Draft series: Offensive line

The moment center Jeff Hartings announced his retirement, draft experts far and wide circled the storied Pittsburgh pivot position as the team's most critical concern. But the needs upfront instead stretch to the extreme left and right of center. A look at the possible answers ...

Stacking the Steelers' value board:
  • Running back
  • Quarterback
  • Square one
  • One way to look at the Steelers' offensive line is with distress:

    One starter has retired and three starters are in the final years of their contracts.

    Another way to look at it is with a rational understanding:

    They have four players competing for the opening at center and two young and highly-drafted backup tackles who could also play guard if needed.

    Also, if the Steelers want a guard, it's always the easiest (and cheapest) position in the draft to fix.

    "I wouldn't be looking too hard at offensive linemen," said Tunch Ilkin. "I'm not worried at all about the line."

    Ilkin would know. New line coach Larry Zierlein would know, too, and he says he's not concerned. He thinks a move to center might help slow the game down for Kendall Simmons. Zierlein also likes his young back-up tackles.

    That's good, because one veteran scout doesn't think much of right tackle Max Starks.

    "I didn't like him in college at all," said Tom Marino, who was asked if Levi Brown might be a remedy.

    "Levi Brown will be there," Marino said.

    But the scout of 35 years -- who's been viewing cut-ups of the top prospects for his new media venture with Scout.com -- is not sold on Brown, a left tackle from Penn State who plays more like a right tackle.

    Blalock's intelligence impressed the Steelers. (Photo: AP)

    "He's a big guy, real physical, but what bothers me is he doesn't have great foot quickness. He hops instead of shuffles and they catch him in between steps. He gets away with it in college but when he gets up against a guy like Leonard Little, who'll start inside and get outside, he'll struggle."

    If the Steelers are truly interested in a tackle, the veteran scout said, they ought to look at the guy with Cassius Clay feet.

    "Joe Staley is the second-best tackle, and maybe the best," Marino said. "He is special, a special player. He can run like a deer."

    Staley is a 6-6, 306-pound tackle from Central Michigan who knocked the socks off Zierlein, the rest of the NFL line coaches, and the scouting community at his pro day workout when he ran a 4.8 40 and displayed exceptional technique.

    Staley was a record-setting sprinter in high school before coming to CMU as a tight end. He moved to right tackle as a sophomore and then left tackle, where he's been the last two years. He has great feet and enough strength to bench press 225 pounds 27 times at the combine. But even though he's a slave to the weight room, playing strength is his only knock. Otherwise, Marino would call Staley the draft's best tackle over Wisconsin's Joe Thomas.

    "Staley can get stronger," Marino said. "He plays with such good leverage on blocks and is able to move his feet, he'll be a good one. If he's available at 15, go with him over Brown. He'll easily be a left tackle in this league. He'll be a long-time pro and will go to Hawaii a bunch of times."

    Marvel Smith has played the last three seasons at left tackle with a bothersome pinched nerve in his left shoulder and his big contract expires after the 2008 season. If the Steelers were to draft Staley, he could provide motivation prior to this season and cap relief after it.

    If a useful front-seven defender is chosen in the first round, the Steelers could look to the second round at a couple of linemen who play both guard and tackle: Justin Blalock (6-3 ¼, 320) of Texas and Arron Sears (6-3 ¼, 319) of Tennessee.

    Blalock impressed Zierlein with his intelligence, while Sears' appeal is that he could play the more difficult left tackle spot.

    "Sears, I didn't realize how good he was," Marino said. "He's a big, thick son of a gun who will maul you."

    After that, the tackle crop drops off significantly. Scouts are appalled at Doug Free's feet, rip Tony Ugoh for his lack of passion, and knock Ryan Harris for being soft.

    Ryan Kalil is a center who's expected to be drafted late in the first round. He's a small technician who was taught by his father, Frank, a former center for Jim Kelly. But the Steelers already have four smallish center candidates.

    With Zierlein, the Steelers are expected to continue to draft athletic guards. Some mid-round candidates include former Pitt defensive lineman Andy Alleman (RG) of Akron, Allen Barbre (LT-G) of Division II Missouri Southern State, and former defensive lineman Cameron Stephenson (RG) of Rutgers.

    Late-round line candidates include Steve Vallos (RT-G-C) of Wake Forest, Dan Mozes (C) of West Virginia, Mansfield Wrotto (RT-G) of Georgia Tech, and Herbert Taylor (LT-C) of TCU.

    "Remember, offensive linemen don't change games," cautioned Marino. "When we drafted (Kyle) Turley, I told Ditka the night before the draft -- he'd asked me what I thought -- and I said, ‘Turley's never going to score any touchdowns. That bothers me, whereas the guy from Marshall (Randy Moss) is going to score touchdowns.'

    "Sure offensive tackles contribute, but ultimately they're not difference makers. Alan Faneca isn't a difference maker. Parker, Roethlisberger, they're difference makers."

    Steelers' value board:

    JOE STALEY, Central Michigan, LT, first round.

    ARRON SEARS, Tennessee, LT-G, second round.

    JUSTIN BLALOCK, Texas, RT-G, second round.

    ANDY ALLEMAN, Akron, RG, fourth round.

    CAMERON STEPHENSON, Rutgers, RG, fifth round.

    STEVE VALLOS, Wake Forest, T-G-C, seventh round.


    Steel City Insider Top Stories

    \r\n\r\n \r\n\r\n\r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n
    \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n \r\n
    \r\n Stacking the Steelers' value board:
    \r\n
  • Running back
  • \r\n
  • Quarterback
  • \r\n
  • Square one
  • \r\n\r\nOne way to look at the Steelers' offensive line is with distress: \r\n\r\n

    One starter has retired and three starters are in the final years of their contracts. \r\n\r\n

    Another way to look at it is with a rational understanding: \r\n\r\n

    They have four players competing for the opening at center and two young and highly-drafted backup tackles who could also play guard if needed. \r\n\r\n

    Also, if the Steelers want a guard, it's always the easiest (and cheapest) position in the draft to fix. \r\n\r\n

    \"I wouldn't be looking too hard at offensive linemen,\" said Tunch Ilkin. \"I'm not worried at all about the line.\" \r\n\r\n

    Ilkin would know. New line coach Larry Zierlein would know, too, and he says he's not concerned. He thinks a move to center might help slow the game down for Kendall Simmons. Zierlein also likes his young back-up tackles. \r\n\r\n

    That's good, because one veteran scout doesn't think much of right tackle Max Starks. \r\n\r\n

    \"I didn't like him in college at all,\" said Tom Marino, who was asked if Levi Brown might be a remedy. \r\n\r\n

    \"Levi Brown will be there,\" Marino said. \r\n\r\n

    But the scout of 35 years -- who's been viewing cut-ups of the top prospects for his new media venture with Scout.com -- is not sold on Brown, a left tackle from Penn State who plays more like a right tackle. \r\n\r\n

    \r\n
    Blalock's intelligence impressed the Steelers. (Photo: AP)
    \r\n\r\n

    \"He's a big guy, real physical, but what bothers me is he doesn't have great foot quickness. He hops instead of shuffles and they catch him in between steps. He gets away with it in college but when he gets up against a guy like Leonard Little, who'll start inside and get outside, he'll struggle.\" \r\n\r\n

    If the Steelers are truly interested in a tackle, the veteran scout said, they ought to look at the guy with Cassius Clay feet. \r\n\r\n

    \"Joe Staley is the second-best tackle, and maybe the best,\" Marino said. \"He is special, a special player. He can run like a deer.\" \r\n\r\n

    Staley is a 6-6, 306-pound tackle from Central Michigan who knocked the socks off Zierlein, the rest of the NFL line coaches, and the scouting community at his pro day workout when he ran a 4.8 40 and displayed exceptional technique. \r\n\r\n

    Staley was a record-setting sprinter in high school before coming to CMU as a tight end. He moved to right tackle as a sophomore and then left tackle, where he's been the last two years. He has great feet and enough strength to bench press 225 pounds 27 times at the combine. But even though he's a slave to the weight room, playing strength is his only knock. Otherwise, Marino would call Staley the draft's best tackle over Wisconsin's Joe Thomas. \r\n\r\n

    \"Staley can get stronger,\" Marino said. \"He plays with such good leverage on blocks and is able to move his feet, he'll be a good one. If he's available at 15, go with him over Brown. He'll easily be a left tackle in this league. He'll be a long-time pro and will go to Hawaii a bunch of times.\" \r\n\r\n

    Marvel Smith has played the last three seasons at left tackle with a bothersome pinched nerve in his left shoulder and his big contract expires after the 2008 season. If the Steelers were to draft Staley, he could provide motivation prior to this season and cap relief after it. \r\n\r\n

    If a useful front-seven defender is chosen in the first round, the Steelers could look to the second round at a couple of linemen who play both guard and tackle: Justin Blalock (6-3 ¼, 320) of Texas and Arron Sears (6-3 ¼, 319) of Tennessee. \r\n\r\n

    Blalock impressed Zierlein with his intelligence, while Sears' appeal is that he could play the more difficult left tackle spot. \r\n\r\n

    \"Sears, I didn't realize how good he was,\" Marino said. \"He's a big, thick son of a gun who will maul you.\" \r\n\r\n

    After that, the tackle crop drops off significantly. Scouts are appalled at Doug Free's feet, rip Tony Ugoh for his lack of passion, and knock Ryan Harris for being soft. \r\n\r\n

    Ryan Kalil is a center who's expected to be drafted late in the first round. He's a small technician who was taught by his father, Frank, a former center for Jim Kelly. But the Steelers already have four smallish center candidates. \r\n\r\n

    With Zierlein, the Steelers are expected to continue to draft athletic guards. Some mid-round candidates include former Pitt defensive lineman Andy Alleman (RG) of Akron, Allen Barbre (LT-G) of Division II Missouri Southern State, and former defensive lineman Cameron Stephenson (RG) of Rutgers. \r\n\r\n

    Late-round line candidates include Steve Vallos (RT-G-C) of Wake Forest, Dan Mozes (C) of West Virginia, Mansfield Wrotto (RT-G) of Georgia Tech, and Herbert Taylor (LT-C) of TCU.\r\n\r\n

    \"Remember, offensive linemen don't change games,\" cautioned Marino. \"When we drafted (Kyle) Turley, I told Ditka the night before the draft -- he'd asked me what I thought -- and I said, ‘Turley's never going to score any touchdowns. That bothers me, whereas the guy from Marshall (Randy Moss) is going to score touchdowns.' \r\n\r\n

    \"Sure offensive tackles contribute, but ultimately they're not difference makers. Alan Faneca isn't a difference maker. Parker, Roethlisberger, they're difference makers.\" \r\n\r\n

    \r\n\r\nSteelers' value board: \r\n

    \r\nJOE STALEY, Central Michigan, LT, first round. \r\n

    \r\nARRON SEARS, Tennessee, LT-G, second round. \r\n

    \r\nJUSTIN BLALOCK, Texas, RT-G, second round. \r\n

    \r\nANDY ALLEMAN, Akron, RG, fourth round. \r\n

    \r\nCAMERON STEPHENSON, Rutgers, RG, fifth round. \r\n

    \r\nSTEVE VALLOS, Wake Forest, T-G-C, seventh round. \r\n

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