…ILB Dont'a Hightower. I have spent a good amount of time analyzing draft prospects for the Steelers at #24. I have reviewed multiple scouting reports for several players at every position except for QB (they are not taking a QB in the 1st). I have also reviewed dozens of mock drafts prepared by both "experts" and non-experts alike, so that I could determine which prospects have a reasonably good chance of being available at #24. My detailed analysis is below. I have concluded that the best option for the Steelers in the 1st round is Hightower.
This conclusion will not be shocking to those of you who have been reading the mock drafts, the significant majority of which have the Steelers taking Hightower. However, rather than simply relying upon the mocks, I decided to do an in-depth analysis myself to see what other options might be available to the Steelers in the 1st. I like but do not love Hightower, so I wanted to see if the Steelers can do better.
A 1st round trade is always possible. I do not see the Steelers trading up higher than to #19. To go up to #18 or higher, it would likely cost the Steelers at least a 3rd-rounder, and would be too expensive.
To get to #19, it would likely cost the Steelers their 24th pick plus a 3rd-rounder, in exchange for the Bears' 19th pick plus a 6th or 7th-rounder. To get up to #20, it would likely cost the Steelers' 24th pick plus a 3rd-rounder, in exchange for the Titans' 20th pick plus a 5th-rounder. I would not be opposed to trading up to #19 or 20, especially if a player like O-Lineman Cordy Glenn is still on the board.
It is unlikely that the Steelers would trade with the Bengals or Browns, who respectively hold the 21st and 22nd picks. A trade with the Lions for the 23rd pick is a possibility, and would only cost the Steelers about a 6th round pick.
A trade down is also possible. The Steelers can likely trade down and still get Hightower or another good prospect, so they should seriously consider this option if the circumstances are right. However, the Steelers do not have a history of trading down with their 1st round pick, so this scenario is somewhat unlikely.
For the purposes of this article, I will assume that the Steelers do not trade their 1st round pick. Let's take a closer look at the Steelers' needs and the 1st round prospects at each position:
Inside Linebacker: This is a big position of need for the Steelers. James Farrior has been cut. Larry Foote is 31, and his best days are behind him. Stevenson Sylvester does not appear to be the solution. The Steelers need to find Farrior's long-term replacement sooner rather than later. Top ILB prospect, Luke Kuechly, will be gone by #24. The only other 1st round prospect in this draft class at ILB is Dont'a Hightower from Alabama.
At 6-2, 265, Hightower is big and strong, and is a very good run-defender. He is smart and called the plays for the Tides' defense, a necessary ability for Farrior's replacement. Hightower is surprisingly athletic and fast for his size, although he is not terribly fast or athletic overall. He may be a liability in pass coverage, especially against the more talented Running Backs and Tight Ends. However, Hightower can quickly diagnose and react to plays, a trait which can somewhat offset his athletic shortcomings. I believe that Hightower has the potential to be a solid starter at ILB and a leader for the Steelers for several years.
However, I question whether Hightower has Pro Bowl potential. I am also concerned whether Hightower might be a bit of a reach at #24. Very few of the mock drafts which I have reviewed had Hightower going before the Steelers pick at #24, so he might not be a great value. I also do not love the idea of taking an ILB in the 1st, although it has worked out pretty well with Lawrence Timmons.
Considering the other players likely to be available at #24, the Steelers could do a lot worse than Hightower, and he is probably their best bet.
Guard: This is clearly one of the biggest positions of need for the Steelers. Former starting Left Guard, Chris Kemoeatu, is gone. Doug Legursky is a decent backup, but is not a starting-caliber player, and has had shoulder issues. They clearly need an upgrade at starting LG. Starting RG Ramon Foster is decent and may continue to improve, but is a question mark. They also lack depth at this critical position. Luckily for the Steelers, the draft pool at the Guard position is deep, and they have a shot at finding a Guard with a chance of starting immediately as late as the 3rd round.
The top 2 Guard prospects, David DeCastro and Cordy Glenn, will likely be gone by #24. If Glenn happens to fall to the Steelers, he should be their pick. The only other prospect with a potential 1st round grade is Peter Konz, who played Center at Wisconsin but can likely transition to G in the NFL. Konz is a good all-around player. However, he has had some injury issues in college. Also, Konz only put up 18 reps at the Combine bench press. Although Konz improved upon this number slightly at his Pro Day, his lack of upper body strength relative to the other top O-Line prospects is a concern. I like Hightower better than Konz, especially considering the depth at G in this draft class. However, I would not be opposed to the Steelers taking Konz.
Nose Tackle: This is another position of big need for the Steelers. Casey Hampton is nearing the end of his career, and his coming off knee surgery. Steve McClendon has done an admirable job when called upon, but is not the long-term answer. If DE Ziggy Hood plays some NT, it will likely only be in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, the only NT prospect worthy of a 1st round selection is Dontari Poe, and he will likely be gone by #24. Poe is huge, powerful, and very fast for his size (4.98 in the 40). He is raw, needs grooming, and has reportedly not looked good in game tapes. 3-4 NT's with this much potential don't grow on trees. I would take a chance on Poe over Hightower if Poe falls to #24. However, I do not see Poe being there at #24.
Offensive Tackle: The Steelers must add OT depth. They have announced their intention of moving 2nd-year player Marcus Gilbert from Right Tackle to Left Tackle. It is unclear whether Gilbert will be up to the task, and we can expect some growing pains with him. Willie Colon is expected back after missing almost 2 full seasons with injuries, and he is therefore a question mark. Max Starks is coming off of an ACL injury, and it is unclear whether he will be back with the team. There is no quality depth behind Gilbert and Colon.
The top 3 OT prospects, Matt Kalil, Riley Reiff, and Jonathan Martin, will all likely be gone by #24. The only other OT prospect worthy of 1st round consideration is Mike Adams from Ohio State. Adams is an interesting prospect. At 6-7, 323, some say that he has the ideal height, length and athleticism for LT, and that he is just starting to reach his potential. Adams is a good run-blocker, but he struggles against speed rushers. Adams might be better-suited to play RT at first, and he could develop into a starting LT with time and grooming.
However, Adams had an inconsistent Senior Bowl, and a weak Combine. He only put up 19 reps in the bench press. Adams' work ethic has been questioned. He was suspended for 5 games last year in the wake of the Ohio State scandal. Adams is as a boom or a bust prospect, and is probably too risky to take at #24. That is why I would prefer Hightower over Adams. However, the Steelers have had a good track record with 1st round choices, and I would support Adams as their choice if the Steelers love him.
Safety: Troy Polamalu will be 31 soon. I would like to think that Troy has 5-6 good years left, but I am not so sure given his playing style and injury history. Ryan Clark will turn 33 this year, and his hard-hitting style also puts him at risk. Ryan Mundy is a capable but unspectacular player. The Steelers need to add Safety depth.
I really like top Safety prospect, SS Mark Barron, but he will likely be gone by #24. If Barron somehow falls to them, the Steelers should take him. SS Harrison Smith from Notre Dame has been flying up draft boards, and has a chance of sneaking into the 1st round. Smith has a good combination of size, strength and speed. However, he is probably a bit of a reach at #24. Also, ILB is a greater need than Safety, so I like Hightower over Smith.
Running Back: Rashard Mendenhall is coming off ACL surgery. He will probably miss at least the first 6 weeks of the regular season on the PUP list, and he may not be 100% at any time this season. Mendy is also entering the final year of his contract, and this very well could be his last season wearing Black and Gold. I love Ike Redman, but I do not see him as a featured RB with star potential. Jonathan Dwyer has some potential, but has injury and conditioning concerns. Barron Batch is expected to return from his injury and could be an interesting option, but he is a complete unknown. John Clay is probably just a backup. The Steelers need to add RB depth, and may look to add a future starter.
The top RB prospect, Trent Richardson, will be gone by #24. 2 other RB prospects, David Wilson and Doug Martin, have a chance of sneaking into the 1st round. I like both Wilson and Martin, but both are probably better suited as 2nd round picks. Taking a RB in the 1st round is risky, as they are more injury-prone and have shorter careers than players at other positions. Also, teams can often get good RB's in the middle rounds. There are several RB's with good potential that are likely to be available on days 2 and 3 of this year's draft. As such, I would prefer Hightower over any RB likely to be on the board at #24.
Wide Receiver: Mike Wallace is a restricted free agent who could receive an offer from another team by April 20th, although the Steelers could match any offer. If Wallace leaves before the draft, then WR becomes a bigger need. However, it is a position of need in any event. Wallace could be gone after 2012. Hines Ward has retired. Jerricho Cotchery is an unrestricted free agent. Emmanuel Sanders looks good when he plays, but he has battled foot injuries. Antonio Brown is an emerging star, but he could struggle a bit if Wallace leaves.
The top 2 WR prospects, Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd, will likely be gone by #24. Kendall Wright is a good all-around WR prospect, and he has about a 50-50 chance of being available at #24. Wright has strong hands and can leap. He runs good routes, is good after the catch, and is not afraid to go over the middle. Wright ran a pedestrian 4.61 40-yd. dash at the Combine, but reportedly improved to 4.45 at his Pro Day.
Stephen Hill has the potential to be the best WR in this class, and he may go late in the 1st round. Hill has a very good combination of size (6-4), speed (4.36), leaping ability (39.5 inch vertical), and athleticism. He is a deep threat. However, he drops too many passes, and some have questioned his route-running. Hill is a raw prospect with a lot of potential. ILB is a greater need than WR, so I like Hightower over Wright and Hill. However, I would not be opposed to either Wright or Hill in the 1st, especially if the Steelers have not reached a long-term contract extension with Wallace before then.
Cornerback: The Steelers have a good #1 CB in Ike Taylor, and 3 young CB's with potential in Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen. Starter William Gay is gone, and someone will need to step up to take his place. Lewis played fairly well last year, and may be ready to assume a starting position. However, he must fend off Brown and Allen, both of whom the Steelers highly regard. The Steelers might seem to be set at CB. However, the NFL is a passing league, and a team can never have enough good Cornerbacks. If they have a chance to add a top-notch CB in the 1st round, they should definitely consider it.
The top 2 CB's in this year's draft class, Morris Claiborne and Dre Kirkpatrick, will likely be gone by #24. Stephon Gilmore has an outside chance at being available at #24. However, he has shot up draft boards and now looks to be out of reach at #24. If Gilmore is there, I would take him over Hightower. Janoris Jenkins has 1st round talent, and has about a 50-50 chance of being on the board at #24. However, Jenkins has had numerous problems off-the-field. I doubt that the Steelers will risk a 1st round pick on Jenkins, nor should they.
Defensive End: Brett Keisel will turn 34 this year, but would appear to have at least a couple of good years left in him. The Steelers have 2 young and promising DE's in Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. However, to quote Ed Bouchette's blog earlier today, you can never have enough Defensive Ends. On the other hand, they have selected DE's in the 1st round in 2 out of the last 3 years. As such, another DE in the 1st round this year would appear to be unlikely, although not completely out of the question.
The top 2 DE's, Quinton Coples and Fletcher Cox, will likely be gone by #24. Michael Brockers' stock has fallen, and he has about a 50-50 shot of being available at #24. Brockers had a bad Combine, is raw, and reportedly did not fare well during team interviews. Brockers is seen by some as a 1-year wonder, and I believe is too risky at #24. Devon Still has a good combination of size, speed, and power; he has potential but needs some work. If the Steelers like Still, I would not be opposed. However, I like Hightower over Still because ILB is a greater need than DE. Kendall Reyes is a DE on the rise, but is a reach at #24.
Outside Linebacker: James Harrison will be 34 soon, and had 2 back surgeries last year. LaMarr Woodley is still in his prime. However, as Bouchette also noted, Woodley missed half of 2011 with a hamstring injury, which injuries often recur. I am not yet sold on Jason Worilds, although I am still hopeful that he can develop into a star. Under the circumstances, I would not be opposed to the Steelers taking an OLB in the 1st round if a good one falls to them. However, the top 4 OLB prospects, Melvin Ingram, Courtney Upshaw, Whitney Mercilus, and Nick Perry, will all likely be gone by #24. No other OLB likely merits 1st round consideration, so OLB will likely not be an option for the Steelers at #24.
Tight End: Heath Miller is only 29 and is still in his prime. Wes Saunders has potential as a receiving TE. However, Saunders has a bit of a checkered past, and he will serve a 4 game suspension in 2012 for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy. David Johnson is a blocking TE/H-back/Fullback. Wes Lyons is apparently trying to transition from WR to TE, but will likely need to add some weight. The Steelers may look to add TE depth through free agency or the draft, and have been hosting TE's for meetings. The only TE with a potential 1st round grade is Coby Fleener. He is an excellent receiver with good speed, strength and route-running ability, but he may need to add a few pounds to improve his blocking. I think Fleener is a reach at #24, especially as TE is not a position of great need for the Steelers. As such, I like Hightower over Fleener.
In summary, although Hightower might not be a great option, he will probably be the Steelers' best option of the players likely to be available at #24.