Prediction: The next Carnell Lake?

Buddy Ryan once said of giving out pre-draft information, "if you're not lying, you're not trying." So as a writer covering and predicting the Pittsburgh Steelers' draft, you get your clues before "trying" season begins.

Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of operations, gave out a great clue three years ago. In his first pre-draft press conference, Colbert, for the last time, gave an honest appraisal of team needs.

"We need help in the passing game and on the offensive line," he said. "We could also use a playmaker in the secondary."

Well, he and Coach Bill Cowher drafted Plaxico Burress and Marvel Smith but never did get that playmaker.

The man in charge of defensive playmakers was reminded a few months ago of the unfulfilled promise. Coordinator Tim Lewis shrugged his shoulders and said, "if he can't cover Todd Heap, he can't help us."

That was clue No. 2, and Cowher gave up the third clue. Giddy after purchasing a new toy, 6-foot-5 tight end Jay Riemersma, Cowher probably forgot it was "trying" season.

"I remember us trying to cover him with Chris Oldham," Cowher said of Riemersma, "and they just kept throwing the ball up over his head for a touchdown. Chris was in great position. What can you tell him? ‘Chris, grow. You're not tall enough.'"

Add it up and the Steelers need Carnell Lake (6-1, 210), the safety who was big enough to cover tight ends, man enough to play at the line, quick enough to blitz the quarterback or cover a deep receiver, and smart enough to know when to do which.

The closest player to Lake in this draft is another Pac 10 "linebacker." At least that's the description USC strong safety Troy Polamalu evokes in his scouting reports. He excels at the line the way Lake did as a UCLA linebacker, and Polamalu's similarly athletic. His workout numbers place him among the elite athletes in this year's draft and are matched by his leadership skills. He's not as tall as Lake, but that doesn't concern the Steelers, who'd like to select this smart, competitive playmaker.

But it won't happen. For the reasons listed, Polamalu (5-10 1/8, 206) won't last until the 27th pick of the draft. So, the search, the prediction, moves elsewhere.

Running back – Larry Johnson intrigues Cowher, who, the rumor mill has it, had to be talked out of making Johnson a priority. If Cowher had to be talked out of his favorite at a position, the position can be effectively ruled out. The injured Willis McGahee, in their book, is one injury closer to the end.

Wide receiver – A roster spot is open, making the position a bigger priority than running back, but the Steelers' first three receivers are wrapped up for at least the next two seasons.

Offensive line – Cowher named the prospective starting tackles – Smith and Oliver Ross – at this week's press conference and Colbert indicated they'd signed Todd Fordham to be the swing tackle. The interior is established and includes two solid back-ups. So much money is already tied up in the line, the Steelers will go with what they have, even though they could use a decent tackle.

Quarterback – There's a glaring roster spot open and the 27th pick holds the promise of a player, Rex Grossman, filling it and expanding upon it some day. The coaching staff likes him and the scouting department likes Kyle Boller, but neither gets the nod here because Cowher won't force his starter, Tommy Maddox, to accept the lowest paycheck of three quarterbacks. It just won't happen.

Defensive line – Michael Haynes ran poorly at the combine and his campus times can't be trusted because Penn State's track is said to be tilted. Still, nobody thinks Haynes will slip to No. 27. As for the gang of 4-3 ends, like Calvin Pace, forget them. Cowher doesn't believe his 3-4 scheme is passé. He'd need a good 4-3 end to come out of the later rounds to consider changing primary schemes. Although, if Lewis goes with more nickel, a pass-rusher will be needed.

Linebacker – There's a roster spot open. There's even an opening with the second team at minicamp because of Clark Haggans' surgery. That gives the Steelers every reason to draft Jason Gildon's eventual replacement. Their favorite outside linebacker, Antwan Peek of Cincinnati, is a defensive end. The first-round isn't the place for projections, at least not with the Steelers' track record of finding this type of player later on.

Secondary – With Polamalu gone, the next best safety is Ken Hamlin, who has two DUIs. Even if the Steelers are forgiving, the the demerit dropped his grade far below that of three corners: Sammy Davis, Eugene Wilson and Andre Woolfolk. The next safety, Mike Doss, is not a first-round athlete.

Of the three corners, Davis and Wilson are better prepared to step into lineups than is the raw Woolfolk, a converted wide receiver. So it's expected that Davis and Wilson would be taken by pick No. 27.

That leaves Woolfolk (6-1 3/8, 197), who also has good size in case the Steelers groom him to play strong safety. He also has the hips, and Lewis, the former cornerback, looks first at the hips. Woolfolk just needs time, and the Steelers may have it with Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington entering the middle year of their contracts. Speaking of which, money's another reason the 30-year-old Washington should expect to be replaced after this season. While he's being groomed for the job, Woolfolk could help the 3-CB set the Steelers used at times in their base defense last season. He may prove then that he's the next Carnell Lake. That kind of potential gives him the nod over Davis and Wilson even if they are available.

In the second round, the Steelers like Peek (6-2 5/8, 246) and Terrence Kiel (5-11 1/8, 204), a SS/FS who led Texas A&M in tackles the last two years and has the speed and agility to defend the pass.

If the Steelers land Kiel in the second round, they could draft their outside linebacker/pass rusher in the third round. Shurron Pierson, (6-1 7/8, 243), a defensive end from South Florida, is similar to Joey Porter (6-2, 248). Pierson ran a 4.63 40 at the combine.

The defense must return its intimidating swagger, so onward to defensive end Kenny King (6-2 ¾, 281) of Alabama in the fourth round. King would fit behind 32-year-old Kimo von Oelhoffen and put heat on young backups Rodney Bailey and Brett Kiesel.

Offensively, with holes at both quarterback and wide receiver remaining, Colbert's short drafting history indicates he may try to fill both jobs with one player. The Steelers love the playmaking ability of 5-11 3/8 quarterback Seneca Wallace, but he's been fussy about playing wide receiver. Some scouts said, "See ya in the CFL," but the Steelers followed up on their in-season interest. Colbert picked quarterback Tee Martin in the fifth round of the 2000 draft. Notre Dame's Arnaz Battle (WR-QB-S) is another consideration.

The Steelers need two safeties and a corner in this draft. The final addition could be Quintin Mikell (5-9¾, 206), the WAC Defensive Player of the Year from Boise State. He's the smart, hard-hitting type of player the Steelers have turned into free safeties over the years.

So that and free-agent Sammy Knight's phone number will give the Steelers a new secondary, but one that won't begin to emerge for another seven months, at best.

Jim Wexell
Steel City

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