I was toying around with the idea of doing a mock draft, but despite the fact that mock drafts are incredibly useful and relevant, I've decided to do a draft value chart instead. The actual draft is very unpredictable, so it's good not to get locked in on one player or position. Drafting the "best player available" is a phrase you hear thrown around a lot as the best way to accumulate talent. While I generally agree with the BPA approach, we have no need for a QB, so we're not drafting one regardless of who is available. Taking it one step further, we also have to consider the value a player would add to our team in making the decision. If an OT is 33rd on the board, and a RB is 31st, we should take the OT to make a dramatic improvement to the team instead of just a small one. We should probably avoid taking the 45th best player at #32 just to fill a need, though.
I'll try to go through all the positions before the draft gets here, talking about potential picks we could make in each round. I will tend to exclude players that don't really fit our scheme or ones that have some bad flags like arrests, weight problems, and lack of desire. Before we get to that, though, here's a look at our needs at different positions.
OL needs: Top end talent and depth
Could use: Anyone with a heartbeat
Obviously, the OL is a mess. Max Starks, who couldn't win a starting position at the beginning of the season, now seems to be our best lineman. We are in desperate need of an impact player at any position along the line. Also, after having relatively good depth there for the past few years, we are now very thin. We are returning the 5 starters from the majority of last year, but we essentially have replacement level players (i.e. guys off the street) behind them.
Adding to the mess is the uncertain scheme and direction of the offense. The hat-on-hat, Faneca-style running game was a staple under Bill Cowher, but with very little fanfare (or success) we saw Tomlin, Arians, and Zierlein switch to a predominantly one-cut, zone blocking running game this past year. I could write 10 pages on how terribly this scheme fits every last one of our OL's and our starting RB, but to summarize: the advantage of the scheme is that you can fill your OL with smart, athletic pass blockers and still have an effective running game. Unfortunely, we don't have smart, athletic pass blockers, so we don't have good zone run blockers either.
Honestly, I have no idea if we are going to keep this scheme or go back to the man-blocking scheme which fits our current personnel a lot better. I would scrap it, especially considering we just signed Kemo for 5 years, but then again, I would also fire Arians and Zierlein, see if Colon can play guard, and sign Jason Brown to a long term deal instead of Kemo. Tomlin and Arians both seem slow to make dramatic changes, so my best guess is we'll see more of it this year and hopefully draft some smart, athletic pass blockers who actually fit this scheme.
The (somewhat) good news? Youth. Our players may not very good, but at least we know their play won't drop off, right? In all seriousness, though, 4 of our 5 starters are under 30, and two - Stapleton and Kemo - just got their first significant playing time this year. While we shouldn't assume all these players are going to significantly improve, it's reasonable to think that one or two will. Additionally, Tony Hills is an unknown some have put their hopes in. I'm not a believer, but it's possible. It's very likely that he either establishes himself as a good backup and potential starter this preseason, or gets cut.
So what will the Steelers do to fix the OL in the draft? Up to this point in his tenure, Tomlin has largely ignored both lines. In 2006, we passed on potential OL's for a 3rd TE. Last year when everyone said we would go OL or DL, he waited until the 4th round to draft either, citing that good skill players make the line look better (if they play, that is). This year, we need top end talent and depth on the OL, but I'm hearing the Steelers talk about WR's and RB's. We couldn't skip out on the OL again, could we? No, but with very good depth in OL prospects this year and Tomlin and Colbert's lack of priority with the OL in recent years, I wouldn't be surprised to see them wait until the second round or later to take an OL if they don't like the board in the first. We desperately need depth, though, so I would think there's no way we're going to leave the draft with fewer than 2 new OL's.
DL needs: Long term starters, depth
Could use: Youth at any position
This was a hot topic last off-season after watching the defense fall apart without Aaron Smith in the lineup. To everyone's surprise, we ignored this need and made out just fine, rotating the starters a little more, dealing well with 2 significant injuries, and getting good production out of our backups. Still, without some young talent, the line remains in a precarious situation. Hampton has been more and more inconsistent over the past 2 years, and Keisel is hardly dominant - especially against the run. If we lose Smith to injury or if (unthinkably) his play starts to drop off as he ages, we could watch our defense drop from historically good to just good. Unless our offense picks up the pace, that's a big problem.
Like the offensive line, Tomlin and Colbert haven't made DL a big priority, so it's hard to say whether they will go "find their guy" in the draft, or only take a lineman if he's best player available. Considering the situation seems less dire than it did last year, I doubt we'll see a big reach or trade for a DL, but I don't see us saying no if we get a fair value on a good DL.
DB needs: Quality Depth
Could use: Upper tier FS
Bmac signed for less than I thought he would, but he's still not worth to us what he's worth to someone without 2+ other good options at CB. Much like Harvey Milk, I am a big believer in Gay's rights and abilities to grab balls, and I think he'll be a solid member of the defense this year, with Deshea right behind him. We could use a little more depth at CB, though.
Ryan Clark is a steady veteran, and his value was pretty obvious when he was injured, but we shouldn't trick ourselves into thinking he's a Pro Bowler. Troy might be the best safety in the league, but a bi-product of his versatility is that we often see a third safety, usually the overmatched Tyrone Carter, on the field. While we're not in any sort of dire need, we could use more able bodies either at CB or S, and it's likely that we will sign or draft two or more extra DB's before it's all said and done.
WR needs: Stability
Could use: Upper tier or high upside WR
Our WR's are in a period of uncertainty right now. They struggled to get open at times in 2008, and all have some questions. How is Hines going to age? Will Santonio become a #1? Will we sign him after his rookie contract? Who will take Washington's place? Will Sweed step up?
We will probably sign a WR, perhaps Galloway, to give us a little more flexibilty here. If we do that, we are free to look at some options at WR, but we don't need to pick one. Like most, I'm not ready to dismiss Sweed, and if we have a decent option to compete with him for the #3, with a few UDFA's filling out the ranks I'm pretty content.
LB needs: ??
Could use: Top end OLB or ILB, ILB depth
The need at OLB depends almost completely on how the Deebo situation unfolds. If there's no development in talks before the draft, it would be hard to turn down a quality value at OLB as insurance. If we no one falls into our lap, I'd expect the talks to heat up some. Also, at some point we need to think about a long term replacement for Farrior. The good news it that we have a ton of ILB/OLB prospects on the team already in Woods, Bailey, and Davis. There's a good chance that one of those guys will turn into a starter in the mold of Foote or Haggans, which lessens the need here in my book.
TE needs: Blocking TE
Could use: Miller's replacement
For some reason I think it's unlikely that Miller stays here after next year. I think he could be one of the more productive TE's in the league, similar to Owen Daniels, but he's never been given an exceptionally large role in our offense other than blocking, which he's terrible at. If he left, Spaeth could fill in decently with his pass catching skills and poor run blocking. In any case, if we're going to run out of 2 TE sets, we need 2 TE's who can run block. Right now, we have about a half of one.
(edit) As steelguy99 points out, unless something drastic and sudden happens with the CBA, Miller will be a RFA after next year, and thus easy to control. Considering we don't use Miller enough as it is and have him for 2 more years, I really can't see us drafting a top pass-catching TE. Of course, Bruce Arians is a "three-tight end guy" so who knows. (end edit)
RB/FB - Could use: actual FB, The Bus 2
We are pretty far from secure at RB, with Mendy unproven and Parker probably in the latter stages of his career. However, Davis and Russell are the only ones I could see us parting with, which leaves us potentially looking for a FB or a goalline plunger.
Coming up Next: Actual draft information!
I'll look at the DL prospects next and give my DL value chart.