Very cool to have the NFL Network sponsor this post here on BTSC and across the NFL wing of SB Nation. Lots of heavy hitters lining up to have their name be a part of our conversations, and the beauty of it all is we haven't had to compromise our editorial integrity in any way really.
Anyway, a quick post here that I hope to maybe here some of your thoughts on. It relates to the wide receiver position for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After the 2010 season, the consensus around Steeler Nation and amongst NFL pundits was that the Steelers were more or less set at WR for the 2011 season. Hines Ward was coming back and still seemed to have enough in the tank to contribute; Mike Wallace had emerged as a bigtime threat in all quadrants of the field; rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown both managed to make the team and then contribute huge plays for the team during the team's journey to Super Bowl XLVIII. There was also Limas Sweed returning from an Achilles injury. Not too many would be brazen enough to count on Sweed delivering much in '11 or beyond based on his well documented struggles since being drafted in the second round of the '08 Draft. But because of his height, and how his physical stature differentiated himself from the guys who seemed to have cemented spots on the depth chart above him, folks understandably have had reason to believe that he could potentially join the fold in '11 and make plays for an already (seemingly) deep and set WR corps.
Don't get me wrong, I do think we're in great shape at WR for the '11 season. But what about '12 and beyond? Hines Ward is the man, my favorite player, a guy who might still catch 60-70 balls when he's 36-38 years old. But he might also hit a wall here in '11 or '12 and be approaching the twilight of his career. Then what? That leaves us with three guys all under 6' -- Wallace, Sanders, and Brown. Despite all three being awesome in their own right, I really don't think Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians are going to just be perfectly content with that trio unless their hand is played by injuries to other guys on the depth chart.
Forget about trying to find a diamond in the rough in the fourth through seventh round. It has and will continue to be done, but in today's NFL where passing is at such a premium, the Steelers are going to have to invest heavily in a blue chip talent at WR at some point in the near future. They've got great weapons as is, but will all the parts compliment each other if Hines Ward isn't in the equation?
Sure, Ward has developed into a Hall of Fame type player as a former third round pick, but don't let his career fool you into thinking that's the norm. Not at all. The list of dumpy mid-round WRs taken by the Steelers is substantially longer than the list of guys who materialized into solid contributors, or in Ward's case, showcase, feature players for multiple years.
I just am not convinced yet that Sanders and Brown will be nearly as effective without two very productive guys in front of them diverting defensive attention away from them. As No. 3 and No. 4 type options, Sanders/Brown are awesome. Slide either one of them into No. 2 type roles? Eeek. I dunno. Not at this stage in either of their respective careers at least, and perhaps not ever despite the fact that I also feel entirely confident in their ability to make a big play under pressure when the team needs it most.
That's not to say they can't be No. 2 type guys. Both possess great hands, and both could very conceivably log a 85 catch game season. I just don't really want to see that happen except for maybe once or twice, if at all, during the course of what I hope is a long career for both in Pittsburgh.
Again, not a knock. This isn't our granddad's NFL. Passing is king, and your No. 3 and No. 4 weapons at WR are infinitely more important than was the case back in the day.
Case in point? Jordy Nelson's performance in the Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh. Yuck. Was hard to believe while it unfolded, and it still makes me shake my head to this day. I know, none of us are alone on this.
But ultimately, Nelson's MVP-worthy field day in Green Bay's Super Bowl win shouldn't be that surprising. The dude can play when he gets the right matchup. It's increasingly common for competent quarterbacks to exploit great matchups at the No. 3 and No. 4 WR positions. Even though I agree that there's plenty to be said about old-timer coaches that have been in this league forever, dont let Dick LeBeau's greatness lead you to believe that most old school guys who earned their chops in a different era are up to the challenge of adjusting their tried and tested schemes to account for today's more potent, precise and persistent passing attacks. (How's that for illiteration?)
I could ramble on forever, but put it this way...
(1) We know we can bring home hardware with a mediocre line, or at least get damn close... ('08, '10)
(2) Since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach, and Ben Roethlisberger got a few years of experience under his belt (with a Lombardi in tow while we learned on the job), we've seen that the Steelers are going to put themselves in position to get lucky in the playoffs by resiliently grinding out a postseason berth, even if anything and everything imaginable happens to put them behind the eight ball ('07, '10). The standard of expectation does not change. And, you know what? After last season, that ain't just a cool Tomlinism anymore. That's truth after what we've seen transpire this past four seasons under Tomlin's leadership.
I wholeheartedly await the moment that the Steelers address their biggest issues at offensive line and cornerback. But I'm not at all ashamed to say that I believe in the guys that we have. If mid-late round prospects at OL are about to join the team in this year's Draft, I say don't bother. I'd prefer building on the continuity this group has built with each other through the bad times (and the occasional good) in recent years, over just hoping a new set of mid-round prospects somehow all pan out in unison to make the unit better. So here's to hoping we don't just reach for an OL in the first round, just because everyone and their mother realizes we should add a piece.
Same goes for cornerback. We definitely need to add a CB in round one or two just because it appears as if Ike Taylor might be out the door via free agency. That's not a given, no matter how interested other teams might be in him according to unverified reports. But let's face it, given that the Steelers haven't been able to start molding their '11 roster via free agency -- or at least see where they stand in terms of re-signing key guys -- it's safe to assume they'll be looking for a highly regarded insurance policy at CB, assuming that Taylor won't be with the team next year.
But were Taylor to stay with the Steelers -- and that's not entirely inconceivable at all -- then the Steelers may just be better off bolstering the defensive line than they would be the cornerback position. What we don't know is if Crezdon Butler and Keenan Lewis are ready to take a couple of huge steps forward this year in their development. If they are, then we might just be okay.
Here's what we do know though -- an awesome front-seven better mask whatever deficiencies the team has in the secondary more readily than vice versa. If you accept that line of logic, let me ask, could it make more sense then to perhaps invest in the defensive line rather than at CB this year so that the organization could more comfortably assess what they have in Butler and Lewis?
I mean, think about it -- say Butler and Lewis both have breakthrough training camps and '11 seasons, after we draft one or two CBs in this year's draft. Then what? No room for all of them, and Butler and Lewis are shown the door because less money has been invested in them. Not sure it's so wise to commit so heavily at CB when there's some key questions still to be answered amongst the group that's already part of the squad.
If your Magic Eight-Ball told you that either Butler or Lewis was going to ball and be great in '11, would you rethink your insistence on needing to draft a CB in round one or two.
Back to Sanders/Brown as we conclude -- all that's to say . I just think that so long as Ben Roethlisberger is under center, we better surround him with multi-faceted and extremely talented weapons. Based on what I've seen in recent years -- namely since 2008 -- it's safe to say that you better have a sick offense if you hope to be a great team that's playing for Lombardis.
They say defense wins championships. Maybe in the NBA. Not necessarily the case though in today's NFL. Defense matters, for sure. A consistent defense is going to position the team nicely to contend for playoff appearances. But you better have the talent at quarterback and at WR and other skill positions to rip off some great offense under high pressure if you want to win it all. Recent history this decade is what I'm basing that statement on. Even in '08 when Pittsburgh won 'one for the other thumb', our defense -- which had been historically dominant all year -- got exposed by Kurt Warner and the Cardinals' finely tuned offense. It was Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offensive competency (at least when all the marbles were at stake) that won Super Bowl XLV.
Anyway, not necessarily advocating using a high pick on a WR this year. If Limas Sweed wasn't lingering out there s a potential X-factor, then I'd say I'm fine with using a second or third round pick on a WR. But really, I see the intermediate and long-term need to bolster the WR corps. If Colbert & Co. opted to get a leg up on that task, then I'd understand. It's as important as any two-four year goal for the Steelers. As I mentioned, we've seen that the team can win without a great line or Pro Bowl lock-down corners. But we've yet to see is the team hoist a Lombardi without a wide range of talented playmakers at WR. Like I said though, I'd just assume we trade away mid-round picks to try to get top flight talent. I personally don't see any room for multiple multi-year projects. If that's the case, package the picks and move u to get the guys you feel the best about being long term studs on your team.