Broncos Blueprint Offers Prescription

You've enjoyed his message-board gospel as "Yancey Thigpen." He's Marty Flaherty, our newest writer, and today he offers what might be the most important draft story a Steelers fan can read.

At 38, John Elway became the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and his back-to-back championships offer a proven blueprint to build a Super Bowl offense around a quarterback on the tail end of his career. And since the Steelers have a quarterback who idolized John Elway and consciously tried to emulate him, they probably have the best opportunity to copy what the Broncos had.

There's some evidence to suggest that's what they have in mind. The introduction of zone-blocking principles, the additions of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount and the effort to force-feed a sputtering running game suggest that the top priority is to build a hard-nosed zone running game similar to what Denver had in 1997-98.

I don't think there's much debate that Ben Roethlisberger could take advantage of such a situation with his terrific skills as a play-action passer.

Obviously, there's more than one way to build a team, but taking cues from the Broncos' blueprint, which produced a No. 1 and No. 2 scoring offense in the Super Bowl years, some players in the 2014 draft make more sense than others.

Offensive Line

On the interior, Mark Schlereth, Tom Nalen and Bryan Habib were a very solid group. Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster measure up talent-wise with the Broncos' trio. That talent is not a guarantee of equal performance, but there's no glaring need to add personnel here.

On paper, there's no way the Steelers can match the quality of a Gary Zimmerman at left tackle, but the five-time All-Pro was on his last legs in 1997 and gone altogether in 1998. Harry Swayne, the 1998 right tackle, was a journeyman. Tony Jones was a quality tackle on both sides - mostly the left - for the Super Bowl squads.

The difference in tackle quality isn't as glaring upon closer examination as it seems at first glance. It's consequential but not insurmountable.

A guy like Zack Martin could probably close that gap a bit, but he's giving up two or three inches to the Michael Rooses and David Stewarts of the world. He doesn't look the part of a Mike Munchak tackle. And the first-round guy who does, and might actually be available, Taylor Lewan, has character flags, even if I liked the way he plays.

I don't know whether it's just superficial that Munchak's tackles with the Tennessee Titans were giants. I do know that Michael Roos "overcame" his 32 1/2-inch arm length on Munchak's watch, so Martin's heavily scrutinized 32 7/8-inch arms probably won't be a dealbreaker. I also know that Trent Murphy had 23.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks, but against Martin, had just two assisted tackles and no sacks.

Joel Bitonio, the other tackle I like in this draft (aside from Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews, of course), has similar knocks on his frame and similar calls for him to move inside to guard. But when he was matched against athletic marvel edge rusher Anthony Barr, Barr's only hope for success seemed to be getting matched up on a TE. I'm less sure of Bitonio, because he really only went up against one elite pass rusher that I saw.

In 2012, it was Nick Perry and Mitchell Schwartz I was watching when I said to myself, either Perry's not that good, or Mitchell Schwartz is a borderline first-round pick. I decided the latter. The Packers and Browns apparently had the same thinking, and it hasn't looked so good for them thus far.

Nonetheless, I'm looking at it the same way this year; I think Barr's the real deal and Bitonio is a steal in the middle of the second. I might be wrong again, and neither guy might be that good.

The comparison I like to make is against the top players at the position. For my money, that's Duane Brown and Jason Peters. Obviously, combine numbers are a tiny part of the story, but here's the tale of the tape:

Peters 6-4 1/2, 328, 33 arm, 4.93 40, 1.79 10, 21 reps, 29 VJ, 9-7 BJ, 4.79 SS, 7.72 3C.

Brown 6-4 1/8, 315, 33 1/4 arm, 5.07 40, 1.75 10, 24 reps, 17 1/2 VJ, 8-9 BJ, 4.52 SS, 7.58 3C.

Martin 6-4 1/8, 308, 32 7/8 arm, no 40, no 10, 29 reps, 28 VJ, 8-10 BJ, 4.59 SS, 7.65 3C.

Bitonio 6-4 1/4, 302, 33 7/8 arm, 4.97 40, 1.69 10, 22 reps, 32 VJ, 9-6 BJ, 4.44 SS, 7.37 3C.

So, it looks like Peters and Brown also don't have the length and athleticism to hold up on the edge and will have to be moved inside.

The Steelers need better tackle play to match up with the 1997-98 Broncos. It's not fashionable to say nice things about Mike Adams right now, but I still think he's got the main ingredients to succeed as a left tackle. I think Marcus Gilbert has quite a bit of unrealized potential, too. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that they raise their level of performance and become the answers at the tackle spots. Kelvin Beachum isn't going to kill you, but I don't see him ever being a difference-maker in the run game.

But, as much sense as it makes after three or four beers that, "Mike Munchak will fix everything," it's not a sure plan for fixing the tackle play.

There are two guys outside the top 10 who I think are capable of holding down the left side, and both appear to be undervalued because they lack the prototypical frame teams covet at left tackle. The book on both of them is that they need to be moved inside, but they show the quickness, footwork and smarts to do things like reach the outside shoulder of their assignment on outside zone running plays, get to the second level when called for and keep opposing speed rushers from winning the edge.

Running Back

Matching Terrell Davis is a tall order. I'm not sure whether the Steelers can get from a 1,400-yard, 3.5 yards-per-attempt rush offense to a 2,400-yard, 4.6 yards-per-attempt offense like the Broncos had. But I think Bell and Blount are a good enough combo to get close. I think the tackle play is going to determine how close. I don't see any running back that would be tempting before Saturday.

Tight End

Before Tony Gonzalez came along, Shannon Sharpe was the gold standard for receiving tight ends. Gonzalez had better longevity, playing 17 seasons to Sharpe's 14, while missing only two starts to injury, by my count. Sharpe, meanwhile, tore his MCL in Super Bowl XXXIII, shortening his 1999 campaign and accelerating his post-age-30 decline. This contributes largely to a big disparity - 510 more catches, 5,067 more yards, 49 more touchdowns - in Gonzalez's career stats.

But Sharpe and Gonzalez both made their first Pro Bowl in their third season. If you stack up the stats from their third through their ninth seasons, before Sharpe's knee injury, you get this:

Sharpe: 500 catches, 6,338 yards, 12.7 YPA, 32 TDs.

Gonzalez: 556 catches, 6,821 yards, 12.3 YPA, 52 TDs.

The bigger TD numbers for Gonzalez maybe result from him just being bigger - 6'5" and 251 pounds to 6'2" and 228 for Sharpe. But other than that, the production's not that far apart.

One area where Sharpe has the advantage is that, of those 6,338 yards, 2,581, or almost 41 percent, came after the catch. That's an average of 5.2 yards gained on the ground for every catch.

Gonzalez had 2,258 yards after catch, which represented 33 percent of his total yardage, and 4.1 yards on the ground for every catch.

Some of that disparity, but not much, is Gonzalez catching more balls in the end zone for zero YAC. Most of it is Sharpe being the shiftier and more physical runner.

In this draft, that's Eric Ebron, who runs over and around defenders better than any TE in the draft. Gregory Peshek of Rotoworld has him at 8.84 yards after catch - 56 percent of total yardage, as well as 3.5 yards after contact. It's doubtful that he'll be quite that stellar on the pro level, but it's still clearly a strength.

There's no player in the draft I'd want more for the increasingly frequent plays in which quick pressure forces the QB to throw short of the sticks on third down while traditionalists scream at their television screens. He's got the tools to convert those plays.

More YAC means the same yardage with shorter throws, which gets the ball out of the quarterback's hands faster. This is probably a big reason why Sharpe became Elway's favorite target, as well as a contributing factor - along with improved line play - in the drop from Elway being sacked 9.1 percent and 10.2 percent of the time in 1991 and 1992 to being sacked 5.1 percent of the time in four seasons from 1995-98.

Ebron's much-maligned brash persona is also Sharpe-like, and that never hurt Sharpe.

Meanwhile, at 6'4" and 250 pounds, he's not quite on par with Gonzalez, but has a significantly bigger frame than Sharpe.

If you want to give Roethlisberger weapons on par with what Elway had, Sharpe is the least dispensable one, other than Davis, and Ebron is the best facsimile of Sharpe's least duplicable skill.

In later rounds, A.C. Leonard and Colt Lyerla look to have similar after-the-catch abilities, but domestic abuse and cocaine possession are dealbreakers for me.

Wide Receiver

I have absolutely no problem calling Antonio Brown an even match for Rod Smith.

Opposite him was Ed McCaffrey, a 6'5," 215-pound safety valve who developed into a 1,000-yard receiver and who caught 25 TDs in three seasons as a starter with Elway. McCaffrey was a round-three pick with concerns about his speed after a 4.6 40 time, but the Giants had him as neck-and-neck with first-rounders Herman Moore (No, 10 overall) and Alvin Harper (No. 12 overall). McCaffrey wasn't a big contributor until he was 28, but the Steelers likely can get quicker return on an investment here.

Kelvin Benjamin's perceived value has been falling from loftier first-round status, in part because of a lackluster combine involving concerns about his speed after a 4.6 40 time, but he's not lacking anything McCaffrey had in terms of physical tools. In fact, Benjamin had more touchdowns in his final season at Florida State (15) than McCaffrey had in three years as a regular contributor at Stanford (14).

Scouts complain about his route running and his hands, and not without reason. But in my book, route running becomes less important with a more improvisational QB like Roethlisberger. Sure, he won't create as much separation if his routes are sloppy, but precise throws and a huge frame to shield the catching area will mitigate that. Benjamin strikes me as very likely to step in right away and contribute on the level McCaffrey did when he got his starting job with the Broncos.

A big-framed receiver who lacks the raw speed to consistently create separation from DBs might not be a major weapon for every team or even most teams, so Benjamin's falling stock has a logic to it.

But McCaffrey proves that the same receiver can be a tremendous asset to a team that has a great running game to set up the play action, an elite QB to hit the smaller passing windows, and other, better receiving threats to limit the amount and the quality of attention he'll face from opposing defenses. Those conditions existed at Florida State, and they're in the works with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Benjamin is every bit of Ed McCaffrey at his best, and probably a lot more. In the five seasons from when McCaffrey gained his starting job with the Broncos until the compound fracture that cut short his 2001 season, he had 329 catches for 4,531 yards and 41 TDs. So here's a not-so-bold prediction: If he's a Steeler, Benjamin tops at least the yards and the TDs totals in his first five years in the league.

Conclusion

I've long been high on both Ebron and Benjamin, so anybody who wants to call this breakdown a very long-winded example of confirmation bias won't get any argument from me.

To a certain extent, Martin and Bitonio are new names, though. I liked both guys on film, but I've been pretty insistent that the team has spent enough high picks on tackles with the round-two picks on Adams and Gilbert. I thought that, unless the Steelers traded down from 15 for more picks, anything earlier than the round-three compensatory pick was richer than the talent was worth. After making the Broncos comparison and realizing exactly how badly the zone stuff will go if the tackle play doesn't improve, I've changed my tune a bit.

Obviously, there are defensive needs and other ways to build an offense, but it seems possible to add two of these four guys in the top two rounds and get very close to surrounding Roethlisberger with the talent that Elway had during his two Lombardi Trophy-worthy campaigns.


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