You may be saying: why on earth would anyone think the Steelers should draft an ILB in the first round?
I'm glad you asked that question. But before I defend my position, let me say I understand that the Steelers are always going to draft the "Best Player Available" at their slot. The Steelers are well aware that the Kendall Simmons's of the world are going to come back to bite you in the backside (not literally, I hope). And naturally there may be different ways of looking at who the Best Player Available is, depending on what positions need to be addressed the most. But no matter how badly the Steelers might need a nose tackle or an offensive lineman, if in their assessment a given available nose tackle or offensive lineman doesn't represent a good value at No. 24, the available nose tackle or whatever will stay right on the board.
Note that I said "their assessment." Many people, including some of the draft gurus, thought that Maurkice Pouncey was a bit of a reach at Pick 18, and those people were proven wrong by the end of training camp. Where the Steelers rank someone and where that person is ranked by the masses aren't necessarily going to look quite the same.
So on to my premise—that the Steelers should look to draft an ILB high in 2012.
First, let's argue from the standpoint of need.
The current ILBs on the roster are James Farrior - age 37, possible age and/or cap casualty; Larry Foote - age 31, possible cap casualty; Chris Carter - 2011 rookie (5th round) that ended the season on IR because of a hammie that kept him off the field for eight games; Stevenson Sylvester - third-year vet (the third of three 5th round picks in 2010) whose transition from special teams to the defensive unit was not impressive; and Mortty Ivy - former UDFA who played the State Fair circuit (NC, MIA, and StL) before bouncing on and off the Steelers' practice squad. They've just signed Marshall McFadden, a 25-year-old FA who has not yet played in the NFL. Oh, and they have Lawrence Timmons, a pretty dang good ILB if he ever gets to stay there. And this brings me to my point.
The depth at ILB isn't deep enough. Potentially, both Farrior and Foote could be gone if the Steelers are struggling with the salary cap. And Farrior, as much as I love him, is 37 years old. Assuming that both Farrior and Foote are gone, this would leave the ILB position to be staffed by one stud (assuming that he doesn't have to move outside again and doesn't get injured) and a bunch of kids with less than a full season's game experience between them. The position they would be attempting to fill is arguably one of the most critical positions in the defense run by defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau.
Timmons will presumably move to mack in the absence of both Farrior and Foote (and here is a link to an article by our own Michael Bean arguing this is his natural position), but in this scenario you would need another excellent ILB to plug in. One of the aforementioned young 'uns might be that player, but it's quite a risk.
We saw what happened to the sack numbers in 2011 when the middle of the defense was compromised. Although the pass rush was greatly improved, due to the newly awesome secondary, the run defense was nothing like it was in 2010. This is not solely a function of the lack of depth at ILB, but it was definitely part of the problem.
How about value?
The two positions that most people seem likely to push for in this draft are NT and OG, and I certainly see the reasons for that. Without getting into specific players (which is pointless this long before the draft), we can look at the current rankings. When we do, an interesting fact emerges: the class for OG and particularly for NT seems at this point to be quite deep. There are 11 NTs currently projected by ESPN to go in the first 100 picks. The 12th player is still given a grade of 67 (out of 100). There are seven OGs projected to go in the top 100, and the 8th player is graded at 68. There are only four ILBs even projected to go in the top 100, and the 5th player is graded at 65. In the case of the ILBs, there is a big drop-off between player #3 in the ranking and the rest of the class. Player #4 just makes it into the top 25%. By contrast, nine of the NTs grade at 75 or above, and the 10th one grades at 74. OGs are not quite as numerous in quality, but there are still five players grading at 75 or above.
It seems to me that the Steelers are going to have a lot more good players to choose from in the 2nd and 3rd round at both of those positions, and none of the OGs or NTs are ranked in the top half of the first round anyhow (editor's note: with the possible exception of David DeCastro). I believe both of those positions can be addressed well in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, but if they are going to get an ILB that is going to see the field next season, they are going to have to pull the trigger on one of the top prospects.
There is another important aspect of this which may not have occurred to many of you: the Steelers have the largest female fan base in the league. They are proud of this fact and do a lot to cultivate it. They hold women-only events, which are greatly appreciated and enjoyed, as I can testify personally. They eschew cheerleaders, thus not unduly messing with the body image of their female fans or forcing them to clean up the drool off the floor in front of their husbands.
But most importantly, they appear to bear this need in mind on about a 34 percent basis, which is, I believe, the percentage of Steeler fans that are female. They will move up to take a snuggly safety like Troy Polamalu, or draft captivating corners like Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, or bring in winsome wide receivers like Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown. And the truth is that while there are exceptions (Maurkice Pouncey comes to mind,) the big boys in the middle aren't generally the lookers in the draft. Au contraire, as the French would say.
And I'm happy to say a little research has indeed confirmed that the current top three ILBs are fine looking men. (Luke Kuechly is top in every class, being a looker, a great player, and a very high character guy, but he is unlikely to make it to 24.) There's a little road rage issue with Burfict, but I trust the Steelers to do due diligence and make the determination about the guy. So for what it's worth, make mine an ILB.
This is the third part in a collaborative effort from the editorial staff at BTSC, providing some arguments behind possible positional directions the Steelers may go with their first round pick - currently scheduled for the 24th overall. These will be posted each day this week, and will not be distributed based on order of preference.