Please don't tell anyone.
Still, there might be only three people in the media whom I respect enough to care what they think. One of those is Lance Zierlein, not only because of his knowledge but because of his NFL sources.
Of course, the Houston radio personality needs no introduction to this site. Lance's opinions are appreciated when we get the opportunity, and today is one of those days. He came out with a mock draft this week and has the Steelers selecting tight end Eric Ebron. I e-mailed Lance for his reasoning, and as usual he responded generously.
Q: Why Ebron?
LZ: The first thing we have to acknowledge is that Heath Miller is going to be 32 years old by October. Right off the bat, that matters to me. We all know that the Steelers have a variety of team needs including cornerback, but Eric Ebron is easily the best tight end in this draft and he would give the Steelers an immediate impact player on offense who creates matchup problems.
In the past, the Steelers have been about executing and letting guys like Santonio Holmes and Mike Wallace make big plays down the field. While I like Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton quite a bit, I believe the ability to play a guy like Ebron on the line of scrimmage, in the slot or out wide will do nothing but help make the entire passing game more effective.
And guess what? It would help the running game too? Here is how:
More and more teams are figuring out how to run it effectively with their "11" personnel which is a 1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WR set. By operating out of this personnel grouping, defenses are forced to go into a nickel and, in most cases, leave just 6 in the box. With Ebron, you could operate out of "12" (1 RB, 2 TE and 2 WR set) which would create a serious dilemma for defensive coordinators. If you are going with a base defense - which you usually do against 12 personnel - then what are you going to do when Ebron is split wide and Wheaton is in the slot on the same side? I guess a safety has to go out there with him because he will torture most LBs in man to man coverage.
If defensive coordinators go into a nickel package, then the Steelers can do what Indianapolis used to do with Dallas Clark in his prime which was to go out of the gun with 1 RB, 2 TEs (Clark in the slot at WR) and 2 WRs. If you stayed base, Manning would chop you up through the air (often with Clark). If you went to nickel, they would run at your 6-man fronts and usually towards the blocking tight end side, which, in this case would be Miller or even a guy like (Matt) Spaeth. Ebron, despite what some Steelers fans may think, is not a terrible blocker. He's a willing blocker who I expect to take coaching. He's also not soft. I think he's a better blocker than Dallas Clark ever was and the Steelers could run the ball right at Ebron's side if teams match up with him with a safety or even another cornerback.
This is a long answer, but the reason I put Ebron with Pittsburgh is not only because I believe he would be one of the top rated players on the draft board at that spot, or because Heath Miller is getting old, it is also because Ebron offers a unique opportunity to create matchup problems for defensive coordinators with his athleticism AND through personnel packages. I believe that if the offense is coordinated properly, Ebron could have an impact on both the running game and passing attack and help take the Steelers in the advanced direction that offenses have been heading in over the last two years.
Q: Any alternatives?
LZ: Absolutely. Let's remember that I will probably have five mock drafts total this year and I would be shocked if I had the Steelers taking the same guy more than twice. I made my pick for the Steelers based on what the board looked like, what I know of Kevin Colbert's draft philosophy, and based on need. I would have strongly considered Zack Martin as a potential tackle or guard for that offensive line, and I would have likely chosen Ra'shede Hageman as a 3-4 DE if he had been available in my mock.
Q: Any rumors you're hearing about them?
Why not a CB?
LZ: I understand the Steelers need a CB in the worst way and maybe they will take one, but NFL talent evaluators are not as high on Justin Gilbert the football player as they are Justin Gilbert the athlete. They are also much cooler on Darqueze Dennard from Michigan State than people probably realize. Add to this the fact that the Steelers have never taken a CB in the first round since Colbert has been in that building and maybe you can see why I passed on that position in the first round. The last time the Steelers spent even a 2nd rounder on a CB was 2005 with Bryant McFadden, and then 2004 before that with Ricardo Colclough.
Dick LeBeau is from the school of "attack the QB and coverage becomes much easier." Those kinds of defenses almost always value the pass rush over coverage and look to take CBs from rounds 2 thru 4. Lovie Smith comes from that family tree with Tony Dungy and you'll notice the Bears usually didn't go first-round CBs very often, and, in fact, just got rid of an overpriced CB in Revis. Mike Tomlin comes from that same "Tampa 2" ideology as well. The Steelers could end up drafting a CB in the 1st, but it would be the first time doing that since Colbert joined the Steelers. Also keep mind that Colbert referenced depth at WR and CB specifically when he was asked about this draft class at the combine.
Q: Your view of their OL?
LZ: Disappointed again last year. Look, I obviously wanted better offensive line talent for my father to work with when he was there, but he made the most out of what he had. There was a time when the Steelers spent a few years building up their offensive line via free agency and high draft picks and it paid dividends for them. However, I feel like they coasted for too long with those picks and did not do a very good job of evaluating the position in preparation to replace guys like Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings with quality depth, which caused the organization to be working from a talent deficiency at that spot for too long.
I think the Steelers have hit with Maurkice Pouncey and I've seen enough from David DeCastro to think he's going to be a solid pro, but it is so hard to put a final grade on the offensive line as a unit until I see them play at full strength and I don't know when that will ever be. To me, Marcus Gilbert is just average and Mike Adams lacks the strength you want. I was pleasantly surprised by Kelvin Beachum but would rather see him at guard. I still think the Steelers need two tackles and this would be a good year to take another look at the position by round 2 or 3. Mike Munchak will help. He should be a huge upgrade over (Jack) Bicknell. There is still a lack of necessary talent up front and that still needs to be addressed.