Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant

Jim Wexell interviewed not only a draft expert, and not only a Steelers draft expert, but a Steelers draft expert who specializes in the offensive line. Read what Lance Zierlein has to say.

INDIANAPOLIS – There's nothing quite like a sports column that starts with a quote from Sir Isaac Newton.

That's why I do it about once every 51 years or so.

But if I can remember my 17th century literature it goes something like this:

"If I can see farther than you, it's because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

In other words, I've talked to someone smarter than me and have good reason to change what I wrote last week.

Yes, last week I placed interior offensive lineman Peter Konz of Wisconsin as the tenuous frontrunner on my Steelers' draft tote board.

But today, after standing on the shoulders of a giant, I am not so sure.

My giant is named Lance Zierlein, and he isn't just one of the best draft pundits in the country he's the son of former Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein.

That not only makes Lance an expert and continuing observer of Steelers football, it makes him an expert and continuing observer of the Steelers' offensive line. And that's the very position that needs most sincere attention in this coming draft.

I tracked Lance down here at the NFL Combine and the Houston radio personality and blogger gave me his insights into a team that he and his dad still study on a weekly basis. And I asked Lance about his specialty: the offensive line.

"Number one, you never know how offensive linemen are going to fit with the Steelers until you know what Todd Haley wants to do," said Zierlein. "But the problem, I think, is the Steelers have been a little bit archaic with their running game. The idea of winning in a phone booth just doesn't make sense to me anymore. You make it too hard on some of these un-athletic linemen that the Steelers have had. You're trying to win in-line fights but you're running into numbers issues. … The problem is they don't have the tackles right now to run outside zone."

Zierlein explained that the Steelers need tackles who can make the "backside cutoff block," or the mobility to get out and block outside linebackers on the backside of a play that's flowing the other way.

And that's just part of the problem.

"My guess," Zierlein said, "is that Todd Haley, based on what he's done in Kansas City, will come in and one of the first things he's going to want to do is get a little more athletic so he has a chance to get the running game going and run some more play-action."

Of course, the Steelers have already made plans to move Marcus Gilbert to left tackle to replace Max Starks and that will give the team its most athletic left tackle since Marvel Smith was in his prime. But that's not saying too much.

And it still leaves a need for an athletic right tackle.

"You've got to get guys who are bookends that you can count on," Zierlein said. "As much as I love Willie Colon, it may be time to bounce him down inside and get a guy with a little more foot quickness outside."

In this draft, the only first-round tackles who could be available at pick No. 24 are Jonathan Martin if he slips and Mike Adams if the Steelers reach.

Zierlein, in his two-round mock draft for the Houston Chronicle, suggests the Steelers should instead wait for the second round and draft Cal tackle Mitchell Schwartz.

So, what then? A guard in the first round?

Zierlein does agree that the Steelers need more athleticism inside in order to better block middle linebackers at the second level.

"I think Ramon (Foster) is maybe bigger and a little slower than you'd like at the guard position, based on what Todd Haley might do with the running game, but at the same time Ramon knows the position," Zierlein said. "If you make a change, you're asking Ben (Roethlisberger) to play behind a line that hasn't played together. That's been happening to him three or four years in a row. That's one of the reasons he gets hit so often."

So, no guard in the first round?

"You potentially could, and that might be something they would consider doing. I know they drafted (Alan) Faneca in the first as a guard. Kendall Simmons was a high pick at guard. So obviously they're not opposed to drafting an interior lineman early. Peter Konz at 24 might be a consideration, but I just think there's going to be some defensive line talent there that they might look at, or even potentially inside linebacker, that they might look at based on the defense getting a little bit older."

So the offensive line aficionado, the man who believes the new coordinator will want to first upgrade the line's athleticism, now says the Steelers should draft defense first?

I don't know about you, but it's getting a little foggy up here on the shoulders of this giant.

"Let me put it this way," Zierlein said. "You could draft a guard in the second, third or fourth and they would compete for a starting position this year with the Steelers.

"If I'm Kevin Colbert, depending on who's on the board, I might take a defensive player in the first round and then really focus on offensive line in the second, third and fourth rounds."

Zierlein mentioned Dontari Poe, the 350-pound interior defender from Memphis as a first-round candidate. He also likes Luke Kuechly and Dont'a Hightower as middle linebackers to eventually replace James Farrior.

"It's funny because the Steelers are so good at finding linebackers," Zierlein said. "Now when I look at offensive linemen and running backs, I think Texans. But when it comes to defense I look for body types and I often think of the Steelers."

Zierlein relayed a story of spending time at the Senior Bowl with scouts and agents and Steelers personnel men, and talking about Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. He said they all agreed that Upshaw is a LaMarr Woodley knock-off.

"So there are certain guys you say ‘He looks like a Steeler' and that's a big compliment when you're talking about defense," Zierlein said. "Unfortunately, there are also guys you look at on the offensive line and you say, ‘Man, he looks like a Steeler.' And that's not a compliment."

And that's what has to change, even if it can't be done in the first round.

Take it from the giant.

(To read the transcript of the complete interview with Lance Zierlein, click here.)


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