´ Steel Curtain Rising: Why Defensive Line is Pittsburgh’s Top Draft Need

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why Defensive Line is Pittsburgh’s Top Draft Need

In our first post, Steel Curtain Rising looked at the Steelers draft needs visa-vi the offensive line. We concluded while the O-Line was a pressing issue, Pittsburgh’s need there is not overriding.

There are reasons for this, which we discussed in depth. The Steelers need at defensive line supplies one more compelling reason. Before delving into that, let’s give the other side of the argument its just due.

The Case for Not Favoring the Defensive Line in the Draft

Taken at face value, the idea that the Steelers should be more worried about drafting players for the defensive line as opposed to the offensive line is almost laughable.

Mention the names Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnnell Stapelton, and Willie Colon to your average NFL fan and you’ll likely get a quizzical look.

Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Aaron Smith are not going to get their pictures on the cover of Time Magazine the way a certain other Steelers starting Super Bowl defensive linemen did, but Hampton and Smith have been to the Pro Bowl.

Keisel does not get the press that the other two get, but he’s certainly one of the most underrated 3-4 defensive ends in the game. Brett Keisel simply gets it done.

The Steelers not only have a quality front three, but their depth is decent. Chris Hoke has shown that he can step in and ensure that the Steelers do not lose a beat with him playing at nose tackle.

Do not underestimate that by any stretch of the imagination.

If you want to really appreciate what that means, think back to how the Steelers run defense (not to mention their entire defense) collapsed during the second halves of the 1998 and 1999 seasons when an injured Joel Steed played at far less than 100%.

On either end, Nick Eason and Travis Kirchke both showed that they could step up when called upon. Eason in particular seems to have benefited from working under the tutelage of Johnny Mitchell, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin.

While the line is aging, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the Steelers can expect top performance out of these men for at least another year, if not two. (Should they stay healthy.)

The argument then follows that, Mike Tomlin’s banishment of the word “repeat” notwithstanding, a defending Super Bowl Champion should focus on players who can make the greatest immediate imipact, and it’s very hard for a rookie defensive lineman to enter the Steelers 3-4 system and contribute right away.

Therefore, it would be imprudent for the Steelers to focus premium picks on defensive linemen.

The Case in Favor of Putting the Defensive Line as Top Priority

While the anti-defensive line arguments are strong, they fall short of being compelling.

The Steelers rarely, if ever, think short term. It’s not a part of the Steelers mentality.

When you take that into consideration, the needs at defensive line become more urgent.

  • Aaron Smith just turned 33
  • Casey Hampton will be 32 on opening day.
  • Brett Kiesel will be 31 before nary a quarter of the 2009 season has passed.

What about thier back ups?

  • Travis Kirschke is 35.
  • Chris Hoke is 31.
  • Nick Eason is the baby, at 29.

And don't forget, these back ups have Jordan Reffert and Scot Paxson waiting in the wings behind them.

Who?

Point made.

As opposed the offensive line, the Steelers do have an established group of quality starters. They also have some decent back ups. But unlike their counter parts on offense, there is no maturing talent on the defensive line.

The Steelers have not drafted a defensive lineman higher than the fourth round since 2001, when they took Casey Hampton. Their last two fourth round picks, Ryan McBean and Orien Harris, were complete wash outs. Neither Shaun Nua (7a. 2005) and Eric Taylor (7, 2004) followed Brett Keisel’s footsteps in blossoming into a starter.

With a large number of veterans in the final year of their contracts plus the uncertainty of the NFL’s labor situation, the Steelers roster is going to undergo some significant changes in the next few years.

Change isn’t necessarily bad. Take a look at the line ups for Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and you’ll surprise yourself at the amount of turnover between the two.

The argument that a defensive lineman cannot contribute now so don’t draft one with a window on another Super Bowl open is a valid one, but it’s wrong.

It will take time to develop a quality defensive lineman to replace any of the Steelers starters. Or their back ups. And free agency and/or injury & age dictate that the Steelers are going to need several new players on the defensive line. Perhaps not in 2009, but certainly by 2010.

Definitive Word on the Defensive Line

Behind the starters and established back ups on the offensive line, the Steelers have Doug Legursky, Jeremy Parquet, Jason Capizzi and Tony Hills. Don’t expect to see those names on a Pro Bowl roster anytime soon.

But it is certainly plausible that by the end of training camp 2009 Steeler coaches will be able to look at least one if not two of those players and say, “he’s young and he’ll be a capable back soon enough.”

You can’t say that about the defensive line.

So if the Steelers get a shot at a big time offensive lineman in rounds 1-3 and there are no comparable defensive lineman on the board, then they should take the offensive player.

But if two prospects are rated equally, then defensive lineman should take precedence.

Thanks for visiting. Share your thoughts on the Steelers draft needs by leaving a comment or voting on our poll, or just check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

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