This is the second in BTSC's extended series covering and analyzing the 2012 NFL Draft and how it will affect the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're hoping to highlight prospects, discuss or lament speculation and even provide a full mock draft or two. Keep your eyes open for it, as of now there's no particular timetable, but if you have any ideas, feel free to leave a comment, or email me at the address indicated in my profile. - nc
In Part I, the Steelers defensive personnel was highlighted. Moving onto the offense, the first and most obvious unit is the offensive line.
We've likely seen G Chris Kemoeatu's last game as a Steeler, and with T Marcus Gilbert moving from right tackle to left in wake of the return of Willie Colon, the five trenchermen will be different than it was a year ago.
But what else is new?
First Round Draft Possibilities: G David Decastro, G Cordy Glenn
An offensive line that saw more shake-up than stability in 2012 should expect much of the same. Colon will enter camp as the starting right tackle, and Gilbert will move to the left, leaving questions around the futures of Jonathan Scott and Max Starks.
Starks is a free agent, and ties to the area - and support from QB Ben Roethlisberger - could convince him to stay in town for the veteran minimum. That's if the Steelers even want him back. The Steelers won't pay Starks more than that, especially considering Scott still has a year left on his deal, and is clearly favored by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
Colon's return - assuming he stays healthy - should eliminate either Starks or Scott, with Scott being the favorite to stick around. Drafting an offensive tackle with the 24th pick doesn't seem to be a terrible option, but the left guard position could garner more attention. Kemoeatu will be cut before March 13, which would pencil in Doug Legursky as the starting left guard. Ramon Foster would stay at right guard.
Trai Essex is an unrestricted free agent, but could be brought back for the veteran minimum as well, due to his versatility. He can play all five offensive line positions. The Steelers love linemen who could play guard or tackle, and if they can find a younger one in the draft, it may mean the end for Essex.
Decastro is going to be a dominant player in this league, and if he happens to fall in striking range of the Steelers, don't be surprised if he's the target of a trade-up situation. The Steelers are deep already, and have a few positions in which they simply won't draft anyone, so giving a few picks to get their starting left guard would be a good option.
First Round Draft possibilities: None
In another year where quarterback will not be a position addressed in the first round, it will be a year the Steelers target a passer in the middle-to-late rounds. Plain and simple, Roethlisberger is entering into a stage of his career where injuries are going to pile up. His decision to gut it out and play in pain is admirable, but that doesn't make him a better quarterback. The Steelers would love to keep Charlie Batch around, and could possibly do that, but his minimum salary is $925,000.
Same goes for Byron Leftwich, who, if healthy, would likely have made Batch expendable in the past. Leftwich is more likely to return as Roethlisberger's back-up, but the likely departure of Dennis Dixon will leave a third QB position open. The Steelers would like to target a project kind of player, someone they could stash on the practice squad for a year. QBs aren't often safe on practice squads, just ask Houston how quickly you may be forced to keep one on your 53-man roster.
First Round Draft Possibilitles: None
The Steelers are one of the league's deepest teams at running back, and this is being written before they formally announce their next offensive coordinator. Starter Rashard Mendenhall is likely to begin camp on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list, and Isaac Redman will be considered the starter until Mendenhall full rehabs his knee after tearing his ACL in Week 17.
It's an extremely important offseason for Jonathan Dwyer, who will be in competition for the remaining three spots with John Clay, Baron Batch and Mewelde Moore. The Steelers love the veteran Moore, but may not love his salary if they feel they can get similar production, if not smarts, from any of the three younger and far less expensive backs.
Batch turned heads during training camp last year due to his aggressive blocking and quickness, and he should be 100 percent after tearing his ACL last August. He may end up beating out Moore for third-down duties early in camp. That would leave Dwyer and Clay needing something to differentiate themselves from Moore. Clay could wind up on the practice squad again, where he was the majority of this season.
There's zero chance the Steelers draft a running back in the first round, but it wouldn't be shocking if they took one late in the draft, like they did last year with Batch, and the year before with Dwyer. Redman and Clay are both undrafted free agent graduates, so don't be surprised if the Steelers look to grab a back and work them over on the practice squad next season.
Draft Possibilities: TE Orson Charles, TE Coby Fleener
Health Miller types are quickly becoming relics in most offenses around the league. Not the Steelers, however. It can be argued Miller performed his duties at a higher level than any other tight end in the league this season. While nothing can be taken away from the prolific reception numbers put up by Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, Miller is a better blocker than Gronkowski (and astronomically better than Graham), and ended up being needed more as a third tackle than a receiving threat.
In short, Miller is still one of the best in the business, and will remain there for at least the foreseeable future.
David Johnson will likely get a low-level tender this off-season and probably will be back. The news is going to be about the development of Weslye Saunders, a guy who reeks of potential, but hasn't proved he's worth the hype yet. Johnson's hands will likely cost him a roster spot eventually, but Saunders hasn't done enough to phase Johnson completely out yet. It's extremely unlikely the Steelers would draft a tight end in the first round, but again, this is being written before the Steelers hire their offensive coordinator for 2012.
Quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner seemed a pretty viable candidate for Memphis University's head coaching job, and he did throw his name in the ring for it. Perhaps the Steelers reached out to him and asked if he'd like to be the offensive coordinator in 2012 instead. I'm just sayin'...
Draft Possibilities: WR Michael Floyd, WR Alshon Jeffery, WR Mohamed Sanu
It seems crazy to suggest the Steelers may look for a receiver in round 1, but the biggest reason fans are so excited about this position is what makes it an area of concern; they're young and they're cheap. That won't last for much longer.
The Steelers had a fire sale on receivers the last two years, netting them Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The emergence of these players could push out Steelers legend Hines Ward. At the very least, Ward will have to accept a fairly significantly reduced contract for next year if he wishes to stay. Although unlikely, the Steelers may outright release him as well, and decide to sign UFA Jerricho Cotchery back.
With longtime fringe-roster guy Tyler Grisham having signed with Denver, the Steelers are looking at a pretty big gap between youth and expensive veterans at the position. Plus, none of them are bigger than 6-foot-1. Floyd, Jeffery and Sanu are all big-bodied, physical targets, and no current Steelers receiver has a combination of those traits.
There isn't much to get after the Steelers receivers for, but a large target could help some of the Steelers' red zone woes from 2011.