´ Steel Curtain Rising: April 2008

What position(s) should be the Steelers highest priorities in the draft?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Watch Tower: Colbert and Keep Their Word, Steel Curtain Rising Was in Err

This time it is not the Post-Gazette or Tribune Review that is under the microscope, it is Steel Curtain Rising itself! That’s right, keeping true to the spirit of the Watch Tower, it is time to eat my own dog food.

Early in the 2008 off season, Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert declared that the Steelers were not going to take a need-specific approach to the draft, that they were going to draft the best player available.

One two separate occasions, Steel Curtain Rising politely took exception to Colbert’s remarks. On the first occasion, we pointed to the fact that Colbert had said “we like our defensive backs” immediately after the 2002 season, the year in which the Steelers secondary collapsed. Two of the Steelers first three picks in the ensuing 2003 draft were Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

The second time around, Steel Curtain Rising again suggested that fans watch what Colbert does, not what he says. We also suggested that the team return to its semi-official policy of the Cowher era of using one premium pick on an offensive lineman.

Mike Tolmin and Kevin Colbert were very explicit that the Steelers needed to “get younger and bigger” on both the offensive and defensive lines. But they stuck to their word.

By the time the Steelers came to make their first pick, 7 offensive lineman had been taken, and five defensive lineman had been taking. Meanwhile, Rashard Mendenhall, who’d been projected to go as many as ten picks higher was sitting right there.

Likewise, by the arrival of their second pick 12 defensive lineman had been taken, and 9 offensive lineman had been taken. Again, Limas Sweed, a player the Steelers had listed as one of the 25 best overall in the draft was still on the board after 52 names had been called. Again, Colbert and Tolmin kept their word.

Through all of this, both men kept their cool. While the Steelers only had 6 picks, they could have packaged some of this year’s picks with picks from the 2009 to try to move up. They didn’t. Credit both Colbert and Tomlin for staying true to their word.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Wanted: The Next Willie Paker and the next James Harrison

The Steelers filled out their roster today by signing 12 undrafted free agent rookies.

As reported by the Tribune-Review, the following players will join the Steelers 2008 draft class for mini-camp:

Patrick Bailey, LB, Duke
Dorien Bryant, WR, Purdue
Doug Legursky, C, Marshall
Roy Lewis, CB, Washington
Mike Potts, QB, William & Mary
Martavius Prince, DL, Southern Miss
Julian Rauch, K, Appalachian State
Micah Rucker, WR, Eastern Illinois
Jordan Reffett, DL, Washington
Dezmond Sherrod, TE, Mississippi State
Travis Williams, CB, East Carolina
Donovan Woods, LB, Oklahoma State

In most NFL cities, rookie free agent signings are rather ho-hum occasions – a chance to pick up bodies that can keep starters fresh during training camp by taking reps for the starters.

Without a doubt, that is exactly what the vast majority of the players you see listed above will do.

However, since coming on board in 2000, Kevin Colbert has not only managed to do well on day one of his NFL drafts, he has also done an exceptional job of doing well the day after the draft.

The Steelers entered the 2000 season with two excellent NFL full backs – John Witman and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala. In successive weeks, both men were felled with injuries just as the team was hitting its stride after starting 0-3.

Making his first start against the now fabled 2000 Baltimore defense, Dan Kreider stepped into the line up, and the rest is history. Kreider was the first of Colbert’s post-draft day gems, and he would go on to become the veritable equivalent of a 6th lineman until he got hurt in 2006.

Kreider was not the only rookie free agent earn a roster spot, but to, but to distinguish himself as a starter. The Steelers current roster features Gary Russell, Carey Davis, Nate Washington, Chris Hoke, and Anthony Madison who made the roster as undrafted free agents.

None of these men has contributed to the level of Kreider, but last year the Steelers have two more undrafted rookie free agents who happened to blossom into Pro Bowlers – Namely James Harrison and Willie Parker.

It would be too much to expect that Colbert can regularly produce viable starters from undrafted free agents. But if they cannot expect, Steelers fans can at least hope that Colbert will have once again worked his magic with either Martavius Prince of Southern Mississippi or Jordan Reffett of Washington, as the team did not address the defensive line on either day one or day two of the 2008 NFL draft.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 Draft Class Is Complete

The Steelers closed out day to of the 2008 draft by picking up five more players, including one rather perplexing selection in the fifth round. The Steelers 2008 draft class is:

1 Rashard Mendenhall, RB, ILLINOIS
2 Limas Sweed, WR, TEXAS
3 Bruce Davis, OLB, UCLA
4 Tony Hills, OT, TEXAS
5 Dennis Dixon, QB, OREGON
6 Mike Humpal, OLB, IOWA
6 Ryan Mundy, Safety, WEST VIRGINIA

The Steelers focused on the skill positions during day one of the 2008 draft, netting what most analysts concluded were steals in both the first and second rounds. Both Mendenhall and Sweed have the potential to bolster areas which are solid, but also in need of reinforcement and depth.

The Steelers picked three defensive players, and two more offensive ones on day two of the 2008 draft. Again the shored up their outside line backing corps, an area that features two solid starters (if Woodley’s play in 2007 is any indication) but little depth. They also picked up a safety, perhaps looking to add some depth in the face of Ryan Clark’s injury recovery and Anthony Smith’s erratic play.

They also grabbed an offensive tackle Tony Hills in the fourth round, which we will discuss in a later post.

The most perplexing pick is that of Dennis Dixon in the fifth round. The fact that the Steelers took the time to work out Dixon prior to the draft was eyebrow raising. The fact that they picked him is even more surprising. The Steelers have probably the best QB/back up combo in the league with Big Ben and Charlie Batch. Taxi QB’s can be found on the cheap after the draft, or by picking up street free agents.

Perhaps Mike Tomlin wants to go with the old, Joe Gibbs model – Established starter, veteran back up, up and comer. A very viable model – but given the team’s failure to address the defensive line, Steel Curtain Rising has to question the use of a pick on a quarterback.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Steelers Address Skill Positions - Lines Still a Critical Need Entering Day Two

The Steelers drafted RB Rashard Mendenhall and WR Limas Sweed in rounds one and two of today's draft.

The consensus is that they are sticking to their credo of drafting the best players on the board. The team did not expect either of these men to slip to them, and they felt both were too good to pass up.

While both men can help the Steelers, Pittsburgh needs to seriously look at drafting offensive and defensive lineman on day two of the draft, in the 3rd and 4th rounds especially.

Offensive line is particularly critical. The Steelers invested serious money in Ben Roethlisberger, and they desperately need to improve the protection around him.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Reading the Tea Leaves -- Discerning the Steelers Draft Plans

The NFL draft is almost upon us, and the pre-draft hype machine is in full gear. The Steelers needs are well documented: Everything is on the board accept tight end and quarterback. This makes sense. The general consensus, from Dan Rooney down to the press, is that while the Steelers do not have glaring needs, they can certainly improve themselves at just about every position.

Below you see a partial list of college prospects who’ve paid visits to the Steelers.

Dennis Dixon, QB, Oregon 1
Brande Albert, guard/tackle from Virginia
Gosher Cherilus, OT, Boston College 2
Malcolm Kelly, WR, from Oklahoma
James Hardy, WR, Indiana
Mario Urrutia, WR, Louisville 3
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Oregon
Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina
Ryan Torian, RB, Arizona 3
Carles Godfrey, CB, Iowa
Orlando Scandrick, CB, Boise State
Tracy Porter, CB, Indiana
Aqib Talbi, CB, Kansas
Mike Jenkins, CB, University of South Florida
Ryan Mundy, Safety, West Virginia 5/6
Shawn Crable, LB, Michigan
Jerod Mayo, LB, Tennessee
Bryan Smith, LB, McNeese State 3
Quentin Groves, DE/LB, Auburn
Cliff Avril, DE/LB, Purdue 2
Dre Moore, DL, Maryland
Keilen Dykes, DL, West Virginia 2
Matthew Slater, Return specialist, UCLA 1

*Mike McGlynn, OL, Pitt
*Jeff Otah, OT, Pitt
*Darrell Strong, TE, Pitt

*These do not count as official NFL pre-draft visits.

The Steelers have entertained college hopefuls mostly from major schools. They’ve interviewed two offensive lineman, one quarterback, three wideouts, three running backs, five corners and one safety, three pure line backers, two defensive neds that they’d convert into outside line backers, two defensive lineman, and one return specialist. On top of that, they’ve “unofficially” visited with two offensive lineman with Pitt?

What can we make of this list? Well, the Steelers are not going to draft a return specialist on day one, so you can scratch Matthew Slater from your board. Likewise, they’re not going to draft a quarterback with their first pick. They seem to be interviewing more defensive backs than any other position….. Hum. The Steelers gave away a lot of games in the 4th, so the secondary could use a boost. Beyond that, most of their other visits are evenly spaced.

The most peculiar piece of this list is the presence of only two lineman. Is this important? Probably not. The Steelers are notably tightlipped about their draft plans. They could have very well avoided bringing a line man to Carson street simply to keep their intentions under wraps.

If nothing else, the Steelers public pre-draft activity supports the notion that they committed to taking the best guy on the board.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Starks Signs Transition Tender, Ties Up Nearly 7 Million in Cap Space

Steelers free agent right tackle Max Starks has signed his one-year transition tender, reports ESPN.

Although the Steelers named Starks their transition player, rumors had abounded as to the teams’ real level of interest in him. With the transition tag the Steelers would have the ability to match any offer from another NFL team, and the transition tag artificially raised the price other teams would have to pay.

While this strategy paid off – Starks got no other offers, the Steelers apparently could not reach a long term deal, which was their professed interest.

The timing of this move is also peculiar. Stark’s decision to accept the Steelers tender could have been tempered by increasing talk that the Steelers are going to draft Boston College tackle Gosder Cherilus.

Such speculation is just talk. The Steelers draft strategy will not be influenced by the media, but Starks may have been. The Steelers were free to remove the transition tag at any point, and may have done just that had they drafted a top tackle.

The Steelers can still sign Starks to a long-term contract, although they would figure to lose some leverage – most likely the team would like a lower cap number – the Rooneys are not going to pay someone 7 million dollars a year for several years who is not even currently a starter.
Starks gives the Steelers one more lineman to shuffle in and out of the training camp rotation, that will be a good thing in the here and now. Taking a longer view, Starks has a long way to go to prove that the Steelers were right to tie up 7 million dollars worth of cap space in him. Its good that we have them, but let's hope the sign Starks lest he pocket 7 million only to become a free agent this year.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Colbert Record: Steelers drafts '04-'07

In part I of “Steelers Drafts of the 21st Century: The Colbert Record,” we looked at the Steelers drafts from ’00 to ’03. Now we turn our attention to Kevin Colbert’s performance during the last four years.
  • The 2004 draft was simultaneously his biggest triumph and his biggest disappointment. It is his biggest triumph because it netted Ben Roethlisberger.
Big Ben is Pittsburgh’s first legitimate franchise quarterback since Terry Bradshaw. They recently signed Roethlisberger to a long-term deal and, provided they can protect him, Ben is poised to be a dominate quarterback for a long time to come. To understand this significance, consider: Mark Malone, Todd Blackledge, Andre Ware, Jeff George, David Klingler, Rick Mier, Health Shuler, Jeff Drukenmiller, Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, and Cabe McNown. All of these were can’t miss first round quarterbacks did.

The price of misfiring on a quarterback in the first round is extremely high, but perhaps the rewards of getting it right are even greater.
  • The Steelers hit the nail on the head with Roethlisberger, and that remains Colbert’s crowning achievement.

Alas, the Steelers scored scant little else in the 2004 draft. The 2008 season should be the 2004 draft class’ moment to shine. But of the nine players Pittsburgh picked that year, only two remain with the team. Ben Roethlisberger and Max Starks.

Ricardo Colclough flashed as a rookie, but never contributed as a corner, and failed miserably as a kick returner. Calk Colclough up as the second time Colbert laid an egg on day one of the draft. Indeed, tight end Matt Kranchick was the only other player from that draft to even make the team.

Colbert’s 2005 draft showed some improvement. Health Miller has been excellent thus far and he only looks to improve. As a second round pick, you’d like to see Bryant McFadden starting at this point in his career, but he has contributed, he has pushed for playing time, and he still might pay dividends.

Trai Essex is somewhat of a disappointment as a third round pick, but his play in late 2007 also shows that he is far from being a complete bust. The other notable pick from the 2005 draft is Chris Kemoeatu whose metal has yet to be tested. That will change soon.

The latter quarter of Colbert’s draft record is difficult to evaluate, because those players are still developing. However, it appears that he continues to do well on day one, with a drop off there after. Santonio Holmes caused a panic with his two arrests in two months of being drafted. Since then he has kept himself clean, and shown that he is someone who the Steelers can use to stretch the field.

Early on, third round draft pick Anthony Smith won fame as a big hitter. Of late his reputation is that of a big talker. Mike Tomlin appears intent on rehabilitating Smith, so Smith remains a work in progress. Willie Reid has gotten little playing time, largely due to injuries, so his potential is still unknown. With the departure of Cedric Wilson, Reid should have his opportunity.

The jury is likewise still out on Willie Colon. During Cowher’s final year, the coaching staff seemed intent on phasing out Starks in favor of Colon, and Tomlin’s first offensive staff followed through with that. However, Colon has thus far done little as a starter to justify the team’s faith in him.

It’s way too early to draw conclusions on the 2007 draft, although the first day again looks like a success. Injuries slowed Lawrence Timmons development, but coaches are projecting that he’ll push James Farrior for playing time. With James Farrior approaching his mid-30’s an up an comer at inside linebacker would be a welcome sign.

LaMarr Woodley recorded four sacks in limited playing time and added two more during the payoffs – so we know why the Steelers let Clark Haggans go. Third round pick Matt Speath hasn’t done much more than catch touch downs. Indeed, of eight players taken, seven are still on the roster, although only punter Dan Sepulveda has gotten significant playing time. (Sepulveda has shown he has the tools, now he needs to be consistent.)

While Colbert does deserve criticism for the disappointments of the 2004 and 2005 drafts, the blame does not entirely fall on his shoulders. Steelers Digest's Bob Labroila has written extensively on Bill Cowher’s propensity to focus on filling training camp roster needs over picking the best player during the latter part of his reign.

It seems that the Steelers have rededicated themselves to avoiding drafting for need, and if that is the case it will be a welcome change for Steelers Nation, whose attention is now intensely focused on the on the Steelers 008 Draft.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tight End Now a Need.... Kyle Brady Visits the Steelers

While most of the news today focuses on the Steelers newly released 2008 schedule, that will be the subject of a future post.

The news in focus today concerns free agent tight end Kyle Brady’s visit to the Steelers today. This is interesting because Brady was the top tight end in the 1995 draft. The Steelers entered the 1995 draft in need of a tight end, to replace the recently departed Eric Green. The Steelers of course picked Mark Bruener, after Brady went on to Jets, and he end up playing for the Jags and Patriots as well.

The question is, why are the Steelers considering a free agent move at tight end, and why are they interested in Brady? While the Steelers clearly didn’t have the personnel they needed to play a true three tight end set last year, it is still puzzling to think that they would expend precious cap space to fill that need now.

One must figure that Brady, at the end of his career, is looking only for the veteran minimum. While did only caught nine balls last year, two of them were for touchdowns.
He might be an interesting pick up…. Or is visit might signal that the Steelers might go back on their word and draft a tight end after all.

This may turn out to be nothing, but it could be an interesting twist.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Steelers Sack Mascot Steely McBeam… Not Quite

The headline appeared to give Steelers Nation cause to rejoice…. The Steelers had decided to banish mascot Steely McBeam to the dust bin of history….

Alas, that was not to be the case. One of the actors who wore the McBeam costume had been charged with drunk driving, and as a consequence was relieved of his duties.

The Steelers have a no nonsense reputation when it comes to maintaining the game’s purity: No cheerleaders, decals on only one side of the helmet and, hey, if Heniz Field gets a little muddy when it rains – too bad, that’s football. All of this makes last year’s decision to introduce a mascot all the more perplexing.

Of course the on the field fortunes of the team are not affected by the presence or absence of McBeam but, by the same token, there is no compelling reason for his presence. Steelers fans are loyal, vocal, and they need no mascot to fire up them up.

It’s important that NFL franchises maximize revenue sources, so perhaps they adopted McBeam to add more memorabilia to their merchandize line. While that would be understandable, it is also hard to believe that a team as storied as the Steelers couldn’t come up with other merchandizing ideas that are more in keeping with the team’s tradition.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Steelers Drafts of the 21st Century: The Colbert Record

Since the advent of free agency, no team has been as thoroughly dedicated to building through the draft than the Steelers. Although drafting is a collective enterprise in Pittsburgh, Kevin Colbert is the individual most closely tied to those choices, and so a look at his record is in order the 2008 NFL draft approaches.

Colbert arrived in February 2000 shortly after Bill Cowher’s triumph over Tom Donahue in a power struggle. People forget that many (yours truly included) initially thought that Dan Rooney had chosen the wrong man. Back then Tom Donahue was widely regarded by both the local and national press as one of the NFL’s best executives. In the same vein, many wrote off Colbert’s hiring as Dan Rooney simply “selecting the best available candidate who happened to graduate from North Catholic.”

Tom Donahue’s claim to fame was that he had done more with less. A big part of Donahue’s success was his penchant for making late round picks -- guys like Darren Perry (8th, ’92), Willie Williams (6th, ’93), Myron Bell, (5th, ’94), Lee Flowers (5th, ’95) and Carlos Emmons (7th, ’96) – who grew into solid starters. Yet, for all these second day successes, Donahue misfired badly with several early picks during the latter half of the 1990’s. (Jamain Stephens, anyone?)

With eight drafts under his belt, we can conveniently divide his record into the all too original titles, “The Colbert Record: Steeler drafts from ’00 to ’03” and “The Colbert Record: Steeler drafts ‘04’ to’07.”

The Colbert Record: Steelers Drafts '00-'03

Kevin Colbert’s immediate and most important impact on the draft was to correct the Steelers early round blunders. One needs only to compare beyond Colbert’s first two years on day one to Donahue’s last two years on one selections for evidence.

In 2000 and 2001 Colbert selected Plaxico Burress, Marvel Smith, Kendrick Clancy, Casey Hampton, and Kendrell Bell. Burress failed to reach his potential with the Steelers, but overall he provided good value. Marvel Smith is a Pro Bowler and our best offensive lineman. Clancy was quite capable as 4th lineman and part-time starter. Casey Hampton is another Pro Bowler. Kendrell Bell did ultimately flame out, but he was an impact player as a rookie – in the most literal sense of the word (he also made his presence known, when not injured, during his sophomore season.)

In 1998 and 1999, Tom Donahue’s first day selections consisted of Alan Fanaca, Jeremey Staat, Chris Conrad, Hines Ward, Tory Edwards, Scott Shields, Joey Porter, Kris Farris, and Amos Zereoue. Fanaca,

Fanaca, Ward, and Porter were unequivocally phenomenal picks. In fact, forced to choose, you’d take that threesome over Burres, Smith, and Hampton. But Donahue traded up to pick up Staat, who was a horrendous bust. Conrad, Shields, and Farris went beyond being busts; these men not only failed to produce they all represented loss of value. Adding insult to injury, the Steelers were counting on all of these men to fill essential needs. (Zereoue is a wash. Clearly he was a pick up in terms of talent. However, he never reached his potential, but Tom Donahue hold no fault for that.)

Colbert maintained that streak in his “second quarter.” Kendall Simmons, Randel El, Chris Hope, and Troy Polamalu were all starters on the Super Bowl team. Alonzo Jackson qualifies as Colbert’s first day one disappointment.

During Colbert’s first four seasons his day two drafting has been solid, although not spectacular. Found find Clark Haggans on day two in 2000, and Ike Taylor in 2003. And of course, he took Brett Keisel with his seventh pick in 2003. Veron Hayes provided good value as a fifth round pick in 2002.

The bottom line is, the Steelers draft picks during the first half of the Colbert era were on the mark. Early round picks delivered value and either filled immediate needs or grew into starters or significant contributors.

[For an analysis of more recent Steeler drafts see part II "The Colbert Record: Steelers Drafts '04-'07"]

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Updates on Dallas Baker, Max Starks and of course Anthony McFarland the “Real” Steeler News to Come out of NFL Owners Meetings

Both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert met with the press during NFL’s recent owners meetings, but the slew of articles these meetings spawned led to little real news for Steelers fans.

Tomlin stated that the Steelers can a good team but reaffirmed that greatness is determined on the field. He also indicated that injured starts such as Max Starks, Marvel Smith, Ryan Clark, Aaron Smith, and Willie Parker and healing well and should be back at full strength. None of this was new to the attentive souls in Steelers Nation.

Those same observant fans, however, had to have been amused by the Post-Gazette article “When Big Ben Talks, Colbert Listens to His Wishes.” To the untrained eye, it might appear as if Ben gained pull than simply his 102 million dollar contract. Roethlisberger has publicly called for Pittsburgh to draft a tall wide out.

When asked about this, Colbert stated, “…if a tall receiver happens to be a good receiver and a value pick, that's something we'll definitely consider.” Translation: The Steelers will not deviate from their plan to draft the best available player to satisfy Ben’s wishes.

Mike Tomlin did however share some insight regarding wide receivers, with praise former 7th round pick and practice squad player Dallas Baker. Tomlin informed that “[Baker] made plays on a daily basis (in practice) that raised some eyebrows.” While the coach was quick to point out that doing it in practice is not the same as in a game, at 6’3” 203 lbs. Baker holds potential. While he will probably never become a world beater, he could develop into a good 4th or even 3rd receiver.

Kevin Colbert also clarified that Max Starks remains in the Steelers plans, and that they have not made much progress on the long term deal they seek because of all the work they did running up to the owners meeting. It appears that the Steelers are succeeding their gambit to scare other teams from Starks. Starks showed a lot of versatility last year, and it would be good to have him back. It remains to be seen if the transition tag will force the Steelers to over paying to keep him.

Finally, John Harris of the Tribune Review brought us another twist in the Anthony McFarland story. McFarland is apparently not ready to play, but both he and the team were pleased by his work out. Tomlin asserted that he remains interested in McFarland, and if that is the case then the Post-Gazette was again mistaken when they commented that Nick Eason’s signing signaled the end of the Steelers interest in McFarland.*

It will be interesting to see how the McFarland situation unfolds following the draft; likewise, Dallas Baker’s performance also bears watching.

*Although this is not an offical edition of "Watch Tower," the Tribune-Review whipped Post-Gazette again by delivering the news on McFarland, Starks, and Baker.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh -- Vote in our Trivia Poll

Welcome! Google Analytics tells me that more and more of you are visting by the week — While you’re here we invite you to vote in our trivia poll.

This poll is intended to jump start a debate on who was better -- Chuck Noll or Bill Walsh.

The conventional wisdom, even within much of Steelers Nation, is of course that Bill Walsh was the better of the two.

But Steel Curtain Rising revels in challenging the conventional wisdom, hence the poll, which is a run up to a forthcoming article. Please take a moment to vote.