The Steelers have lost a lot of big names in the last 12 months. Hines Ward. Aaron Smith. Casey Hampton. James Farrior. Keenan Lewis. Mike Wallace. James Harrison. Max Starks. Rashard Mendenhall. Willie Colon. That’s an enormous number of starting roles that have retired, been cut or taken via Free Agency. Drafting for just this year is short-sighted because many rookies don’t make an impact. The smart teams draft for future needs, something even more important on the Steelers, where rookies rarely make a defensive impact due to LeBeau’s scheme. Looking ahead, what do the Steelers need to draft this year to fill the cupboard next year?
Quarterback – Big Ben and Gradkowski are signed through the 2014 seasons, so there’s no pressing need for a QB in the near future. They could use a development guy, so I expect a late-round draft choice on a QB. Projection: 5th to 7th rounds.
Running Back – I expect Dwyer, Redman and Will Johnson will be on the team, but that’s not enough. The Steelers are looking for a veteran back, but there may not be one out there worth picking up. As such, I expect the Steelers to use a mid-round pick on a running back because both Dwyer and Redman will be UFA’s next year. That leaves us with nothing after this season. Projection: 2nd-4th round.
Tight End – Heath Miller’s injury will prevent him from playing a good portion of the season. The backups are Paulson and Johnson, who is also returning from injury. I think it all boils down to how they feel about Paulson. If they think he can step up, then the Steelers may not use a pick at this position at all and just bring in a veteran FA because they’ll have their starter (Miller) and the heir-apparent (Paulson) signed long-term. If not, they’ll go high in the draft for one. I’m bucking the trend here. Projection: None Drafted.
Tackle – Gilbert and Adams are both 2nd round selections and it’s time to let them shine. At first blush there’s no one to back them up, but I expect the Steelers to bring in a veteran tackle – possibly Max Starks yet again – to back these guys up at LT. Having a developmental guy wouldn’t hurt, but the team has what they need for the next two years. Projection: 5th-7th round.
Guard – This talk of the Steelers drafting a guard in the 1st is laughable. Foster was brought in to start, something he’s done competently for 3 years now. DeCastro is the best Guard prospect in 10 years to come out of college. Beachum showed he can play last year. Legursky backs him up or can move in while Pouncey fills in at Guard. There’s no need whatsoever for another guard on the roster. All of these guys beyond Legursky are signed long-term. Projection: None Drafted.
Center – Pouncey starts, Legursky will be the backup. Beachum will get a few snaps as well as the “oh crap” backup. There's zero short-term or long-term need. Projection: None Drafted.
Wide Receiver – Provided Sanders isn’t taken by the Patriots, the team fields competent starters this year. Brown has the long-term deal and is a Pro Bowl potential player (and not as a KR) and a great locker room guy. Sanders has been oft-injured, but produced when healthy. How much Cotchery and Burris have in the tank is debatable. What’s worse is the projection next year. Brown is the only guy likely to return unless Colbert resign Sanders. What was a position of strength has quickly become a liability. Projection: 1st-3rd pick and I wouldn’t be surprised if they drafted another one in the later rounds.
Defensive Line – A lot worse off than most people think. Keisel, Hood, Woods and McClendon are all in their last year. I expect the Steelers to pursue a deal with at least two of these guys prior to the season, but our only real talent under contract after 2013 is Heyward, who is unproven. I expect a mid-round pick here. Projection 3rd-4th round.
Inside LB – Timmons is signed long-term. So is Foote. So is Spence. It comes down to Spence. If the team thinks he’s making progress, then the Steelers are ok. If not, look for a high pick at this position. Projection: 5th-7th round.
Outside LB – Woodley is signed long-term, along with with Robinson and Carter. Worilds is in his last year but has shown some ability to get to the QB. The Steelers are going to have to roll the dice big-time on this position. They potentially have their starters for this year and maybe even long-term. So drafting one early could backfire if Worilds/Carter/Robinson improve. If not, they’re in deep trouble because it takes two years to learn this role in LeBeau’s defense. Conventional wisdom says the Steelers are picking someone high here. I think conventional wisdom is wrong in this case. The Steelers will sign another backup via FA and roll the dice. Projection: None Taken.
Safety – Uh-oh. Two safeties, both on the wrong side of 30. Clark’s deal is up at the end of this year. They can’t keep Troy at $11m next year, plus his injury history is troubling. The Steelers need help now and they need help in the future. I expect the Steelers to resign Will Allen, but he is not the long term answer. Safety is the most difficult position in LeBeau’s defense to learn and they have no choice. Clark’s understudy has to be drafted now. Projection: 1st-3rd round and I wouldn’t be surprised if they draft two this year.
Cornerback – Uh-oh, round 2. The Steelers look fine this year with Taylor, Allen, Gay and Brown. But this position gets ugly next year. Ike’s $10m contract is not going to happen. I’d like to think he’ll come back at a reduced salary, but he’ll be 34 anyway. Allen has to step up this year – there’s some risk in a new starter - and the potential combination of Allen/Brown in 2014 scares the ever-livin’ hell out of me. Not to mention both of those guys are FAs after 2014 season and I have zero faith with the other guys on the roster. Young blood is needed now. Projection: 3rd – 4th round.
There are so many needs on the team I wouldn’t be surprised if this was entirely wrong. I wouldn’t be shocked if they snagged an OLB or TE in Round 1. Trust me, I hear some of you screaming about the linebackers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t draft a CB this year. But looking at the players, the contracts and the needs not just for this season but 2 or 3 years out, the positions the Steelers need to fill and the importance of those positions becomes pretty clear.
Next year the Steelers should have a number of mid-round compensatory picks, allowing them to restock the team. This year’s draft is more of a stop-gap to get them through the next couple of years where they know they’re going to have holes. As such, a draft like Steel34D’s found here: http://www.behindthesteelcurtain.com/2013/3/1/4034880/steelers-2013-nfl-mock-draft makes a lot of sense, even if I personally hate the idea of drafting a WR in the 1st given our track record of success with mid-round WRs in the past few years.