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Comparing 1st round playmakers at the “other” positions

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Here is a chess problem for your friend the Steelers draftnik. Use the team needs at ILB, TE, and OL as a tiebreaker for some likely 1st Round prospects: what is the winning position?

Matt King

"Needs," "Depth," "Wants," and "Others"

"Need" exists at any spot where the Steelers will certainly need a player who can start in his sophomore (2015) year. This year there is only one true "need", and that is at Corner. It’s hard to imagine Ike Taylor coming back for a second farewell tour, William Gay will be a year older, and the modern NFL requires at least three and preferably four starting-level Corners. The Steelers must get at least one player who can at least fill the nickel spot while pushing Gay for time on the opposite side from Cortez Allen. And they will; the only question is when.

"Depth" needs exist at positions where the team needs backups and players who may press to be starters in their 3rd year (2016). There are a lot of those, including Defensive end, Outside linebacker, Corner (on a double-dip), and Kick/Punt returner.

"Wants" exist where the team has starters in place but an extra player could make the unit into something special. The situation at Wide receiver is a classic "want" scenario. Going into the draft the Steelers have Antonio Brown and Marcus Wheaton as the established starters, with Lance Moore as an adequate #3 and Derik Moye, Justin Brown, and Darrius Heyward-Bey poised to do battle for the #4 position. That is a solid group, but if the Steelers manage to add one more significant weapon... It could be the best offense Pittsburghers have seen in many, many years.

Then there are the "Other" positions, where the team has both starters and depth but could improve with the addition of a special talent. Those are the focus of this article – the Inside "Buck" linebacker position next to Timmons; Tight end; and Offensive tackle.

Setting up the Position with a Brutal Board

Life is too easy when an overwhelming talent falls by chance, or when need and talent coincide. It's not going to happen here. In the first 14 picks of the draft, other teams and internal scouting reports conspire to remove the following targets from consideration:

  • Jadeveon Clowney
  • Khalil Mack
  • Anthony Barr
  • Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard, and [Any Other Corner]
  • Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and [Any Other Receiver]
  • Jake Matthews
  • Greg Robinson

That leaves four players as the Best Player Available (BPA):

  • Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan;
  • C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama;
  • Ryan Shazier, ILB, Ohio State; and
  • Eric Ebron, TE, South Carolina.
  • Aaron Donald [The talent is there, but let’s assume the Steelers plan to stick with a 3-4 system where he wouldn’t fit.]

All four have stellar talent, so position becomes the tiebreaker to determine who offers the biggest bang for the buck. As luck would have it, BTSC has published detailed, gif-supported scouting reports on all four players.

The newest is Steel34D’s scouting report on Taylor Lewan. Reading that article will convince you that Lewan would be a step up on any of our current Tackles. Yes, we all know there are some character issues floating around, but at this point we can ignore them. After the Incognito mess the Steelers front office is going to carefully explore that issue and come to a conclusion based on actual evidence. If there is fire behind the smoke, Lewan will be off the Steelers’ Board and this discussion would be moot. So at this point we are going to assume a situation where full time scouts clear Lewan of any character-related suspicions.

Steel34D did his a scouting report on C.J. Mosley a few months ago, concluding that he is just as extraordinary a prospect as Lewan. Mosley has no red flags for character (far from it), but during the draft process questions have been raised about his long-term durability. Once again, these are legitimate questions that the Steelers can answer and we cannot. If Mosley is on the Board at all, it’s because full time doctors have given him a clean bill of health.

Neal wrote this scouting report on Ryan Shazier back in January, in which he concluded that Shazier would be great value around the #15 pick, "If he weighed around 240 pounds, not the 225 he's listed at." Fast forward two months. Ryan Shazier weighed in at 237 pounds at both the Combine and his pro day, and still ran a ridiculous CB-level 40 time of 4.36 seconds with comparable results for the other drills. So now that he's big enough, the only question is whether he can play up to his new size?

At about the same time Neal wrote a scouting report on Eric Ebron in which the term "phenomenally gifted athlete" appeared front and center. Ebron has been the target of raised eyebrows during the draft process, but nothing has come up to dispute Neal's conclusion. In fact, Mike Mayock stepped up to confirm it: "He [Ebron] is a better athlete than Vernon Davis. Not as fast, but a better athlete. I think he’ll make an impact much faster than Vernon Davis did. I wouldn’t blink an eye if this kid went in the top 10." And Tight end could even be considered a position of "depth" or "want" as opposed to pure "other," since Heath Miller can't last forever and two-TE sets would suit Pittsburgh football to a tee.

All four of those prospects would seriously upgrade their respective positions, and all four are roughly equivalent talents. So the decision of which to choose has to be based on which upgraded position would provide the best overall improvement for the team as a whole.

Finding Comparable NFL Players

Part of what makes this hard is uncertainty about how a prospect will develop at the pro level. That is a game we really can’t play beyond the four scouting reports listed above. So instead, I am going to convert each player into a finished pro for the sake of easy comparison. The goal is to find someone who is in the middle of the prospect's potential career path - a fair projection who the prospect might ultimately surpass, but could also fail to live up to. Here are my thoughts:

For Taylor Lewan I choose D'Brickashaw Ferguson. In a weaker year Lewan’s talent would earn him a top-5 grade. Ferguson was picked at #4 overall. There was HOF potential but Ferguson has evolved into that in-between target we’re looking for: an occasional all-pro with all the physical tools.

For C.J. Mosley the comparable pro is a young James Farrior; another consistent all-pro who fell just short of his HOF peers.

For Ryan Shazier I offer Lawrence Timmons. Their measurable are so similar it’s kind of spooky. Timmons might have had more physical room to grow, but Shazier may have an edge in football IQ.

And for Eric Ebron I will follow Mike Mayock and choose Vernon Davis. He is a genuine impact player but not one who tilts the field on his own. Again, one notch down from a HOF guy and thus equivalent to Ferguson, Farrior, and Timmons.

Using Positional Value as a Tiebreaker

Final Step: So ... which of these NFL players would help the Steelers most if you plugged them in to the present team?

  • D'Brickashaw Ferguson as an upgrade to the Gilbert-Adams-Beachum platoon?
  • James Farrior in place of the Williams-Spence-Garvin-Moats platoon?
  • A second Lawrence Timmons for the Williams-Spence-Garvin-Moats platoon?
  • Or Vernon Davis to play across from Heath Miller, and replace him when the sad day arrives?

The Farrior/Timmons option has a lot going for it because of all the little ways that Inside linebackers enhance the unit as a whole. ILB’s are to a defense what core strength is for an athlete. It’s hard to see great abs in action, and it’s hard to see the flaws that come from being soft, but anyone who’s been there knows the truth: core strength raises or sinks all boats. More specifically, having a pair of elite ILB’s would allow Troy to go back to a true safety role; make the substitution parade optional instead of mandatory; counter the two-TE sets that Baltimore and Cincinnati run; counter the hurry up game that Tom Brady uses to gash this defense; prevent mental breakdowns like the ones that led to so many big runs last year; save a roster spot because of position flexibility; and open up lots of exotic blitzing possibilities, including the freedom to use Timmons again. And those are just the benefits that come from having a true, 3-down player and field general. You could also argue that Mosley or Shazier could end up as better individual run stuffers than either Williams or Moats, or better individual pass protectors than Spence or Garvin.

As to choosing between Farrior and Timmons ... that I will leave for the voters.

The Tight End option also has a lot to be said in its favor. First, a receiving TE would contribute sooner than any of the other positions through the double sets that Steelers fans have been dreaming about for years. Inherent mismatches; hurry up offenses; help in both the running and passing games; help in the red zone; in short, all the things that would force our opponents to find and stock up on elite 3-down linebackers of their own in order to play on a level field. In addition, Heath Miller may seem indestructible but he’s not. Two or three years from now a replacement will be essential, and it only makes sense to plan ahead.

Enhancing the Offensive line is like getting more pass rushers; you can never have it too good. Based on the last eight games in 2013, it was fair to hope that the Steelers O-line would play at a "very good" level with Gilbert, Adams, and Beachum competing for the two starting jobs. And that was before they obtained Mike Munchak. At this point hope has changed to expectation. Adding a D'Brickashaw Ferguson would instantly upgrade that expectation from "very good" to "excellent," with a hope for actual greatness. If the Steelers could combine that with an extra receiving weapon, plus Le-Backfield of Bell and Blount ... Ben’s numbers might start to look downright Peytonish. Besides, Gilbert is coming into the final year of his rookie contract, and Adams and Beachum will follow a year later. Right now the Steelers are getting a bargain because they are paying rookie prices for starting Tackles. Keeping all three players past 2016 would put a serious dent in the salary cap, while getting a new rookie would give the luxury of spending that money on other positions.

So ... Which player would you prefer the Steelers to draft if they face the option of Best Player Available at an "Other" position?