Prioritizing Steelers draft needs

The first phase of free agency is finished and so, as director of operations Kevin Colbert admitted, are the Steelers.<br><br> It's as good a time as any to step back and take a look at the depth chart, look for another possible bargain or two and get ready for the draft, so here's the rundown:

QUARTERBACK: No gaping holes here, but that may actually be a negative. It's a great year to grab a quarterback in the draft but a decent starter, quality back-up and second-year developmental project are already taking up the space.

That may sadly be the apt description because this position really could use an upgrade. Tommy Maddox will be 33 next opening day. It's possible he could lead this team to a championship, considering its running game and offensive line will be much improved next season. However, his backup, Charlie Batch, is only a half-notch below Maddox in terms of talent. Batch could ably assume the starting position if Maddox, with his attractively low cap number, was traded to a team that considers itself a veteran quarterback away from a title. That would open up a spot for the quarterback of the future. The back-up of the future, Brian St. Pierre, must show up in better shape than that which he ended up in last season.

RUNNING BACK: Duce Staley can run inside and outside, catch passes, block, has great leadership skills and the heart of a champion. Critics point out he's 29 but perhaps his best two games last season were in the playoffs, where he showed no signs of decline. He'll have an effective back-up in Jerome Bettis. The third back, Verron Haynes, really hasn't shown much. He can do all that Staley can do, but of course at a different level. Haynes must show he can move to that level, and perhaps another tailback will be drafted to put the heat on him. Fullback Dan Kreider was re-signed, but doesn't have a back-up, so the fourth tailback would fit nicely if he can play fullback. Fullback J.T. Wall is on the roster after being drafted in the seventh round last year and spent the season on the practice squad, but word is he can't block as well as his size would suggest.

WIDE RECEIVER: It's unlikely Plaxico Burress will have his contract extended, so he'll be motivated by pending free agency. He needs it, and will also benefit from new position coach Bruce Arians. Hines Ward is a fixture at flanker, as is Antwaan Randle El in the slot. Chris Doering is a fine possession man as the fourth receiver. Lee Mays will be pushed by Freddie Millons as the back-up to Burress at split end. Mays has the size and speed for the position and this will be his chance to show the front office he could handle the job if Burress were to leave via free agency in 2005. Millons didn't play last season because the Steelers wanted to keep the conditional seventh-round draft pick it had traded for him, so he's the wild card instead of a draft pick.

TIGHT END: Jay Riemersma turns 31 in May. He was Bill Cowher's major offensive free-agent signing last year and Riemersma struggled with injuries. The Steelers will give him a chance to show that was just bad luck. His back-ups are Jerame Tuman and Matt Cushing.

This position, like quarterback, has the spaces filled but could certainly use an upgrade. However, it's not nearly as important a position as quarterback.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Marvel Smith will be back and is expected to be healthy. He could be a true difference maker on the line. The other side is a mess. Perhaps Oliver Ross improved as a run blocker to the level of serviceable...sometimes. He could start early next season while another is being groomed. Todd Fordham is a back-up but proved a liability when asked to play too long. He should be replaced on the roster. Mathias Nkwenti is a free agent but will probably be brought back at minimum wage. He's stretching the patience of Steelers fans, who must remember he only played one year of offensive (right) tackle in college and will be entering his fourth pro season. He should be ready to contribute in some capacity and has been a daily fixture in the weight room throughout the early part of the year. He'll be a back-up on whichever side the high draft pick doesn't play. Fordham will provide insurance against injury at camp.

INTERIOR LINE: Jeff Hartings will play one more year and Chukky Okobi is signed and will be ready to step in thereafter. Okobi can't help at guard, so two back-up guards will be needed. Keydrick Vincent will be one. Another must be found, and since Kendall Simmons hasn't yet proven he can deal effectively with his diabetic condition, perhaps that back-up guard should be a higher priority than would appear on paper. Left guard Alan Faneca, of course, is the rock of the line.

OFFENSIVE PRIORITIES: 1. Tackle, 2. Quarterback, 3. Guard, 4. Running back, 5. Tight end.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Right end Kimo von Oelhoffen is 33 but coming off his best season with the Steelers. He'll play at least one more year and of course opposite end Aaron Smith is a building block. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is coming off a Pro Bowl year but that probably didn't help him with his weight. He's getting bigger by the season and will become a concern upon further expansion. His back-up, Kendrick Clancy, is a free agent and would only be brought back at minimum wage, if that. Another back-up nose tackle, Chris Hoke, hasn't played in three seasons. The back-up ends are recently signed Travis Kirschke and Brett Keisel, another fixture in the weight room these days. Keisel says he's 100 percent recovered from the injury that cost him last season.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Joey Porter and Clark Haggans will be the bookends, reprising their pass-rushing hit at Colorado State. Haggans is excited about the opportunity and could make a big jump in his fifth season. Displaced starter Jason Gildon isn't expected back, even though Colbert soft-pedaled his demotion recently by saying he would. That leaves only one back-up for the two positions, and Alonzo Jackson is held in low esteem by the organization at this time. His gaffe on the kick coverage unit allowed Dante Hall to burst through his hole for a touchdown. It wasn't so much the mental mistake that bothered the organization as much as an apparent lack of courage. Jackson did, however, beat a pro tackle for two sacks in a preseason game and will be given a chance to rekindle his potential. Clint Kriewaldt can play outside in a pinch, but the open spot on the depth chart is likely a draft-day priority, which could rise since the team needs a third-down pass rusher as well.

INSIDE LINEBACKER: What to do with Kendrell Bell? Like Burress, Bell's contract will expire after next season. He has too good of a work ethic to prod with the term "contract year", as the Steelers will do with Burress. Yet, unlike Burress, Bell is not a three-down player. The Steelers will likely approach him this summer about an extension, but more than likely will not offer him enough for the quick sign. This problem could linger unless Bell can find a niche on third down. By then, it may be too late, contract-wise. The buck linebacker, James Farrior, is also entering the final year of his contract. He may be easier to deal with, but does have leverage since the back-ups, Kriewaldt and Larry Foote, haven't shown much at the position.

CORNERBACK: Deshea Townsend will be given Dewayne Washington's job after playing so well down the stretch. Yet, Townsend was a liability in run support, particularly after filling in for Chad Scott on the strong side. Scott had an awful year and the growing size of his contract indicates this will be his final year. Yet, he is a personal favorite of Cowher and must be given some sort of dispensation for last season, when he played while grieving the death of his mother. Ike Taylor is being groomed to replace Scott some day on the strong side, but he's still too raw to assure the team he's even a quality dime corner. Terry Fair was signed, but he also hasn't proved much since he's fighting his way back from a two-year layoff. One cornerback must be taken early in the draft to compete for the dime spot.

SAFETY: Another Cowher favorite, Brent Alexander, will probably make the team since his cap number is agreeable. He also has the attitude to accept a demotion if Chris Hope wins the job at camp. But the way Cowher favors veterans at free safety, Hope must clearly beat Alexander at camp, and may have to knock him out as in a championship boxing match. Coaches expect Troy Polamalu to make great strides at strong safety. The organization also believes it's found a keeper in McKeesport's Russell Stuvaints. He's expected to knock the other McKeesport kid, Mike Logan, off the roster since Logan is being wooed by Green Bay. Stuvaints is another fixture in the Steelers' weight room, but can expect some competition from a late-round draft pick next camp.

DEFENSIVE PRIORITIES: 1. Cornerback, 2. Outside linebacker, 3. Inside linebacker, 4. Safety, 5. Nose tackle.

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