90s Flashback: A Draft Plan Unfolds

Levon Kirkland was a physical freak -- a big run stopper with the ability to drop into coverage. Kirkland, in many ways, was ahead of his time. Now, fast-forward to present day ...

... and the attributes that made Kirkland great are seemingly still in short supply when it comes to finding James Farrior's eventual replacement. Drafting the next great inside linebacker has become a hotly-debated topic among diehard Steelers fans.

With my interest peaked, I went to the bookshelf and dusted off a copy of my 1992 Mel Kiper Draft Report, featuring Steve Emtman on the cover. Here's some of what Kiper had to say about Kirkland:

"Complete LB, asked to not only rush the passer, but also drop off into pass coverage in Clemson's multi-faceted defensive scheme that is run by coordinator Ron Dickerson…Proved to be the ringleader of the spirited Clemson attack force, recording 268 tackles during his career. Also had 23 pass breakups, 53 QB pressures, and 4 interceptions… Combine Note – Ran a 4.88 [at 6-1 -244 lbs], did 20 reps, and had a 32 1/2" vertical jump".

Pittsburgh was interested in Kirkland because the team had taken a dive defensively from the previous year. In 1990, the team ranked 3rd and 1st respectively in points and yardage allowed, but dropped to 22nd in both categories in 1991.

Age was also becoming a concern among several key members of the offensive and defensive lines as well as linebacker. Tunch Ilkin, Keith Willis, Bryan Hinkle and David Little were all nearing the end of their careers. These factors, in conjunction with some mediocre talent, were the main contributors to the 1991 Steelers' 7-9 season.

In 1992, the legendary Chuck Noll retired and was replaced by the emotionally charged Bill Cowher. Cowher was a fundamentalist, and believed in a physical brand of football. "The bottom line was I wanted to be a tough football team. I just felt that's how you played the game." said Cowher about the ‘92 Steelers.

Merging new talent with an aging roster that fit Cowher's philosophy was the challenge facing the organization in the spring of 1992.

If the situation I've described sounds somewhat familiar, it should, because many of the same challenges face the Steelers organization today. Consider if you will, an aging roster that largely underachieved on defense, as well as ownership which publicly stated a need to get back-to-the-basics approach with playing football. It's what Cowher preached back in '92, and more importantly, it's the philosophy of the Rooney family.

Perhaps we'll find out if it's Tomlin's philosophy as well, or just lip service he paid the organization when assuming the reigns as head coach in 2007. He was quoted as saying: "I think football is a tough-man's game, it's an attrition game."

As it turns out, the 1992 draft was remarkably successful, adding four players who would become starters, and a fifth who would play in the league for six seasons. It's that type of windfall that the team must harvest this year in order to remain competitive moving forward.

If we examine the 1992 draft closer, I suggest we adopt it as the blueprint for 2010, because the needs and selections line up very well with the overall draft value of the incoming class.

So sit back, relax, and take a step back in time with me as I review the significant players selected in 1992, and comparable players to target this year.

The 1992 Mel Kiper Draft Report listed the main Steelers draft needs as OG, ILB, RB, DL, WR, and S. Those same needs apply today as well, except for WR which has been addressed with the recent free agent signing of Arnaz Battle and Antwaan Randle-El.

What follows is a suggested draft blueprint for 2010.

Offensive Line:

1992: Leon Searcy –- OT/OG - Miami (Round 1)

2010: Maurkice Pouncey –- OC/OG – Florida (Round 1)

As the team did in 1992, the smart and intelligent decision is to take an offensive lineman in round one. Pouncey may not be the flashy pick, but he's certainly the safest pick the Steelers could make, even without a trade down. The team has neglected adding a premier OL for all too long, and while there are options in rounds 2 and 3, the decision to pick one here is largely due to the fact that the real value for defensive players falls between picks 33 – 96 of this year's draft. A good athlete, Pouncey has the natural size to add additional mass to his body. He's a very good technician, and was a standout in the positional drills at the combine. Another popular option with fans is Mike Iupati, the guard from Idaho. While Iupati may have a higher ceiling, Pouncey certainly has a higher floor. It's this type of philosophy that has made the organization so successful with its first round picks.

Inside Linebacker:

1992: Levon Kirkland –- ILB - Clemson (Round 2)

2010: Sean Lee -- ILB – Penn State (Round 2)

The NFL Combine established the value for ILB/OLB in this year's draft class is in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. Consider that players such as Dekoda Watson, Thaddeus Gibson, Sean Lee, Jamar Chaney, Jerry Hughes and Jason Worilds all displayed the necessary size, speed, strength and agility to play linebacker in the Steelers' system. Traditionally, Steelers ILBs have been converted college OLBs because they must have the ability to blitz the QB. Since the need for OLB is not immediate with Harrison and Woodley in the fold I'll eliminate them from 2nd round consideration. So, the nod goes to Sean Lee, a converted OLB, who would have been a sure-fire 1st round pick if not for his injury history. Lee possesses natural leadership skills, and is a stat-generating machine on game day. He's a classic form tackler and future team captain who would be a great complement to Lawrence Timmons in the middle.


1992: Darren Perry –- SS – Penn State (Round 8)

2010: Larry Asante –- SS – Nebraska (Round 3)

This is a deep and talented year for safety prospects. Ball-hawking players with the ability to man up on slot receivers and tight ends is at a premium because of all the multiple receiver sets run by today's offenses. Expect the top talent to come off the draft boards early and often. While Darren Perry was drafted as a late mid-round prospect (remember the draft was 12 rounds) in 1992, the Steelers will likely have to select one earlier this April because value at safety runs dry after round 3. With the signing of Will Allen at FS, a backup to Troy is necessary. I'm not sold on Tyrone Carter or Ryan Mundy and I don't believe the Steelers are either. Troy is also entering his 8th year and has missed significant time over the last four years so the selection is Asante, a smart player and team leader from Nebraska. Asante is an underrated athlete with impressive size and is capable of playing both safety positions. He's also a strong tackler, finishing 3rd on the team with 79, and can make plays on the ball. A fallback option here would be T.J. Ward from Oregon.

Nose Tackle:

1992: Joel Steed –- NT - Colorado (Round 3)

2010: Jay Ross –- NT - East Carolina (Round 4/5)

Joel Steed was the selection in 1992 and become a full-time starter like Searcy, Perry and Kirkland the following season. This year's draft class features some quality tackles capable of playing the nose in rounds 3, 4 and 5. With Casey inked to a final long term deal, the team has the luxury of drafting a mid-rounder to groom as his eventual replacement. Targets should include players such as Jeff Owens, Linval Joseph, Torrell Troup and Jay Ross. Like Steed, who was more of a gap penetrating player, I like Jay Ross as a developmental player. ECU featured three NFL-caliber DL, who were well-coached in the fundamentals. The team also ended the season ranked in the first quarter nationally in run defense. Ross has sufficient bulk (316lbs) already, and is capable of collapsing the pocket; he was used inside on 3rd down passing situations. You can also draft him later since he's and under-the-radar prospect.

Running Back:

1992: Ernest Graham -- RB – Ohio State (Round 7)

2010: Charles Scott -- RB – LSU (Round 4/5)

Scottie Graham was a low-based, power running FB that possessed very good speed for a 230lb back. He never stuck with the Steelers, but managed to carve out a 6-year NFL career. As a senior, he was held back with a nagging ankle injury that limited his production. Enter Charles Scott, a powerful inside runner, who missed the last four games of his senior season due to a broken collarbone. As a junior, Scott scored 18 rushing TDs and averaged 5.4 YPC. His misfortune is to the Steelers benefit because they get to draft him as a mid-round pick. Teamed with Rashard Mendenhall, he would be a perfect complement initially as a short yardage back, but also possesses enough wiggle to assume full-time duties in case of injury.

Well, that ends our trip down memory lane. The draft strategy used almost 18 years ago could simply be dusted off with some tweaks by Colbert to reap the value presented today.

Did I miss anything?

Certainly, cornerback comes to mind. But, I'm of the opinion that if the top-ranked corner prospect just ran a 4.6 forty, it's not really a good year for CB talent. Pittsburgh doesn't feature them in Lebeau's scheme as well, and you have to go back to 1997 (Chad Scott) until you find the Steelers drafting one in the first round. Instead, I'll rely on Mike Tomlin to coach up last year's draft picks and use a comp pick this year to select someone like Walter McFadden, who has better playmaking skills than all the top rated talent.

And while the team signed several veteran FA's so not to become pigeon-holed during draft day, it's not like they should be viewed as anything more than camp competition. Talent is talent, and I would hate if they bypassed future core starters in lieu of guys who flash on occasion. This draft is not about flash; it's about rebuilding the interior on both sides of the ball. It's that foundation that will maintain the Steelers competitive advantage in the tough AFC North, as well as remaining true to the core beliefs of ownership.

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