Looking at Team Needs on Defense

Unlike in previous drafts the Steelers no longer have the luxury of taking purely the best player available, more the best player available at a position of need given they have so many. Arguments could be made for varying degrees of need at Safety, Cornerback, Inside and Outside Linebacker, Defensive End and Tackle, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line and Running Back. Practically all positions represent an area of need even the Quarterback position could use some depth.

In some respects the Steelers are lucky this years draft seems to be deep in mid round talent at positions of need but currently with eight picks they are not going to fill all their needs in one draft. This may be a good draft to move down in and pick up more selections otherwise the Steelers will have to prioritize what they need against who is available when it comes their time to pick but certainly some positions are of greater need than others and some needs will have to be addressed another year or via free agency.

Despite having the number one defense again in 2012 there are a number of pressing needs on the defensive side of the ball. Age is a concern as a number of valuable veteran players are entering the twilight of their careers and the loss of a several players from the defensive backfield via free agency has created a number of holes to fill. In order of priority here is my look at team needs on defense.

1. Safety

Ryan Clark is entering the final year of his contract and will be 34 by the time it expires. Troy Polamalu is an often injured playmaker with 2 years left on his contract set to earn around $11 million against the cap in 2014 and will be 33 before the start of that season. Both are Pro Bowl caliber players at their position and in Polamalu’s case potential game changers, but at the same time both are very much entering the twilight of their careers. At the high salaries they currently command both are candidates to be looking at playing elsewhere in the future unless they are willing to take a reduction in pay or enter retirement. In general age has been kind to Clark and Polamalu but neither has the speed or playmaking ability they once had and we may be seeing their last few years in Pittsburgh.

With the recent losses of Will Allen and Ryan Mundy via free agency the depth at Safety currently consists of Robert Golden, an undrafted free agent in 2012 who had limited playing time at the end of last season and Damon Cromartie-Smith, also an undrafted free agent from 2010. Both have caught the eye of secondary coach Carnell Lake and have a lot of potential but the lack of any credible backup right now and the impending loss/retirement of both Clark and Polamalu in the next few seasons makes this a major area of need going into the draft.

Given that few rookies start in a Dick LeBeau defense in their first season the Safety position is one that will need to be addressed in this draft if the standard the Steelers have come to expect from the secondary is to continue beyond 2013. The future replacement of Clark and/or Polamalu needs a least a season to prepare before they are ready to assume the mantle of a starter. The Steelers may well address their needs at this position with both early and late round selections. The draft is particularly deep at the safety position in the early to mid rounds and there is a lot of talent to be found in the 2nd and 3rd rounds.

Predicted Draft Round – 1st to 4th

2. Outside Linebacker

Some may argue this is a bigger need than Safety on the defensive side of the ball. Then again if you have faith in Jason Worilds being the next James Harrison not so much. The Steelers defense is based around putting pressure on the Quarterback, something the team failed to do in 2012. Much of that was due to injury and lack of performance from previously dominant veterans James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

James Harrison is now looking for work elsewhere a victim of the salary cap. LaMarr Woodley is dedicating himself to his offseason workout program to avoid another disappointing injury filled season in which when healthy was a shadow of his former self. Jason Worilds is the next man up in the long run of Steeler Linebackers, inheriting Harrisons position on the right hand side. He has shown flashes in his limited playing time and the coaching staff is making all the right noises about him being ready to assume a starting role, although many in SteelerNation remain unconvinced. Worilds is entering a contract year so there is added pressure on him to produce if he wants to get paid well next season. If he is all that he is billed to be and Woodley regains his form the Steelers are strong at this position although still with little proven depth.

Chris Carter has not shown much in what little playing time he has had when healthy and Adrian Robinson has generated a positive buzz around camp but as of yet has logged very little time on the field. If they do not see the player they want in the early part of the draft the Steelers could well look for a project in the mid to late rounds given their history in developing project players at the position, although in recent times they have had more strikes than hits with this approach.

Much depends on Jason Worilds producing when given an opportunity to start and only the coaching staff really know how they feel about him going into the draft. An early selection would not say much for their faith in his abilities despite what they have said publicly to this point in time.

Predicted Draft Round – 1st to 4th

3. Cornerback

In a similar situation to that of Polamalu the Steelers are faced with another aged veteran coming towards the end of his contract. Ike Taylor is set to turn 34 prior to the start of the 2014 season in a year in which he is set to earn $10.5 million, his final year under contract. Still one of the premier, if underrated players at his position, Taylor looks good for his age and is playing at a high level. He did however fracture his ankle in week 13 last year and is clearly facing his last few years in the league given the market for older Cornerbacks these days certainly at his current salary.

Keenan Lewis, a promising young corner, has just left via free agency leaving the other young promising corner Cortez Allen and the returning William Gay to round out the starting three Cornerback positions. Had the Steelers chosen to keep Lewis this off season Cornerback could have been a position of strength going forward with two young players in Lewis and Allen and the tested veteran Taylor along with Curtis Brown given another season to develop. As it stands there are more questions than answers about the future at Cornerback.

Allen started to emerge last year playing mainly in the nickel defense and finally in replacement of Taylor when injured. Responsible for more turnovers than any other player in the secondary the Steelers are hoping he can do more of the same in 2013 for a defense that had problems in that department. His continued development is vital to the Steelers this season.

Gay’s return appears to be no more than a stopgap measure to offset the loss of Lewis and while a solid nickel corner in his final year in Pittsburgh, first time around, he never did enough to warrant offering him a contract to stay last year. He does know the LeBeau defense however and could help in the nickel alignment again this year more than most free agents they could have chosen to sign and for a reasonable price.

The rest of the depth at the position consists of Brown, who has yet to deliver on the potential that saw the Steelers draft him in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft and a number of untested young players in Justin King, Josh Victorian and DeMarcus Van Dyke.

As the number of turnovers has dropped over the last few seasons a playmaker at the corner position could be just what the Steelers need. An early selection will say a lot about the Steelers intentions of bringing Taylor back for the 2014 season and/or their faith in the development of Brown.

Predicted Draft Round – 2nd to 5th

4. Inside Linebacker

Lawrence Timmons maybe the most consistent player the Steelers have on defense with a pro bowl worthy performance in 2012. He is joined inside by the resigned Larry Foote who had one of his better seasons in the Black & Gold leading the team in tackles last season. Although returning on a 3 year deal he will be 33 years old before the kickoff to the 2013 season and he is not the long term answer to joining Timmons on the inside.

Much was hoped for of last years 3rd round pick Sean Spence but a serious knee injury has raised the possibility he may not play football again let alone in 2013 and at the moment his status is very much up in the air. If he recovers to his previous form he could represent the future inside if not the Steelers may need to start finding someone else.

The remaining depth on the roster is in the hands of Marshall McFadden, Brian Rolle and Stephenson Sylvester the principle backup inside last season. Both McFadden and Rolle have shown some sparks in limited duty but seem a long way off playing much above special teams right now. Sylvester has stood out on special teams but has shown little when given meaningful playing time although he has battled injuries during much of his time in Pittsburgh.

With so many needs at other positions Inside Linebacker seem to be destined to be looked at in another year rather than in a draft with limited talent at the position like this one. Unless one of the bigger names falls into their lap at the position it seems likely to the addressed in the mid to late rounds only.

Predicted Draft Round – 3rd to 7th

5. Nose Tackle

With last years starter Casey Hampton no longer with the team Steve McLendon finally gets his shot. He has looked dominant at times in his limited duty playing mainly on passing downs. Although yet to sign his free agent tender he figures to return entering a contract year. A breakout season and he will command a big salary going into 2014. Much like Jason Worilds he is slated to follow a huge, if fading talent at the position in Pittsburgh and his ability to do so will have a significant impact on the success of the Steelers defense.

As of today the current depth consists of Alameda Ta’amu and Hedron Fangupo two young players with very little experience. Ta’amu’s most noteworthy contributions last year were to get arrested for DUI, get cut and then resigned to the practice squad. While a popular pick in round 4 in 2012 it remains to be seen if he is even close to getting out of Mike Tomlins infamous doghouse. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Hampton is resigned midway through camp for depth at a discounted rate given he appears to have few suitors around the NFL right now.

If the team has faith in McLendon’s abilities there should not be a high draft pick spent on a player at this position but it would not be much of a surprise to see a mid round selection should one of the few suitable prospects be available when the Steelers step up to the podium.

Predicted Draft Round – 4th to 7th

6. Defensive End

Having spent two 1st round draft picks at the position in the last 4 years the Steelers should be set at the position, yet still questions remain. Ziggy Hood the first round selection of 2009 has failed to make anyone forget about long time Steeler Aaron Smith' grading out among the worst Defensive Ends in the league in 2011 and 2012. Cameron Heyward, the first round selection of 2011, has shown flashes at time and has gone missing at others and the team is still waiting for things to click with him.

Long time veteran Brett Keisel is still the teams best Defensive End but he is entering the final year of his contract and turns 35 this year. The remaining depth at the position is the serviceable but unspectacular Al Woods. This is a make or break year for Hood and to a certain degree Heyward who have the weight of 1st round expectation to deliver on.

Given that the team has already invested highly in the position recently it would be a surprise to see them give up on these two players quite yet and needs elsewhere would suggest the Steelers will be looking at filling other positions in the draft unless a talent should fall into their laps like David DeCastro did last year. It would not be a surprise to see a later round project selected should the right one be available though.

Predicted Draft Round – 5th to 7th
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