Instead of looking ahead to this weekend's matchup with the Ravens, or even the 2007 draft, I'd thought I'd take a look back ... to the 2006 draft. By now, many of us can recite Pittsburgh's recent draft-related issues: poor Day 2 selections, no depth at running back and linebacker, no true pass rusher, and on it goes.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, crystal balls and time machines, I decided to revisit the last weekend in April 2006 and hold a Steelers' re-draft. That's right, knowing what I know now about every rookie in the league, which selections would best help Pittsburgh this season?
And to make things slightly more difficult than saying, "Okay, Tags, give me the nine best rookies you got", I've come up with a few rules:
Obviously these rules aren't set in stone -- I mean, I made them up -- but if nothing else, it'll give you something to think about while your in-laws are boring you stupid with post-Christmas dinner vacation stories.
For this little exercise, I'll list the actual 2006 Steelers' draft pick, then the players still available I thought were worth consideration (within the rules cited above), and finally, who, in retrospect, I would draft.
With all the tiny print out of the way, let's get to it:
(By the way, thanks to DraftHistory.com for the data.)
Pick No. 1
Santonio Holmes, WR
Available players worth consideration (picks #26 - #82):
Joseph Addai, RB
DeMeco Ryans, LB
LenDale White, RB
Marcus McNeill, LT
Devin Hester, PR/KR
Maurice Drew, RB
Leading up to the draft, a lot of people were clamoring for the Steelers to take a running back because Jerome Bettis had retired. At the time, conventional wisdom pointed to LenDale White, which just goes to show why conventional wisdom is dumb. Joseph Addai's off to a great start in Indianapolis, but he's not a big back -- he's basically Willie Parker but slower, so he's no help. DeMeco Ryans has outplayed No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams on the Texans' defense, and maybe he could've been the guy to replace Potsie Farrior in a few years. Marcus McNeill is a dominant left tackle. He's a big part of Philip Rivers' and LaDainian Tomlinson's success this year. Devin Hester is a guy without a true position, but he's scored six touchdowns on special teams. Six. In addition to running much bigger than his size, Maurice Drew can also return kicks. But like Addai, he's not the big back Pittsburgh could use to replace the Bus.
Given the Steelers' needs and available talent still on the board (remember, I'm omniscient), I'm going with Marcus McNeill. Until recently, Max Starks has had a rocky 2006 and there's no guarantee he'll get a long-term deal before next season. McNeill could immediately step into the left tackle role and Marvel Smith can move to the right side, where he started his professional career.
Pick Nos. 2, 3
Anthony Smith, S; Willie Reid, WR/PR
Available players worth consideration (picks #84 - #130):
Because Anthony Smith and Willie Reid were selected within 15 picks of each other, I can make two selections before the Steelers' next pick, Willie Colon (131st overall selection).
Gerris Wilkinson, LB
Michael Robinson, RB
Jahri Evans, G
Brandon Marshall, WR
Elvis Dumervil, DE
Two things: First, the players selected between Smith and Reid are a pretty unimpressive lot. I know, I know, we're talking about rookies, but most of them haven't shown much in the first 15 weeks of the season. Second, as much as we like to criticize the Steelers' front office for their recent dry spell on late-round picks, in putting this list together, I'm realizing how hard it is to evaluate college players and project what kind of pros they will be … and this is only the third round.
Gerris Wilkerson was listed as one of the top three or four middle linebackers coming out of college and he's seen limited action with the Giants. Michael Robinson was an early draft favorite because he's a local kid and because Pittsburgh lost Antwaan Randle El. Robinson slipped after a poor Pro Day and the uncertainty about whether he'd be willing to play a position other than quarterback in the NFL. Much like McNeill, Jahri Evans was a nice little surprise for the Saints. He started the first 14 games of the season and Drew Brees has only been sacked 17 times in 2006, only behind Peyton Manning and Steve McNair for fewest this season. Not bad for a team who won three games last year. (For comparison, Jon Kitna's been sacked 55 times this year.)
Brandon Marshall is a big target, but only has 14 catches in 13 games. Elvis Dumervil was high on a lot of draft boards last fall, and then, after teams realized he was only 5'11", lasted till the end of the fourth round. Used primarily as a pass-rush specialist, he's registered seven sacks in 11 games, although he's too small to be an end in Pittsburgh's defense and probably a step slow to be an outside linebacker.
Linebacker depth has been a concern in Pittsburgh for several years and even though Gerris Wilkerson hasn't put up incredible numbers this season, he's young, plays smart and provides athleticism. Michael Robinson gives the Steelers the versatility they lost with Randle El, plus he's proven to be a very hard runner who can also return kicks. I passed on Evans because Pittsburgh's depth at guard isn't a big issue for me; Marshall might be great one day, but he's not contributing this season; and Dumervil is a pass-rushing specialist without a position.
Pick Nos. 4, 5
Willie Colon, T; Orien Harris, DL
Available players worth consideration (picks #134 - #163):
Again, because Willie Colon and Orien Harris were selected within 15 picks of each other, I'll make two selections before the Steelers' next pick, Omar Jacobs (164th overall selection).
Pat Watkins, S
Dawan Landry, S
Mark Anderson, DE
Just like the previous round, there's not a whole lot to choose from. Ryan O'Callaghan has started six games for the Patriots this year, but the Steelers have enough depth at guard -- or, at least, they have more immediate needs than depth at guard. Pat Watkins was another player very high on some mock draft boards because (a) he's 6'5", and (b) he busted out a 4.4-forty at the February combines. Watkins started the first seven games of the season for the Cowboys because of injuries, forced two fumbles and registering two picks. Still, Watkins probably isn't a good fit in Pittsburgh because he struggles against the run. When the Ravens waited until the fifth round to draft a starting safety, I was pretty sure their defense would be in for a long season (Will Demps signed with the Giants and there was nobody on the roster with experience playing free safety). Landry has been very good on arguably the best defense in the league. He's started 13 games, has four interceptions, and is a great run-stopper. There was a lot of talk about Mark Anderson in the weeks and months leading up to the draft, but for some reason he wasn't taken until late in the fifth round. At 6'4", 258 pounds, he's too small to play defensive end in the 3-4 and maybe a few pounds too heavy to be an outside linebacker. That said, there's no overlooking the fact that Anderson's registered 10 sacks, forced three fumbles, and defended two passes in limited, pass-rushing situations.
With the loss of Chris Hope, the Steelers need a safety and Dawan Landry will have to do. With Ryan Clark and Tyrone Carter ahead of him on the depth chart, there's no reason to rush him on the field, but Landry's shown he can play in Week 1 if needed. Mark Anderson is the pass-rushing demon Pittsburgh's been looking for. While the team decides whether to "Alonzo Jackson" him (make him lose weight, then gain weight, then lose weight again), Anderson can come in on third downs with very specific instructions: Kill the guy with the ball. Given Pittsburgh's Day 2 track record, these picks are like playing with house money.
Pick Nos. 6, 7
Omar Jacobs, QB; Charles Davis, TE
Available players worth consideration (picks #168 - #201):
Just like last round, because Omar Jacobs and Charles Davis were selected within 15 picks of each other, I'll make two selections before the Steelers' next pick, Marvin Philip (201st overall selection).
Wali Lundy, RB
Reggie McNeal, WR/QB
Bruce Gradkowski, QB
Ugh. Again, not much happening this far down the draft board, but I figure I can't do any worse than Jacobs and Davis. Wali Lundy is worth a look because he gives Pittsburgh a more bruising back (even though he's only a few pounds heavier than Willie Parker, he runs north/south). Reggie McNeal is another former college quarterback making the transition to wideout and in most cases, these experiments fail. Plus, McNeal has had a few run-ins with the fuzz, so I don't think he's worth the headache. Bruce Gradkowski gives the Steelers the third-string, game manager they thought they found in Jacobs. Greg Eslinger, like Marvin Philip, gives Pittsburgh options if Jeff Hartings decides to retire and if Chukky Okobi isn't in the long-term plans.
I like Lundy, but Michael Robinson's already been drafted. Additionally, Robinson is a combination of both Lundy and McNeal, so taking either player here would be wasting picks. Which means, obviously, that Bruce Gradkowski and Greg Eslinger get the nods.
Pick No. 8
Marvin Philip, C
Available players worth consideration (picks #202 - #239):
Ethan Kilmer, ST
Slim pickins' this late in the proceedings. Because of injuries, Antoine Bethea has seen a lot of playing time with the Colts. He's from a small school (Howard University) but has had a pretty solid season. Hey, did you know Chris Gardocki's never had a punt blocked? Yeah, that's right. Of course, he's averaging 23 yards a kick, but he's never had a punt blocked!! Yes, the sarcasm dripping off that last sentence is my not-so-subtle reminder that the Steelers could use a punter. Ethan Kilmer was a SteelCityInsider favorite last spring and he impressed the Bengals enough to take him with the first pick of the seventh round. He's Cincinnati's Chidi Iwuoma and if the real Chidi Iwuoma's taught us anything it's that you can never have too many Chidi's.
With Pittsburgh's special teams being what they were for most of the season, this one's easy: Ethan Kilmer. I gave Plackemeier some consideration here, but it's a lot easier to find a punter than a special-teams maniac.
Cedric Humes, RB
Available players worth consideration (picks #241 - #255):
Marques Colston, WR
Uh ... Marques Colston. Big surprise, right?
So, let's recap:
1 - Marcus McNeill, LT
2 - Gerris Wilkinson, LB
3 - Michael Robinson, RB/KR
4 - Dawan Landry, S
5 - Mark Anderson, DE
6 - Bruce Gradkowski, QB
7 - Greg Eslinger, C
8 - Ethan Kilmer, ST
9 - Marques Colston, WR
Now, there's still the little issue of how all these players make the 53-man roster, but I'm just going to do a lot of handwaving and let the Turk resolve those problems. So, given this draft class, are the Steelers a better team? I'd like to think so if for no other reason than the offensive line is solidified with McNeill, Anderson provides a true pass-rushing threat, Kilmer is a special-teams freak, and Colston is probably the Rookie of the Year.
After compiling this list, it's more apparent than ever that the draft is more an art than a science. Pittsburgh's had some recent bad luck with the Day 2 picks, but it's hard to complain about the contributions of Santonio Holmes and Anthony Smith this year and Heath Miller and Bryant McFadden in 2005. Remember, it could be worse -- we could be Jon Kitna. Just keep that in mind as you enjoy the holidays.