Wilson, Hartwig change everything, nothing

The Steelers are down a wide receiver and up a center. How does this affect their draft strategy?

For a typically quiet free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers sure have been in the news a lot lately. Two weeks ago linebacker James Harrison slapped his girlfriend after going "Hulk" on her bedroom door, and Wednesday Cedrick Wilson pulled a "Harrison pulling a Hulk" on his ladyfriend at a local Mexican joint.

Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers released Wilson and thanks to the arbiter of all that's fair and just, ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio, chairman Dan Rooney was castigated for the double-standard that exists between starters and backups when it comes to domestic abuse. Rooney later clarified his comments, ostensibly because Florio, the same guy who reported that Terry Bradshaw had died and that Shawne Merriman lost 76 pounds in two years (scroll down to item No. 5), made such a fuss. Or maybe it had everything to do with Mr. Rooney wanting to do the right thing. Definitely one or the other, though.

Whatever the reason, Wilson's gone. Speaking strictly from a football perspective, a lot of fans won't miss the guy. I never thought Wilson was anything more than a third or fourth receiver, but he filled a need, was relatively affordable, and performed like, well, a third or fourth receiver. His departure means that depth becomes/continues to be a concern at wide receiver. Presumably, the Steelers signed Mewelde Moore because they weren't all that jazzed with Willie Reid's potentially career-ending performance in Week 17 against the Ravens. If that's the case, then you'd also have to assume that even with a hole on the depth chart, Reid's not necessarily guaranteed to make it out of training camp, or at the very least, to do much more than he did last season.

I was watching NFL Network's Path to the Draft on Wednesday night and the discussion turned to former Michigan St. wideout Devin Thomas. I watched Thomas cover 40 yards in 4.3 seconds at the NFL Combine, and I've seen all the slobbering over his after-the-catch abilities. I've also listened to Mike Mayock (genuflect) talk about Thomas' frustrating habit of dropping passes. I mention this because as I watched highlights of Thomas I had a sneaking suspicion the Steelers would end up drafting this guy. No idea why the thought entered my head. I'm decidedly anti-WR in the first round, and have already had Branden Albert's name tattooed across my back.

I changed the channel, forgot about it, and concerned myself with truly important questions like trying to figure out Justin Hartwig's role on this team. And then I read Jim Wexell's Thursday morning draft report:

Thomas, from Michigan State, is 6-2, 216 and ran a pair of 4.3 40s at the combine. He went from 6 catches his sophomore season to 79 last season and chose to come out as a 21-year-old. He's big, physical, fast and an excellent kick returner, a duty he'd assume as Hines Ward's protégé at flanker.

If Branden Albert's gone, Devin Thomas makes sense to me.

I love the idea of Thomas, but I also loved the idea of Willie Reid. Still waiting on that one. But Wex makes a good point: what do the Steelers do if Albert is gone (along with the other legit first-round offensive linemen)? Harris fills an immediate need as a returner, and, in theory, could contribute in four-wide sets. But there is still the whole, "hey, maybe we should think about protecting Ben Roethlisberger" issue if you're the front office. Which is why I think Pittsburgh might be better served trading up to get Albert. Of course, that solves one problem (solidifying the line and finding Alan Faneca's replacement) while creating another one (fewer draft picks to address all the other needs) but the Steelers have a pretty good track record when trading up in the first-round.

We all agree that stretching for a player to fill a position is a dumb way to run a draft; that's why we're even discussing Thomas in the first place. But if Albert is as solid a pick as everybody thinks he is, isn't he worth trading up for> Plus, I just can't convince myself that Thomas is two picks better than Santonio Holmes.

Or maybe the Steelers aren't even interested in Albert. It seems preposterous -- Big Ben was sacked 47 times last year for a reason -- but what if Justin Hartwig, in the coaches minds, solves the source of the o-line problems? Sean Mahan has an incredible knack for making everyone around him worse. The coaches know this, obviously, but maybe they think that by fixing the center position, the rest of the line will sort itself out too. It's a reach, for sure, particularly when Kendall Simmons and Max Starks have been inconsistent for a couple seasons, and Faneca is now in New York.

The terms of Hartwig's deal (two years, chump change) lead me to believe the team considers him a stopgap; the all-out draft assault on shoring up the o-line is still on. He's also 29, so even if he wins the job in camp and plays well enough to keep it during the season, the Steelers would be looking for his eventual replacement sooner rather than later anyway.

This is what I want to believe. Just like last year I wanted to believe that the rumors of the Steelers taking Lawrence Timmons were an elaborate smokescreen that would end up with Roger Goodell calling the name of Patrick Willis or Adam Carriker or Darrelle Revis.

If nothing else, Hartwig's another warm body who'll challenge Darnell Stapleton and Mahan for playing time. Here's to hoping Stapleton is as good as the coaches think he can be. Maybe it's the case that Albert is still very much in the team's plans but the addition of Hartwig means that Mike Pollak is not. I can live with that. I can also live with the Steelers drafting Thomas although I'd prefer they didn't. If Mahan somehow wins the starting job … well, I cannot live with that (figuratively). And if last year was any indication, neither will Roethlisberger (literally).

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