Wednesday, May 7, 2014

2014 Steelers Draft Preview: Defense

2013 Record: 8-8
Total Defense: 337.2 yards per game (13th in NFL)
Pass Defense: 221.6 yards per game (12th in NFL)
Run Defense: 115.6 yards per game (21st in NFL)
Scoring Defense: 23.1 points per game (14th in NFL)
Sacks: 34 sacks (25th in NFL)
Turnovers: 20 (27th in NFL) - 10 INTs (29th in NFL), 10 fumble recoveries (15th in NFL)

Defensive Line
Returning Players: Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, Brian Arnfelt, Hebron Fangupo, Nick Williams
New Arrivals: Cam Thomas
The Departed: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Al Woods

Rather than splitting this into "Defensive End" and "Nose Tackle" I chose to combine it into one section because the Steelers lack a true nose tackle. Steve McLendon only played 33% of defensive snaps last year and might be better suited for a defensive end spot than playing over center and being expected to anchor the middle. Many of the problems with the Steelers run defense started up front last year, with McLendon unable to command double teams and offensive linemen getting free releases to block linebackers. Cam Heyward will be the anchor at the left end spot, but there is uncertainty with the other two positions. Like McLendon, free agent signing Cam Thomas is capable of playing both nose tackle or defensive end but is more of a rotation player than a starter. The Steelers should address the defensive line multiple times in this draft, possibly as early as the first round. There is talent in this draft at nose tackle and defensive end. Don't be surprised when the Steelers invest multiple picks in the defensive line to add quality depth here, as there is room for two starters right now and the team usually likes to have 6 or 7 players in the rotation.

Outside Linebacker
Returning Players: Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter, Terrence Garvin
New Arrivals: Arthur Moats
The Departed: LaMarr Woodley

The Steelers biggest move of the offseason was the decision to put the Transition Tag on Jason Worilds and to cut LaMarr Woodley. This was a risky decision in releasing a proven but injury-prone pass rusher for a younger player that flashed ability over the later half of last season. Worilds remains on a 1-year contract and the Steelers are still in need of depth behind their starters. Neither Worilds or Jones is particularly good against the run and both will need to improve at sealing down the corners. The Steelers will likely add an outside linebacker at some point in the draft, because quite bluntly Chris Carter is terrible. Carter is in the last year of his rookie contract and it's hard to see the team retaining him after that contract expires. I think Carter is the only 3-4 Outside Linebacker in Steelers history to have started multiple games and never record a sack. The Steelers don't necessarily need an immediate starter here, but they could take someone in the middle rounds that can be a project player who could develop into a starter - or at least a reliable 3rd option.

Inside Linebacker
Returning Players: Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Kion Wilson
New Arrivals: Arthur Moats
The Departed: Stevenson Sylvester, Larry Foote

The Steelers inside linebacker position was such a disaster last year that Troy Polamalu played more snaps as a linebacker than he did as a safety. When Larry Foote went down with an injury, the Steelers were left with a rotation of 6th round pick Vince Williams and journeyman Kion Wilson. Sean Spence is still recovering from his knee injury he suffered in 2012 and is apparently medically ahead of schedule for this season, which could be a huge boost to the linebacking unit. Arthur Moats can play both inside or outside and it is still up in the air where the Steelers will use him. Inside linebacker is probably the weakest position in this draft class with the top prospects (CJ Mosley, Chris Borland, Shane Skov) having medical issues. Only Mosely is being talked about as having potential first round talent, but he may slide down the board because of injury issues. The Steelers could use another inside linebacker, but given the lack of depth in the draft, it's unlikely they will be able to find an immediate starter in this draft class.

Returning Players: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Antwon Blake, Isaiah Green
New Arrivals: none
The Departed: Curtis Brown

Despite the Steelers having a top 10 pass defense last season, the cornerback position has been consistently mentioned as one the Steelers will address at the top of the draft. The Steelers have been tied to all of the top 3 corners (Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Kyle Fuller) and it is very possible that one of those three players is the Steelers selection at 15th overall. Ike Taylor took a pay cut to stay with the team this season, which is the last on his contract and likely will be the last of his career. Cortez Allen is also in the last year of his rookie deal and is likely a candidate for an extension this summer when the Steelers get some cap relief from the LaMarr Woodley cut. Given that Taylor is in his last year and Allen could choose to test free agency after this season, the Steelers definitely need one, if not two cornerbacks from this draft. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see them double-dip at the position, taking one in the first round and then another in the 5th or 6th round. Along with wide receiver, cornerback is one of the Steelers top priorities in this draft.

Returning Players: Troy Polamalu, Will Allen, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden, Ross Ventrone
New Arrivals: Mike Mitchell
The Departed: Ryan Clark

Before free agency started, safety was at the top of most Steelers fan's wish lists for the first round of the draft. Steelers fans were talking about the merits of HaHa Clinton-Dix (yes, that is an actual player's name) and Calvin Pryor. However, the Steelers were able to solidify the safety position in free agency with the extension of Troy Polamalu for 3 years and the signing of Mike Mitchell to a 5-year deal. Polamalu and Mitchell will be the 2014 starters with Shamarko Thomas working his way in as the eventual replacement to Polamalu at strong safety. There is minimal need to address Safety in the draft and if the Steelers do select a safety, it won't be until the later rounds.

Returning Players: Shaun Suisham, Greg Warren
New Arrivals: Brad Wing, Adam Podlesh
The Departed: Mat McBriar

Shaun Suisham had the best year of his career last year (and the best year in Steelers history), going 30 for 32 on field goals. However, his two misses both came against Oakland in a game the Steelers lost by 3. Suisham has been incredibly solid after his first year with the Steelers when his field goal percentage was only in the 70s. Greg Warren is one of the longest-tenured members of the team and will be our long snapper once again. The punter position is the only one that looks to be slightly up in the air as the Steelers brought in Brad Wing, a big-legged Austrailian who played at LSU and Adam Podlesh, who was the only punter in the league that was worse than the Steelers at punting last year. There is no need to draft a kicker or a punter this year and we should expect a training camp competition for the punting job.

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