Wednesday, April 25, 2012

2012 Steelers Draft Preview: Defense

The last week in April brings many things in Pittsburgh. This year it has brought us some not-so-typical occurrences like snow and the Penguins exiting from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But to find the silver lining on the cloud, there is still the NFL Draft Extravaganza this weekend. What used to be a two-day event has turned into a three-day television hooplah that will inevitably crown the next Super Bowl champion by the end of the day on Saturday.

By now, you've probably had your fill of Mel Kiper and Todd McShay telling you who they think are the best players in the draft. If you're really a draft junkie, here's some of our favorite sites from around the web:

Draft Breakdown - best video gallery out there. If you're looking for tape on a prospect, chances are that they have it.
ScarDraft - best rankings that we've found. Breaks down rankings by scheme (3-4 NT, 4-3 DT, 4-3 DE, 3-4 OLB, etc).
Optimum Scouting - these guys have one of the best scouting staffs on the web. They personally went to all of the collegiate all-star games and combine. You can get a free 120-page scouting report by e-mailing their webmaster.
Mocking the Draft - some of the best scouting reports on the web. Really in-depth work.

We also put together a twitter list of our favorite NFL Draft folks. Some just talk draft, some offer scouting insights. Some throw around rumors. This time of year, rumors are all over the place and you can't put too much stock in them, but we'll leave it up to you as to how much you want to believe. You don't need a twitter account to follow the list, it will automatically update itself.

Today we're going to take a look at the Steelers defensive needs heading into the draft.

Defensive End

On Roster: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward, Al Woods, Corbin Bryant

The Steelers parted ways with Aaron Smith this offseason but were well-prepared for this eventuality, having drafted Ziggy and Cam with first round picks in 2 of the last 3 years. Nevertheless, the Steelers could still use more depth along the defensive front as Brett Keisel is on the wrong side of 30. Depending on how the draft board falls, the Steelers could look to add a DE as early as the 2nd or 3rd round where a guy like Cincinnati's Derek Wolfe would fit their mold. They also may wait and address more pressing needs early and snatch up a 5-technique DE towards the end of the draft where a project player like Akiem Hicks (Regina, Canada) could wind up being one of the steals of the draft.

Likelihood of the Steelers Drafting a Defensive End: Moderate
Good Fits for What the Steelers Need: Derek Wolfe (Cincinnati), Jared Crick (Nebraska), Akiem Hicks (Regina)

Nose Tackle

On Roster: Casey Hampton, Steve McLendon, Cade Weston

The retirement of Chris Hoke and Hampton's ACL injury makes us very, very thin at nose tackle. While the Steelers definitely have the need for depth here, drafting one in the first round might not be the best course of action. I know what you're thinking, but bear with me and listen to my logic. With the amount of 3- and 4-WR sets that teams run now, the Steelers are in their nickel defense more often than we ever have been before. At most, a NT is a 2-down player that comes out on 3rd down. Assuming there are about 60 defensive plays per game, you're lucky if your NT plays 30 of those (2 downs on normal series + not at all in last 2 min of half or much in the 4th Quarter if the other team is trying to come back). For a guy who, if you're lucky, will only play half the snaps in a game (not counting the rotation with Hampton & McLendon, so maybe...15-20 total?), I'd be willing to wait until the 3rd or 4th round for that. 

Likelihood of the Steelers Drafting a Nose Tackle: High
Good Fits for What the Steelers Need: Dontari Poe (Memphis), Alameda Ta'amu (Washington), Josh Chapman (Alabama)

Outside Linebacker

On Roster: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worlids, Chris Carter

The Steelers have two Pro Bowl-caliber outside linebackers, arguably two of the best sack artists in the franchise's history. So do they need another one? Well, that all depends on what you think of Jason Worlids. After starting the year in Tomlin's doghouse for showing up out of shape for camp, Worlids came on strong and started a handful of games when Harrison and Woodley were out with injury. He wasn't great, but wasn't awful either. The Steelers did bring in a few 3-4 OLBs that might be candidates to get picked towards the end of the first round (USC's Nick Perry and Clemson's Andre Branch) for pre-draft visits. This isn't an indication that the Steelers will draft an outside linebacker, but with Harrison well over 30, if the Steelers don't believe Worlids is the answer they may look to draft a future replacement for Harrison this year.

Likelihood of the Steelers Drafting an Outside Linebacker: Moderate
Good Fits for What the Steelers Need: Vinny Curry (Marshall), Nick Perry (USC), Andre Branch (Clemson), Shea McClellin (Boise St), Ronnell Lewis (Oklahoma)

Inside Linebacker

On Roster: Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester, Brandon Hicks, Mortty Ivy, Marshall McFadden

The Steelers cut ties with James Farrior this offseason, leaving a void of leadership on the defense. While Farrior had lost a step, particularly in pass coverage, he was the captain of the defense who got everyone lined up properly. Dick LeBeau even called Farrior an extension of himself on the field. While Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote will be able to handle the on-field duties of the starting inside linebackers, what the Steelers need to replace is the leadership that Farrior brought to the defense. This is why there is a lot of buzz around drafting an inside linebacker in one of the first few rounds of the draft. Larry Foote is 31 and probably has a few decent years left, but drafting an inside linebacker now would give the Steelers the flexibility to cut Foote next year if his $3 million salary doesn't fit under the cap.

Likelihood of the Steelers Drafting an Inside Linebacker: Very High
Good Fits for What the Steelers Need: Dont'a Hightower (Alabama), Luke Kuechly (Boston College), Bobby Wagner (Utah St), Mychal Kendricks (California), James-Michael Johnson (Nevada)


On Roster: Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Walter McFadden, Antonio Smith

The biggest loss the Steelers suffered in Free Agency was the departure of William Gay to Arizona. Keenan Lewis is the presumptive starter opposite Ike Taylor after Lewis had a breakout year last season. Lewis was the 3rd corner for much of the season and played on the outside in the nickel package with Gay sliding in to cover the slot. The biggest question will be who will become the slot corner. Last year's 3rd round pick Curtis Brown seems best suited for the role, but Cortez Allen showed some great potential playing tough man-to-man in dime packages last year. The top four on the depth chart are set here, but the Steelers could look to add another corner later in the draft to add more depth to the unit and to play special teams.

Likelihood of the Steelers Drafting a Cornerback: Moderate
Good Fits for What the Steelers Need: Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama), Brandon Boynkin (Georgia), Trumaine Johnson (Montana), Donnie Fletcher (Boston College), Leonard Johnson (Iowa St)


On Roster: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ryan Mundy, Will Allen, Damon Cromartie-Smith, Myron Rolle

The top three on the roster are entrenched, but Will Allen is making over a million dollars to essentially be a special teams player. A younger safety would be cheaper (which is good for a team like the Steelers that is right up against the cap) and would provide some more depth behind Troy, Clark, and Mundy. Troy and Ryan Clark are both over 30 and while they're playing some of the best football of their career, now might be the time to look to the future and add some more youth and depth to this unit. One of the most exciting off-season signings (for me anyways) was safety Myron Rolle. Rolle was a standout safety at Florida State but decided to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship in Medical Anthropology at Oxford for a year before entering the NFL Draft. He was picked in the 6th round by Tennessee but didn't make the team out of camp last year. The Steelers picked him up in the offseason and he could be a sleeper to make the team out of camp. I had a massive draft crush on him back in 2010.

Likelihood of the Steelers Drafting a Safety: Low-to-Moderate
Good Fits for What the Steelers Need: Mark Barron (Alabama), George Iloka (Boise St), Harrison Smith (Notre Dame), Brandon Hardin (Oregon St), Brandon Taylor (LSU)

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