ethic and selflessness seem to both matter the most and be immeasurable) , it does demonstrate that Unger is one of the weaker Olinemen this year. Of course, his functional strength may be much higher, there is certainly a difference between benching and pushing around a big nosetackle, this still tells us that he was not much of a workout warrior in college. It may also demonstrate that he faced a lot of smaller, quicker DT’s in college in which his strength mattered much less than his feet. However, against big AFC north nosetackles like Rogers and Ngata, strength as well as technique will be absolutely necessary in order to open up running lanes and protect Ben. While Unger can certainly bulk up, it seems like he may also need to learn how to play with both power and finesse. Again, this is possible, but Mack seems to be more naturally suited to take on Ngata on 4th and short than Unger.

Another concern I have regarding Unger is his football IQ. Next to the QB, the Center should have the highest football IQ on the team – he should be able to pick up blitzes, audible blocking assignments, and generally command the line of scrimmage like Macarthur. Jeff Hartings, a great center in his day, never possessed the physical skills of someone like Dermontti Dawson, but was gangbusters at reading defensive schemes and making last second adjustments. The decline in our line play from 2006 to 2007 was not entirely because of Mahan lacked Hartings physical gifts (although he did, of course), but also because he lacked his intelligence on the field. Unger comes from a spread offensive and the whole point of the spread is to make the defense your facing declare themselves early – when you’ve got four WR’s lining up with a QB in shotgun you know that you won’t have much of a chance to disguise your defense since, if they are out of position, the offensive will burn you. Therefore you give up on the idea of disguise and simply play personal – you bet that your corner can cover their receiver; your linebacker can cover their tight end etc. However, since there is never a disguise to a defense your QB doesn’t need to attempt to decipher blitzes or coverage schemes – they are all easily seen from back in the shotgun position. This is one reason that spread QB’s have a hard time making it in the NFL, they lack the experience at trying to ferret out what a defense is doing. The same, it seems to me, might apply to a center in the spread; since it is already apparent what a defense is going to do they rarely find it necessary to spend much time developing their recognition skills.  And, as we all know, a confused Oline is a recipe for Ben to be decapitated by Terrell Suggs.  Even a line with marginal upside – like our current one – could be greatly improved if they were given good adjustments and accurate assignments.

Mack comes from a style of offense that is closer to the NFL’s and, might I add, has received the Draddy Trophy which is given to the top scholar athlete in college football.  You can do worse than have a big, strong, high motor center, with a better than average IQ, going up against Ngata and a Ravens defense that prides itself on disguise. Mack certainly has shortcomings to his game – he ends up on his back too often and lacks the speed of someone like Unger – but his determination and IQ could make him the centerpiece of the new offensive line that will almost certainly be created after the current one blown up after this year. Mack could make an immediate impact as a guard (or at least compete with the Stappler) and slide over to center next year. This, of course, doesn’t mean we couldn’t resign Hartwing if we wanted since he could naturally slide into the guard spot himself (where he started).

In any event, of the lineman I’ve mentioned it seems as if Mack has the most upside and could also make an immediate impact upon the play of the line. There are good arguments to be made for them all – although I think Robinson is better left to somebody in the second round – but Mack has the skills and determination to be the guard of the present and the center of the future.

Obviously this is too long, but it seemed like a good way to pass a Sunday afternoon and hopefully get some conversation going.


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