By the time I finish this, I'm sure a variety of draft "experts" will have placed grades on this year's draft. And, of course, I'll take a look at them all - I'm a sucker like that. However, I'll also know that they're absolutely meaningless. No one knows how all the young men (and Danny Watkins! Zing!) Will turn out in the NFL, not even the coaching staffs that coveted them and the scouts who spent a lot of sleepless nights watching and evaluating them.
Some draft experts will tell you that their evaluation is based upon filling "needs" and determining "value". In other words, if they think you did what you should have done - if you think you have the same needs and value the same players the same way - they give you an A. If you disagree with their assessment of your needs and player valuation you get something lower. But that's all that is, the opinion of a bunch of folks that don't actually work in the league. It's fun, but don't take it too seriously.
(Two quick things that bug me: 1) Folks will say, "How could they take that guy there, he was #345 on the board!" What board are you talking about? The Steelers draft board only had around 140 guys on it, so I know you're not talking about that one. And 2) Folks that claim the Steelers need to take into account the draft boards of other teams and not just draft from their own - that way you know how to get maximum value for your pick. However, just how are the Steelers supposed to know how other teams value players? This isn't information that's just bandied about after all. End Rant.)
All this being said, I'd like to offer some of my very non-expert opinions on our brand spanking new Pittsburgh Steelers.
In general, I'm a big fan of this draft and actually expect most of these guys (at least 5 if not 6) to make the 53-man roster. I go into every draft thinking that the Steelers should just target players they covet and trade up for those because there's no way a winning, veteran laden squad is going to have room for all these new guys. And most years I'm wrong.
1st Round #31st Overall
Cam Heyward Defensive End THE Ohio State
I LOVE this pick. He was easily the best player on the board. Outstanding production, scheme fit, character, and positional importance. A pick like this one is why Kevin Colbert is one of the best GM's in the game.
Heyward is a powerful versatile lineman who's already got a lot of experience playing a DE in a 3-4 two gap system, which not a lot of college lineman can say. In other words, he's not nearly the projection at the position Ziggy Hood was or Muhammad Wilkerson still is. This probably means that the Steelers probably won't feel the need to keep a role player like Nick Eason around for another year; the Steelers will still have three DE's with starting experience (and starter quality talent) ahead of Heyward. They can and will bring him along slowly, but he can probably be inserted into the rotation around mid-season.
So, what does Heyward bring to the table? Well, first and foremost youth and talent. The Steelers look to have a good long-term starter in Hood and a guy with some tread left on the tires in Bearded Brett Keisel, but very little behind them. Nick Eason is a completely serviceable rotational DE, but he's on the wrong side of 30 and isn't a guy you want to see starting for you. Aaron Smith is a great player, but given his age and injury situation I don't think he can be counted on as anything but a rotational player himself.
Secondly, he brings power. Now, keep in mind that all the Steelers DL are powerful men, but Keisel and Hood's games are based less on their ability to bully the guy in front of them than on their natural athleticism and nonstop motors. I have my doubts that Hood is the long-term answer in Smith's old spot as the strong side DE - he just seems a more natural fit on the other side where he can rush the passer with more abandon. Heyward, on the other hand, is a bully - anyone who saw the Sugar Bowl had to feel for the completely overmatched Arkansas OL matched against him - who is going to command constant double teams once he understands his assignments and refines his technique.
Third, Heyward has the mentality to two-gap as a 3-4 DE for the Steelers. People talk about all of the physical requirements to play the position (they need to be tall, long arms, powerful frame, tough to move against the run, etc), but they rarely address one of the rare qualities that usually separates starters from busts at the position: Competitiveness. Lots of DL want to one gap, play up the field (behind the line of scrimmage), and rush the passer. And why shouldn't they? After all, the pass rushers are the guys that get all the glory as well as a lot of the cash on the defensive side of the ball. Every college defensive lineman wants to become a star and you don't become a star two-gapping in a 3-4.
(This is one reason I'll be really interested to see how Corey Liuget transitions to the Chargers 3-4. I don't doubt he has the physical skills for it, but does he have discipline and team first mentality to keep from freelancing? Ziggy is a similar player, but he had the right spirit for the position too.)
A lot of players would simply balk if you told them want something else, to do a job that will almost never bring him much glory or many ESPN highlights (or Pro Bowl invites or big contracts in FA) simply because it's what's best for the team. You can draft a physical prototype at 3-4 DE, but if he's not prepared to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team then he's going to bust. This is what I mean by competitiveness; Heyward has the competitive spirit to think "My assignment is to hold the edge, occupy the RT and TE, and keep Woodley clean to make the tackle and I'll be damned if anyone's going to keep me from doing that." He's got to be a self-motivator because he's never going to see Rich Eisen talking about how he made it possible for Woodley to make a critical stop on 3rd and short. Eisen will just talk about what a great player LaMarr is, while treating Heyward as a mere bystander.
We all know better than that though. Playing DE for the Steelers is not a job for glory hounds. It's a job for competitors.
With Keisel, Smith, Hood, and now Heyward, I think it's fair to say that by season's end, the Steelers will have the best 3-4 DL rotation in the league.
2nd Round #63 Overall
Marcus Gilbert OT University of Florida
Around pick 40-41 Ed Bouchette tweeted out that the Steelers were trying to trade up. My initial thought was that they were trying to get up to grab Brandon Harris. However, Harris remained on the board long after that - when the value for him would have been better - and the Steelers never made any sort of trade. This leads me to suspect that the Steelers weren't actually attempting to trade up for Harris but for either Miami tackle Orlando Franklin (#46 to Denver) or Villanova's LT Ben Ijalana (#49 to Indy). I believe, and I want to emphasize how much inside information I don't have, that the Steelers were targeting a tackle in the 2nd round. And if that's the case they certainly got one.
If Heyward is about as close as the Steelers are going to get to a plug and play 3-4 DE, Gilbert is a bit of a project with tremendous upside at tackle. He's not quite the nasty mauler Franklin is and he's not quite the finesse pass protect of Ijalana, but he has the ability it be a better all around player than either. Just take a look at Gilbert during his press conference at the South Side today (and listen to that deep voice. Wow!); he's a 330-pound guy that actually looks a little...thin? Gilbert has a huge frame that will allow him to add quite a bit of muscle without slowing him down.
Detractors will say that he's a classic underachiever and that while he's "ok" at everything, he doesn't excel at anything in particular. And certainly, they'll argue, he's not as good as he ought to be with his outstanding physical tools. Of course, you could almost say the same thing about Mike Pouncey - or any other member of the Florida line - who had a down 2010 season. Of course, that whole team was a mess by Urban Meyer standards - that offensive line lost both their longtime QB as well as their leader in Maurkice.
Rather than looking at the team record or even old fashioned statistics like yards per carry, sacks allowed etc, I think you have to look at the NFL qualities that each lineman posses and Gilbert has most everything you'd like in a starting RT for the Steelers.
Gilbert was talented enough to play multiple games inside and outside for the Gators, including left tackle. He's certainly got the physical tools - which are not close to being maxed out, I think - to be a dominating lineman in the NFL. If he can take Sean Kuglar's coaching and continue to develop his technique, there's no reason he couldn't be the Steelers starting RT for a long time to come.
Some people will compare the pick to the Tony Hills selection in 2008, since both are physically gifted players from big time programs that underachieved a bit. There are two major differences thought.
First, Hills was an LT only. He was always a finesse player who was never going to be much of a fit at either guard position or right tackle for the Steelers. It's tough to develop a guy that can't get on the field because he can only play one position for you. Gilbert, on the other hand, can (and already has) play either guard spot or, ideally, right tackle with some upside at LT. If Foster starts at RG next season, then it's very likely that Legursky and Gilbert are your game day roster backups.
Second, Gilbert simply has a better OL coach in Sean Kuglar than Hills had coming into the league. Kuglar - who looks like he could easily fill in for an injured tackle if it came to that - can provide the kind of motivation and education that could potentially make Gilbert a Pro Bowl caliber tackle. Gilbert's also got a friend in Pouncey that is more than will to show him both how it's done and get in his face when he's not doing it.
Chance to Make Final Roster: Gilbert has a little more boom and bust in him than a guy like Orlando Franklin, but the Steelers have better a better structure in place to help guide him than they've had for quite some time. He's almost certainly a lock for the final roster barring some sort of catastrophically bad camp.
3rd Round #95 Overall
Curtis Brown CB University of Texas
4th Round #128 Overall
Cortez Allen CB The Citadel
Lets talk about the two bright new shiny corners together, shall we?
Curtis Brown was a guy that most people wanted for the Steelers at the bottom of the 2nd round (or even with a trade up) with a few very credible folks calling for the Steelers to just got ahead and select him at the end of the 1st. So, to get him (without trading up!) at the end of the 3rd ought to seem like quite a bargain. In reality, Brown was probably a little overrated by draftnicks - as the whole CB crop was - and went pretty much where he should have gone. Still, he's a guy that the Steelers obviously liked and they got him at a point when they felt like he was of good value. That's just how good team's draft.
One of the interesting things in listening to Coach Lake (or "CLake") was how he emphasized both Brown's short area quickness and his ability to see the field in nickel and dime packages immediately. In my mind, this means the Steelers see Brown as a guy that can insert at nickel or dime this season. The fact that Brown has had four years of top flight college experience at a big time program (that won a lot) seems to have the Steelers think he can make a difference early, something not many defensive rookies get to do. He and Crezdon Butler may very well complete with each other for the nickel and dime spots if the Steelers can resign Ike. If so, then William Gay becomes expendable.
Brown isn't the fastest CB in the class, but he's an explosive athlete and in the Steelers zone based coverage system, his lack of straight-line speed will be minimized. He'll probably never be the kind of man-to-man press corner that Steeler Nation covets, but he could be a really nice matchup with slot receivers and #2's down the road. Also notice how Lake keeps throwing the word "cover" in when talking about Brown: This was a guy that was drafted primarily to match up with receivers, not as a large outside CB who will be expected to play the run first and foremost.
There's a certain safety to the Brown pick for me. Barring injury, I think we can reasonably assume he can be a good nickel back with starter potential, but with little chance of becoming a true #1 CB. On the other hand, 4th round pick Cortez Allen is nearly the opposite: He's a raw player from a smaller conference who has all the physical tools to be a #1 in the Steelers system. He also has some serious bust potential.
In other words, he's going to draw a lot of comparisons to Ike Taylor, another raw but athletic small school guy the Steelers nabbed in the 4th round. If he turns out like Taylor, the Steelers long-term situation at CB just got a lot rosier. If not, the Steelers will need to look early at CB (1st or 2nd round) in the next couple of years, which they may want to do anyway.
I can't claim to have seen Allen play a lot and I'm not trusting of highlight (or lowlight) videos that can be found around online, but even Lake admitted he was a raw height-weight-speed prospect that couldn't devote the time he would have liked to his craft because of all his duties at The Citadel. He needs some coaching up and needs to be exposed to better competition, but he's got the physical tools to play.
(The Citadel is, by the way, a military college. I didn't know that before this weekend. Now I do. Never stop learning kids.)
Chance to Make the Final Roster: What should we expect out of Allen this season? My guess is absolutely nothing. I'd honestly be surprised if he made the active roster on game day. The Steelers know he's a project though, and they think his upside is large enough to warrant getting no immediate production from a 4th round pick. Lets hope it pays off.
One thing that I find interesting about both of these guys is that they're both guys who seem like they would take coaching well. Tomlin and Colbert gambled in 2008 with Keenan Lewis, a guy with all the physical tools needed to be a starter for the Steelers, but who hasn't shown he's willing to adjust his game when told to. They also picked up an undersized nickel back type in Joe Burnett who did take coaching well, but lacked the physical tools to make much of an impact. This year I think Colbert went out of his way to bring in two guys who avoid either trap; both Brown and Allen have the physical and mental abilities to play in the NFL.
Besides, Carnell Lake doesn't suffer fools. He makes fools suffer.
5th Round # 162 Overall
Chris Carter DE/OLB Fresno State University
Carter is a typical Steelers' tweener - an undersized college defensive end that will have to learn to stand up and be a rush linebacker in the league.
I can't say that I've seen Carter play much either, but most everyone seems to think he's a good value where he was drafted and he has the physical tools to become a decent pro. He has the profile of a Steelers OLB (short, but explosive); one of the reasons he dropped may be that many other 3-4 teams prefer larger, taller rush linebackers (such as the Patriots). There's also going to be some concerns about his lack of a pass rush arsenal (he's a pure speed guy right now), and his level of competition. But the Steelers could (and have) done a whole lot worse in the 5th round.
The Steelers also needed additional depth at OLB. Harrison is old and seems to end every season with the revelation of a major injury he played through, Woodley is on a one year Franchise tag (although he'll almost certainly be resigned), and Jason Worilds is still raw but did show a lot of promise as a pass rusher in limited action last season. And Thad Gibbson was a guy that never really got a chance to learn the defense before training camp and, as coach Butler admitted, never really caught himself up after that.
There are arguments that the Steelers only really need a single reserve OLB since Timmons can be kicked over in a pinch. However, while Timmons can be an adequate 3-4 OLB, he's not a special player there. Myself, I'd rather keep Timmons where he is at ILB (and where he can be special) while training another guy for the position. Given the low risk/reward ratio after the 4th round, Carter is a nice pick here.
Chance to Make the Final Roster: Besides, LB's are always valuable special teams players and I think the sheer number of competent ILB's on the team might mean that Fox will head elsewhere during free agency. If so, Carter could make the roster for a couple of years as a special teamer contributor since he's not likely to see the filed otherwise this year. Given how productive he was in college as well as his upside as a 3-4 OLB, it's quite possible that someone will snatch him if the Steelers put him on the PS.
6th Round #201 Overall
Keith Williams OG University of Nebraska
When the Steelers were on the clock with this pick I actually thought they would grab a developmental NT like Chris Neild or Ian Williams. They had, I'd heard at least, been looking at grabbing one of those guys. And since you're unlikely to get a starter here anyway, you might as well find a solid reserve defensive lineman since you have absolutely no one to rotate behind Casey Hampton.
At this point, the Steelers may simply have thought that the guys left were no better than Steve McClendon anyway. In other news, Chris Hoke is almost certain to be brought back for another season. Hokie's a good guy who gives maximum effort on every snap, so it's hard to root for them to find somebody to replace him. Still, with future starters in place at both DE positions, the Steelers need to find somebody to at least give Hampton a break.
Back to this pick though. Williams is a big, aggressive brawler with pulling ability. And he played at a big time program that won a lot of games while he was there. His aggression and limited lateral mobility makes him a bit of a liability in pass pro, but there's hope that good coaching can temper that weakness somewhat. In other words, he's the prototypical late round Steelers guard. He's reportedly a bright guy, which gives him a leg up on the Steelers current 6th round starter at LG.
Chance to Make Final Roster: Given that Trai Essex, Tony Hills, and Jon Scott are all free agents, I think there's a decent chance that Williams can make the 53- man roster, although probably not the game day squad. Kuglar has shown himself adept at developing late round/UFA guys into serviceable starters (Foster, Jon Scott, Jason Peters even the Big Legursky), so there's certainly a real possibility that Williams could become a valuable reserve on the interior. He's a project though and probably not better than anyone currently on the roster. He strikes me as a pure depth guy.
This is pretty much the kind of pick I've come to expect from Colbert in the latter rounds. When in doubt, grab a mauler with some upside and see what you can make of him.
7th Round #232 Overall
Baron Batch RB Texas Tech
People have already commented upon Batch's story, he's certainly a kid that is easy to root for and possesses the kind of intangibles teams covet. However, intangibles don't always get it done on the field. Luckily, Barton has a skill set and enough physical tools to become a good 3rd down back for the Steelers.
People knock Batch because he doesn't have overwhelming speed for his size, played in a gimmicky offense that allowed for a lot of wide rush lanes, and has been nicked up from time to time. And by nicked up, I mean he had two ankle surgeries that he successfully came back from.
However, given what his role will probably be for the Steelers none of this much matters. The Steelers need a dynamic 3rd down back who can run routes, do some pass blocking, and catch the ball with some potential YAC producing ability. He's not likely to see the field except in obvious passing situations (at first at least), when he'll probably see the kind of spread based or wide opening passing situations he was used to and excelled in at Texas Tech. In mind at least, projecting Batch as a 3rd down back is pretty easy.
Since the Texas Tech version of the spread basically treats ever down as a 3rd down with multi-receiver sets, QB in the shotgun, etc, the learning curve for Batch as a 3rd down back will be minimal. And he has the advantage over a guy like Dwyer in that he has had plenty of exposure pass blocking and creating yards after the catch. He could also be an ideal guy to build a HB screen around, given his short stature he'll disappear or get lost behind the Steelers wall of humanity at offensive line.
Chance to Make Final Roster: I think there's a decent chance Batch could make the 53-man roster for the Steelers and even, if he proves to as valuable as I think he is, become the 3rd tailback on the game day squad. Mendenhall is your every down starter, Redman is your short yardage/chief backup, and Barton is your quick, water bug 3rd down specialist.
Dwyer may be a better physical talent than Batch, but I'm not sure what he brings that both Mendenhall and Redman don't already bring. And both of them are great pass blockers and better than average receivers. This alone may give Batch a better chance of seeing the field on Sundays.
In terms of a comparable recent draft pick, Batch reminds me a lot of David Johnson. Nobody paid much attention to him when he was drafted because they figured he'd be practice squad bound. But Johnson managed to stick to the active roster and has become a valuable role player as an H-back. Batch's career could have a very similar arch, I think.
Overall, this was a vintage Colbert draft. That is, a draft without a lot of flash, but with a lot of guys that can become starters and contributors with proper coaching. Colbert is famous for letting the draft come to him and capitalizing on the mistakes of more daring (or, much more foolish) personnel departments. However, Colbert is also capable of taking a calculated risk after the 1st round. Both Marcus Gilbert and Cortez Allen are unfinished products, they were drafted where they were not because of what they have already done, but based upon projections of what they could do with proper development.
This speaks to the strength of the Steelers organization though. Colbert is comfortable with taking a risk or two - or drafting on a projection or two - because he's got the trust of the owners and himself trusts the coaching staff. Of course, some of these picks are going to bust, no one bats a thousand. All Colbert can do is to pick up players with the physical and mental tools to succeed in the Steelers offensive and defensive schemes at the values he feels are appropriate. In fact, this is all any good GM can do.
However, it seems to me that both Heyward and Gilbert are going to be starters, that Brown has the ability to be an early contributor who may become a starter over time, and Allen is a raw guy with starter potential who could also wash out after two or three seasons. The rest of the guys are probably role players and reserve/special teamers, but its players like that who make up the bulk of everyone's roster.
Draftnicks make a big deal out of grabbing "blue chip prospects", but at the end of the day it's the try hard guys with some physical tools, the grinders, who provide the backbone to any successful NFL team. And Colbert is great at acquiring those.
And he can bring in a blue chipper every now and then to boot.