Wexell: Draft thoughts before the storm

Jim Wexell is taking off for the Indianapolis combine today, but not before leaving Pittsburgh Steelers fans with a full notebook of draft thoughts.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who's watched all the necessary video before leaving for the combine:

* Then again, I haven't watched the East-West Shrine game. And there's some question as to whether I ever will.

* The prevailing thought while pushing through the video of the college bowl games is that Mike Tomlin is thoughtfully unpredictable. He's like that in person, on the field, and in the war room, as evidenced by his first pick, a player who hasn't cracked the starting lineup through two seasons.

* Yet, no one laments his choice of Lawrence Timmons as that first pick.

* The point being that Tomlin is more apt to draft someone he loves as opposed to someone who fits, and that's worthy of applause.

* And so I continue to hope against the odds that Tomlin would draft North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks should he get the chance, even though the Steelers drafted a receiver in the second round last year.

* Wide receiver is a position the Steelers traditionally have kept stocked. In the last 20 years, the Steelers drafted a receiver in the first four rounds 17 times. In the last four drafts, the Steelers used four of those premium picks on WRs.

* The tradition was started in the early 70s. Even though they'd drafted Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis with second and first picks in 1970 and 1971, they drafted Lynn Swann and John Stallworth in 1974.

* So if Nate Washington leaves in free agency, Nicks shouldn't be ruled out as an option at the bottom of the first round. His performance against West Virginia in the Car Care Bowl was the best I've seen by a wide receiver since Andre Rison went nuts in a bowl game following the 1988 season.

* Of course, the Steelers considered Rison before drafting Tim Worley with the seventh pick in 1989. They should've stuck to their organizational tradition that time around.

* Rison was picked 22nd and his career was far better than Worley's, who presented better "value" at pick 7. I think there's a lesson about perceptions somewhere in there.

* Tomlin reacted to a comment about James Harrison's interception return by saying, "That's what happens when you can't run it in down there." The comment revealed a coach who's unsatisfied with his own short-yardage game.

* The fact Tomlin's already brought in a fullback shows he's only beginning to take action.

* LSU fullback Quinn Johnson loves contact. He seeks it out. I haven't jotted down that note on an offensive player since I watched Le'Ron McClain play fullback for Alabama. So I gave Johnson the same late fourth-round grade I gave McClain.

* Speaking of LSU, my favorite draft prospect, Tyson Jackson, is the perfect 3-4 end. He has the body, speed, strength and hands that John Mitchell will heartily endorse.

* As I watched Phillip Hunt of Houston and junior Mark Herzlich of Boston College, I sensed that the ideal 3-4 OLB prospect now has the size of LaMarr Woodley. The ideal is now 260 or 265 pounds, not the 245 or 250-pound prospect in the Joey Porter mold.

* The player most resembling Porter this draft is Larry English. Not that the Steelers would consider another linebacker in the first round.

* Or would they? If so, there'd be no criticism from this critic.

* An inside linebacker who really impressed me this bowl season was Pitt's Scott McKillop. I considered him a fifth-rounder before seeing this game, where his speed and incredible instincts showed up against Oregon State. I can see him going in the third round.

* B.J. Raji is the most destructive, disruptive defensive player in the draft, but he's still only a 2-down player. He's Casey Hampton, maybe even better, but the team that drafts him will find itself in the same conundrum as the Steelers: What do you pay a player who's on the field less and less as the game evolves?

* But at the same time, Hampton's on the field for short-yardage and goal-line plays, and few plays are more important. In fact, without a force like Hampton or Raji in the middle, a defense may never get to those passing downs.

* Don't get me wrong, I'm an Aaron Curry fan, but if he's the top defensive player then this is a weak draft. He's just not that dominant.

* I watch defensive ends like George Selvie, Kyle Moore, Matt Shaughnessy, Michael Johnson and Paul Kruger and I wonder how 4-3 teams do it. I can spot a DE who projects to 3-4 OLB quite easily, and I feel I have a good handle on 3-4 DE prospects as well. But when I see guys like Johnson, the only comparisons I can make are to Jamal Reynolds, Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey. I fear they're all going to bust out. Those 4-3 defensive ends have to be the most difficult position to scout, and it doesn't help that your gamble must be taken early in the draft.

* Looking back, I gave Moore, the USC DE, a seventh-round grade. I'm also down on his linemate, Fili Moala, who was pushed around the Rose Bowl by A.Q. Shipley.

* Speaking of the O-line, Cal center Alex Mack consistently blew open the middle of the Miami defensive line in the Emerald Bowl. He could provide the best value for the Steelers at pick 32. The only problem is their current center, Justin Hartwig, is better than their current guards.

* Darnell Stapleton had such a rough outing at RG in the Super Bowl, the whispers in the media for Kendall Simmons have become a clamor. But Simmons was a shell of his former self, even before the Achilles' tendon injury.

* So, the Steelers should be looking for a quality guard, right? Well, in my opinion, the best option there is converted center Eric Wood.

* Yes, Wood is more of a second-round prospect, but the Steelers won't be able to trade all the way up to Cincinnati's spot to draft him.

* The Miami Dolphins, picking 25th, need a center. If they take Mack, and the Steelers like Wood, they should do what they didn't with Andre Rison and draft him without concerns for "value."

* Then again, Tomlin might take another pass-rusher. Here's to thoughtful unpredictability in the war room.

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