In search of some hogs

Every year in January the best college football talent descends on Mobile, Alabama to attend the Senior Bowl. In all-star game order of importance there is the Senior Bowl, and then everything else. Where better to begin addressing the Steelers' needs upfront.

What sets the Senior Bowl apart from the others is that a committee sends out invitations based on who NFL teams want to see. The game has less to do with college achievement; it has more to do about being a serious NFL prospect. It's run by NFL coaches who work the players very hard, simulating a pro-style training environment as well as following NFL rules.

Like other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers sent its own cadre of scouts to view this year's bumper crop. And while most positions garnered some level of scrutiny, offensive line should have been a main area of concentration.

Pittsburgh ranked just 23rd in rushing offense and 29th in quarterback sacks allowed. Certainly not all of this can be pinned on the 0-line considering they played the NFL's hardest schedule in the last 25 years. However, it would be naive to think that Pittsburgh won't address this position early in the upcoming draft.

Pittsburgh hasn't spent a 1st or 2nd round pick on the O-Line since 2002, making this an area of prime need.

Examining things a little closer (from Football Outsiders):

  Left End Left Tackle Mid/Guard Right Tackle Right End
year ALY Rank ALY Rank ALY Rank ALY Rank ALY Rank
2008 4.86 10 4.74 8 3.96 24 3.17 32 4.05 19
2007 4.66 10 4.59 10 3.73 28 4.54 11 4.33 12
*Note: Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) -- rushing yards as measured by offensive line performance

Pittsburgh's ALY dropped noticeably on the right side in 2008, now ranking a dismal 32nd behind right tackle and 19th around right end. Key factors appear to be the general weakness of Stapleton/Colon at the point of attack along with the loss of Alan Faneca and the G-Power series of running plays. Say what you want about Alan, but he remains one of the premier pulling guards in the league.

It also didn't help matters that Pittsburgh ran to the right and up the middle far more often than to the strength of the team on their left.

  RB Carries Left End Left Tackle Mid/Guard Right Tackle Right End
Steelers 410 8% 10% 56% 16% 10%
NFL Avg. n/a 11% 14% 50% 14% 10%

Taking a closer look at the individual linemen:

Player Games Started Penalties False Starts Holding Sacks Allowed
M. Starks 12 2 0 2 4
C. Kemoeatu 16 6 5 0 7.5
J. Hartwig 16 2 0 2 6.5
D. Stapleton 12 4 3 1 5
W. Colon 16 11 6 4 5.75

Max Starks and Justin Hartwig were your most effective and consistent starters. While they'll never be stars, you won't lose games with them in your lineup. The guard position is another story. Chris Kemoeatu remains a physical talent whose mental mistakes led to drive-killing penalties and quarterback sacks. While Darnell Stapleton stepped in admirably for Kendall Simmons, he probably should be viewed as a top reserve. Willie Colon improved on his sack totals from 2007, but he was flagged eleven times for penalties. Six false starts and four holding calls are indicative of a guy playing out of position.

So if we want to set the scene, finding an athletic hog who can play guard or force Colon inside should be high on the list.

Since the Senior Bowl game is now complete, we can make an initial assessment. Most draft experts would tell you that the tackle class is strong at the top, but the guard talent is particularly weak. This is not good news since the top rated tackles will be off the board when Pittsburgh picks and no guard carries a round 1 draft grade. Not all is lost, however, because the center position is as talented and deep as seen in recent memory.

Player Height Weight Projected Round
Alex Mack 6'4" 312 1.2
Max Unger 6'5" 300 2
Jonathan Luigs 6'4" 302 2.3
Eric Wood 6'4" 304 3
Antoine Caldwell 6'4" 307 3.4
AQ Shipley 6'1" 300 4.5
*Note: 1.2 denotes late round 1, early round 2, etc.

Any of the top 4-5 players could conceivably be 2nd round draft picks with Alex Mack being a fringe round 1 player. He's certainly a top 40 talent, which for Pittsburgh might be enough incentive to pull the trigger at the end of the round. From the book, The Draft by Pete Williams: "Picking later in the round requires a different mindset"..."As the Buccaneers improved in the late 1990s and began drafting later; McKay, Tim Ruskell, and Jerry Angelo realized they had to change their thinking. A player they previously considered an early second-round pick needed to be viewed as a late first-rounder especially with the additions of four new franchises between 1995 and 2002."

Consider this just some food for thought.

All the players listed, except for A.Q. Shipley, bring the added versatility to play any interior O-Line position. This is huge considering the dearth of talent at guard, and is the primary reason most were tried there during the Senior Bowl.

Of those playing, I was particularly impressed with the performances of Alex Mack, Eric Wood and Antoine Caldwell, as they all looked like they could make successful guard transitions.

One other player that caught my attention is Tyronne Green from Auburn. He's been on my radar for awhile now and is a true guard prospect. He played on a bad team this season, but is battle tested, having started 25 games in the tough South Eastern Conference. Green has the skill set to excel in the Steelers offense; he's the best pulling guard in the draft and a natural left guard prospect. He's slightly undersized, but is tenacious, and has the best initial pop off the snap according to Coach Mike Tice. Mike Mayock pointed him out as an under-the-radar type of player which means you can expect him to fly up the draft boards. He remains my number 1 guard prospect.

Moving on to tackle, it seems as long as Bruce Arians remains Offensive Coordinator it's doubtful Willie Colon would be moved inside to guard. That being said, we as Steelers fans can only hope.

Perhaps it would take invoking the "planet theory" in order to change Bruce's mind. If that's the case, Phil Loadholt is the individual to target. Phil is 6'8" and a cut 340lbs, according to the scouts. He's a mountain of a man with solid athletic skills. Phil does an excellent job blocking for the running game, has decent feet and plays with aggression. However, compared to Marcus McNeil, a similarly sized player, Phil is a right tackle prospect only. Marcus McNeill played at Auburn and was a better athlete who displayed left tackle potential. Phil just doesn't have that kind of ability, but with NFL coaching on his technique he can become a solid pro player. McNeil was drafted in the middle of round 2, so Loadholt appears be an end of round 2 talent.

Would Pittsburgh consider drafting him at the end of round 1? Chances are very good that some team will draft Phil simply because they ascribe to the planet theory. And from Pittsburgh's standpoint, what value do you place on adding a quality right tackle prospect while at the same time moving Willie Colon to guard? In this case, making one selection to fix two roster spots might not sound like too steep a price to pay.

I'll have a clearer picture after the NFL combine when the true value of this draft class can be determined. So stay tuned for more detailed positional reports and breakdowns.

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