I'd have preferred trading up for Mike Pouncey, of course, but that became a non-option once he was snagged with the 15th pick. So for a team sitting tight at pick 31, the Steelers played the draft like a Stradivarius.
Their strategy had nothing to do with any optimism over re-signing Ike Taylor. No, their strategy had everything to do with the fact that the cornerbacks available at pick 31 weren't much better than those who would be available at 91.
I noticed this dynamic when I sat down to mock a draft at the combine. In the first round I had to ask these questions:
* Is Aaron Williams a corner or a safety?
* Is any nickel back (Brandon Harris) worthy of the first round?
* Can Ras-I Dowling get out of the tub?
* Am I crazy to consider using a first-round pick on such question marks?
It became clear that those risks weren't worth taking once I noticed all of the talented cornerbacks who would be available in the middle rounds.
As for the defensive ends, for all the hoopla at the position there were only three who fit the Steelers' scheme. The last of the three was Cameron Heyward, and if they didn't draft him they most likely weren't going to draft one at all. It was first round or bust at that position, one of the most critical positions in the sport.
The offensive line was similar to cornerback in that one who fit the Steelers' style would be available in the second and/or third rounds. They could simply wait to see which position ranked higher in the second round and then address the other position in the third. It's the reason I doubt the Steelers tried to trade up for the 5-9 Harris in the second round.
Overall, the strategy made perfect sense, but will the players turn out?
Let's break it down:
First round – Heyward had problems stacking and shedding offensive linemen in the run game, and he isn't the most athletic of defensive ends. The comparison to a young Aaron Smith is utter nonsense. However, with his natural strength, his size, and his work ethic, Heyward is a safe bet to become a solid starter and a stout run-stopper once he receives NFL coaching. He also has the right mentality to take on the field-oxen role with the Steelers that some of the flashier college defensive ends would not.
Second round – Marcus Gilbert was the one lineman I did NOT want them to draft. And so they did. He had an awful season as Florida's left tackle, but with the coaching he'll receive from Sean Kugler there's a chance he'll develop into a right tackle or guard here. And at 6-6, 330, he has the size to develop into a star if the light ever comes on.
Third round – I didn't watch Curtis Brown closely until late in his senior season, and then it was obvious he was a better cover corner than Williams. At the Senior Bowl, the slightly built Brown also showed feistiness against the run, so I wondered why he wasn't a consideration in the first round. But those who'd watched his entire career just laughed at the idea. So, maybe he's a late-bloomer. Or maybe he'll fade away and be long forgotten (except by those who wanted to trade a second and third-rounder for Pouncey). But at this point his odds of making it are the same as those for Williams, Dowling and Harris.
Fourth round – Never saw Cortez Allen play, but he appeared to fit in with the rest of the cornerbacks during combine drills. He was also praised for his work ethic and coachability, so I like the pick – on paper. That's all I know.
Fifth round – Chris Carter was a flashy pass-rushing defensive end at Fresno State who occasionally dropped into coverage, so he appeared from the outset to be a natural fit for the Steelers. He was going to be my star sleeper until Mike Mayock ranked him as a top-five OLB. Then I figured there'd be no chance of drafting him, particularly since the Steelers only had an opening for a second backup at the position. Alas, Carter dropped and the Steelers couldn't help but grab the value.
Sixth round – Even though he was a senior guard at Nebraska, Keith Williams was an unknown to me. That's hard to believe considering the Nebraska tradition and the Steelers' needs. But he visited the South Side last month and I was told he's pretty good on the move. The Steelers certainly need more consistency from their move guard.
Seventh round – All I know about RB Baron Batch is that he ran down Curtis Brown from behind to save a touchdown for Texas Tech. We're told he can catch and block, but running down a cornerback in the open field tells us a little something about his competitive speed.