Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Steelers Draft Preview: Defense

With the calendar turning to April, it means only one thing: the NFL Draft is fast approaching. This year, the draft is going to have a little different feel than drafts in years past, as the lockout has some additional rules that apply to the draft. The first, and probably most important facet of the lockout is that it has suspended free agency. Due to the lack of Free Agency, veterans whose contracts have expired are still with their current team until the lockout ends. Therefore, players like Ike Taylor are up in the air right now. Obviously, we would love for the Steelers to re-sign Ike. We're of the opinion that Ike is one of the top 10 corners in the league, and he should be the top priority for the Steelers once the Free Agency period begins.

Our friends over at Steelers Lounge have done a great job exploring the dilemma the Steelers currently face. Check out their posts on the Draft. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: with no free agency before the draft, there is no certainty that Ike Taylor will return. Given that, do the Steelers take a cornerback in the first round of the draft? However, in light of the fact that Dick LeBeau's defensive scheme is one of the most complex in the league, you almost never see rookies start on defense. If you want a rookie that you can plug in and start right away, the only place with a real hole is the offensive line.

Throughout the day today, we're going to take a look at the positions the Steelers most need in the draft, and throw out a few potential options for who they might draft. Here we take a look at the defense.

Defensive End
Under Contract: Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood
Free Agents: Nick Eason

When Aaron Smith went down with a torn biceps in the Dolphins game, it looked like the run defense was going to return to its '07 form when teams could run all over them. However, Ziggy Hood stepped in and plugged the gap, proving that he was ready to step in when Aaron Smith decides to retire. Brett Keisel had the best year of his career last year. However, Ziggy is the only guy on the defensive line under 30 years old and the Steelers need to add some youth and depth to the unit to prepare for the eventuality that these guys are going to need replaced sooner rather than later. While Ziggy was a first round pick, both Aaron Smith and the Diesel were late-round picks. It's possible the Steelers roll the dice on a lineman in the first round like Cameron Heyward (Ohio St) or Adrian Clayborn (Iowa) or wait until later in the draft and try to land a long-term project player.

Liklihood of Drafting a Defensive End: Medium
Good fits for what the Steelers need: Cameron Heyward (Ohio St), Adrian Clayborn (Iowa), Christian Ballard (Iowa), Terrell McClain (South Florida)

Nose Tackle
Under Contract: Casey Hampton, Steve McLendon
Free Agents: Chris Hoke

Much like the defensive end situation, all of the nose tackles except McLendon (who spent half of last year on the practice squad) are over 30 years old. Hampton is at the tail end of his career and a replacement will need to be found soon. Phil Taylor (Baylor) and Kenrick Ellis (Hampton), the top two nose tackles in the draft, both have character concerns. Taylor was kicked off the Penn State team but seems to have turned things around at Baylor. Similarly, Ellis was dismissed from South Carolina. The Steelers don't usually take risks on players with character issues, so it wasn't surprising to see them bring Taylor and Ellis in for pre-draft interviews to get a better sense of these guys. The draft isn't very deep at nose tackle, but if the Steelers aren't willing to invest a pick in guys with character issues, they may wait until next year to add depth here.

Liklihood of Drafting a Nose Tackle: Medium
Good fits for what the Steelers need: Phil Taylor (Baylor), Kenrick Ellis (Hampton), Ian Williams (Notre Dame)

Outside Linebacker
Under Contract: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worlids
Free Agents: none

The Steelers spent two draft picks on outside linebackers last year, Jason Worlids from Virginia Tech and Thaddeus Gibson from Ohio St. Gibson didn't make the 53-man roster then was picked up by the 49ers, leaving Worlids as the only reserve OLB during the season. Luckily, Harrison and Woodley avoided injury for the most part. Worlids did step in during the Miami game and came up with a huge sack at the end of the game, but he is still very raw and is learning the defense. The Steelers could add some depth here, but they might have more pressing needs to address.

Liklihood of Drafting an Outside Linebacker: Medium
Good fits for what the Steelers need: Sam Acho (Texas), Dontay Moch (Nevada), Jeremy Beal (Oklahoma), Casey Matthews (Oregon)

Inside Linebacker
Under Contract: James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Keyaron Fox, Stevenson Sylvester
Free Agents: none

Former 1st round pick Lawrence Timmons has blossomed into one of the best inside linebackers in the league and was the unsung hero of the Steelers defense last year. The Steelers brought back Larry Foote to start grooming him as the future replacement for James Farrior when Potsie decides to hang it up. Keyaron Fox is the special teams captain and was a hit-and-miss player last year. He is beastly in run defense but took way too many penalties on special teams, especially for the captain of the unit. Sylvester was drafted last year and has earned his stripes on special teams. With all this depth, it's unlikely the Steelers will draft an inside linebacker, but their history of choosing the best player available makes it an option if someone high on their draft board falls.

Liklihood of Drafting an Inside Linebacker: Low
Good fits for what the Steelers need: Greg Jones (Michigan St), Greg Lloyd (UConn), Mark Herzlich (Boston College), Nate Irving (NC State)

Under Contract: Bryant McFadden, Keenan Lewis, Crezdon Butler
Free Agents: Ike Taylor, Willie Gay, Anthony Madison

With Ike Taylor set to become a free agent, the Steelers need to add some depth at corner in the event that they aren't able to re-sign Ike. Steelers fans have been split on Ike for most of his career, but in our mind there isn't any doubt that the Steelers need to prioritize his contract once the lockout ends. Ike faces off against the #1 receiver for the other team week after week and usually comes out on top. He might not be a complete "shut down" corner in the likes of Asomugha or Revis, but he's certainly one of the top 10 corners in the league and doesn't shy away from any challenge. The Steelers aren't going to be able to land either of the top 2 corners in the draft (LSU's Patrick Peterson or Nebraska's Prince Amukamura) but they might have a shot at one of the second-level corners, either Colorado's Jimmy Smith or Texas' Aaron Williams. Some scouts think Williams might have a future at safety, which could make him a desirable pick given that Ryan Clark turns 32 this year. The guys from Steelers Depot put together a list of reasons why Williams might be the pick. Remember, Ike was a converted safety when the Steelers picked him. In the second round, I really like Ras-I Dowling from Virginia if he drops to the Steelers at #63.

Liklihood of Drafting a Cornerback: High
Good fits for what the Steelers need: Jimmy Smith (Colorado), Aaron Williams (Texas), Ras-I Dowling (Virginia), Curtis Brown (Texas), Johnny Patrick (Louisville), Davon House (New Mexico St), Curtis Marsh (Utah St), Chykie Brown (Texas)

Under Contract: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Will Allen
Free Agents: Ryan Mundy

On the surface, Safety might not seem like much of a need for the Steelers. When Troy is on, he's the best safety in the game, period. That was proven by him winning Defensive Player of the Year last year even though he missed 3 games due to injury. Clark will turn 32 this year and doesn't have a lot of time left. Mundy is a free agent this year, and while we like him for being a local guy, he is somewhat of a liability in pass coverage. The Steelers could use a young guy here to groom as the replacement for Clark at Free Safety and to step in as a backup/special teamer in the meantime. Don't be surprised if they draft Aaron Williams in the first round as a CB with the idea of trying him out at safety later in his career.

Liklihood of Drafting a Safety: Medium
Good fits for what the Steelers need: Aaron Williams (Texas), Ahmad Black (Florida), Jeron Johnson (Boise St), Taylor Sash (Iowa), Will Hill (Florida)

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