Recently Tim (HSS) put out a great piece on "What if the Steelers draft Ras-I Dowling at pick 31?" and it really got me thinking about other moves the Steelers might make that would surprise most of us. Now, it’s no secret the Steelers are not shy about trading up in the first round to take a player they really like. Within the last decade they’ve done it for Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes, and while Holmes is no longer on the team I still think both trades worked out pretty well in our favor.
The general consensus is that the most desired player in the 2011 NFL draft for most fans is Florida Offensive Guard Mike Pouncey, twin brother of current Steelers Offensive Center Maurkice Pouncey. And why shouldn’t he be? Maurkice Pouncey was named to the Pro-Bowl in his first year and the Steelers have a huge hole at Right Guard, so why not get a carbon copy of a current Pro-Bowler to fill that need? Mike Pouncey has become a hot commodity and it’s become highly unlikely that he’ll be available when the Steelers make their selection at pick 31, so if the Steelers want him bad enough they’ll have to trade up to get him.
But what if the Steelers front office doesn’t like him as much as the Steelers faithful? Just because his brother became an instant success doesn’t mean that Mike Pouncey will too. And the Steelers have other needs besides just at Offensive Guard, some would say that Cornerback is a much bigger need. And what about Offensive Tackle? Eventually when a new CBA is reached Willie Colon will probably be an unrestricted free agent. Will the Steelers be able to afford him then? If not that’ll leave soon-to-be 36 year old Flozell Adams to man the right side of our O-line. He filled in relatively well last season but he’s not a permanent solution.
And what about the age concerns of our defensive line? With the exception of Ziggy Hood the youngest defensive linemen is Nick Eason at 30 years old. Aaron Smith has missed a significant portion of two out of the last three seasons. Brett Keisel has even missed a little time as well. And while Casey Hampton is still able to occupy multiple blockers he’s no longer getting the same kind of push that we’re used to of him.
It’s with all of these questions that I ask you readers "What if the Steelers traded up in the 2011 NFL draft for someone other than Florida Offensive Guard Mike Pouncey?" Well for this article I’m going to pick a player or two at each position that makes any kind of sense and give my reasoning why I feel the Steelers should pull the trigger on them.
Perhaps the Steelers direst need is for help at Cornerback. Ike Taylor, who’s the only Cornerback on the roster who’s even close to Pro-Bowl caliber, is a 30 year old free agent. While it’s likely that he’ll resign with the Steelers at some point his pending free agency is not the only issue at the position. During the 2010 NFL draft the Steelers traded a 5th round pick to the Arizona Cardinals to retain Bryant McFadden. Unfortunately he did not regain the promise he was showing during the 2009 season and spent most of this past season injured. Willie Gay…..nothing needs to be said. Everyone already knows about how badly he needs to be replaced, and given that he’s a free agent as well he’ll need to be replaced right away. What’s left are special teamers (Anthony Madison) and previous late-round picks (Keenan Lewis, Crezdon Butler) that haven’t shown anything worth getting excited about, although I’m still hopeful that Butler will shine in his second season. It’s very possible that the Steelers indeed take two Cornerbacks in the upcoming draft to cover the deficiencies. Focusing on the first round though there will probably be four Cornerbacks chosen. The prize is LSU’s Patrick Peterson. I know everyone salivates at the idea of having him on the Steelers, as do I, but I can say with absolute certainty that it’s not going to happen. In my own personal mock draft I have him going to the San Francisco 49ers with the seventh overall pick and I see no way he makes it past there. It would probably take two first rounds picks plus more to move ahead of them, and that’s not counting the fact that the team who holds the pick in front of the 49ers is the Cleveland Browns, and I have a hard time seeing a deal get done between two hated rivals. On our end of the first round spectrum there is Colorado’s Jimmy Smith and Miami’s Brandon Harris. I’m a big fan of Jimmy Smith but given his attitude and past issues with the law I don’t think the Steelers will give him much consideration. Brandon Harris is a Steelers fan favorite and may even be available with the Steelers select at 31. But for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara.
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If Patrick Peterson is number 1 then Amukamara is 1a. Just about the only thing that separates the two is that Peterson has out of this world return ability. Amukamara is actually a little better at run support. He has elite size, strength, speed, and coverage ability and would be the perfect fit in the Steelers defense. Of course the biggest issue is cost. The most likely landing spot for Amukamara is at the ninth pick to the Dallas Cowboys, and they could really use his services so it would be hard to get them to trade back if he’s available. A good trade partner would be the Tennessee Titans at pick 8. They really need a Quarterback in light of the eventual releasing of Vince Young and the age of Kerry Collins and both Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton should be gone by then. Their best option would be trading back to the end of the first round to take Ryan Mallett or Chris Ponder. It would take our 1st, 2nd, and probably 4th or 5th round picks to get him. While I really think it would be worth it to get someone of his caliber it may be too costly to the Steelers front office.
While on the surface Offensive Tackle doesn’t seem to be as big of a need as Offensive Guard it is still a need none the less. Currently starting Left Tackle Max Starks ended the season on I.R. Even when healthy he struggles against speed rushers. He’s a much better fit on the right side of the line. As previously stated Willie Colon also ended the season on I.R. He’ll be a free agent when a new CBA is reached and is not likely to give the Steelers a discount to retain his services. He already has a Super Bowl ring and is now looking to get paid. It’s probable that if his salary demands are too high the Steelers will just let him walk. After Colon was sidelined with a ruptured Achilles tendon the Steelers went out and signed former Dallas Cowboys Pro-Bowl tackle Flozell "Hotel" Adams to fill in, and fill in well he did. But he’s currently 35 years old (turns 36 in May) and can be considered nothing more than insurance in the instance that Willie Colon is not resigned. If Colon leaves Adams will be a stop-gap for the coming season until the Steelers find a long-term solution. That solution may come in the 2011 draft. Currently there are five Offensive Tackles slated to go in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. For this article I will focus on just one, Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi.
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Gabe Carimi is the embodiment of what a Pittsburgh Steelers player should be. He’s a big, strong, nasty, blue collar-type that would be a welcome addition to the O-line. While a lot of people may consider him a Right Tackle only, which he may indeed be in the NFL, he has proven capable of protecting a QB’s blindside against some of the best pass-rushers the coming draft offers such as OSU’s Cameron Heyward and Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn. He’s also a devout Jew who even fasts on Yom Kippur so I wouldn’t expect a lot of behavioral problems from him. Because of the lack of consensus on the order of which the 5 Offensive Tackles will be chosen it makes pin-pointing where he’ll go a little more difficult. Carimi could go as early as to the Patriots at 17, the Chargers at 18, the Giants at 19, the Colts at 22, the Eagles at 23, or even the Ravens at 26. The most likely candidates though are the Colts and Eagles. That would mean that the Steelers would need to trade up with the Chiefs at 21 or the Bucs at 20. The Chiefs really need a WR, NT, and a pass-rushing OLB to compliment Tamba Hali. With Julio Jones already gone by then and the lack of depth at 3-4 OLB the Chiefs could be persuaded to trade back and acquire more picks, which would be the M.O. of Chiefs GM Scott Pioli during his time with the Patriots. As for the Bucs, maybe the Mike Tomlin-Raheem Morris connection could bear a little fruit. Tampa’s biggest need is for a 4-3 Defensive End of which there are plenty in this draft. In either event the Steelers should be able to trade up for the slight cost of our 1st, 3rd, and maybe a late round pick. If the Front Office thinks that Carimi can anchor either the left or right side of our line for the next decade+ then I think that it would be well worth it.
Now of the three areas of need for the Steelers this might be the easiest one to forgo at first glance. While Cornerback and Offensive line are positions where the Steelers need someone to step in fairly quickly the defensive line is all set. Like Ziggy Hood anyone drafted will not need to step in right away. However that doesn’t mean the Steelers should hold off until the issue becomes a dire one. Brett Keisel (32), Casey Hampton (33), Aaron Smith (34), Chris Hoke (34), and Nick Eason (30) are all getting up there in age and they play an essential role for our defense. Without them being able to occupy blockers the Linebackers won’t be free to apply pressure on the QB, and without that pressure the philosophy on which the defense is predicated on will fall apart. Because this need encompasses two positions I’ve selected both Cal DE Cameron Jordan and Baylor NT Phil Taylor.
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Cameron Jordan has been a hot prospect since the end of the regular season. At the Senior Bowl he put on a clinic, beating all of the so-called "elite" O-line talent currently sitting atop the 2011 NFL draft. Not counting Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairly, would be better off in a 4-3 defense anyway, Jordan is the top prospect for 3-4 Defensive Ends. Playing at Cal he also has experience playing in a 3-4 defense and during the combine and pro day he showed his ability to drop back in coverage, something that Steelers Defensive Ends are asked to do from time to time. He could go as early at the 12th pick to Minnesota but will not make it past the Patriots at 17. The prime spots for a trade up would be the Rams at pick 14 and the Dolphins at pick 15. The Rams really covet Alabama WR Julio Jones but it’s likely that he’ll be selected by Washington at 10. WR is their biggest need so they would be a good team to trade with, allowing them to take the top WR of the next tier such as Pitt’s Jon Baldwin or Maryland’s Torrey Smith. The Dolphins biggest needs are at Quarterback and Running back. Unfortunately for them both Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton will be long gone, and they could easily trade back and still get the top Running back in the draft in Alabama’s Mark Ingram. In either case it would cost the Steelers their 1st round pick in addition to their 2nd and 5th, or their 3rd and 4th.
Like with Cameron Jordan, Phil Taylor really made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl. He’s the consensus top NT for the 2011 NFL draft. I even wrote a player profile for him which you can read here. Quality NT’s are hard to find, especially with so many teams in the NFL now employing some version of the 3-4 defense. While Casey Hampton probably has another year or two in him of quality play taking Taylor would be a sound investment in the future as NT’s are tough to find. And because of his size and athletic ability he could even play Defensive End if needed much like Haloti Ngata does for the Baltimore Ravens. The earliest and most likely destination for Phil Taylor is to Kansas City at 21. Ron Edwards is a free agent and needed to be replaced anyway. If the Chiefs bypass him he could go to the Ravens at 26 or the Jets at 30. To out maneuver the Chiefs the Steelers could trade up with the Bucs at pick 20. As previously stated in the analysis for Gabe Carimi it should cost us our 1st, 3rd, and maybe a late round pick. If however he were to make it past the Chiefs then it wouldn’t take much to trade in front of the Ravens. A team like the Saints, with seemingly few needs could be persuaded to trade back and it would only cost us a 3rd rounder at most.
As far as all of these prospects are concerned I wouldn’t mind if the Steelers front office made a play for any of them. They all have something to contribute to the team. Prince Amukamara is basically a pipe dream. The cost involved in trading into the top ten would be too much for the Steelers to consider no matter how good he is or how dire the need. Of all the Offensive Tackle prospects with a first round grade Gabe Carimi fits the style of lineman the Steelers seem to prefer. If Willie Colon isn’t resigned the position does become a more important need. He could start right away on the right side, leaving Flozell Adams as the top back-up, and could possibly play on the left side depending on how quickly he develops.
When people think of the Steelers they think of defense. That’s just the way it’s always been and always will be. If the Steelers do make a big trade to move up the draft board it’s more likely going to be for a defensive stud, and not necessarily for a Cornerback. While I agree that the position does need to be addressed that fact remains that in the Steelers 3-4 zone defense a Cornerback just isn’t as important. As long as Ike Taylor resigns I would be fine with the Steelers waiting until the second or third round to address the position as long as the players they took first were worth it.
The defense is predicated on pressure and as such trading up for Cameron Jordan or Phil Taylor makes a potential trade-up more valuable even though both players may not make an immediate impact. I believe Cameron Jordan is going to be a very good player, as does most everyone else, and with so many teams needing a 3-4 Defensive End it’s going to be tough to get him. As with Prince Amukamara the price may be too much, although in the long run it could be worth it.
As stated in my player profile I’m also a big fan of Phil Taylor’s. I think that with the athletic ability he possesses in addition to his mammoth size he could give the Steelers a big (both literally and figuratively) weapon to use. If he makes it past Kansas City the price may be right to trade up without mortgaging the rest of the draft to do so.
Having said all of that I still would be happy if the Steelers traded up for Mike Pouncey. Unlike most I’ve tried to keep my expectations realistic about his potential. Just because his twin brother was able to start right away and earn a Pro-bowl invite in his first year doesn’t mean that he will, of course he could too. At this point it’s all speculation. All I know is that the Steelers have been pretty good at picking good talent in the first round and they’re not going to be slaves to need. So come draft day it could be anyone of the player’s mentioned above or someone else entirely.