The defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that’s always after versatile, athletic players who play the game with an edge, and for that matter, players that come off the edge. Known for their aggressive 3-4 defense that puts their linebackers in a prime position to apply pressure on the quarterback, the Steelers stole one of the best up-and-coming defenders in the second round of the 2007 draft when they selected former Michigan standout LaMarr Woodley.
At Michigan, Woodley was primarily a defensive end, but early in his career he lined up at outside linebacker. Entering the draft process, Woodley received the unflattering label of a tweener and fell to the second round because even though he was quick, he lacked the stature and elite burst off the line. Being drafted by the Steelers was a blessing for Woodley; it gave him the advantage to use his attributes and cleanly fit into a defense that highlighted his strengths. At 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, the No. 1 prospect in the Steelers organization had the athleticism, quickness and high motor to be a tremendous rush linebacker, and during his first-year in the NFL, he demonstrated that ability from the beginning. As a rookie, Woodley played in 13 games and recorded four sacks. He was a situational pass rusher and special teams contributor in 2007, and displayed a tenacious fire that received high praise and a starting position the ensuing year. As a starter in ’08, Woodley emerged as a tremendous pass rushing threat and totaled 11.5 sacks. Woodley, along with Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, was a major reason for the defenses success last season and his play was a factor during their championship run. Expect Woodley to take the next step in his development this season and ultimately become a perennial Pro Bowl selection.
In that same draft, the Steelers used their first round pick on an even more highly touted linebacker, Florida State’s Lawrence Timmons. A raw, athletic defender with the Seminoles, the Steelers envisioned Timmons developing into a terror off the edge that would rage havoc on quarterbacks. The No. 2 prospect in the organization, Timmons, played in all 16 games as a rookie, but he primarily played on special teams resulting in him contributing just 13 tackles. But in his second-year, Timmons, still in a backup role, again played in all 16 games, starting two and showed flashes of brilliance by recording 65 tackles, five sacks and an interception. The play of Timmons last year allowed the Steelers to release Larry Foote, whose production decreased in each of the last three years. The vacancy now becomes Timmons’ responsibility, and in a starting role, Timmons is ready to show why the Steelers used a first round pick on him.
Once again, opportunity knocked for the Steelers; this time in the 2008 draft, when former Illinois ground gainer Rashard Mendenhall fell to them in the first round. The Steelers held the 23rd pick in the draft and the ultra productive Mendenhall was there for the taking. Mendenhall left Illinois after a sensational junior campaign where he racked up 1,681 yards on 262 carries and scored 17 touchdowns, not to mention his 34 receptions for 318 yards and two touchdowns. His versatility, speed and toughness were a perfect fit for the Steelers, and if Willie Parker needed a breather or had to miss game action, Mendenhall could easily fill in. After an up-and-down preseason, the third ranked prospect in the organization got his big break, literally, during Week 4 and made his first career start against the Ravens in place of the injured Parker. Mendenhall got off to a nice start, rushing for 30 yards on nine carries, but in the third quarter he suffered a broken shoulder and was placed on injured reserve. This season, Mendenhall is back to full health and is ready to get his game back on track. Running with confidence and holding onto the ball will be the keys to Mendenhall’s success, and his presence in the lineup means extra rest for Parker, who has been injury-prone since he’s been the starter.
Coming in as the fourth rated prospect in the organization is 2009 first round pick, defensive end Evander Hood. Also known as “Ziggy,” the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder had a consistent, productive career at Missouri and finished out his four-year stay this past season with 61 tackles, seven for a loss and five sacks. A solid defender who plays with a high motor, Hood lined up at defensive tackle in college and will now move to defensive end in the Steelers 3-4 structure. Hood has good size, quickness and exceptional strength. He has good balance and plays with leverage. He’s fast off the line, blades through the gap and quickly locates the ball carrier. He’s physical at the point of attack and holds his own against a bigger opposition. He handles double teams and doesn’t get overwhelmed at the line. He’s a durable, reliable defender who demonstrates great toughness. As a rookie, Hood will be a key reserve and will see action behind Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith. With the Steelers defensive front getting older, it was a wise move by the front office to address the D-Line in the first round, and Hood’s versatility gives him the ability to contribute immediately.
When you talk about versatility, former Oregon quarterback and Steelers 2008 fifth round pick Dennis Dixon exemplifies that more than any other prospect in the organization. And for that reason, plus the potential impact he could have on the offense this season and in the future, Dixon is rated as the Steelers No. 5 prospect. If it wasn’t for a torn ACL during his senior year, and if he was able to workout for scouts prior to the draft, Dixon would have gone much higher in the draft. The coaching staff got a chance to see how Dixon can impact a game during the preseason last year against the Buffalo Bills when he took a bootleg and turned it into a 47-yard touchdown. During the regular season, Dixon was inactive for all but one game, the season finale against the Cleveland Browns, and saw action late in the contest. This year, Dixon enters his second season completely healthy and ready to show off his ability. Dixon will compete with Charlie Batch for the backup job behind Ben Roethlisberger, and even if the coaching staff favors Batch over Dixon, expect Dixon to see the field more than Batch. With the Wildcat formation being en vogue, Dixon’s prowess for making things happen with his legs gives the Steelers a chance to open up the playbook and be creative; similar to the way they used Kordell Stewart early in his career.Rounding out the top-ten is a mixture of position players that are expected to supply a boost on offense and defense. On offense, second-year wide receiver Limas Sweed (No. 6), rookie guard Kirk Urbik (No. 9) and third-year tight end Matt Spaeth (No. 10) are crucial backups that will be counted on. And on defense, third-year cornerback William Gay (No. 7) will replace Bryant McFadden, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent, and second-year linebacker Bruce Davis (No. 8) will challenge for a backup role on defense after playing in just five games last year on special teams. Also receiving consideration for the top-ten, but fell short were punter Daniel Sepulveda, who’s coming off of a second surgery to repair the ACL in his right knee, and rookie cornerback Keenan Lewis.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com.