Defensive end might not be a wise first-round investment for Steelers

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel were two lower-round defensive ends who had legendary careers for the Steelers at the very height of their Super Bowl success of the previous decade. Evander "Ziggy" Hood and Cameron Heyward were two recent first round defensive ends who either didn't live up to expectations (Hood) or took a few years to get the hang of Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme (Heyward). Given what the Steelers ask of their defensive ends, some experts--including insider Gerry Dulac--think the team should steer-clear of drafting them with a high pick.

The Steelers spent two first round picks on defensive linemen in a three year span--Evander "Ziggy" Hood (2009) and Cameron Heyward (2011).

My opinion at the time was that the defensive line certainly was getting longer in the tooth, what with Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel both on the wrong side of 30, as far as their football lives were concerned. And two high picks for the position seemed like a wise investment, considering a defensive end's performance is paramount to the success of Dick LeBeau's legendary 3-4 scheme.

We all know the story of Hood. He was a decent enough player during his five years in Pittsburgh, but he obviously didn't grade out as a first round talent, and certainly didn't come close to matching the legendary career of Smith (perhaps, the greatest 3-4 defensive end ever to play for the Steelers).

Heyward appears to be a different story, but, like Hood, he wasn't an over-night sensation. After starting zero games in his first two seasons, Heyward finally began to shine a year ago, starting 13 games (in-place of a demoted Hood), tallying 59 total tackles and five quarterback sacks.

It's certainly no secret  LeBeau's defensive system is a very difficult one for rookies and younger players to grasp, as most seem to take a couple years to fully come into their own and become productive players; this is especially the case for defensive ends under  the notoriously tough task master, defensive line coach John Mitchell, who strips away the techniques and habits his linemen learned in high school and college, and then teaches them the "Steeler Way" of playing defensive end.

I never thought much about this process in the past, as it has proven to be successful with players like Smith and Keisel. But then again, in Smith and Keisel, we're talking about lower round picks (Smith, fourth round, Keisel, seventh round),  that the team didn't initially have a lot invested in from a financial and expectations stand-point.

These were two players the coaches could patiently mold into their idea of a defensive end. If it didn't work out as well as it ultimately did, well, would anyone really have remembered, anyway? After all, it's not exactly front-page news when a mid-to-lower round prospect gets cut.

But should the Steelers invest in a defensive end in the first round, knowing they will ultimately re-shape how he plays, and that the process may take longer than it should for a draft pick with inherently high expectations?

Again, I never gave it much thought, but  then I'm not a Steelers insider, like Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, who's been covering the team for a number of years. He's of the opinion that it makes little sense for the team to invest a first round pick in a defensive end, considering the aforementioned reasons I just touched upon.

Dulac has made his opinion known several times during some of his radio appearances, but here's a quote, courtesy one of his recent Post Gazette online chats:

"I do not advocate the Steelers take D-lineman on the first round because they bring them in, strip away everything they've been taught and teach them the Steelers way. That process takes 2-3 years to sink in, witness Cam Heyward. The Steelers are better off getting defensive lineman after the second round and molding those players into what they want."

It's an interesting perspective to have. One would think it would be wise to take the best player available at any position--including defensive line. But if you insist on that player unlearning everything that made him a first round caliber player in the first place, is it a wise investment?

Is it better for Pittsburgh to take a lower-round pick who may just be eager to make the team and willing to do whatever it takes, strip away all of his old habits and try to mold him into what the the team wants its defensive ends to do in LeBeau's sophisticated defense?

In just about every mock draft I've read, the only pure defensive lineman who grades out as a consensus first round player in the middle of Round 1 is Aaron Donald, a defensive tackle from the University of Pittsburgh, who more than likely won't be on the board when the Steelers pick at 15 this Thursday.

Even though it's been said that Donald would be better suited to play in a 4-3 system, where he'd be allowed to use more of his natural instincts, he was such a productive and decorated player in college, I'd have to say the Steelers could face quite the temptation, in the unlikely event that Donald is still sitting there at 15.

So, what say you, Steeler Nation? Given the reasons I just mentioned, and the opinions held by the likes of Gerry Dulac, should the Steelers steer-clear of drafting defensive ends in Round 1 if they're probably going to sit on the bench for at least a year or two, learning under LeBeau and Coach Mitchell? Or do you think someone like Donald would be too hard to pass-on given his talent and potential?

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