My father always told me that when you get your paycheck, the first thing you do is pay yourself by putting your money in the bank. Boxers are told by their trainers to target the body of their opponents early in the fight so that you can wear down their stamina faster and see it pay off in the later rounds of a fight.
What does this have to do with the Steelers?
Pittsburgh has made several high draft picks into their offensive and defensive lines. Although in each of these picks they have passed on players in more attractive skill positions, these picks can be essential to another series of Super Bowl runs for the team.
In the late 90s and early 2000s Kevin Colbert acted early in drafts to get players like Alan Faneca and Casey Hampton who could control the line of scrimmage. Every draft pick is an investment, but as the league rules change the importance of talented skill players increases and the picks to invest into a team's lineman units become less attractive decisions in the eyes of fans.
As the son of an offensive line coach and a former lineman in high school, I have always had a high respect for these often unsung heroes. Almost every Super Bowl team the Steelers have had included legendary and all-pro lineman such as Joe Greene, Mike Webster, or the aforementioned Faneca and Hampton. The past four drafts have featured several early investments to bring in young talent to control the line of scrimmage. But who did the Steelers pass up that might have provided a significant boost in other departments? This post explores those decisions in hindsight. The intent here is not to question the legitimacy of these decisions, but evaluate these investments for what they have been worth so far, and for what they can be worth down the line.
Evander "Ziggy" Hood - 2009 Draft - 1st round, 32nd pick
Hood is a player that has shown glimpses of potential but a questionable level of consistency in his first three seasons. He has come up with clutch plays such as his late game third down sack of Joe Flacco in the 2010 Divisional round of the playoffs. But the Steelers' defensive line does not have the same surge as it has in the past and there has been a noticeable drop-off in the level of control the unit has over the line of scrimmage. Although it's not exactly fair that Hood is put to the standard of great players such as Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen, it is a reality. The Steelers passed up on LeSean McCoy and Paul Kruger at the time for Hood. Hopefully he can start paying off more this season as he continues to develop his strengths.
Maurkice Pouncey - 2010 Draft - 1st round, 18th pick.
Pouncey is already an All-Pro player for the Steelers and appears to have been well worth the investment placed in him. Although the Steelers did pass on both Dez Bryant and Demariyus Thomas when they picked him - two players that have caused problems against the Steelers' secondary - Pouncey has been a useful blocker in the new age effort to anchor a young and powerful line to help Ben Roethlisberger and the offense.
Cameron Heyward - 2011 Draft - 1st round, 31st pick
Heyward is a big strong guy who the Steelers need to develop into a major obstacle in their opponents' ground games. He is another player who falls under the same scrutiny as Hood where Steeler fans are eager to see the defensive line unit sustain the same level of dominance we grew accustomed to throughout the 2000's. Some may question why he has yet to take the starting job from veteran Brett Keisel, but that may be more to Keisel's credit than Heyward's demerits. The upside of Heyward's situation is that he is only 24 years old and can continue to develop his skills and tenacity. He may pay off on the Steelers decision to take him instead of Torrey Smith or the Titans leading tackler of 2012, Akeem Ayers.
Marcus Gilbert - 2011 Draft - 2nd round, 63rd pick
Gilbert was voted the team's rookie of the year in 2011. He has already earned significant time as a starter for the offensive line and could be an answer for the question mark that now exists with the departure of longtime teammate to Ben Roethlisberger, Max Starks. So far it doesn't look like the Steelers missed with this pick and the most notable names that came after Gilbert but before the Steelers next pick (Curtis Brown) were Randall Cobb and DeMarco Murray; two players that have been productive but not dominating forces in their positions.
David DeCastro and Mike Adams - 2012 Draft - 1st and 2nd rounds
As early as it is to provide in-depth hindsight analysis of the 2011 draft, a rookie draft class is even more difficult to evaluate. Both of these players faced injuries in their first season, but they also showed the potential you want to see from early round draft picks during their rookie season. Adams looks to be the new power right tackle that will lead the edge blocking in Haley's ground game. So long as he has a full recover from his unfortunate stabbing injury, he looks promising. DeCastro as a starter did not get many opportunities last season because of a tough preseason injury. Now with some experience under his belt the Steelers will be able to--hopefully--see a full year of how their early investment may award them. Notable players that were drafted behind these picks were Doug "Muscle Hamster" Martin, Donta' Hightower, and the league's 8th leading tackler, LaVonte David, who was calling plays for Gregg Schiano's defense in his rookie season.
Only time will tell if these picks will all be worth the investment that was made here. Each one had players at skill positions that could have been drafted, but the Steelers recognized the importance of controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Should most of these picks pan out to be strong reliable veterans who allow the skill position players more opportunities to make plays on a consistent basis, the Steelers may have a nice long run of opportunities at the Super Bowl in the coming years.