Getting My Steelers Draft Board Ready

I've compiled my list of which players have visited the Steelers and taken note of the places Cowher and company have visited. Then, I plugged in the Steelers' off-season moves, statements, and needs to come up with my draft board, which is now ready for the weekend of April 26th-27th. Whom are the Steelers going to pick? I will tell you.

With just a week left before the draft, I put away the last month of hype and returned to more reliable sources of information. Perhaps surprisingly to a few of you, I often re-read the mangled words of Bill Cowher. I contend that Cowher is not fond of speaking to the media because he is not very good at it. The result is that he often says things he hadn't planned on saying. You do have to read between the lines in most cases, but somewhere beyond the mixed metaphors are the machinations of the Pittsburgh Steelers front office.

Lately, we've been hearing rumors of the Steelers' interest in RB Larry Johnson (Penn State). Cowher and company were at the PSU workouts and running backs coach Dick Hoak is reportedly very high on Johnson. Hoak's opinion on players is not one you should take lightly and the front office in Pittsburgh certainly respects what he has to say.

When Cowher was asked about the status of the return of RB Jerome Bettis he said, "There are two high profile players in Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart and unrestricted free agents. There are a lot of questions that people have in regard to not just whether they come back, but the roles they will play. Those are things that you have to sit down and look at the roster and look at the cap. We will see what our options are and those are things that are upcoming in the next couple of weeks."

Couple these few tidbits with the likely run on defensive players in the first round, particularly defensive backs, and you can see why Johnson's name has been linked to the Steelers in round 1.

Speaking of this impending run on defensive backs on Day 1, that brings me to rumor number 2. The other name that Cowher mentioned in terms of who might not be in the Black and Gold by next fall was QB Kordell Stewart. We all now know that Stewart ended up with the Chicago Bears. Furthermore, we know that QBs Rex Grossman (Florida) and Kyle Boller (Cal) have been to Pittsburgh for a visit.

The Steelers are reportedly quite fond of Rex in the City, who, unlike Boller, should be there when the Steelers pick in round 1. With the Kordell experiment now behind us (please, let it be behind us), the Steelers may be ready to take another shot at drafting a starting quarterback.

Before most of you readers groan about the idea of the Steelers drafting Grossman, keep in mind I've only scratched the surface of the draft information out there. Actually, I'm here to tell another story, one that does not include Larry Johnson or Rex Grossman.

Cowher had more to say about the Steelers' off-season plans during the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix.

"In the Cleveland game, they just kind of spread it out and they were just going to wing it," said Cowher about the problems in the secondary. "If that's how people want to play us, then fine. We'll have a better sense of that and be better prepared for that this year."

Funny that Cowher should point out the Cleveland game and not the playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. In the playoff game against the Browns, CB Chad Scott was out (really, he refused to play) and the Steelers coverage clearly suffered without him. What if one of the Steelers starting corners was injured in 2003? I don't think this is something Cowher wants to worry about. Furthermore, Dewayne Washington could well be a cap casualty after the end of the 2003 season.

The high profile corners whom the Steelers have looked at so far for the upcoming draft should surprise no one. CBs Torrie Cox (Pitt) and Sammy Davis (Texas A&M) have both been in for visits. Plus, Kevin Colbert and a few of the Steelers coaching staff were at the A&M workouts. IF (against the steadily louder chorus of opinions that sing the song of at least 6 DBs, including Sammy, being picked before the Steelers even get a shot in the first round) Davis is there at #27, I believe the Steelers will take him.

Other CBs whose names come up are Donald Strickland (Colorado) and Bryan Thomas (Penn State). Cowher was at the Colorado workouts and the word is that the Steelers have taken a liking to Strickland, who is a physical corner that is not shy about tackling a running back. He's a shorter version of Chad Scott. Think of Strickland as a Sammy surrogate, fallback plan #1. Cox would be another consideration in the same vein.

Bryan Thomas is another story. Again, Cowher speaketh, "I still feel good about our safety situation with Mike Logan coming back. And Chris Hope is a good, young player. Certainly, we tried to sign Dexter Jackson. If we don't get someone in the draft, I still think there is a good veteran out there that we can get, if we have to do that."

Cowher states clearly that the Steelers are looking to draft a safety. However, keep in mind the name associated with the talk about the draft, Dexter Jackson.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to address the speed element in our secondary with some youth," Cowher said concerning the situation at safety, "one way or the other."

The Steelers just started contract negotiations with SS Sammy Knight. Knight would be brought in to give Chris Hope some competition and Cowher that veteran security blanket he loves. Dexter Jackson was not courted for the same reason. Logan has been slow to pick up the scheme and has proven to be injury prone throughout his career. Cowher was hoping Jackson would replace Brent Alexander at free safety. This is where Cowher wants to see an infusion of speed through youth. Chris Hope has that covered at the strong safety position. Forget all the talk about SS Troy Polamalu (USC), who probably won't make it to #27 anyway.

Bryan Thomas could be the answer, but don't rule out a sliding Dennis Weathersby (Oregon State) or even Rashean Mathis (Bethune-Cookman). However, I suspect that the Steelers are looking to grab a free safety in the second or third round (Weathersby's falling stock may qualify him as a candidate, but he may end up being a late first round reach given the run on DBs). They may even wait longer and pick a rising sleeper in Quintin Mikell (Boise St.), who is getting plenty of attention from scouts over the past few weeks.

Does the above sum up my draft board? No, I'm not quite done. There are really two more considerations.

Back to Bill, "I look at that as we didn't have Kendrell Bell out there for a lot of games. Look at our record when he was on the field."

What does Kendrell Bell have to do with the draft?

"We want him to be on the field for three downs," Cowher said.

Everyone, save the opposition, wants to see Bell on the field more. The question is, why does Cowher want him to be on the field more?

"A lot of it, when you look at coverages, is your rush," said Cowher about the problems defending the pass. "Some of it was approaches with how we did things. Passing was up all around the NFL last year. We had some people who, frankly, said when they play us we're not going to even try to run the football. Those are things we have to look at in the offseason."

Is the problem simply personnel (certainly, something you can address through the draft)?

"Yeah, we missed a few tackles and we had some big games early in the season, but some of it was what we did schematically, too," Cowher explained the chunks of yardage the Steelers yielded through the air. "Some of it was by design."

Bell, as good as he is, is not really much of an edge rusher. His specialty is going right up the middle and terrorizing the center and then the QB. This is the best way to blitz the spread, not loop way around like OLB Jason Gildon. The Steelers even started using Gildon on the inside rush, but that's not his strong suit. But more on Gildon in just a bit.

What Cowher is really talking about is increasing the pressure on the quarterback up the middle, from the interior of the defensive line.

The Steelers have brought in DEs Calvin Pace (Wake Forest) and Osi Umenyiora (Troy State) with this task in mind. The Steelers are looking for a more disruptive defensive tackle in their nickel and dime schemes. Other names that have surfaced thanks to the presence of Steelers staff at pro day workouts are Roy Attieh (he may be picked up as a UDFA nose tackle) and Pierre Wilson, both of Kent State. However, a name that has recently been excluded from Steeler draft talk is Kenny Peterson (Ohio State). He still might be a nice first round pick up, sliding down thanks to the run on DBs. Peterson would be perfect for generating a pass rush from the interior. Imagine dealing with Peterson, Bell, and Aaron Smith up the middle on passing downs.

However, the zone-blitzing Steelers still like to rush their OLBs from the outside, particularly on running downs. Gildon is increasingly being exposed as a liability and the Steelers now must ponder his eventual replacement. Captain Gildon needs to remember Captain Kirkland. The Steelers are not shy about shedding productive veterans in their waning years.

Recently, the Steelers brought in LB Gerald Hayes (Pitt) for a visit. However, the Steelers seem to prefer to convert undersized defensive ends into outside linebackers (Joey Porter the latest example). Antwaan Peek (Cincinnati) fits the mold and the Steelers hosted him recently as well. Another name that has surfaced is that of OLB Sam Williams (Fresno State). The Steelers thought enough of him to send their chief of western scouting to his pro day workout. He's got the size and speed that the Steelers covet in a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Throw in a visit from P Sean McNichols (Edinboro) and LS Ernie Andria (California of PA), and you get a pretty good idea of my draft board. Defensive linemen who generate a strong interior rush and cornerbacks with size, speed, and fierce hitting are the Day 1 agenda. Free safety is also a Day 1 thought, but the Steelers might find some value during Day 2. Backing up these draft dreams are the thoughts about the situation at quarterback and running back. The Steelers could pull the trigger at any time, particularly if the guy they really want in that round has been snatched from their grasp (just as Bryan Thomas was last year).

If the prediction is that defense will be all the rage this year in round 1, the Steelers may be face to face with a prize of offensive players that have fallen to them as a result. Then again, they may just reach for a corner or safety as everyone else before them has. I'm staking my claim that it will be the latter, not the former. Either that, or the Steelers will find themselves with that prime defensive lineman that everyone passed on in the fight for the small group of marquee corners.

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