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The Pittsburgh Steelers will need to use the 2013 NFL draft to fill as many holes on the roster as possible. Without significant money to spend on free agents and with significant depth problems, this is the most crucial draft of the Mike Tomlin era.
Here’s a look at what Kevin Colbert, his staff and Mike Tomlin have on their wish lists for April. We’ll look at these by position and break down prospects that fit each.
Troy Polamalu is coming down to the end. 2012 was a lost season for Pittsburgh’s signature defender. His body is breaking down and his absence seems to be part of every season now.
The first task for Kevin Colbert is to lower Polamalu’s cap hit for next season. His second task is much more important, however. He must use the draft to uncover the next Troy Polamalu. At the very least, he must secure the depth chart behind him.
Matt Elam is the best fit and should be available when Pittsburgh makes its first selection with the 17th overall pick. The Florida product is a playmaker and a disruptive force, although he’s more Ryan Clark than Polamalu.
Duke Williams is another name to keep an eye on in the middle rounds. The Nevada safety has carved out a reputation as a hard-hitting defender with the ability to make the big play when needed. He’s raw and needs coaching, but is just the kind of prospect the Steelers love in the middle of their draft class.
Ike Taylor, who should return from his late-season injury without any drawbacks, is the team’s top cornerback. Opposite him, there are currently only questions.
Keenan Lewis, who carved out a very nice season in his first campaign as a starter, is a free agent and should cash in somewhere on the market. Teams like the Miami Dolphins have the need and the money. Pittsburgh doesn’t have much of the latter right now.
Alabama’s Dee Milliner is the top cornerback available, but he may be gone by the time Pittsburgh selects in the first round. If he is, the next best fit is Johnthan Banks out of Mississippi State.
Banks is a tough, physical player in the style of Taylor who will be tough in coverage and can also take a pass away. He has a few holes in his game, mostly around some small lapses in reading a quarterback, but those can be corrected by defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.
If the Steelers elect to move further up in the draft to grade Milliner, it would be risky because it would rob the team of some picks. It may, however, be worth it if he develops into a shutdown corner.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have blown up the backfield this offseason. Rashard Mendenhall isn’t expected to return as a free agent. He’d long since worn out his welcome with fans and the coaching staff.
Isaac Redman may not return either. As a restricted free agent, the Steelers will be able to keep him with a tender offer, but the team is better off moving away from the past and letting him test the open market.
Jonathan Dwyer is still on the team, but his spot is far from sure. It is no secret that the team needs much more out of its rushing attack in 2013. Todd Haley’s system is predicated on a strong rushing attack. If the Steelers feel Dwyer cannot deliver in a key role, he could be let go as well.
Players like Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham could be good fits for the Steelers if the staff is looking to revamp the backfield. While this isn’t a need that must be addressed early, it must be addressed at some point during the draft.
Larry Foote did a wonderful job of returning to form during the season and becoming a solid starter after a couple of seasons spent behind James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons.
Foote is a free agent, however. Pittsburgh should not bring him back unless they cannot find a cheaper and, more importantly, younger alternative to him in 2013.
Sean Spence, who missed the entire season with a knee injury, could be that answer for the short and long term if he’s fully healthy. If not, he could be supplanted by a new draft choice.
Who fits depends largely on where the Steelers elect to address this issue.
If they go early, Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o could be a second-round choice. Pittsburgh rolled the dice on Mike Adams after he suffered character questions before the draft. If Te’o can convince a team like Pittsburgh that his recent issues are not going to be a problem in the NFL, he’s a good prospect.
If Pittsburgh waits, Kiko Alonso from Oregon or Nico Johnson of Alabama are good mid-round prospects that would fit well in the Pittsburgh system.
One of the toughest lessons learned in 2012 was that Pittsburgh cannot rely on ancient backups Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich any longer. Neither played particularly well during Ben Roethlisberger’s three-game absence in the middle of the season.
More importantly, Roethlisberger rushed himself back into action to help keep the team afloat.
A team that cannot survive an injury at the quarterback position is doomed when the quarterback that starts plays with little regard for his own health and safety. Roethlisberger doesn’t get through too many seasons without an injury of some sort.
Another important consideration is that Roethlisberger’s style of play and his age could combine to put him into retirement much sooner than age 40. Getting a guy who can be developed as an insurance policy is a good idea.
Pittsburgh will not go with a quarterback early. There are too many other, more immediate needs to fill. But a fourth-round pick on Oklahoma’s Landry Jones or another player with similar skills (accuracy, mobility and strength) would be well spent.
With Ramon Foster, Max Starks and Doug Legursky all free agents and Willie Colon on the chopping block after too many injuries and too big a salary, Pittsburgh will be rebuilding the offensive line depth once again.
The good news is that starters seem to be in place with the exception of one spot, which could move around depending on how players are situated once the new offensive line coach sorts through things with Todd Haley.
The depth will be completely missing, however. That’s where the Steelers will need to focus their efforts. Given the current projected personnel, guard is the position of greatest need.
There are a lot of good offensive linemen available in this draft. That means a ton of players will be good fits and available in the middle and late rounds. Don’t rule out multiple picks being spent here late to get as many bodies as possible to work with in camp.
UCLA’s Jeff Baca is a good fit that will likely be available in the middle rounds or later. Kentucky product Larry Warford is a potential pick in the second round if the Steelers decide to look there earlier in the draft.