This is the first in BTSC's extended series covering and analyzing the 2012 NFL Draft and how it will affect the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're hoping to highlight prospects, discuss or lament speculation and even provide a full mock draft or two. Keep your eyes open for it, as of now there's no particular timetable, but if you have any ideas, feel free to leave a comment, or email me at the address indicated in my profile. - nc
Next to the salary cap, the draft is the NFL's great equalizer. Those who truly master the NFL's challenge combining business acumen with football smarts succeed. Those who don't are the Cleveland Browns.
Understatement of the year, the Steelers are not the Cleveland Browns. Their standing as one of the league's best - if not the best - at maintaining salary cap viability along with stockpiling talent will be greatly challenged this off-season. Difficult questions will have to be answered about the need for several of the team's key players over the past seven seasons.
Creating cap space melds with managerial and coaching intuition to determine where that money needs to go. Nowhere is that more important than in the draft. It's the key to building a strong team not just for the upcoming year but over the life of the contracts of the players the team drafted.
Houston's Arian Foster made $525,000 last year off a 1-year deal he signed with Houston. Having the league's best runner over the last two years signed to such a low contract helps Houston sign free agents like Jonathan Joseph, who came in and made his first Pro Bowl while Houston's pass defense went from dead last in the league to one of the best.
Finding players like Foster either in the draft or as an undrafted free agent makes or breaks a team. If you can produce with players under cheap contracts, you get a team collectively playing above what you are paying them, which gives you the ability to get your veteran cornerstone players signed to bigger, longer-term deals.
The Steelers have been masters of this. With a franchise quarterback locked down to a long-term deal (and probably a new one coming this off-season, adding two more years and spreading more money out over that time will give the Steelers more cap flexibility for next season), they sign key players (James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu) to long-term deals while getting great production for little cost from Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, Isaac Redman and Steve McLendon.
Because they've been smart in the draft, and conservative in free agency, the Steelers have built an incredible amount of capital in terms of veteran skill and young talent. They grasp the concept of "the bigger picture," and in doing that, they draft not for this upcoming season, but two or three seasons down the line.
With that being said, it's important to frame the Steelers' draft mentality in that context. They draft for development, not for the sake of filling an immediate need.
Last year's No. 1 pick Cameron Heyward is a great example of that. Without the injuries that ravaged the Steelers defensive line in 2011, Heyward wouldn't have played half the amount of snaps he did. Second-round pick Marcus Gilbert was the unanimous selection for team rookie of the year; Heyward was drafted based on where he'll be in three years, not just where he is today.
Golden rule: draft players worthy of the spot you're drafting in. Don't reach, don't target positional improvement on its own. The philosophy is a blend of Best Player Available (BPA), positional need and character. If the BPA is a strong character guy at a position of need, then the decision is easy.
If it came wrapped with a bow on it, though, every team would be good at this. Drafting a position as opposed to a player is a dangerous proposition for a team. If a player like Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon or LSU's Morris Claiborne happen to fall to the Steelers at 24, they should probably draft them, even if those aren't necessarily positions of need. They must also take into account why it is blue-chip prospects like those two fell as far as they did; talent doesn't matter if you're a complete chowderhead who doesn't listen to anyone and gets in trouble off the field (or on it). At the same time, drafting a good character guy 10 spots higher than he should be drafted won't help you in the long-run, either.
In order to help identify that player (or even if a trade scenario is possible), we must break down every aspect of the team and assess its needs from a personnel perspective.
After watching each game again, and evaluating the development of each position, I'll highlight each positional grouping, starting with the defense.
Draft possibilities: NT Dontari Poe, NT Michael Brockers, NT Devon Still
Easily the group called into question most often by draft pundits. ESPN's Mel Kiper's first mock draft had the Steelers taking a nose tackle at 24. That's not a bad call, considering veteran Casey Hampton blew his knee out in the Steelers playoff game, and is scheduled to make $7 million next year.
Odds are very good 2011 was Hampton's last year as a Steeler. The team will almost certainly ask him to take a paycut to remain with the team, and Hampton isn't likely to agree to it, considering he could still get relatively close to that $7 million next year (the last of the three year deal he signed before the 2010 season) somewhere else. That decision, though, gets a bit murkier considering Hampton's long-standing back-up Chris Hoke had neck surgery this season. Going into the year with Steve McLendon (not the run-stopper Hampton is) and no back-up is a risky proposition. They are going to want a veteran to at least back McLendon up.
The likely retirement of Aaron Smith will officially make Ziggy Hood the starter, although he's basically started the last two seasons. Hood struggled in parts of the season, and he will need to improve if the Steelers are to remain a top-flight defensive team. Brett Keisel had a Pro Bowl level season, and will be the anchor of the line.
Heyward is still raw, and is learning his position, but his improvement from his first snap of the season to the last was outstanding. He will likely fill Hood's back-up role in 2012.
Nose tackle will be labeled a position of need in this draft, and very well could be the direction the Steelers go at 24.
Draft Possibilities: ILB Vontaze Burfict, ILB Dont'a Hightower, OLB Courtney Upshaw
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was reportedly riding OLB Jason Worilds from the first whistle of training camp. Tomlin knew with veteran James Harrison's offseason back surgery, Worilds would need to improve immediately due to the likelihood of seeing significant action in 2011. Turns out, Harrison's eye and Woodley's hamstring led to much more of that than anyone expected. Worilds did not sell anyone on the idea he's the next great Steelers outside linebacker. He struggled greatly against the run, and didn't play with the strength one would expect from his 260-pound frame. He was something of a project when the Steelers chose him in the second round of 2011, and he'll use the experience he gained this season to improve.
That doesn't mean another outside linebacker won't be added. It seems likely, in fact. Undersized high-motor Chris Carter looked lost in the few snaps he had last year, and probably has the biggest project tag on him on the team.
Harrison's contract is big, as is Woodley's, but considering Harrison will be 35 at the start of training camp in 2013, the Steelers need to look at another viable option who'd be ready to play at a high level after the 2012 season. It very well could be Worilds, but the Steelers wouldn't be comfortable with a rookie as the primary back-up to its most important defensive position.
Future troubles exist at inside linebacker as well. Despite most people's calls for James Farrior's ouster, his contract makes him difficult to cut. His leadership trumps any declining skill he may be experiencing, and the only option to play his position would be back-up Larry Foote, another player many are calling to be released. Farrior's mack position in this defense is akin to the quarterback on offense. Simply put, a rookie cannot play that position.
It would be wise for the Steelers to address this position with a high pick. ILB Lawrence Timmons failed to turn many heads in the first year of his six-year contract extension signed this off-season. They've never tried him at the mack, and his athleticism makes him a better fit for the buck anyway.
Draft Possibilities: Stephon Gilmore, Janoris Jenkins, Alphonso Dennard
Rookie CB Cortez Allen beat out second-year man Crezdon Butler for a roster spot in training camp, an eye-opening move at the time. Allen played well in spot duty in 2011, and it appears all the mid-level picks invested at the cornerback position in recent years are beginning to pay off. William Gay eventually replaced veteran Bryant McFadden at the cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor, and Keenan Lewis was the third corner, and covered outside in the Steelers' nickel package as Gay moved inside.
The question this off-season will be whether to sign Gay, an unrestricted free agent, to a long-term deal. Odds say no, considering the Steelers' perilous cap position and the recent investment in youth at the position. Veteran defensive backs have great value in the league though, and McFadden isn't expected to be back. Rookie Curtis Brown saw extensive time on special teams, and his development as a corner could help the Steelers make that decision.
Draft Possibilities: SS Mark Barron
Unfortunately, it's not a great draft for Day 1 safeties. While it doesn't seem the first pick will go in that direction, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Steelers looked for an heir-apparent to either SS Troy Polamalu or FS Ryan Clark. Perhaps more to the point, they'd look for another Ryan Mundy sort of player; a guy who could play either the strong or free safety position.
Polamalu is still the best in the business, but still has the lingering health concerns affecting his future status. He just signed a five-year contract extension before the 2011 season, so injured or not, Polamalu isn't going anywhere.
Obviously, that's a great thing for the Steelers. They do need to begin looking at some future help at the position, however. Veteran Will Allen was brought in mainly for special teams, and the emergence of Curtis Brown as the team's punt gunner, Allen may be cut this off-season.
Main back-up Ryan Mundy forced two fumbles in Pittsburgh's playoff loss, and showed glimpses this season of a capable starter.