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STEELERS DRAFT DEFENSIVE PRIMER

April 22, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

The questions on defense aren’t about scheme. Keith Butler’s change of heart about taking the Colts D coordinator job indicates he’s certain he’ll succeed Frenchy LeBeau (someday) and that means the Steelers are sticking with the 3-4 (even though Mike Tomlin has a 4-3 background). No, the questions here are about personnel and they are huge questions. We said last year that it might be the last year for guys like James Farrior and Aaron Smith and it was time for guys like Ziggy Hood and Stevenson Sylvester to step up. We were half right and, unfortunately, it was the part about the last year and not about the stepping up. Just how much behind-the-scenes confidence the Steelers have in guys like Hood, Sylvester, Jason Worilds and Cam Heyward will dictate several key decisions in this draft.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The skinny (get it?): The Steelers have used two of their past four top picks on defensive ends so it might be time to look inside this year where Casey Hampton took a pay cut to hang around for what will almost certainly be his last year. But the nature (and importance) of the nose tackle in the 3-4 is changing in the NFL. The NT is only on the field for the Steelers when the opponent has two or three receivers on the field. That used to be 75 percent of the time, but now it’s less than half and declining every year. So while the NT is critical to the success of the 3-4 against the run, he’s not on that field nearly as much as he used to be and, ipso facto, it becomes a lot harder to justify taking an NT in the first round.

Level of need: (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2012) 7

Timing: Possibly first round, but more likely second through fourth.

Possible selections: After one of the legendary combine workouts of all time, Memphis’ Dontari Poe rocketed up draft boards and is now one of the more highly touted nose tackle prospects in memory. There’s one problem with Poe, though. He’s never actually produced on the football field (reminiscent of Vernon Ghoulston). Pittsburgh brought Poe in for a visit, but would they really use their top pick for a guy who’s got nothing on tape to play a position that’s on the field less than half the time? We think not, but we shall see. Other visitors were Cincy DE Derek Wolfe (touted as a sleeper by some draftniks), BYU’s Loni Fangupo a 4-5 prospect, and Cincy NT John Hughes, a 5-6 prospect (and a much more likely Steelers selection than Poe in our eyes).

If they went #1: Poe is the only possibility at the top.

LINEBACKER

The skinny: Farrior is gone (for now) as the heart and brains of the Steelers inside. James Harrison is in the twilight of his career and Jason Worilds (who the Steelers took before Sean Lee was off the board two years ago) has done very little to convince anyone he can replace him. And Lawrence Timmons continues to be a disappointment, producing huge and misleading tackle numbers and little else (to be fair, he’s played out of position frequently).

Level of need: (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2012) 9

Timing: First through free agent.

Possible selection: Pittsburgh brought 10, count ‘em, 10 linebackers in for visits. We think that’s an indication they could be selecting as many as three among their 10 picks, depending on how the board falls, of course. The highest-rated prospects visiting were Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower and Cal’s Mychal Kendricks, who’d play inside, and USC’s Nick Perry and Clemson’s Andre Branch, who’d work on the edge. Visitors Cam Johnson of Virginia and Olivier Vernon of Miami would be a notch below those three. The group of lower-round prospects includes a couple of Pitt players in Greg Williams and Max Gruder.

If they went #1: If they do (and we think they will), it depends largely on how the board falls and how well they liked each of the Big Four they brought it. Hightower is a popular pick for Pittsburgh in a lot of mock drafts, but we’re guessing he’ll be gone. Perry would be the other guy who would fit at #24 while Kendricks or Branch might merit a trade down of 8-10 spots.

CORNERBACK

The skinny: When we last saw Ike Taylor, he was obliterating the memory of the great 2011 season he had by trailing Erik Decker all day in Pittsburgh’s nightmarish playoff loss at Denver. We’re guessing Taylor will be fine for 2012, but there are other problems here. First and foremost is the loss of William Gay to free agency. Gay, admittedly, was terribly as the off corner in 2010, but when moved back into the nickel in 2011, he was money and sealed two critical wins with huge interceptions. Although Steelers Nation celebrated when Gay departed, we’re guessing they might have a different opinion in about eight months. Keenan Lewis and second-year men Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown will compete for the other secondary spots and Rhodes scholar Myron Rolle brings some intrigue to the mix.

Level of need: (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2012) 3

Timing: Fifth through free agent.

Possible selections: The fact Pittsburgh only brought in three CBs (Johnstown’s Antwan Reed, WVU’s Keith Tandy and Wayne State’s Jeremy Jones), and the fact all are late-round or free-agent types, likely indicates they feel pretty good about the development of 2011 selections Allen and Brown.

If they went #1: The way Janoris Jenkins’ stock is falling (from Top 10 to maybe second round) it looks likely he’ll be there at #24, but don’t even think about it.

SAFETY

The skinny: The Steelers are set at safety (except when they play in Denver) with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark as starters and Ryan Mundy and Will Allen as veteran backups and Damon Cromartie-Smith showing potential.

Level of need: (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2012) 1

Timing: Free agent only, unless…

Possible selections: The Steelers had not safeties visit, but that doesn’t mean they might not have checked out several at pro days. Mark Barron of Alabama and Harrison Smith of Notre Dame are considered the top safeties on the board, but with the all the other more pressing needs it seems unlikely Pittsburgh would even think about them.

If they went #1: Every mock draft in the world has Barron going to the Cowboys at #14 so we guess that means it would be a shocker with Harrison, who most have coming off the board at 25-32.

PUNTER

The skinny: After his third serious knee injury and too many touchbacks to count, the Steelers finally wised up and parted ways with Daniel Sepulveda. Left-footed Jeremy Kapinos has repeatedly shown he can place the ball better, kick it nearly as far, and make all the directional kicks the convoluted world of NFL punting requires.

Level of need: (10 = desperation, 1 = set for 2012) 2

Timing: Free agent seems likely

Possible selections: Prospects are also slim on the punting side in this draft, but Pittsburgh will almost certainly bring in a free agent to compete with Kapinos, although that would not necessarily be a rookie.

If they went #1: They won’t.

COMING THURSDAY: The “15 Minutes” first-round mock and predictions for all 10 Steelers picks…

 
 
 

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