I'm pretty sure Branden Albert will not be coming to Pittsburgh on April 26. I just finished watching "Path to the Draft" on NFL Network and the Mike Mayock-less panel was slobbering over each other to see who could praise Albert more. Charles Davis ranked Albert as the draft's best guard (duh) and possibly the second best tackle (wow). Former general manager Charley Casserly said that NFL teams speak of Albert in hushed tones, as if he's the league's best kept secret, and suggested that the former Virginia guard will probably be taken somewhere between the 10th and 20th pick. Casserly then added that he wouldn't be surprised if Albert snuck into the top 10.
When I advocated for the Pittsburgh Steelers trading up to get Albert I was going on the assumption that he would still be available sometime after the 15th selection. Now it seems like the Cowboys have a better chance of landing Darren McFadden at 1.15 than the Steelers have of nabbing Albert.
Part of the issue is that a lot of teams have horrendous offensive lines, but perhaps the bigger problem -- at least from the Steelers' perspective, anyway -- is that Albert is much more valuable because of his versatility. That he's a legitimate NFL left tackle makes him imminently more appealing, which is why Pittsburgh has absolutely no shot at getting him. And I'm surprisingly depressed considering that I haven't watched a UVa game in two years and didn't know who Branden Albert was three months ago.
For some perspective on how rare it is for a pure guard to go high in the draft, consider this: since 1998, when the Steelers used the 26th-overall pick on some dude named Alan Faneca, only five guards have been first-rounders (Steve Hutchinson, 17th overall, '01; Kendall Simmons, 30th, '02; Logan Mankins, 32nd, '05; Davin Joseph, 23rd, '06; Ben Grubbs, 29th, '07).
College guards drafted to play tackle are a different story, however. In 1998, Kyle Turley was the seventh-overall pick, a year later, Luke Petigout was taken 19th overall, and Leonard Davis was the second selection of the 2001 draft. The point: start saying your goodbyes now; Albert is a goner. Three weeks ago I wrote that "the good news is that even if another team takes Albert before the Steelers go on the clock, it's an extremely deep draft for offensive linemen."
History may prove this to still be the case, but it sure doesn't feel like it 30 days out from the biggest weekend of the spring.
Which brings us back to the conversation we've been having since Albert had a solid Combine performance in February: who do the Steelers target when he's inevitably gone midway through the first round? "Offensive line" is the obvious, almost reflexive answer, but if there's ever been a case for taking the best player available, I think this year is it.
For as deep as the offensive line class is alleged to be, after Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Chris Williams and Albert, there are plenty of questions. Jeff Otah could be the next Mathias Nkwenti (I think it would be less offensive to call him the next Todd Fordham, but that's splitting hairs), Gosder Cherilus is apparently strictly an NFL right tackle, Sam Baker and Anthony Collins are on-field underachievers, Carl Nicks has so many off-field issues that Casserly said he wouldn't even have the guy on his draft board despite his first-round potential. Short of Pittsburgh trading into the top 10, or one of the best five linemen taking a Roethlisbergian fall to 1.23, the Steelers will be looking to fill other needs.
Of course, that probably means the depth chart currently looks something like this (from left to right): Marvel Smith, Kendall Simmons/Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig/Darnell Stapleton/Anybody but Sean Mahan, Simmons/Willie Colon, Max Starks/Colon. I could spend another 2000 words on why this is cast of characters will set the organization back 10 years, but you've seen that movie. (Cliff's Notes version: Larry Zierlein's blocking-optional pass-protection schemes help Ben Roethlisberger break all of David Carr's single-season sack records, and in the process force him to retire after his 14th concussion midway through the 2009 season.)
Forgetting the o-lines issues (it helps deaden the pain of knowing that Albert ain't wakin' through that door), the Steelers have plenty of concerns on the other side of the ball. The defense was among the best in the league last year, but it was wildly variable from week to week, and sometimes from series to series. Losing Aaron Smith exposed the lack of depth on the defensive line, but there probably won't be much to choose from to bolster that unit late in the first round. There should a few linebackers and defensive backs available, however.
Even though Pittsburgh used its first two draft picks last year on linebackers, James Farrior won't play forever. And while we wait for Juan Timmons to emerge, LaMarr Woodley reminds us that rookies can have an impact. After the 2007 draft, Dick LeBeau seemed pretty jazzed about concocting ways to get Timmons and Woodley to the quarterback, and I'd imagine he'd just as happy to have a player like Quentin Groves added to the mix.
I get the sense that cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are parlaying their stellar small-school seasons, and big Senior Bowl, Combine and Pro Day showings into nice little paydays. Good for them. I blame Ricardo Colclough for my small-school phobia, but the possibility that the Steelers might take Antoine Cason or Mike Jenkins or even Brandon Flowers excites me. If the front-seven pass rush isn't going to be fixed anytime soon, Pittsburgh might as well shore up the secondary.
For all the jaw-agape stares Mahan elicited with his play last season, the offense was still relatively productive. In fact, save the wild card loss to the Jaguars, the offense wasn't directly responsible for any of the team's losses. That's not to say they were blameless, but that the defense's inability to get off the field in key situations had more to do with the "6" in 10-6 and a sputtering offense.
If anybody in Pittsburgh's front office thinks the o-line has enough duct tape to make it through next season, they're drunk; but I could envision a scenario where the team's top o-line targets are gone and the next few players on their draft board are defenders. It's not perfect, but the draft never is. The idea is to use the last weekend in April to get better, and if the Steelers improve their defense from last season that's a pretty good start to 2008.
Branden Albert has left the building
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