With a new 5-year window for franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the stage set for the offense to take it’s place as the NFL’s best, the elephant in the room as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers are concerned is the status of their defense. It’s a defense that’s been undergoing a face lift for several seasons now, as stalwarts Casey Hampton, James Farrior, Larry Foote, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel began to show their grey hairs, and the unit fell off a cliff statistically. They ultimately said goodbye to them all, with Troy Polamalu likely next, and the defense dropped out of the top 10 in yards allowed in 2013, the first time since 1999 this has happened. Then last season, they dropped even more, from 13th to 18th. A couple missed picks from the 2008 and 2009 drafts have left the cupboards bare at outside linebacker and cornerback, the two biggest needs of the team, without question. Why do you think the team’s brass was at the majority of the top pass rushers’ or corners’ pro days, or out wining and dining them?
The team has spent first-round picks on defensive players in three of the past four drafts, and you can almost bet the farm it will be a defensive player’s name on the draft card when the clock hits 0:00 for pick number 22.
“Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley might want to take a good book to the draft or take some crossword puzzles as he might not be very busy for the first couple of days of it,” said ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown. “The Steelers have much of a need at cornerback, a position they haven’t addressed in the first round since 1997. They could very well take two players at that position with their first three picks and the other pick very well may be an outside linebacker.”
Although rarely moving up in the first round, it isn’t entirely out of the question, as the team catapulted up in the 2003 draft, swapping picks with the Kansas City Chiefs from the 27th spot to 16th, and grabbing future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu in the process. They also moved up in the ’06 draft, from 32 to 25, and grabbed future Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. So, given the rare sample size, leapfrogging up in the first round has paid dividends for the team as of late. It begs the question, what if the team wanted to move up enough for a stud edge rusher, like Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr.? A projected top 5 pick in most mocks, Fowler seems to be the most pro-ready of the first round pass rushers, both capable of double-digit sacks as well as physical enough to hold the edge in the run game. He could almost be a potential plug-and-play starter for a team.
To move up for his services, Kevin Colbert and company would have to give up a lot, but they’d be getting an impact defender, instead of waiting several years for a mid-tier one to develop, and wasting some of Ben’s best years. A comparable trade was made in the 2011 NFL Draft, when the Atlanta Falcons leapfrogged up to grab star receiver Julio Jones. Has it paid off, despite all they gave up? Without question it has, as he’s in the conversation of top five wideouts in the game today. In exchange for getting the sixth overall pick of the Cleveland Browns, aka Jones, Atlanta traded five picks to Cleveland, including their 27th overall pick, second round pick, fourth round pick, plus their first and fourth rounders in the 2012 draft.
With all their needs on the defensive side of the ball, we’re more likely to spot a UFO flying over top of our house tonight than see the front office make such a move. Perhaps if a prospect such as Trae Waynes or Shane Ray begins to drop to the mid-to-late teens, then a more palpable scenario may unfold where the team could begin making inquiries. More than likely, the team will just stay the course, and wait until the 22nd pick comes to fruition. And there’s still a huge question that’s recently unfolded-if Randy Gregory slides, and is on the board when they pick, what happens? For those who haven’t heard, it recently came to light in the news that he failed a drug test at the combine, a la Mike Adams. It’s food for thought as to whether the front office would be as forgiving again, considering the recent marijuana troubles of some of their players. Adams has stayed the course thus far, but his play never matched his second round pedigree. Gregory, talent-wise, is a bona fide top-10 and would likely immediately help cure some of their pass rush woes.
As stated earlier, with the offensive pieces appearing to be in place, the forefront of the front office’s focus should be making upgrades across the defensive side of the ball. And we can never say never, but making a move into the top-10 appears to be too risky of a move, considering what the team would have to mortgage. A trade back could happen, garnering extra picks in the process. However, the most likely/realistic occurrence is exactly what’s happened the past few years, and that’s staying the course, allowing other teams to reach and waiting for a top prospect to fall right into their lap.