No, not another lineman

The message was more like a memo since it came from the boss. And it was short, the way we like 'em. <BR><BR>"Jim, was told Cowher was standing over watching the OL at the combine."

For those in need of an encryption: Cowher is Steelers Coach Bill Cowher; OL is offensive line; and combine is the collegiate job fair for the upcoming NFL draft.

Oh, and Jim is your current writer, and his boss is nervous about the sparse amount of copy being generated by the Pittsburgh Steelers this February. Since Jim is not at the combine, such memos are necessary to prod the blind horse.

And with that, the memo was shrugged off as no big deal. So the Big Giant Head had wondered off to look at the grunts. He has to do something there, doesn't he? And where was the line coach, Russ Grimm? After all, Grimm played a big role in the drafting of Kendall Simmons, Mathias Nkwenti and Chukky Okobi in his only two Aprils with the team. If Grimm's not over there, Cowher was probably party to subterfuge.

Besides, my thinking went, the last offensive lineman for whom Cowher had pushed at draft time was Chris Conrad, a third-round pick in 1998 who lasted only two seasons. It was a pick that came to symbolize the Steelers' problems in drafting offensive linemen during the late 1990s.

From 1995 to 2000, the Steelers used 23 premium picks (rounds 1-3). Of those premium picks, 30 percent, or 7, played offensive line, a position that accounts for 23 percent of the starting lineup. The team's obvious weakness, defensive secondary, on the other hand, accounts for 18 percent of the starting lineup, but 27 percent if the much-used dime defense is considered. Yet, the Steelers used only 13 percent of their premium picks to bolster that area during the same time frame.

Throw in the fact that the two most expensive free-agent acquisitions in team history – Wayne Gandy and Jeff Hartings – are offensive linemen and one can comprehend all of the attention given to the offensive line. And it really was necessary since so many of those premium draft picks went bust.

But how much is enough? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers proved this past Super Bowl what the New England Patriots had proven the year before that and what the Baltimore Ravens had proven the year before that: It's not necessary to have five No. 1 picks on the offensive line to win a championship.

The Steelers played last season with four No. 1's and a No. 2 on their starting offensive line. With Gandy due to leave via free agency, the numbers come down a bit, but quality back-ups should be in place. After all, Nkwenti was Grimm's hand-picked fourth-round choice two years ago and Oliver Ross was given a $1.1 million bonus to remain with the team as a back-up prior to last season. Either of those two should be ready to step into a vacant tackle spot.

So, when the word came down that Cowher was looking at offensive linemen, the cynic in me wanted to believe it was some type of smokescreen, since the Steelers just might be the most paranoid team in sports. The optimist in me felt it was natural, too, to draft a lineman in the later rounds, so Cowher's interest made some sense.

However, the nagging voice within has been growing louder with each passing analysis of the team's off-season needs. Nkwenti or Ross? While one should be ready to ascend to a starter's role, neither, really, is very good. Nkwenti is a body beautiful whose Cameroon roots have left him with better soccer instincts. And Ross took massive steps backward last season and is now looking like a financial mistake. In fact, with a $1.25 million base due him this season, Ross could be cut June 1 and the team would save $883,000.

Finally, the fear that the Steelers might actually use another premium pick on another offensive lineman crept closer to reality the other day when the team's director of football operations, Kevin Colbert, went on record with the team's needs: Defensive back, offensive lineman, tight end and quarterback.

We reported last week that a team source listed the off-season priorities as defensive back, tight end and quarterback. It so closely matches Colbert's wish list that there's no reason to believe a smokescreen is involved. So, yes, Cowher is looking over the offensive linemen. And it appears as if, once again, the Steelers will hold their nose, in or around the third round, and say, "Give us Conrad."

By Jim Wexell

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